Preparing for the GRE or “?!?!??##$@#?$!?!”

As you may have noticed in a couple of my previous posts, I really hated taking the GRE. It seems to be the general opinion of all those with whom I have traded battle stories of GRE warefare and survival that this is one of the hardest things they have ever done. We pronounce this disparaging comment not to discourage anyone who is considering taking this test, but to forewarn them. YOU GOTTA KNOW YOUR STUFF.

This isn’t one of those rhote memorization tests that you can fake your way though. You can’t cram in a few formulas the night before and expect to achieve a respectable score. Considering the money you have to put out to take the test, you don’t want to have to take it too many times. I actually spent more money preparing for the test than taking it. (One cool thing: Any classes you take in preparation for the GRE are tax deducatable as an education expense!)

This test doesn’t just require you to KNOW your stuff, you have to be able to USE it as if it is second nature. Therefore, if you don’t KNOW it in the first place, you’re bound to be about as successful as an asthmatic opera singer. This test is about word problems, comprehension, successful analysis and expression, and giving them what they’re “looking for”.

That being said, you’ll want to give yourself enough time to make sure your core skills are sharp and practice taking the test. What is “enough time”? That varies from person to person, so the first step to finding the answer to that question would be to take a practice test. You can find free tests and preparation materials online from the test makers themselves at: . The whole exam was reworked and revised last year, so even if you’ve taken it before you’ll want to check out the site. There are significant changes, many of which most test takers seem to appreciate.

There are three types of sections to the test:

  • Math or “Quantitative Reasoning”
  • English or “Verbal Reasoning
  • Essays or “Analytical Writing”

If you are a middle-aged student like me, you haven’t taken a math class or used anything more than basic arithmetic, some household financial math, a smidgen of algebra and a bit of simple geometry in the last 10 to 20 years. The practice test will make your shortcomings glaringly visible, which is what you really need. A good dose of truth as to how much you’ve forgotten is a great motivator to study hard.

Take one practice test without timing yourself to find out where you need to focus your studies. Don’t worry about the time until you sharpen your skills. It doesn’t matter how many minutes and seconds takes to cut down a big tree with a spoon. It is going to take TOO MANY minutes because you’re using a slow, dull instrument to do a job that requires sharpness and speed. You need to be a test-taking chainsaw!

In case you were wondering, I only scored 55% on my first practice math test. Ugh. Depressing. A wave of panic washed over me, shaking the very core of my self-esteem. I was such a GOOD student before. What happened? Had I really forgotten THAT much? I used to be an ace at math. And what’s with all the probability questions? I never took Statistics as an undergrad…I was a Theatre Major! I was felt a bit better after taking the verbal practice test but one thing was very clear….man, it was really time to hit the books!

I did considerably better on the verbal practice test, but it was apparent to me by the time I was done that I needed to seriously refresh and build up my vocabulary. The verbal tests has you read paragraphs, long and short in variety, and answer questions regarding what you read. Not too terrible but it’s very DENSE reading. There’s also a section where you have to fill in the word that is missing in the sentence or paragraph. It’s multiple choice. Not so bad, but it’s not just one word that’s missing. They’ve left out two or three words in some instances and unless you fill them ALL in correctly, you miss the entire question. Bummer. Most of the time, the word you put in the first blank will affect your choice for the second and third words as it affects the context of the paragraph altogether.

Okay, so you’ve done the practice tests and you feel like you’ve been run over by a Mac truck of disappointment. At least now you know where your weakness lie. MAKE A LIST of the things you need to brush up on. I got a couple of great study guides on There are SO many books out there that are good study guides. You really just need to break up your study time into three basic tasks:

  1. Making those rusty old math skills second nature again,
  2. Improving your vocabulary, and
  3. Practice taking the test.

Every time you sit down to study, have a goal in mind. Don’t just open one of the practice books and hope something wonderful sticks in your brain. Plan to study geometry on Tuesday from 7-9pm (for example). BE SPECIFIC. That way you can give those you love a time frame that you will be unavailable and give yourself boundaries for completion and a sense of accomplishment. You’ll be less prone to quit early if you have an appointment with yourself. Alternate days so you don’t get burnt out on one topic.


For sharpening my math skills the most useful book I found was the Cliff’s Notes Math Review for Standardized Tests. It is really well organized!! The book is divided into sections according to the type of math: algebra, geometry, etc. There are practice tests for each section, easy to follow lessons and useful learning tips. I created pages of “cheat sheets” with math concepts I would review every other day or so. Even after I had finished


Mathematics (Photo credit: Terriko)

the Cliff’s Notes book and moved on to the pages and pages of practice questions in the Official GRE Test Prep book I would still refer back to the Cliff’s Notes book for clarification on a concept from time to time (especially on the statistics stuff). There are free practice problems on the ETS website as well. If you currently work in an office, I recommend you keep all those discarded pieces of paper in a stack and take them home for scratch paper. If you are really studying, you’ll go through a couple of reams of scratch paper. Remember, mechanical pencils are your friend. They never need sharpening. Buy one of those little rectangular erasers, too. That little stub on the top of your pencil doesn’t stand a chance.


Find out what resources are available in your community. I found a 4-week GRE prep class at our local college that was very helpful. The fee for the classes included a copy of the Official GRE test prep book I mentioned before (with practice CD) and one of the older test prep books, which was still very useful for practice questions. The best part of the class was the insight into the test itself. The twice-weekly class alternated days with math and verbal preparation. Each teacher concentrated on HOW to take the test as well as individual questions. They showed us questions designed to trip up test takers, common mistakes, how to brainstorm and organize an essay and time management. They even covered strategies to use with the computerized version of the test, such as the feature that allows you to mark a problem you have trouble with so you can come back and review your answer at the end if time allowed. It was a good investment for $375. I felt more confident at the end. The instructors even allowed us to email them questions and practice essays after the class was over.


In preparing for the verbal section, I first tried using flash cards to practice and learn new vocabulary. They didn’t work for me. I just couldn’t get the stuff from the cards to stay in my head. I even tried writing my own sentences on the cards like they recommended, which worked a bit better. The instructor from my test prep class recommended reading classical literature such as Charles Dickens, where a lot of the typical GRE vocabulary is


found in context. (Tells you how OUTDATED some of the words are, huh?) Then I found the BEST solution. I downloaded an awesome game for my iPhone called Smart Vocab GRE from High Five Labs ($4.99) that gave me about ten words at a time to study with meanings, sentences and pronunciations and then a mini test. After getting the word right a few times it would introduce new words into the study session. Like in martial arts, there were belts for each level of words mastered. It was GREAT! I studied about 30 minutes of my lunch hour each day and it was actually fun. The words really stuck too. It was even fun on a road trip. It was easy to play/study any time I was bored, waiting for the dentist or in the checkout line at the store, since it was in my phone which is with me about 99% of the time. I liked it so much, I still play it once in a while even now just to keep sharp.


Finally, in preparation for the essay portion of the test, I suggest you read as well as practice writing. Again, the ETS website is a wonderful resource and it’s free. You have to write two essays, one analyzing an argument and one opinion on an issue. There are VERY SPECIFIC CRITERIA that the judges are looking for in each of these essays that make them different. Spend some time on the website reading about the essays as part of your preparation. They have specific examples of each essay in each of the “grades” (5, 4, 3, 2, 1), so you can understand the difference between a “5” and a “4” and how they are judged.

The site also offers examples of previous essay topics, giving you a sense of the range of topics. The thing is, YOU DON’T HAVE TO KNOW MUCH ABOUT THE TOPIC TO WRITE A GOOD ESSAY. In the “Analyze an Argument” essay, you’re better off not knowing much and just focusing on why the argument is good or not regardless of the subject matter. I recommend printing off a few pages of the topics for each kind of essay. Tape them up in the bathroom where you can see them from the toilet or as you enter the shower. Each time you embark on one of these simple tasks, use the spare mental time to consider one of the topics and how you would approach it. Post one of the lists on the refrigerator in your kitchen and discuss the topic with your family to practice brainstorming.

You DO have to practice writing as well. Sounds simple, but you can feel silly writing with no one to show it to. As I said before, our instructor allowed us to email her essays after the class had concluded and she would “grade” them and provide feedback on how to make them better. Some of her best advice was, “Don’t forget that scratch paper isn’t just for math. Before you begin writing, brainstorm your ideas about the topic and create a simple (A, B, C) outline for your paragraphs.” For extra points, be sure to include at least two of these in each essay:

  • historical example
  • historical quote
  • quote
  • personal example
  • personal quote
  • statistic with source
  • example from the media

She also warned against using “preachy” phrases like “they should”, using more eloquent sentence structure instead. Avoid contractions; spell out both words in whole. Don’t use too many of those $5 vocabulary words you have to learn for the verbal section of the test. We did four essays in class, which I felt prepared me for the test. I did okay, but I’d bet I could have made even more improvement if I’d sent her a couple more essays to review.

Give yourself plenty of time to prepare and practice. Get a good night’s sleep the night before. Dress in layers, since the room temperature can range from arctic to sweltering and you don’t need any unnecessary distractions. Don’t drink too many beverages before the test so you don’t lose time and focus to your bladder. Do your best (you get your verbal and quantitative scores before you leave, essay scores take a few weeks) and remember, if all else fails, you can always take it again!

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One Response to Preparing for the GRE or “?!?!??##$@#?$!?!”

  1. Rebecca says:

    Great post, with lots of great ideas! I took the GRE before they added the essay section, for which I am thankful. Considering all the writing I did in grad school and since, however, the preparations you describe for it would have been helpful. I took the Math subject GRE (for math grad school), and studied about the way you described, and did okay (surprisingly) – but I was shaking by the end of the test. Yikes. Congrats on getting through that big step!

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