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How to Study for the GRE: 15 Tips

how-to-study-for-the-GREIf you are thinking about how to study for the GRE, perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that proper planning will lead to a higher GRE score. The GRE is not like an IQ test. The more you study for the GRE, in general, the higher you will score. One basic mental mistake students often make is to keep toxic thoughts in their head about being “bad at math” (or verbal) and thus viewing GRE prep as a process they must endure, but which probably won’t help all that much. That’s wrong. While perhaps not a completely linear relationship, the more you prepare, the better you’ll do. Yes, how you prepare matters a lot too (more on that below). But just showing up and putting in the time is certainly an important part of the battle here.

What that in mind, here are 15 tips to help you as you embark on your GRE prep journey:

#1 Adopt a Growth Mindset During your GRE Prep

Adopt the right attitude and, in particular, a growth mindset when reflecting on the GRE prep process. According to growth mindset theory, your intelligence is a muscle that grows stronger and larger with practice and effort. Student who believe this have adopted a “growth mindset.” If you don’t believe this, you have adopted a “fixed” mindset. A fixed mindset would have you believe that your math and reading comprehension scores are determined more by your genes and innate talents than practice and hard work. Sure, each student is different and genetics plays a role in academic prowess, skill development and standardized testing. But it’s a smaller role than many students assume. For the most part, math and reading comprehension skills are developed with practice, not determined at birth.

#2 Take a Diagnostic Practice Test Early On…

Very early on in the GRE prep process, you’ll want to take a “diagnostic” practice GRE to understand your starting point and establish your strengths and weaknesses.

#3 …But Spend 30-60 Minutes Reviewing What is on the GRE First

Even before taking a diagnostic practice test, the very first thing you should do is spend 30-60 minutes reviewing what is on the GRE, as this will help you get a better sense for your true starting point in your diagnostic test. I took my first practice test completely cold, and because I didn’t remember even the simplest rules about triangles, my score was extremely low. You want to have a very rudimentary understanding of what is on the GRE even before you take your diagnostic practice test.

#4 Set a Target GRE Score Goal Based on Your Target Grad School Programs

Set a target score goal and test date early on, taking your target graduate programs and admissions timelines into consideration.  This is an under-appreciated step. I have seen too many students not leave enough time to prepare for the GRE or spend too much time preparing and re-taking the GRE when they already have the score they need. The GRE is not everything that matters in graduate school admissions. It’s one of several important factors. Many students are better served by working on their application essays vs. trying to eke out another point or two on the GRE. But if you don’t have a goal based on the criteria of your target programs, you may spend your time inefficiently.

#5 Carefully Consider Your GRE Prep Options Before Choosing How You’ll Prepare

Consider the pros and cons of how to prepare for the GRE, from self-study to self-paced GRE prep courses to working with an online GRE tutorConsciously choose an approach that works best for you (i.e., don’t just start preparing by opening a GRE prep book or downloading the first app that you see). This is obviously an important topic. If you are a self-starter, have a history of above average test scores, and are on a budget, self-study is a fine option. If you really, really struggle with testing OR are looking for a very high score, you may want to start working with a private GRE tutor right away.

#6 Build a customized GRE study plan

Build a GRE study plan that takes your starting point, target score, time until test date, strengths, weaknesses, and chosen GRE prep materials into consideration. It will no doubt use a certain set of materials that you have chosen (perhaps a book, perhaps a self-paced course) as a foundation, but from there you should customize. You should be doing homework each week, and scheduling, in advance, when you’ll take full length practice test to track progress.

#7 Spend More Time on Practice Tests Later in the Process (and avoid the Illusion of Mastery)

In the beginning of your GRE prep, spend more time on GRE concepts and theory and as time goes on, spend more time doing practice problem sets and full-length GRE practice tests. And as you are doing your practice problems and tests, don’t “cheat” by opening up the book to see how to do the problem, thinking that you are still studying, and this can help you learn. It’s very important to try and fail to get a clear sense for what you know and what you don’t. By constantly opening the book and walking through a problem, you create the “illusion” that you know material that you have not actually mastered.

#8 Never Completely Ignore a Section of the GRE, Even if It Is a Clear Strength

Yes, you want to prep efficiently. If you are very weak in math, that’s where you must spend more time. But even if you are very strong in math but very weak in reading and verbal comprehension (or vice versa) do not totally ignore any section when preparing for the GRE. We see too many students completely ignore one section, only to score below expectations and find themselves needing to re-take the exam.

#9 Ensure You Are Mixing Concepts and Test-Taking Strategy

One criticism we have of some GRE prep providers is that they make students “drill” too much on concepts and theories without making them apply those concepts on actual GRE questions. It’s not a math test, it’s a test of critical thinking skills that uses math concepts. Ensure your GRE study plan is a mixture of concept and theory (i.e., arithmetic, geometry, etc.) as well as GRE test taking strategies like time management and intelligent guessing. Focusing too much on one vs. the other is problematic. And, be sure to only study the theories and concepts that are in fact covered on the GRE. For example, you need not study trigonometry or calculus because those concepts are not on the GRE.

#10 How Much Time Should You Spend Preparing for the GRE? Between 6 and 12 Weeks

Allocate at least 6 weeks, but likely not more than 12, to prepare. Less than 6 may not give you enough time to cover all the content, while more than 12 is usually not necessary unless you have serious skill gaps. As mentioned previously, there can be diminishing returns to GRE prep.

#11 Use Deliberate Practice Principles During your GRE Test Prep

Try to follow deliberate practice principles while preparing for the GRE. Deliberate practice involves a high level of focus (i.e., get rid of distractions like your phone, other people in the room, etc.), full engagement with the material, pushing your boundaries such that you are making mistakes, and immediate feedback when practicing any given type of skill - including standardized test taking skills.  Simply put, deliberate practice is what builds skill, and academic and general test-taking skill is what leads to a high GRE score.

#12 Get Expert Feedback on Missed Questions Immediately

Find a way to get expert feedback on questions you miss soon after you attempt them (this is a key element of “deliberate practice” described above. This expert feedback could be from videos, or even written explanations. It doesn’t have to come from working with a private GRE coach. The key is, work to understand why you missed a question while you can still recall in your head what you were thinking when you answered it.

#13 Spend a Little Time Learning About How Breathing Helps Manage Stress on Test Day

Spend at least some time reviewing how proper breathing techniques can help you stay calm and collected on test day. Being calm and confident is perhaps as important as knowing your formulas and test taking strategies.

#14 Get Enough Rest and Proper Nutrition on Test Day

Ensure you get enough rest the night before the exam and a proper meal the morning of your exam. Being tired or hungry while trying to take a stressful exam is a surefire way to dampen your GRE score.

#15 Minimize External Stressors on Test Day

Leave enough time to arrive at your exam location (or have your computer and exam area prepared) to completely avoid unnecessary stress on test day. You want to focus your mental energy on the content of the exam, not other issues that could have been avoided with better planning.

Good luck with your GRE test prep!