Many of the test prep books out there include schedules to help you prepare for the GRE or SAT, but every single one that I’ve seen has a fatal flaw!  Their schedules would have you studying each topic only once before the test.  That’s crazy!  No one will master a difficult topic, much less remember it a month or two later, if they’ve only practiced it once.

Many teachers know about spiraling curriculums.  A spiraling curriculum ensures that students keep coming back to the same topic at regular intervals.  This increases recall and promotes mastery.

Our should do the same; things we know we should less and less as the day approaches.  Things we struggle with we should work on more and more.  Moreover, the best schedule would be flexible enough to work whether you have a week, a month, or a year in which to prepare.

Here’s a simple method that will…

  1. Make sure you study everything you need to before the test.  No worries about skipping something vital!
  2. Automatically have you review most the things with which you struggle most.  No wasted time.
  3. Enable you to clearly identify what you actually need to study.  That means confidence on the test.
  4. Put the knowledge into your long term .  No fear of studying it now and then forgetting it by test time.
  5. Enable you to study as much or as little as you need to in order to prep.  It’s easily configurable to your schedule and needs.

First, get a test prep (or two) that is comprehensive, giving plenty of attention to each section of the test.  You want a that explains things in a way that you find easy to understand.  The best way is to go to a book store, pick out five or six likely looking candidates, and thumb through each of them.  Pick the one that appeals most to you.  You’ll quickly find that they all have very similar techniques, but that some seem easier to understand or are more comprehensive.  Here are my personal picks for SAT and GRE.

Next, get a book that has actual practice .  I recommend GRE: Practicing to Take the General Test 10th Edition, which contains actual GRE tests released in the past.

Now begin following this schedule.

[hidepost]Day 1: Spend 45 minutes or so go through each different section (verbal, quantitative, and written analytical).  Read carefully.  Do the practice problems and work through all the examples.

At the end of each 45 minutes of study, bookmark the page you’ve reached, and take a five minute break.  After the break, begin your next 45 minute session.  On the GRE, this would mean you spend 45 minutes working through the quantitative section of the prep book.  Then take a five minute break.  After the break, spend 45 minutes going through the verbal section followed by a break.  Finally, spend 45 minutes studying the written analytical.  I would do another 45 minutes section learning new as well.  More on that below.

Day 2:  Pick up where you left off doing the same 45 minutes + break pattern.  Work all the way through each section–verbal, quantitative, and written analytical–in this manner.  When you’ve worked all the way through a given section, quantitative for example, start over at the beginning of that section.

But now your schedule will change up a bit.  Spend twenty minutes working through the section each day.  As you come to things that you know well, put a check mark next to those items.  Next time you go back through the quantitative, you’ll see that check mark and know that you don’t need to study it.  You can skip it.

Spend the rest of your 45 minutes working actual practice problems from the other book.  Don’t forget to go back to any you miss and try and determine exactly why you missed them!

Days 3 and 4: Repeat the process.  In each section, you will work all the way through it in 45 minute per day increments.  Then you will start over at the beginning of the section and repeat the process, dividing up the 45 minutes into review of the book and practicing actual problems.  Each time you review the section, you’ll check off more and more topics that you’ve mastered.  That means you’ll end up spending more and more time on the things you haven’t mastered.

Day 5: Pick an area in which your weakest in each of the sections and devote your full 45 minutes to mastering that one topic.  If the book you bought isn’t helping you grasp the concept fully, go back to the book store and look up the same topic in a couple of different books or do a search on the internet for lessons on that topic.  Here are some good sites for math help, some tips for essays, and some verbal help as well.  For example, in the quantitative I’m having a tough time figuring out how to do permutation and combination problems, so I’ll spend 45 minutes doing a tutorial on that topic I found on the internet.  After a break, I’ll spend 45 minutes working on mastering the sentence completions that have given me so much trouble, etc.

Day 6: Do an entire practice test that’s as close to the real thing as you can get.  Treat it like it’s really the test!  This is where you will identify key weaknesses, get down your timing, and build your mental stamina.  For GRE practice tests, I would begin with the free PowerPrep software from ETS.

Day 7: Take a day off to rest and recuperate.  This is important!  If you get burned out and stop studying or slow down too much it could be a disaster.  Take time off!

This schedule works great just as it is for practically any test.  For the GRE, I might apply this schedule as written if I were taking the GRE in one month.

If you have more time and energy for studying each day, you might run through the sequence twice a day (that is, you might do day one and two on one day, day two and three on the next day, etc.). If you have six months to practice, you might break it down, so that you aren’t doing as much each day, but follow the same sequence to make sure you cover everything.  If you only have one week to study, you may decide to do double or even triple your study each day.  Again, just stick with the sequence.

Make sure you don’t neglect your vocabulary, since learning new vocabulary is the single best way to increase your score in the verbal section.  I would treat that as an extra 45 minute section each day.  If you don’t have time to learn at least 300 new words before the test, I wouldn’t bother.  Less than that and you’ll have little chance of actually seeing enough of the new words you learned to increase your score.  300 words is the minimum; learn 1,000 or even 3,000 and you can add hundreds of points to your score.

Certain sections, such as the verbal, won’t require too much review before you have all the techniques down.  Once you feel confident in applying the techniques, the only way to improve is to increase your vocabulary.  At that point, instead of continuing to do 45 minutes of practice and review on the verbal, devote that time to doing more vocabulary.  Similarly, after you have written five or six of the written analytical essays, you may decide to stop practicing that and devote more of your time to some other area where you struggle.

If you apply this schedule above, doing four 45 minute sections (verbal, quantitative, written, and vocabulary) plus breaks each day, your study time works out to three hours and 15 minutes a day, six days a week.  Of course, you may be able to do less per day if you begin to prepare for the test several months out.

Use this schedule to break your studies down into manageable chunks.  You can work with the confidence that you’ll cover everything you need to do well on the test.  You can also be sure that your spending your time on the areas that will pay off most for you![/hidepost]

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