GRE Prep: Don’t ‘Study’ for the GRE- Learn How to Take It

Posted on 13/04/2018

Whether you’re coming right from university, like I was from Trinity University and the University of Pennsylvania, or taking a few years off, taking the GRE isn’t a walk in the park. Who remembers how to find the circumference of a sphere? Or that “bivouac” means a camp, specifically for soldiers? You must have memorized that in grade school! The key here is “memorized;” for the GRE, you want to do the exact opposite. The GRE tests an entirely different set of skills: logical reasoning skills. So, when you plan your GRE preparation, I suggest you learn how to take the test, not “study” for it. And there is, in fact, a big difference between the two.

Nowadays, students are being tested earlier and earlier in their educational careers, so by the time someone is preparing for the GRE, preparing for these standardized tests should be a breeze, right? Well, I’m here to tell you that not only is there quite a bit of controversy surrounding the validity of the GRE but that you should prepare for it in a much more practical way than you may be used to studying for tests. It may be a total myth that your scores don’t mean anything at all, but you don’t have to bend over backwards trying to memorize every vocabulary word or math equation you haven’t used since grade school.

What’s the point of the GRE then, anyway?

In short, the GRE doesn’t exist to infuriate you by getting you to try and memorize how to find the circumference of a circle or what other esoteric words in the English language refer to “a campsite.” What it does do is test your ability to think logically and analytically, which is exactly how you should study for it. Plus, for more than two decades now, researchers across the United States have been skeptical of the GRE’s ability to predict success in graduate school, so you can take a deep breath and rest easy, knowing that you aren’t alone if you feel like it’s unfair that you could be judged on your math scores for a humanities graduate program. You’ll be judged on more important factors, like your involvement in student affairs, or your journeys studying abroad, like I did at Istanbul’s Koc University.

The content may not matter a great deal for your graduate studies, but the strategies it insists you learn and rely on are indispensable for good time management, “informed guessing,” and even how to structure basic types of writing, like “argument task” vs. “issue task” assignments. Even Magoosh, a company that offers good GRE practice tests, calls it “a necessary evil.” The key to success when facing the GRE is not to get caught up trying to relearn everything you forgot since grade school. The key is to develop your logical reasoning skills.

Focus on the GRE as a Practical Skills Test

If you think about the GRE in terms of practical skills, then it not only seems like a more useful tool for graduate schools to look at, but it becomes much easier to study for. For example, you wouldn’t learn how to fix a car just by reading a book- you would have to actually get your hands dirty under the hood. In short, you should study for a practical exam in a practical way. Let’s take a look at the test as a whole, and focus on some things you shouldn’t do:

Approach the GRE practically: Take Practise Tests

First and foremost, focus only on taking practice tests. This is a big time commitment, so you need to get and stay organized in order to keep yourself on track to regularly practice this nearly 4-hour test. In fact, I recommend starting immediately by just taking practice tests. Why? You’ll begin to develop a sense of how to deal with the test as a whole, and this comes back to some of the useful aspects the GRE teaches you to develop: time management. After setting aside some time each week to take a practice test in its entirety (yes, breaks and all), keep these tips in mind:

Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff: Individual Sections

Once you’ve set yourself a schedule to take at least one practise test a week, you can start to think about the GRE’s individual sections: the verbal, quantitative, and analytical writing sections. Again, this is a time to think and study logically. After taking a few practice tests, you’ll be able to identify areas of weakness and hone in on those. In terms of resources, I suggest that you don’t waste your money or time on any book or course aside from the official ETS source and their resources, some of which are free, and some of which cost a bit of money.

If you spend a bit of money on anything, register for ETS’ PowerPrep practice tests, or even their official practice book, to gain access to as many different variations of the test as possible. If there’s one thing to take away from all this, it’s that there is no “quick and easy” way or secret tips to get all the information you need to succeed on the GRE. You just have to devote your time to taking as many practise tests as you can, understand where your practical areas of development are, and not get bogged down by every little bit of information you may not know.

Your Takeaway: Just Breathe

No matter what I say, and no matter how many articles or books you read, you may still feel that twinge of stress. Don’t feel bad about that, but don’t let it get in the way of your success; you’ve made it this far, and now all you have to do is jump this tiny hurdle. Remember: you’ve got bigger tasks at hand, like your CV, personal statement, and writing sample. Use the GRE as a way to prove to yourself that you can think logically, that you can use reason to solve problems and not become overwhelmed in the face of which schools to apply to, how you’ll sell yourself, or if you’ll even be admitted. So just breathe: with a little effort, you can turn what many see as a huge burden and time sink into a useful way of boosting your confidence and getting that admission letter you’re dreaming of.


Written by
William Clay Shrout
My name's Will Shrout, and I'm currently working in Hanoi, Vietnam as a private English consultant and content editor for a Southeast Asian travel company. As a former graduate student at the University of Texas, Austin and course instructor in the Classical Studies department, I've found that I can transfer and apply my teaching skills to almost any job I land in, which is why I choose to leave academia and write about it instead. I still love teaching, and I learn something new every day, but I aim to show the world that there is so much teaching and learning to be done outside of the traditional ideas of classrooms and academic boundaries.