Grad school can open doors to some of the highest-impact careers (in research, policy, management, law, and earning to give). Standardized testing is an (unpopular) part of the admissions process, but fortunately the GRE is an indicator of industriousness rather than IQ, and nearly every graduate program in the US accepts GRE scores.
Your GRE score is important for both the quality of program you are accepted to, and the amount of scholarship funding you are awarded. For this reason, an hour spent studying for the GRE can be worth $1,000+ in the long run.
The success of EA-aligned test-takers is important to me and I’m happy to help with test prep for free. If you have questions about any part of the study process, feel free to schedule a call with me: calendly.com/sam-anschell.
The Format of the GRE (Skip This if You’re Familiar With the Test)
The GRE has three sections: the verbal (reading and vocabulary), the quantitative, and the analytical writing. The scores you should aim for on each section depend on the graduate degree you’d like to pursue. A philosophy program will care more about your verbal score whereas a computer science program will care more about your quant score. In general though, your analytical writing score matters much less than your quant and verbal scores.
For some degrees, like MBAs or JDs, you’ll have the option to take either the GRE or a different standardized test. The best practice for deciding which test to study for is to take a full length practice test of the GRE and the alternative test, and see where your strengths and interests lie. If you are ambivalent about which test to take, the GRE has the flexibility of being accepted at all graduate programs whereas tests like the GMAT or LSAT narrow your options.
The test begins with two thirty minute essays. These essays are graded on a scale of 0-6 and your analytical writing score represents the average of the two. Then you take five quant or verbal sections (two quant, two verbal, and one additional section of either quant or verbal). You’re given 30 minutes to complete the verbal sections and 35 minutes to complete the quant sections. The verbal and quant sections are scored on a scale of 130-170; here is a general percentile equivalent of each score. Unlike on the SAT, you cannot superscore (take the best section score from separate attempts).
There are no penalties for guessing on the GRE, and each question is worth the same amount of points. I recommend filling in an answer to each question as you go, flagging the questions you’re less sure of, then coming back to them at the end. The test is also adaptive, meaning if you do well on your first verbal and quant sections you’ll be given a harder second section. At the end of your test you’ll be given an option to view your scores or cancel them: never cancel your scores. Grad programs can’t see how you scored unless you send them your scores, and there is always a chance you did better than you thought.
Inefficiencies in the Test Prep Market
Traditional test prep companies like Kaplan and Princeton Review tend to populate new studiers’ thoughts because these companies spend the most on marketing. However, their products (books, classes, and tutoring services) are some of the costliest and least efficient ways of scoring higher. This is for three reasons:
- The bar for tutors and teachers at large test-prep companies is quite low. Companies like Kaplan pay tutors 15-20% of what they’re charging you, and the interview process to become a tutor involves answering questions correctly rather than explaining questions well. Also, it’s in a tutor and tutoring company’s interest to draw out the study process for as long as they can to rack up billable hours.
- It’s very difficult to create questions that simulate ETS’ questions on the verbal section. ETS verbal questions are usually created by PhDs who understand the nuance of writing questions that are difficult, yet have only one factually correct answer. Questions churned out by testing companies will lack test-realism, either because they are too easy or because they are hard in an unproductive way (e.g., opaque or time-exhaustive).
- Classes are unpersonalized and go at the speed of the slower students. You’ll have natural strengths in certain areas and weaknesses in others - in a prep class you waste time reviewing what you’re good at and speed through what you need to work on. There are better commitment devices to hold yourself accountable for studying.
Instead, I recommend self-studying using the recommended resources listed below and scheduling time to study every week. Ideally, part of your study schedule will include one four-hour block per week on a day you aren’t already fatigued so that you can take practice tests in their entirety.
In my opinion, Greprepclub.com is the best study tool for efficiently improving your score. Greprepclub is a hub for every GRE question publicly released, both by ETS and by test prep companies. After you create an account, you can filter question sets by section, author, and difficulty. When you attempt questions you are able to time yourself, and after you select an answer you can scroll down to find the best answer explanations ranked by users. Best of all, your answers are catalogued in a personal workbook which you can filter based on your accuracy and time spent per question relative to other users.
The best questions to practice are those created by ETS. Not only are these questions the most realistic, ETS will sometimes reuse old questions (I recognized two or three questions on my official test word-for-word.) Hyperlinked are some sample quant and verbal resource pages. To find all ETS official questions, visit the directory and look for “Source: OG”.
ETS provides a few free, scored practice tests every year, but you won’t be given thorough explanations of why an answer is correct or incorrect. These still may be helpful to simulate the experience of flagging questions, familiarizing you with ETS’ interface, and getting the instant gratification of a score check-in.
Physical books can be more enjoyable to study from than a screen - check to see if your library carries any ETS official GRE prep books. These questions are representative of what you will find on the test and you can simply take a practice test, review what you get wrong, and try another practice test.
The GRE subreddit is a great place to read about other test-takers’ experiences and ask questions. The community is supportive, funny, and humble. No question is too insignificant to ask and no emotion is too invalid to express. Everyone is on their own journey and people take pleasure in helping one another through the grind.
Gregmat is a $5/month service to access a wealth of GRE educational content from a consistent perfect scorer. Gregmat is an efficient, down-to-earth teacher who answers the questions you submit on tutoring streams. You can also access his YouTube lessons for free. While I didn’t personally use Gregmat’s content much, many visual learners on the GRE subreddit consider Gregmat lessons to be the best way to learn shortcuts and new concepts.
Anki is a spaced repetition memory tool that can be great if you're highly motivated and you start studying well in advance of the test. You can simply memorize five words per day for a few months, and Anki will show you old words just often enough that you'll never forget them. Anki is also free, and many people have posted GRE vocabulary decks that Anki can teach you.
Magoosh’s GRE Vocab App and Vocab Wednesday YouTube Playlist
If you want vocab options besides the Anki decks, Magoosh provides resources for learning the vocabulary that appears on the GRE at the highest frequency. Depending on your verbal score goal, you’ll want to learn somewhere between 500 and 1500 GRE vocab words. Magoosh’s vocab app is a convenient way to run flashcards of the most commonly tested words in an order that reinforces them in your memory. Magoosh’s Vocab Wednesday playlist is an effective way to study by listening to words, and Chris (the host) provides helpful mnemonics for each word.
Your essays are evaluated both by human readers and by a computerized “E-rater”. The E-rater’s grade is within .5 points of the human’s grade 98% of the time, and if it isn’t, another human reader will be brought in to give a second opinion. The E-rater checks for objective writing qualities such as grammar, sentence variety and organization. For $20 you can run two practice essays through the E-rater and receive great directional feedback on your writing.
Even though Greprepclub will have explanations for any quant questions you don’t know how to solve, you speed up your prep by learning all the math formulas you’ll need ahead of time. TTP’s formula sheet is all-inclusive, if overwhelming. Working through practice problems on Greprepclub will help you identify when to use which formula, and show you which formulas come up most often.
Responses to Common Uncertainties
I’m not sure if I want to go to grad school. Should I take the GRE to keep my options open?
You may want to take the GRE now because you have the highest aptitude for studying effectively while you’re young, and your time is less valuable now than it will be later. You can try taking a practice test just to see how well it goes; if you get an unexpectedly high score, you might realize grad school is a more valuable option than you previously thought (or conversely, if you do very badly, you might realize that it will take more work to attend the programs you want to).
That being said, you should think about how likely you are to pursue grad school and what alternatives you have for the time you would spend studying. If you think it’s fairly likely that you won’t pursue grad school, just wait to take the test unless you change your mind later on.
My programs of interest are test-optional, should I take the GRE?
This depends a lot on the strength of the rest of your application and whether the GRE contributes to merit scholarship funding. If you’re applying to business school, you’ll be evaluated on your work experience, your undergrad brand and GPA, your essays, your interviewing skills, your references, and the diversity you bring to the program. Taking the GRE can never hurt you because you don’t have to send your scores to a program if you don’t want to. But if your application is strong without the test, then you don’t need to take the test.
It’s also important to realize why schools care about test scores. In part, schools care about comparing candidates from different backgrounds in an apples to apples manner (there is disagreement about how predictive these tests are given that testers have different access to study time and resources.) But to a larger degree, schools just want better rankings (US News, Forbes, etc.) and its average GRE score is a big part of how a school is ranked. So for test-optional schools, you really want to be able to submit a score that is above its average - not to signal aptitude, but to up the school’s rankings.
When should or shouldn’t I retake the GRE?
In general, the more attempts the better. If you feel like you overperformed relative to practice tests, or you met your score goal and a higher score wouldn’t get you enough additional scholarship dollars to merit the effort, that’s a great place to stop. Tests like the GRE are classist in that the relatively small sample of questions per test leads to big score deviations from attempt to attempt. Those who can afford to take the test multiple times perform better due to variance and experience.
Due to the overall unpleasantness of the test, people generally take the test fewer times than they ought to. If you think you can score two points higher on a retake with minimal extra study involved, I’d generally advise retaking the test. The $205 price of admission is peanuts compared to the opportunities that a higher score opens up.
Will studying for the GRE help me in the real world?
I felt like the verbal and analytical writing sections helped me read more complex material and write quicker. The quant is less directly applicable to everyday life, but it can be satisfying to solve math puzzles. Overall though, the test is mainly a means to an end.
How should I mentally prepare for the GRE?
I think the most important factor is getting a good night’s sleep each of the two nights preceding the test. Try to clear your schedule for the day so you aren’t running on empty or withholding mental energy in anticipation of a later obligation. Have a healthy breakfast and use every resource you’re allowed (scratch paper/whiteboard, snacks and drinks). If you’re taking the GRE in person, be sure to leave for the testing center early to save yourself the extra stress of getting lost or rushing the pre-test ID verification. It can also be reassuring to remind yourself that this will be over in four hours and plan a treat for yourself after the test.
Much has been written on the power of positive thinking, doing power poses in front of a mirror, and envisioning yourself taking the test before you start. In addition to these techniques, take pride in the preparation you have done to give yourself the best chance to succeed. It’s really not a big deal in the grand scheme of things if you need to retake the test.
Good luck on your studies and feel free to post questions in the comments! Special thanks to Robi Rahman for editing this guide and providing a few resources that helped him achieve a perfect GRE score. You can check out my personal study process below, but I think most of the value of this post is in the recommended resources so be sure to explore those to see what fits your learning style!
The Study Process That Worked For Me
I started by taking an online practice test and getting a baseline score of 305 (149V/156Q ~ 45th percentile). After 300ish hours of study and on my second official try, I scored a 337 (168V/169Q/5 ~ 99th percentile). Here’s the study process I used:
Analytical Writing Section
It’s challenging to brainstorm and write a five paragraph essay in 30 minutes. One way I was able to save time on the analytical writing section was by prewriting my introductions and transition phrases. I would memorize a structure to help the essay flow, and copy the structure into the writing box before I even read the essay prompt. An example for the analyze an argument prompt could be:
“At a glance, the author appears to present a logical argument: ___. However, additional evidence is required to develop a holistic understanding of the factors at play. It is possible that X’s argument is fully substantiated, however without ___, ___ cannot share the author’s assumptions.
The argument presented by ___ lacks cogency due to
It could be argued that
Building upon the implication
A 5-22-3 Split
I found the most effective way to allocate the 30 minutes for each essay was to spend the first five minutes pre writing transitions, reading the prompt and organizing my thoughts, the following 22 minutes writing the content of my essay, and the last 3 minutes proofreading.
The best way to learn the pace for these essays is to practice and time yourself. Powering through writer's block is an acquired skill; on my second GRE attempt I was cut off mid-word and ended up with a worse analytical writing score than on my first attempt. When your timer goes off, force yourself to stop. Then consider what aspects of your essay are weakest (including whether it’s complete) and adjust your strategy for your next attempt.
Think of Pros and Cons for the “Issue Task”, But Only Cons for “Analyze An Argument”
While you must take a stance on the issue task, it’s worth coming up with a few ideas for and against the prompt so you know which side is easier to defend. When it comes to the analyze an argument task, you simply want to find any fault you can in the author’s logic and assumptions. High-frequency errors to look for include:
- No mention of how data was gathered, or what sample was represented.
- Omitted variable bias.
- Assuming causation from correlation.
- Expecting identical results from different populations or across different timelines without using difference-in-difference estimation.
Recommended Study Time: 6-8 Hours
I would recommend spending 6-8 hours on the analytical writing section (spent on practice essays, typed, using the E-rater when possible, and not all at once) if English is your native language. If English does not come naturally to you, you may need to spend much more time studying for the analytical writing and verbal sections.
To learn a new vocabulary word, I recommend finding mnemonics that are either funny or associated with strong memories. Once you learn a critical mass of GRE vocab, identify clusters of synonyms to give yourself extra ways to remember each word. For example, if you start with the word “lucid” (meaning clear/transparent) you might come up with a mnemonic like “Italian was confusing until Lou said it clearly.” Then you could think “Lucid, pellucid, limpid” so that when you see any of these synonyms, you can refer back to the mnemonic you made for lucid and save a bit of brain space.
Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence
I couldn’t find many tricks for getting better at these questions. These tips can be helpful, but I mainly improved through learning words and completing practice questions.
I agree with the conventional wisdom on reading for standardized tests: If the passage has only one or two associated questions, read the questions first so you know what to look for. Otherwise, read the passage first because humans don’t process what we read if we’re scanning for an answer.
For most people, the time limit on the verbal section is too limiting to read every word of a passage at their regular pace. I recommend absorbing the first and last sentences of each paragraph, skimming what’s in between, and taking note of opinions, qualifying language, and links between paragraphs. More broadly, think about the tone and purpose of the passage, as well as the role that each paragraph serves to support that purpose. I recommend taking notes as you go to stay engaged with a boring passage.
It’s helpful to keep in mind that each incorrect answer choice is provably false. Answer choices that use open or inclusive language like “the author may believe…” are more likely to be correct than answer choices that use closed-off language like “the author must believe…”. When you’re choosing between two plausible answers, it’s sometimes easier to think how one answer could be wrong rather than which answer is more right.
While your real-world reading comprehension can’t be improved much in 20-50 hours of study, you can become much better at reading for what the GRE tests you on. You identify specious answer categories through pattern recognition, you take note of the author’s perspective on a historical event in anticipation of a question, you subconsciously recognize that a politically incorrect answer choice is unlikely to be the right answer. Studying reading comprehension may be focus-intensive and unpleasant, but it is a skill you can hone through attrition.
Recommended Study Time: 30-80 Hours
Depending on your baseline strength (particularly your vocabulary), and section score goals, I would recommend spending between 30 and 80 hours studying the verbal section. I think the best breakdown of this time is learning the 500-1500 most common vocab words first, then practicing entire timed verbal sections on Greprepclub and reviewing your workbook for incorrect and slow answers.
The math used in the quant section is mainly what you learned in early high school: not conceptually difficult, but you probably don’t remember most of it. Most quant problems involve identifying and applying a formula (e.g. surface area of a cone, or 7 choose 4), decoding word problems into simple algebraic terms, reading graphs, recognizing patterns, or solving logic puzzles.
Even though questions can come in many forms, only a finite number of formulas are tested. Once you’ve internalized each formula and gained experience applying formulas in real time, you’ll have the tools necessary to tackle anything the quant can throw at you. The quant is easily the more study-able section - it’s no wonder that as many as 4% of GRE testers earn a perfect quant score.
Covering Your Bases With a Curated Subject List
After you learn the formulas used to solve GRE math, some studiers find it helpful to read through a prep book to see which topics are tested most often. By completing a bunch of ETS-created quant questions you’ll be able to back this information out as your workbook sample grows, but looking over a list of topics can be a nice sanity check before taking your real test.
How to Learn a Question You Don’t Understand
On certain quant problems, you can get stuck and feel like you don’t know what to study to figure it out. If you’re not doing the question on Greprepclub, try googling the question verbatim and see if you can find the question on Greprepclub. If the explanations on Greprepclub don’t make sense, check the problem tag (e.g., combinations and permutations) and search Gregmat’s YoutTube videos and Khan academy for answers to similar questions. If all else fails, you can post the question on r/GRE and helpful commenters will usually get back to you within 24 hours.
Recommended Study Time: 15-70 Hours
Depending on your baseline strength and section score goals, I’d recommend spending 15-70 hours on the quant section. I would start by learning the formulas on TTP’s quant sheet, then alternating between completing questions on Greprepclub and reviewing your workbook.