The Ultimate Guide to Studying for the
By Diane H. Williams (Ph.D)
The GRE, or the Graduate Record Exam, is a necessary part of getting into most graduate school programs. It is a broad test of general knowledge, and can be challenging to even the most well-prepared applicants. That’s why we at StudyPool have put together this guide to help you focus your efforts to either get a great score the first time, or to improve your score if you’re going back for another round.
Keep in mind, most experts agree that studying for the GRE should take anywhere from 4-12 weeks. You will want to have a variety of prep strategies during that time – many of which we’ll discuss below – and you will also want to take as many full practice tests as you can. Not only will this help improve each skillset the test is focusing on, it will get you familiar with the pacing of the test, so on the big day, nerves won’t be as big of a factor.
Section One: Verbal Reasoning
The first section of the GRE is the Verbal Reasoning section. It will test your ability to read and understand high-level prose, and then analyze it. There are three types of questions: reading comprehension, text completion and sentence equivalence.
In the past, vocabulary was a massive part of the GRE, and it is still an important factor. However, you will no longer be forced to define words on the spot. Rather, you will be expected to understand how words work in the context of a sentence, and how different modifiers can change the meaning of a word in different situations.
Using flashcards is still a great way to learn the definitions of words, but lists of words taken out of any meaningful context aren’t going to be quite as useful. It is absolutely worth it to include some vocabulary memorization to increase your overall arsenal of words, but consider adding a wide range of reading materials to your list as well. We’re not talking about picking up the latest magazine, or reading the current best sellers (although some of them might be on the lists!), rather sources such as the New York Times, The New Yorker or The Economist will have GRE-level vocabulary, used in context. Some of the classic novels, such as The Great Gatsby or Jane Austen, are also good choices, since they have a high degree of vocabulary.
Another resource to consider is, believe it or not, YouTube. There are many great series on there that walk you through different sections of the GRE, including introducing you to a wide range of the types of vocabulary words you might encounter on the test. Here are a few:GRE Vocab Wednesdays
GRE Vocabulary List
GRE Vocabulary (complete A-Z) Part 1 & 2
Reading comprehension questions are specifically designed to test your ability to read and understand what a piece of text is saying. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
- Don’t look at the answers. They are designed to trip you up, so you are far better off reading the question, and then forming your own opinion based on the text given. Then, once you have your answer firmly in mind, choose the option that best mirrors what you believe to be correct.
- Read the passage first, then read the question. Then go back and read the passage again to find the sections that best pertain to what the question is asking. This way, you are spending more time understanding the nuances of the passage, which increases your odds of getting the question correct.
Like with vocabulary, there are several great resources on YouTube that will walk you through the reading comprehension portion of the test, complete with a wide range of examples to try for yourself. Here are just a few to check out:GRE Reading Comprehension
GRE Reading Comprehension & Analytical Writing
GRE Reading Comprehension Practice: Detail Questions | Kaplan Test Prep
The second type of question you’ll find in the Verbal Comprehension section is text completion. In this section, the goal is to determine how well you can evaluate the text you read, and determine the meaning behind the passage without certain key words included. Critical words or phases are omitted from the text, and you will be asked to “fill in the blank” with the option that makes the most coherent sense. That is not as easy as it might sound: often more than one of the answers could technically be correct, but the right answer is dependent on other words found within the passage.
Finally, the third type of question in this section is sentence equivalence. Like with text completion, these questions will have a portion missing – in this case, the beginning of the sentence will be given, but not the end. Most of the time, both of the potential answers you are given will make a complete sentence. The trick, like with text completion, is to read the portion of the sentence you are given very carefully, as there will be subtle clues in the choice of words and phrasing that will tell you which answer is the one the test considers “correct.”
Section Two: Quantitative Reasoning
Arguably one of the most important – and difficult – sections of the GRE, the Quantitative Reasoning section deals with math. Contrary to what you might think, it doesn’t deal with complex mathematical schools such as calculus or trigonometry. Rather, this section is designed to test how well you can use your reasoning skills to convert word problems into numbers, and then solve them.
The four major skills you will need to conquer this section are arithmetic, geometry, algebra and data analysis. You will need a solid understanding of each of these concepts, as well as a good idea of how to apply them to real-world problems to score high in this section. This is a great playlist with videos from a variety of sources to walk you through some of the problems you could encounter, as well as giving you lots of practice.
There are a few strategies to keep in mind to do well in this section.
- The key to solving these problems is not wrapped up in basic numbers. The test assumes you know how to do the math itself. The real problem is figuring out the logic behind the problem, and determining what the question is asking for before converting anything to numbers.
- The most obvious answer is probably the wrong one. The test creators know what leaps of logic most of the people taking the test are going to want to make – and they design the wrong answers to take advantage of them. If an answer seems to jump out at you, it is probably safe to assume it’s not the right one.
The best way to prep for this section is to start with a “basics refresher.” Make sure you have all the concepts down, and you understand how and why they work. A few concepts you’ll want to brush up on include:
- Arithmetic. This includes things such as prime numbers, divisibility, remainders. Factorization, estimation, ratios and even and odd integers.
- Algebra. This includes simplifying and solving equations, problems with exponents and quadratic and linear equations.
- Geometry. This section isn’t testing your ability to construct proofs, but the basic concepts are used to solve some of the problems you’ll encounter. These include perpendicular and parallel lines, circles and polygons, quadrilaterals, area and volume, three-dimensional figures and the Pythagorean theorem.
- Data analysis. This is the ability to pull meaning out of numbers. It includes concepts such as median, mean, standard deviation and percentiles.
All of these mathematical basics are those usually taught at the high school level – in fact, pulling out your old high school math books is a great way to brush up on the skills you’ll need for the GRE. The types of problems you’ll solve at that level will not only refresh your knowledge of the skills needed to be successful on the test, but it will ease you into the type of thinking necessary to pass the GRE. As the problems gain in complexity, the basic strategies used to solve them don’t change. A great way to get better scores in this section is to consistently “raise the bar” by taking practice tests with increasingly more difficult problems to solve.
Bear in mind, however, that success in this section of the GRE is partially a psychological game. If you tell yourself you’re “not a math person” then you won’t be able to get past your own personal wall. Improving your scores in the Quantitative Reasoning portion of the GRE takes patience and persistence. You won’t get better overnight. This is one of those sections that will require constant effort with increasingly difficult problems to improve your overall skill levels.
Section Three: Analytical Writing
Now we have come to what is affectionately known as the essay section of the GRE: the Analytical Writing Assessment. For this portion of the test, you will have two essay questions to answer, with 30 minutes allotted to each of them. This section is designed to measure your ability to think critically and then eloquently lay out your reasoning in written form.
Your objective for this section is to create a compelling thesis statement on the given topic, and then form a coherent and rational argument in defense of that thesis. Both of the essays are scored based on three points: did you express complex ideas clearly and support them adequately; did you build strong arguments; and did you maintain a logical, consistent and focused discussion.
The test will have one essay that is considered an “issues” piece, while the other is considered an “argument” piece. In the issue essay, you are given a general statement – often around politics, religion or culture – and then asked to take a position on that statement and defend it. In the argument essay, you are given a position paragraph and it is up to you to dissect the logic behind it.
Unlike the first two sections, which are black and white when it comes to scoring – your answer is either right or wrong – the essay section can be a bit more subjective. The people who are reading and grading them are rigorously trained, but the fact remains that a live person is reading and then scoring every essay. And the score for the section is the average of the two. There are, however, a few key points to keep in mind to give yourself better odds.
- The essay graders are looking for three things: clarity of thought, a coherent narrative that runs from the first sentence to the last, and convincing evidence to back up any points that you have made.
- Size matters. All things being equal, graders will have a tendency to score a longer essay higher than they would a shorter one. This doesn’t mean you should just ramble on for pages – that would sacrifice the clarity and coherency you’re also looking for – but you will want to give yourself some room to build and defend your argument. A good general rule of thumb is an opening paragraph stating your thesis, 3-4 paragraphs laying out your argument and evidence, and then a closing paragraph pulling it all together.
This section of the GRE is also one of the hardest to study for, since it’s not like you can take a quick sample test at home and score it to see how you did. That doesn’t mean there aren’t strategies you can use, however.
First, learn to brainstorm. It might be tempting to just sit down and start writing, but you will fare far better if you teach yourself to first sit down and organize your thoughts. Before you write the first word, make sure you know what your thesis is, what arguments you want to use to defend it, and how you’re going to bring it all together. At first, it might seem like using up time you don’t have – after all, you only get 30 minutes from start to finish to write each essay – but the more you practice taking an exam question and outlining it before writing, the faster and more efficient you’ll become.
Second, write. And then write some more. The more you write, the easier the words will flow. As you practice taking any subject or problem and finding a way to get your thoughts about it onto paper, you’ll find that thoughts flow more quickly and more coherently onto the page. If you write a 500+ word essay every single day for a week, then by the second week, it will start to get a little easier. By week 12, those 500 words will seem like nothing.
Third, learn to edit. While you likely won’t have much time to go back through and edit yourself on test day, by doing it in your practice essays, you will learn where your own hang-ups are. Maybe you constantly want to misspell the same word. Or maybe you learn that you have a comma problem. Editing yourself allows you to see where you might have issues and not only work to fix them, but make yourself more aware of them as you write, so you’ll be more apt to catch yourself making them on test day and correct as you go.
Fourth, read as many sample essays as you can get your hands on. Many prep courses offer sample essays, and this is a good way to get a feel for the tone and style the essay graders are looking for. You can see what structures they favor, how the arguments are constructed and how a coherent narrative is built. You can then use that knowledge to tweak your own writing style to suit what the essay graders are likely looking for. ETS, the company that manages the GRE testing, actually has sample essays on their own site as well. Go here to read samples of issue essays, and here to read samples of argument essays, all done in the confines of the testing environment, so they are real-world examples.
Preparing for the GRE is a time-consuming process that will require dedication over the course of weeks, if not months. But it is not an insurmountable task. With the right preparation, you can build your toolbox of necessary skills and hone them to a fine degree. And when you score high across the board in all three sections – and then use that score to get into the program of your choice - all that hard work and dedication will pay off.