You know you need to take the GRE to get into grad school. You know you need to prepare for it in order to do your best. But when should you start preparing for your GRE? Is studying for a week before the test going to be enough? Do you need months?
There’s no one-size-fits-all answer. Some grad schools look more heavily at the GRE than others. Some–an the number is increasing–don’t look at the GRE at all. Some schools are mainly concerned with your math scores. Others may look at your verbal. Still others may add the two scores together and look at the aggregate.
That’s just the grad schools. Then there’s also you, the test taker. You may be exceptional at the math but have a poor vocabulary. Or perhaps you are an excellent writer, so the analytical writing section is not too difficult for you, but you really struggle with the quantitative.
As the owner and instructor of StudyProf GRE prep, I’ve been teaching students about the GRE and talking to admissions advisors since 2000. I take a personal interest in getting students ready in time for their GRE. In general, you’ll need months to fully prepare for the GRE, but there are key details that can save you time and wasted energy in that process. Here’s what you need to know about when you should start prepping for the GRE.
Grad School Application Deadlines
First, find out your graduate school’s admissions deadline, and don’t miss that deadline! That could delay your admission by anywhere from a few months to a year. That deadline determines when you must take your GRE in order to have your scores in the grad school’s hands on time. In turn, knowing when you must take your GRE will tell you when you should start studying for it.
Schools can vary quite a bit concerning when applications are due. Most schools will want your application–and, thus, your GRE scores–3 to 6 months before you begin your coursework. Some of the more competitive schools may want your application a full year ahead of time.
GRE Scores Take Time
You’ll see your scores in the quantitative (math) section and verbal section at the end of the test. BUT, the written analytical essay section can take 2 to 3 weeks to get scored. ETS–the company that makes the GRE–doesn’t consider your GRE score official and make it available to grad schools until that analytical writing is scored.
That means your official score won’t be available to your target grad school until 2 or 3 weeks after you take the GRE. To make sure your scores are in by the admissions deadline, schedule your last GRE to be completed at least 3 weeks before the deadline date.
Twice is Better
ETS says that students who take the GRE more than once tend to do better the second time they take the test. It makes sense. The GRE process and content will be more familiar to you the second time around, so you are more likely to improve your score.
In addition, you can also use that first GRE to identify your weak spots and plug some holes in your knowledge. Again, that can lead to higher scores the second time around.
Since the GRE can not only determine whether you get into the grad school you want but can also make you eligible for certain fellowships, scholarships, and teaching or research assistant positions, it’s worth it to get the best score you can. Therefore, you should take the GRE at least twice. Many people take it even more than that.
Since you can only take the GRE once every twenty-one days, your first GRE needs to be taken at least 6 weeks before the application deadline. Of course, the more time you give yourself between the first and second test, the more time you will have to study and correct your deficiencies.
When to Start Your GRE Prep
If you need to take the first GRE 6 weeks before the application is due, when should you actually start studying for the GRE? That will depend on where your weaknesses are. Math? Verbal? Analytical writing? All of the above?
Each of those sections can take a different amount of time to fully prepare for, and each person is different. Some might need more work on the quantitative. Others might need more help with the verbal. Let’s look at each of the different GRE content sections.
The GRE quantitative section covers math concepts most (American) students knew by the end of seventh grade; things like basic number sense, algebra, geometry, and a smattering of probability and statistics–there is no calculus or trigonometry. You will see quite a bit of math on the GRE which you probably haven’t seen since you were a sixth grader (prime factoring and permutations, anyone?).
Most students can get up to speed on GRE quantitative concepts with 5 to twenty hours of study–assuming they know exactly what concepts to study. It is, after all, mostly review. However the longer you have been out of school, the more review you will probably need.