Graduate School Crunch Time: Preparing for the GRE Fast
Smart Steps and Tips to Get Ready in a Hurry
The GRE is a standardized test used to get a sense of prospective students’ readiness for the rigors of grad school. Not every program requires GRE scores, but those that do typically have strict deadlines for when they must be sent in. Students find themselves short on time when it comes to studying for and taking the GRE for a variety of reasons. This guide provides a truncated study schedule, checklist for getting organized, and expert advice from an examinee who got perfect score.
Register for the examThe normal deadline for registration is approximately six weeks before testing day, while late registration is pushed until five weeks before the exam. Students who need to take the test quickly should make registering their first priority, because applicants beyond the late registration date will have to wait until the next testing day.
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Set aside a dedicated study spaceRather than clearing off a corner of the dining room table or setting up shop on the couch, try to carve out a quite and clean space that is solely dedicated to studying. This approach provides both focus and calm when reviewing difficult concepts.
Create a study scheduleWith limited time to review materials, creating a daily study schedule is crucial. It may not have four hours per day devoted to hitting the books, but even setting aside 30 minutes on busy days can help examinees get through the material they’ll need to excel on the big day.
Buy a study guideStudy guides are exhaustive, reasonably priced options for students who want to know all about the materials they’ll be tested on but don’t have funds for a pricey tutor or prep class. ETS provides “Official GRE Super Power Pack” for $40, while Princeton Review’s “Cracking the GRE” and Manhattan Prep’s “5 Pound Book of Practice Problems” are also highly ranked and both cost just $16 for the standard versions. These study guides have printed and online materials, including practice tests.
Download appsSmartphone and tablet apps are a great option for busy individuals with a tight study schedule as they allow users to digest information while on the go. Whether on an airplane, in the school pick-up line or at the DMV, apps are an easy, transportable option for reviewing vocabulary words, taking math quizzes and getting insider tips about how to ace the exam. Some of the best apps on the market are free and include Varsity Tutors mobile app, PrepGame Math, Magoosh GRE Prep, and ETS’s Official GRE Guide App.
Consider finding a study buddyEven if a prospective study buddy isn’t planning to take the test at the same time, having someone to provide accountability and talk through more advanced concepts can really make a difference in staying on target and retaining the materials being covered. StudyPal and My Study Partner allow users to find online study buddies free of charge, but students may also want to consider advertising in their local coffee shop, community center, or gym to find a local study partner.
Take another practice testBy sandwiching study sessions between two practice tests, examinees can accurately assess if their review sessions have paid off and get a sense of any outstanding parts of the test that they need to review a few more times. Consider taking the second practice test under the same conditions of exam day: sit at a desk, stay within the time constraints for each section, and only take breaks at the official scheduled times.
Prepare for the big dayStudying for the GRE on a limited timeline can be strenuous, and the last thing examinees want to do is bring those feelings into the testing room. In the days leading up to the big exam, step away from the study materials, clear your head, get some rest, and eat balanced meals that will fuel your brain well.
Standard registration for the GRE costs $205 (2017), while additional fees such as late registration ($25), rescheduling ($50), or changing the testing center ($50) can tack on extra costs. Examinees register for the computer-delivered GRE exam via Educational Testing Service’s website. At the time of registration, examinees should ensure they have easy access to a form of payment, understand rescheduling and cancellation fees, and request any needed accommodations.
Study Fast, Study Smart
What should you focus on?
With a short amount of time to prepare for the GRE, the most important thing examinees can do is quickly take a practice test to ascertain their strengths and weaknesses. Students who already have a robust vocabulary or thorough understanding of grammar want to focus less on these sections, while quantitative reasoning may require more of their limited time.
General hacks for quick studying include:
Take time to memorize common math formulas, as this will save you precious time and will undoubtedly make an appearance on the exam. Examples include Pythagorean triples, laws of exponents, slope of a line, probability, and circumference.
Even when you aren’t studying, you can engage in activities that allow for passive learning. While preparing for the exam, try to read more academic-style writing, look up words that are unfamiliar, and don’t reach for the calculator every time you need to do math.
Read the first and last few pages of each chapter of the study guide. Books like these tend to provide overviews of material covered within the chapter at the start and end of each, making it easier to pick up on the most helpful tips without covering so many pages.
Sample One-Month Study Plan
The four-week schedule shown below incorporates “Official Guide to the GRE” (OGG) study guide published by ETS as part of the learning plan. Other study guides should have the same information contained within, so students don’t necessarily have to buy another book to follow along.
- If you haven’t already, take time to familiarize yourself with the content and sections of the GRE, and sign up for the exam.
- Take one of the many free practice tests available to set a baseline for your current level of knowledge and skills.
- Review the results of your practice test to get a good sense of what to focus on in the coming month.
- Read the first five chapters of OGG up until the sample questions to get an overview of the general test and the three sections it covers.
- Download Magoosh’s GRE Prep & Practice app, which covers all three sections of the exam, for free.
- Review the Top 101 High Frequency GRE Words provided by Crunch Prep, paying special attention to context.
- Practice for the analytical writing section by using the pool of issue topics provided by ETS to write essays. Stay within the 30 minutes allotted on testing day.
- Watch Magoosh Math Practice videos on arithmetic and fractions, word problems, counting and probability, and percentages. Complete 10 practice questions for each in OGG.
- Read two to three long-form articles from publications such as The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, or The Economist. Use a dictionary to research any unknown words and make flashcards for those words.
- Watch Magoosh Verbal Practice videos on text completion and analogies. Complete 30 text completion questions and 30 analogy questions from the OGG study guide.
- Find an article in one of the publications from week two and write an analysis of an issue and an analysis of an argument, spending no more than 30 minutes on each.
- Watch Magoosh Math Practice videos on algebra, integer properties, and exponents and roots. Complete 20 practice questions for each from the OGG study guide.
- Complete 150 vocabulary word choices from Tyrannosaurus Prep’s GRE game. Make flashcards for every word that you don’t know.
- Watch Magoosh Verbal Practice videos on sentence equivalence and antonyms and complete 30 practice questions for each out of the OGG study guide.
- Review existing vocabulary flashcards.
- Watch Magoosh Math Practice videos for coordinate geometry, ratios, statistics, and data interpretation. Spend two hours completing practice questions for each of these sections in the OGG study guide.
- Take a second practice test to ascertain any outlying areas that still need attention. Based on the outcome of the exam, use the remainder of the week to brush up on those topics.
- Put away the books and flashcards the day before the exam and try not to study at all. Your brain’s ability to recall information will be much sharper if you avoid cramming the night before.
The GRE is made up of three sections: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing. Most study guides tend to focus heavily on the first two sections, but analytical writing is not to be ignored. Attaining a perfect score on analytical writing isn’t impossible, but far too often students forget to review this section until only a few days out, causing the worldwide average score to be 4.0 out of a possible six points.
So what exactly is the analytical writing section? Made up of two essay questions, examinees are allowed 60 minutes to respond to the writing prompts:
- Analysis of an Issue This essay ascertains an examinee’s ability to evaluate a specific issue, understand its complexities, and respond with a developed, well-reasoned argument that uses examples and evidence to support any claims made.
- Analysis of an Argument This essay calls on examinees to evaluate the nuances of an argument and, rather than taking a stance on the argument’s position, use the information to determine its logical unassailability.
Preparation for the analytical writing section is less concrete than the other two sections as there is no formula or vocabulary words to memorize. Officials look for seven specific elements when grading the two exams: clarity, structure, sentence variety, vocabulary usage, language and grammar, reasoning abilities, and evidence. Essays receiving the highest scores bring all of these elements together in a seamless way.
Analytical Writing Hacks
Research shows that longer essays receive higher grades, and the sweet spot for word averages is between 500 and 600 words.
Create an outline before beginning the essay prompt to stay on topic and ensure all points are made.
Spend some time reading a few short essays or a book before taking the test. Seeing how others put together arguments can be inspiring.
Getting GRE Scores
After taking the GRE, waiting for scores can feel like watching paint dry. While students are able to view unofficial verbal reasoning and quantitative reasoning scores directly after taking the computer-delivered exam, official scores for all three sections including analytical writing aren’t available for another 10 to 15 days. Test-takers provide a list of the schools to which they have applied and ETS will send the final score report to each of the schools once they become available.
Scores for verbal and quantitative reasoning are each given out of a possible 170 points, while the analytical writing section is scored on a zero to six scale. Upon completing the exam, students have the option of to report or cancel their scores, depending on whether or not they meet the requirements of prospective schools. If a school requires a 325, for example, but the student only managed a score of 310, sending scores would be inadvisable and the examinee should consider retaking the exam. Examinees who are pleased with their score but in a time crunch can report their unofficial scores to prospective schools as a way of giving the institution a sense of the final score report.
Little-known Tips and Tricks
Be willing to travelExaminees that are required to take a subject test for enrollment in their chosen field may find themselves in a predicament if the exam day is already full. Have no fear, as it may be possible to take the test in a nearby city or state that still has spaces available.
Know when to postponeAs much as examinees may have very good reasons for taking the GRE in a hurry, there also comes a time when they need to assess if there will be a significant negative impact incurred by not taking longer to study. Students who find themselves in this place shouldn’t be afraid to postpone the exam and wait to get the best score possible, as this will affect their likelihood of being accepted to a program and also their funding possibilities. GRE tests can be postponed for a fee of $50.
Find a podcastEven if your study schedule doesn’t allow for attending a full preparatory class, there are lots of free podcasts that provide the same type of auditory learning that can be done on the go. VictorPrep provides a 10-15 minute vocabulary podcast multiple times per week, while The Math Dude also provides weekly tips and tricks.
Record your study notesIf podcasts don’t work, consider reading and recording study notes so you can listen to them in the car or while going about your day. Because you get to decide exactly what gets recorded, it’s easier to cut out topics that you have already learned and really focus on the ones that still need the most attention.
Day of Test
All the hard work put into preparing for the big day will be all for naught if students aren’t mentally, emotionally, and physically prepared for the rigors of sitting for the exam. Rather than stressing about what’s to come, examinees should try to use the hours leading up to the GRE to get in the right mindset.
Pack a bagIn order to be ushered into the testing room, examinees must present a valid photo identification and a confirmation email or authorization voucher. Pack these items first. Other items allowed in the room include a sweatshirt or any other layers needed incase the room is cold and a bottled water. Students may also bring snacks and a cellphone, but the phone must not be used at any point in the duration of the exam, including breaks. Other items such as jewelry (except for engagement or wedding bands) must be removed. Don’t bring a calculator, paper, or pencils as all of these materials are provided.
Don’t study the day beforeUse the 24 hours before the exam to disconnect from the study guides, prep schedules, apps, and other tools used to prepare for the GRE. Don’t even look at them. Try to clear your mind and do things that help you relax. Consider going for a long walk, spending time with friends or family, or taking a bath. If you can’t bear the thought of not studying at all the day before, set a strict time cut off, ideally no later than noon, to stop studying.
Go to bed earlyThe evening before testing is not the time to stay out late or catch up on the new season of your favorite TV show. Set a strict bedtime and stick with it. A full night’s rest will provide mental clarity and help tremendously when you’re trying to recall a specific formula or exactly what a malingerer is.
Get up earlyTesting day is also not the time to hit the snooze button. It takes time for our brains to fully engage in the morning, so try to be up at least one full hour before you need to leave for the testing site. Use this time to have a balanced meal with protein to keep hunger at bay and healthy carbs to keep energy up.
Arrive earlyETS encourages students to report to their testing center at least 30 minutes before the exam is scheduled to start. Examinees who arrive late may not be able to join the classroom and their fees and expenses will not be reimbursed. Upon arrival, exam administrators assign each test-taker a designated seat.
Expert GRE Advice from a Perfect Scorer
Arvin Vohra is a GRE perfect scorer who attended Brown University. Upon completion of his degree, Arvin founded Vohra Method, a live online program that offers GRE classes and tutoring.
If a student has only a few weeks or a month before testing day, what should they focus on?
The GRE is a test of math problem-solving ability, logical analysis, and critical reading skills. These skills are usually developed over years, so improving them significantly in a few weeks is no easy task. We usually see that, after four years of college, many students have forgotten pretty much all of algebra. The good news is that they knew it at one point, and so those skills can generally be rebuilt very quickly – within a week or two, if the student is motivated. Rebuilding those core algebra skills will give you the fastest score increase. Work with a real math tutor on the GRE math problems – don’t waste time with plug-in, backsolve, and other silly gimmicks.
GRE reading is much harder. The only thing that makes GRE math hard is that most people have forgotten all the algebra they ever knew, but the actual math is about as hard as SAT-level math. GRE reading, on the other hand, is much harder than SAT reading. For the first to weeks, do the GRE reading passages slowly, taking time to fully understand each passage. The first passages might take a few hours each. That’s fine. Over the next two weeks, your speed will improve.
In your opinion, what’s the best study resource in this situation (e.g. tutor, study guide, class, apps, etc.)?
In a short time frame, your best option is total immersion. That means combining vocabulary apps or flash cards, practice GRE sections, and an intensive GRE training program that instills the tests skills that are normally developed over a decade. If you have a month, you need to live and breathe the GRE.
Don’t worry if you’ve forgotten algebra – you can learn it faster than you think. It takes kids over a year to learn algebra, but it takes adults a few weeks to relearn it. A good math tutor can help you rebuild algebra skills in a week or two. For reading, take your time to find the subtle points in each passage. Every passage has one to three key, non-obvious, subtle points. If you find them, you’ll be able to get pretty much every question right.
Having taken the exam and earned a perfect score, what insider knowledge can you provide about what to expect?
Most of the hardest GRE passages have subtle, central ideas. If you find them, that will let you crack that passage wide open. As long as you’re prepared for SAT-level math, you will be find. Once you’ve mastered the math portions, try to spend as much time as you can working on verbal reasoning. You cannot rely on the process of elimination, as many questions have more than one right answer and you need to mark all of them. Focus on learning real, direct solutions.
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