“Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?” “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to,” said the Cat. “I don’t much care where,” said Alice. “Then it doesn’t matter which way you go,” said the Cat.
-From Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, 1865
The GRE preparation process isn’t quite as whimsical as Alice’s journey through Wonderland. Nonetheless, it can certainly be as disorienting and stressful. Consequently, it’s important to have a concrete schedule that allows you enough time to prepare for the test.
Obviously, that schedule will vary based on the specifics of your situation. For instance, if you already do algebra problems for fun in your spare time, you probably just need to spend a couple of weeks practicing some test-taking strategies. However, if you haven’t thought about the Pythagorean theorem in 20 years, it might take you several months to really master the important formulas.
So rather than prescribe a one size fits all calendar to follow, we’ll give you a few important benchmarks to hit. These can be expanded or condensed to fit whatever schedule you’re working with.
STEP 1: Create a roadmap
As you assemble your applications, you’ll have to keep track of a flurry of deadlines: personal statements, letters of recommendation, and, of course, GRE scores. While most schools generally follow the same admissions calendar, individual deadlines vary from program to program. So it’s crucial that you have all of the important dates easily accessible in one master timeline. Consider buying a wall calendar where you can color code the deadlines for each school.
Most importantly, set target GRE scores for yourself by doing extensive research. Admissions requirements vary vastly by school and by program. In some cases, a top notch score is a prerequisite. In others, the GRE is just a box to check, and a mediocre score will do just fine.
Most schools require you to complete the GRE at least 3 weeks before the final application deadline. However–and we cannot stress this enough–check the individual policies of each admissions office. Keep an eye on their websites, and if anything is unclear, reach out to them for clarification.
STEP 2: Equip yourself
Once you lay out a general plan of attack, it’s time to ensure that you have the right tools. The very first one you need is an account at ETS.org. This is where you’ll register for the test, stay abreast of important updates, and take official PowerPrep Practice Exams (more on those in a bit).
Along with any supplemental practice books you purchase, be absolutely sure to get the Official GRE Super Power Pack. This material is straight from the horse’s mouth–the horse being the testmaker. It’s probably best to get these books in electronic form, as you will be taking the test on a computer!
STEP 3: Diagnose
Next, you’ll want to see where you stand by taking a full, timed practice test with sample GRE questions. Be sure to treat this like the real deal: no distractions, no extra breaks, no home cooked meals in the middle of the test.
You might be pleasantly surprised to find that you hit your target score on your first go. If that happens, congratulations! Skip all of the other steps and go take the darn test already!
More likely than not, however, you’ll emerge four hours later completely gobsmacked. Then you’ll look at your scores and cringe.
Do not panic! This first practice test is about familiarizing yourself with the format of the GRE–which can be very confusing. For example, many of the math questions are presented as “Quantitative Comparisons” rather than traditional multiple choice problems. If you’ve never seen this before, it might take you a few minutes to understand what the question is even asking!
However your first practice test goes, it’s critical that you take time to review it. As Socrates said, “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Well, the unexamined test is not worth taking. As you review your incorrect answers, give each one a “score”:
- 1 = Silly mistake
- 2 = Could have gotten it with more time
- 3 = No idea, even after reading the explanation
While your attention will be drawn to the difficult level 3 questions, keep the focus on the 1’s and 2’s. You will likely find that had gotten those questions correct, your score would be at or near your target!
Along with categorizing the difficulty level of each question, do your best to identify question types. For GRE Verbal:
- Text Completion/Sentence Equivalence
For GRE Quant:
- Data Analysis
Once you identify your weaknesses, you can target them in your practice.
One note: You might look at the above list of topics and think, “Hey! That’s all stuff I covered in high school!” And you’re absolutely correct. The GRE does not go beyond 10th grade math. Oh–and you’ll always have access to a basic calculator, so no need to do long division or mental math. Not so bad after all, huh?
STEP 4: Consult an online tutor
A good deal of students skip the first three steps above and jump right to this one. Considering how daunting the process seems at first, that’s understandable–many folks want a knowledgeable guide for the entirety of their GRE journey.
However, it’s best if you go into your tutoring with a general idea of your own strengths, weaknesses, and goals. This will allow you and your tutor to get right down to business, rather than having a few “getting to know you” sessions. To use a medical analogy–a doctor can help you much more easily if you provide her a detailed list of symptoms instead of a vague “I don’t feel well today.”
A topic to discuss early on with your tutor is confirming an official GRE test date. If you have your diagnostic data, the tutor can give you a sense of how long the two of you will need to train together before game day.
As your tutoring progresses, be sure to maximize the value of your sessions, and avoid misusing your hours. Most importantly, keep communication with your tutor open and honest. If you find that you aren’t getting as much as you’d like to out of your sessions, let your tutor know.
STEP 5: Practice daily
At this point, you and your tutor should have homed in on the areas that need work…now it’s time to actually do that work! The number of hours you’ll need to put in will vary depending on your score goals and timeline (another topic of discussion to broach with your tutor). But for any course of study, consistency is key. Find a daily schedule you can stick to, even if that means studying for only 30 minutes a day.
As the saying goes–study smart, not hard. If you work on practice problems for the sake of working on practice problems, you risk falling into an infinite practice loop. Be intentional about your studying, and keep it targeted on the areas that are consistently vexing you.
STEP 6: Move on to GRE practice tests
Once you’ve had several productive sessions with your tutor, it’s time to conquer your fears and face another GRE practice test. Building practice testing into your study plan allows you to understand and deal with the intricacies of the exam. For instance, one wild feature of the GRE is that it’s adaptive–which means that the computer changes the difficulty of the questions based on your performance! The only way to simulate that is with practice testing.
But use the practice tests sparingly–as of now there are only 6 of them:
- 2 non-adaptive paper tests in your Official GRE Super Power Pack books (good to use for the first diagnostic)
- 2 free adaptive PowerPrep tests at ETS.org
- 2 extra adaptive PowerPrep tests at ETS.org (about $40 apiece)
After every practice test, run the 1/2/3 method you used to review your first diagnostic and go over the results with your tutor. The two of you can run a post-game analysis together and recalibrate your course if necessary!
STEP 7: Take the test
Timing your first official GRE can be tricky. If you live in a metro area, or if you’re taking the test at a particularly busy time of year, you’ll need to schedule your exam a month or more in advance to secure a spot.
If test day is approaching and you’re still far below your target score, consider rescheduling (you can do so for a small-but annoying-fee of $50). But if you’re within striking distance, go for it.
Test day itself is an experience, and it’s critical that you acquaint yourself with the policies and procedures ahead of time (all on ETS.org). One common mistake students make is not preparing for the stress of the testing center.
At the beginning of your GRE journey, be sure to build in enough time for a possible retest. You can take the GRE up to 5 times in a year, but you must wait 21 days between test dates. If, heaven forbid, something goes wrong on test day, you’ll want to have another bite at the apple!
STEP 9: Live your life!
Like any unpleasant experience, studying for the GRE is a temporary state of affairs. And if you ever need motivation as you’re reading a dense passage about cytokinesis, remember why you’re doing this–you’ve decided to improve your life by going to graduate school. On the other side of this hump are intellectual riches you can only dream of…and, for you MBAs, maybe some non-intellectual riches as well!