The GRE general exam is a beast: 4 hours, 7 sections, and over 100 questions long it’s a doozy, especially if you’re not a great test taker like I am. I’ve always done well in school, but when it come’s to standardized tests I’ve never felt confident. On top of that, I really don’t think they’re a great representation of how smart you are and there’s a lot of debate about how fair they are across class, race, and for those who are first generation college students.
I could go on for a while about why I’m against standardized testing, but the truth is the GRE is still an unfortunate fact of life for many people applying to graduate school, myself included. My philosophy when it came to the whole process was to not let the GRE get in the way. There are some schools that simply won’t look at your application if your GRE score isn’t at a certain level, so I wanted to do well enough that admissions would get the chance to see the other great things I have to offer.
So I studied my tush off, focused on the sections I needed to improve on the most, and took the test twice to get the score I needed. And hallelujah I never have to take the damn thing again!
For the schools I’m applying to I needed over a 160 on Verbal, 155 on Quant, and 4.5 on Writing. I’m applying to mostly Communication and Media programs so Verbal and Writing were the most important scores for me. I ultimately took the test twice and improved 12 points from my first practice test to my final exam. I’m not a ~master~ of the GRE or anything so take my advice with a grain of salt, but I am a person who hates standardized test and still managed to get what I needed out of the test.
I started from scratch when it came to studying and knew essentially nothing about the GRE when I started out, so I put together a list of the best resources I used in case anyone is in the same boat…
ETS GRE Prep Book – If you don’t know where to start studying then I recommend getting this book. It’s from the makers of the test (don’t get me started on how much of a financial scam this whole thing is lol) and it breaks down the sections of the test, the types of questions you’ll see, and the concepts you’ll want to know for each section. A lot of my studying consisted of reading this book for an hour every morning and working through all the practice problems. If anything, it will give you an idea of what to expect on exam day and a pool of practice problems to do.
ETS Online Practice Tests – The other big thing I recommend before taking the GRE is to take an official online practice test. You get two free when you sign up for the exam and they really helped me get a feel for the logistics of the test – how the writing section will work, how to use the weird computer calculator, etc. Plus, you get a real idea of how fucking long the test is and how much stamina you’ll need to finish. I get really in my head when I take tests so it helped me a lot to know what I was getting myself into.
Magoosh Vocab App – A big part of the Verbal section is learning a stupid amount of vocab and the best advice I got was to download the Magoosh GRE Vocabulary Flashcards app. It’s available in the AppStore and it was where I learned basically on the vocab I needed. The words are broken up into different decks based on how likely they are to appear on the test (so you can prioritize) and each word has a comprehensive definition, example of the word in a sentence, and audio pronunciation. A Verbal lifesaver!
Victory Prep Vocab Podcast – A good supplement to the Magoosh app if you’re interested in cramming that vocab is the Victory Prep podcast available on iTunes. It’s read by a pleasant British man who talks through 4 different vocabulary words every 12-minute episode. I listened to these while driving, getting ready for bed, or cleaning and it was just a nice way to feel like I was studying without having to be 100% focused. There were a lot of repeats with Magoosh, but practice makes perfect, right? Pro tip: the host of the podcast gets a little longwinded in his introductions, so I would skip the first few minutes of each.
Headspace – This might seem like an odd app to put on a GRE study list, but as I mentioned earlier this test is really about mental stamina. The first time I took the test I was so tired and frazzled by the end that I did pretty poorly on my last two sections. I let the panic set in and I started guessing instead of focusing. Enter headspace. It’s already one of my favorite apps to help me sleep and for general meditation, but I found it really helpful in learning some basic breathing exercises and finding language to help calm me down during those ‘I’ve been taking this fucking test for 3 hours and can’t do it anymore‘ moments. This helped my focus so much the second time (along with knowing what to expect) and I definitely did better because I wasn’t panic answering the last 40 questions.
Review What You Got Wrong – After you take a practice test, you have the option to go through all the problems and see what you got right and wrong. Basically every resource recommends doing this and it is was actually really interesting to see what I slipped up on in the moment. A lot of the mistakes I made were stupid (like getting a less than and greater than sign mixed up) because I was stressed not because I didn’t know how to the problem. I put together a mental checklist of little things I’d seen myself mess up on, which made me more confident and won me a few points back. I def recommend doing this with the ETS online practice tests, too, because so many people take them you can literally just google the first sentence of the question and no doubt a step-by-step answer will pop up. The more you know!
Putting in the Time – I wish I could give you all the information you need to ace the GRE, but unfortunately most of it comes down to spending the time with the content. I found the slow and steady approach worked for me: I studied for about an hour every morning for almost a month before I took the test. I did longer study sessions and took practice tests on the weekends. For the second test, I narrowed down my studying to vocab and verbal practice questions since that was the score I needed to improve and reviewed math twice a week. It will take a lot of time, but if you spread it out and get in the habit it won’t be as painful as a week-long cram session.
The moral of the story: the GRE sucks! This was not a fun process. You know what’s more fun than taking a test? Literally anything. But I knew I had to do this and do it right if I wanted any chance at being considered by PhD programs. So, I kept that motivation in the front of my brain, put a study plan together, and did the damn thing. At the end of the day, you can totally do this as long as you remember why you’re doing it!
I’d love to hear you’re GRE stories in the comments! Any other resources you’d recommend? Strategies that made life easier? Test day horror stories? Leave ’em below! And be sure to check out my other career-oriented posts: how I network while still feeling like myself and my review of the Create & Cultivate social media conference.