Graduate Records Exam (GRE)

The Graduate Records Exam (GRE)

Applying to graduate school can be a daunting task, but you don't need to break into a sweat each time you think about taking the Graduate Record Exams (GRE's) if you prepare ahead of time.

First, some basic information. There are two types of GRE's: the General Test, which covers writing, math, and verbal skills; and the Subject tests, which focus on one area of study. Subject Tests are available for the following fields: biochemistry, cell, and molecular biology; biology; chemistry; computer science; literature in English; mathematics; physics; and psychology. Check the graduate programs you are applying to in order to determine if you will need to take the GRE's, or which type you will need to take.

ETS, the publishers of the tests, has constructed the General Test assuming that people will study for it. You will be at a significant disadvantage if you don't prepare. You'll be less anxious if you start studying for the exams several (2-6) months before the tests, but even several weeks of preparation can allow you to feel more confident on the test date and to be better prepared to do your best.

I recommend the following preparation agenda:

  • Become familiar with the format and structure of the tests, time limits, and question types.
  • Assess your personal strengths and weaknesses regarding the test material and study material/strategies addressing the weak areas.
  • Learn the strategies that are effective in dealing with each question type and practice with each.
  • Practice pacing so that you can finish all the questions on the test, but only after you have a firm grasp on the types of questions and effective strategies.
  • Develop a personal strategy for working through the test, for example, determining when to guess (General Test) or whether or not to answer all the "easy" questions first (General and Subject Tests).

Preparing for the General Test

Taking a Practice Test: Visit the GRE website: Go to "Test Takers" and choose "General Test" then click on "Test Preparation" and download the free "GRE POWERPREP II" program. This program contains two full-length General Tests. Become familiar with the test directions, then take one test right away. Treat it as an actual test and make sure you have time to finish it and a quiet place to take it without interruption.

You will receive scores on the Quantitative and Verbal sections as soon as you complete the practice test. Your scores and a careful check of each question will indicate what areas you need to work on if you didn't get the scores you wanted. It works best if you put studying for the GRE's into your weekly schedule as if it were a course.

Choosing a Prep Book: You can go to one of the big chain bookstore's GRE prep section and find a prep book that not only covers the important strategies for effectively approaching each type of question but also explains the answers in a way that seems clear to you, especially regarding the areas in which you want to improve. Some prep books provide a CD with additional practice tests and questions for a small additional cost.

Prep Courses: There are commercial test preparation courses. The companies involved tend to offer several levels of courses, but most are pricey. You can do a web search to find out your options. If you are only a few points away from your target score, such courses are probably not necessary. However, if you have to improve your score considerably to be competitive, a course may be helpful. For some students who know that it will be hard for them to follow through with a plan for regular preparation, paying for a course and knowing the course meets regularly can help motivate them to prepare more consistently and thoroughly.

Improving Vocabulary: The Verbal section of the test is strongly rooted in vocabulary. The best way to develop a GRE-level vocabulary is to read challenging material extensively and to look up and record every word you encounter that you do not know. Unfortunately, this takes time, which means that vocabulary can be hard to improve quickly. There are vocabulary flashcards and vocabulary enhancement books that you can buy. Keep in mind that it's almost impossible to learn the meaning of many new, complex words by simply memorizing definitions. In addition, it is entirely possible to memorize an extensive list of words, and not to encounter a single one of these on the GRE. Look for learning aids that use the words in sentences and teach you how to focus on prefixes, suffixes, and Latin and Greek stems that can help you "guess" the meanings of unfamiliar words. Sometimes just having an accurate sense of whether a word has a "positive" or "negative" meaning can help you determine an answer on the GRE verbal section.

If you are going to use flashcards, I recommend that you make flashcards with the word on one side, all of its possible definitions, a sample sentence and a list of words that have similar meanings on the back. It can be useful to note antonyms as well. (There are free web resources for making flashcards.) It is often one of the less often employed meanings of a word that appears on the GRE. Shuffle the cards every few days and select 10-15 random cards. Carry them around with you, pulling them out to study whenever you have 5-10" free. Then, once every two weeks or so, sort all the cards by words that go together by meaning: perhaps some have negative connotations, and others positive, or some have to do with work, others with leisure or laziness. This helps you to remember the general meaning of the words in a way that can be helpful on the test day if you can't remember the exact meaning of a word.

Remembering Math: It may have been a long time since you studied algebra and geometry. If so, you will want to review general number concepts (Do you remember what a "rational" number is?); properties of right triangles; how to add and subtract polynomials; how to find areas of different figures; adding, subtracting and dividing fractions; and operations with square roots, to name a few things you are sure to find on the quantitative section of the GRE General Test.

There is a basic math review provided on the POWERPREP program, but it does not provide sufficient review in most cases. If the Geometry questions have you baffled, I've found that the Cliff Notes "Geometry" book briefly covers everything you'll need to know in an understandable format. There are similar books covering algebra. I suggest that you choose prep books carefully to make sure that the provided explanations add to your knowledge. Sometimes the explanations are not at the level you need.

Final Prep: Take the second full-length POWERPREP practice test a few weeks before you are scheduled to take the General Test to see which areas you'll need to address for a last-minute "touch up."

Preparing for a Subject Test

Go to the GRE website and this time choose "Subject Tests." You can download the free test bulletin for the appropriate test which covers scoring and gives an extensive list of the topics covered on the test, and also provides one full-length practice test

Unlike the computer-based General Test, the Subject test is a paper and pencil test. You'll have to score the practice test yourself. Don't give in to the impulse to look up the correct answers after you answer each question. Work through the entire test as you would need to do in actual testing. Keep in mind that, also unlike the General Test, you are penalized a ¼ point for each incorrect answer on the Subject Tests.

For Some Subject Tests: Since Subject Tests are content in a specific field, you can get a recent edition of an introductory text in your subject area and study it from cover to cover. It makes sense to start with the chapters that target material that you haven't covered in a previous course. Next, go back to the chapters that cover more familiar material. Some subject areas are too complex to do this, so consult with faculty in that area for possible resources.

Prep Books: There are prep books that are available for most of the subject tests. You may find that you have to order these on-line as not even the largest bookstores carry review books on all the Subject Tests.

If You Have Time: Consider taking a college course (such as PSY 405-History & Systems for the psychology Subject Test) that addresses the material you need to know to do better on the test.

Summing it up

When facing the GRE's, don't panic, just prepare!

Written by Caroline D. Cascini
Please feel free to reproduce this article, as long as you credit the author.

Page last modified April 8, 2024