Only Take the GRE Once: How I Prepared

I remember feeling utterly disoriented before beginning my GRE study; I hadn’t had time to do any research on it beforehand. For years, all I thought about was the MCAT, because I thought I wanted to apply to medical school. So, when the time came to take the GRE instead, I grabbed the first review book I saw and just worked through it, front to back. It’s a blessing that I came across one that worked well for me. Remember that whatever tools and study methods I talk about below are what I found useful and that you may have to switch things up. Give yourself enough study time to switch materials if you need to!

Okay, enough intro. Here is how I studied for the GRE:

1. I started with The Princeton Review (PR). I used their GRE prep book (2017 version pictured below). Since I had zero experience regarding the GRE, I trusted that the book would give me a good enough idea on what to expect. I followed all of their instructions, did every page as if it were the real test, and threw out any previous notions I had about writing or reading comprehension- when it comes to standardized testing, very few classroom rules apply.

2. I created a detailed study schedule. I did this based on two factors: 1. how much time I wanted to spend studying (I used my winter break for this. AKA 3 weeks) and 2. the amount of material in my PR book. I wrote down how many hours of each subject (writing, reading comprehension, math) I wanted to get done each day to allow me to finish the PR book and take all of the accompanying practice tests before my GRE date. The Magoosh GRE Blog (and I believe ets.org as well) has sample study schedules online that I also referenced. These are based on various time frames so you can adjust the speed and depth of your study based on how much time you have before your exam.

3. That PR book was the only study material I used and it ended up being the only one I needed. Don’t bog yourself down in excess. I’d recommend using 1-2 workbooks, and maybe some vocabulary flashcards, and you really don’t need to pay for a separate set of flashcards. Instead make your own- the PR book comes with lists of the most commonly used GRE words and writing things down can aid with retention. I have found that when I have lots of resources and even lots of time, I become overwhelmed, complacent, or a combination of the two and end up not studying nearly as much as I should.

4. I utilized the free online practice tests that came with my PR book, particularly for writing. These were a lifesaver! If you go to the Educational Testing Service’s (ETS) website, you can find real GRE writing prompts that have been used on past exams. Using the ScoreItNow! service, you can write your timed essays online, submit them, and then receive scores and detailed feedback from a GRE tutor. And it’s FREE! Turns out, there is a very specific format to the GRE essays and you are more likely to get a high score if you follow their template rather than write in your own creative way. This leaves you with an essay that may not be a indication of your true self and may even be based on fabricated views, but that’s just the way this standardized testing thing goes. On the bright side, you still have your application personal statement, supplemental essays, and extra-curriculars to let your personality shine through. 🙂

5. I had a place and time dedicated to daily studying. This was my “GRE place.” Not quite the same ring as “my happy place,” but do not fret! Studying was actually pretty fun. (Seriously!) I don’t know if it was because I had just completed a particularly difficult round of final exams and was glad to be home from school, or because I felt like I was finally taking a productive step towards a career, or maybe something else entirely. I personally chose a small corner table at the Barnes & Noble near my home and spent 4-5 hours working each day. I even started to look forward to studying because it was my “me time” with my large coffee and favorite pens. 🙂

TIPS!

  • Go ahead and sign up for the exam. Lots of people will need to take the GRE and while it’s not as difficult to get a slot as the MCAT, spots fill up fast. Seemingly more so in the 2-3 months prior to application season (February-April).
  • Don’t spend more than ~2 months studying for the exam. There’s only so much preparation you can do for a standardized test. This is particularly true for any part of the exam requiring knowledge of vocabulary words. You can memorize all of the most commonly used words, but there is no guarantee that those will even show up.
  • Take as many timed exams as possible, and then subtract 2 minutes from each section. I was able to finish every practice test with plenty of time to spare…but then ran significantly behind on every math section during the real test. I didn’t finish a single one during the real thing! Every math question that I didn’t finish left me with an increasing sense of urgency and panic, which probably affected me negatively in subsequent sections, even if they weren’t math. Lesson learned: always underestimate how much time you have (that came off a lot deeper than intended…).
  • Practice writing the essays exactly how your prep book (or other resource) explains. I’m sure you’re a great writer and could come up with even greater content, but the GRE scorers don’t care. They go through your essays with their own checklist and you earn or lose points based on their criteria. Know what they’re looking for and write accordingly.

Whatever happens, know that your GRE score does not define you! I could go on and on about my opinions on the “legitimacy” of standardized testing (short version: it tests privilege more than intelligence. Just saying.)

I’d love to stay updated on how your GRE studying goes! Let me know tips work well for you; wishing everyone a positive experience!!

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