Start prepping for the GRE

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.

GRE Quantitative

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.

A little focused practice goes a long way. In my GRE prep course, I show my students every single math concept I’ve ever seen covered on the GRE quantitative section, as well as everything recent students have reported seeing. That really narrows down what you have to study.
 
Be careful about studying all the math in any GRE prep book. I’ve seen many GRE prep books and companies–even the big international ones–spend a lot of time on math that is not even covered on the test.
 
After you have the necessary math concepts down, you need to practice using them over and over under timed conditions. It’s like prepping for a sporting event. Knowing all the basic skills is just the first step. You will need to actually play a game or scrimmage to master performing those skills reliably under pressure. Again, there’s more to putting on a good play than just knowing your lines. The dress rehearsal is crucial to helping you put on your best performance.
 
I have been teaching GRE prep for over 20 years know, so I know all the math concepts perfectly. But if I’m going to turn in my best GRE score, I’ll need to practice the problems–with the timer running–an hour or two every day for weeks. There’s no shortcut there. It takes consistent practice to get your best score.

GRE Verbal

Getting your best score on the GRE verbal section might take anywhere from 2 to hundreds of hours. For most students, 20 to 40 hours of focused study will vastly improve your score.
 
If you already have a great vocabulary, it might only take you a few hours to learn the basic techniques for tackling each of the GRE verbal section question types. Just 2 or 3 hours can get you some crucial extra points on your GRE score. On the other hand, if your vocabulary could use a little polishing, then you’ll need to start memorizing GRE vocabulary as soon as possible.
 
Given months of prep time, you could learn just a few new words every day and really increase your score. If you only have weeks, you may need to learn 10 to thirty new words a day to have the same effect; tough but doable.
 
I tell my students they will need to learn at least three hundred new GRE vocabulary words in order to have a reasonable chance of seeing enough of them on their GRE verbal section to make a significant difference in their score. If you have a month to prepare, that means memorizing 10 words a day.
 
By the way, don’t make the mistake of just memorizing a set of GRE vocabulary flash cards. I’ve talked to many students who spent fifty or more hours memorizing hundreds of vocabulary words and got very little improvement on their GRE verbal score. Unfortunately, most of the prep books out there and their associated flash cards just don’t give you enough of a definition and enough examples for you to really understand that word well enough to find the correct answer on a GRE verbal question.
 
I give GRE vocabulary memorization techniques and tips a lot of emphasis in my GRE prep classes. There are definitely ways to make learning all that GRE vocabulary much more quick and easy; ways that will actually increase your score. My aim in class is to teach students the most efficient way possible to learn large amounts of vocabulary well enough to get the answers right on the GRE verbal.
 
BONUS: The memory techniques can be used for more than just GRE vocab. In fact, these methods can save you hours a week every week in grad school, because you will be so much faster at memorizing effectively.

GRE Analytical Writing

The GRE Written Analytical section is not really an issue for many students, because many grad schools either don’t look it or set their requirements for this section pretty low. On the other hand, some grad schools really look carefully at your GRE analytical writing score. It’s important to find out what your grad school’s policy on that is.
 
In addition, many students already have the basic skills to do okay in this section. If you have a lower score here than your graduate school wants, however, it can take some time to improve your analytical writing skills. Usually, students can get some immediate small score improvements with just a few hours of instruction and practice. But big improvements may take tens of hours.
 
In my GRE prep classes, I teach students some simple techniques  and changes that can give significant score increases in the GRE analytical writing essays with relatively small amounts of time invested. After that, larger score increases will require many hours of focused practice, but I’ve seen many students do it.

Conclusion

In brief, take your first GRE 6 or more weeks before your grad school deadline. Take the second GRE 3 weeks before. Ideally, you’ll begin studying for your GRE weeks or months ahead of that first GRE, but…
 
I have lots of students come to me with only weeks or days to prep. Many of them are still able to significantly improve their GRE score in a short amount of time. Some key concepts, tricks, and techniques, can yield benefits very quickly. Still, best case scenario is to give yourself more time to get prepared. The sooner you start preparing, the better.
 
In my GRE prep classes, I can show you exactly what concepts are on the GRE, how to make sure you don’t run out of time on the GRE test, tips and techniques for each different type of GRE problem and question, insights on how grad schools use (and don’t use) your GRE scores, the easy and fast way to study vocabulary, and more. In just a few hours, students are often able to raise their GRE scores significantly.
 
Have a specific question about GRE prep? Ask it in the comments!
© Cody Blair, All Rights Reserved.
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