(Calmly) Tackling the GRE

Worried about the GRE? Don't be! Read on for some tips and tricks to help you get through the test.

The GRE general test wasn’t the only reason I put off applying to graduate school. There were other factors: life events, a hesitation to undertake two years of grueling work, not having an extra $100,000 lying around. (You know, minor things.) However, my terror at battling this evil behemoth of a standardized test was definitely my #1 reason for delay.

When I eventually bit the bullet, I found that the test was not nearly as terrifying as I had thought. You just have to take it in small steps.

Know what makes up the test

The Graduate Record Exam is the most widely accepted measure of aptitude among prospective graduate students. This normally computer-based test is comprised of three(ish) parts.

  • Analytical Writing (one 30-minute section): this first section tests critical thinking, analysis, and articulation skills.
  • Verbal Reasoning (two 30-minute sections): these sections test your ability to spot relationships between words and concepts and synthesize information from a text.
  • Quantitative Reasoning (two 35-minute sections): these sections, which alternate at random with the verbal sections, evaluate skills in algebra, geometry, and arithmetic.
  • Research (bonus!): designed to test new questions, this unscored section is disguised as a verbal or quantitative one.

The entire test takes approximately four hours, and quantitative and verbal scores are available immediately upon completion.


Once you’re familiar with the basic sections on the test, register for a test near you. A September test worked well for me, as its proximity to December deadlines motivated me while still leaving time for one emergency retake. Consider your own learning style and pay the sky-high, nonrefundable registration fee as early as possible so you’re committed.

Buy the books

Companies like The Princeton Review and Kaplan are in business for a reason: they know the test in and out. Invest in two to three different review books three to four months prior to the test and read up on the types of questions and subjects that appear frequently. As the test rarely changes (check discount book stores for last year’s prep books at lower costs!), knowing what’s normally asked will help you to manage your time, focus on weaker areas, and avoid spending an inordinate amount of time on concepts less likely to be tested. I created a written schedule to ensure I wouldn’t lag behind.

These books also teach answer elimination tactics, when to guess versus skip, and how to scan for key words and spot those designed to trick and distract. They also offer formulas for different analytical writing questions, which I used on the test with much success. Start reading them early so that you can practice strategy from the outset. I cannot stress enough the importance of studying the test itself: you can gain hundreds of points simply by learning to recognize patterns and guess effectively.


Tackle multiple practice tests. GRE review books normally include one, and ETS and Kaplan have free questions available online, and The Princeton Review even offers a free in-person practice exam. If you’re worried about speed, practice taking entire timed tests. I found that carrying flashcards and short outlines was helpful as well. During the three months prior to the test, try to make practice a regular occurrence so that you grow more comfortable with the test.

Game on

Rest your mind, get a good night’s sleep, and eat a protein-rich breakfast the morning of the test. Set up your test area to help you remain calm from the outset. For example, if the ticking timer in the corner of the screen motivates you, great; if it throws you into an animal frenzy, like me, close it. There is only one break, so use it to relax and recharge: stretch, put in eye drops, do jumping jacks, furiously consume espresso and peanut butter cups you’ve stashed in your test-center locker, or place your entire head directly under a faucet (I chose to do all these things simultaneously). Above all, go to the bathroom. Because if you’re anything like me, you’ll realize—after months of dread and panic—that the only truly terrifying thing about the GRE is that there’s only one bathroom break.

Good luck!

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grad school gre test prep

About Jessica McCann

Jessica McCann

Jessica McCann works in research communications at Harvard University as well as a freelance writer and editor. She graduated in 2004 from Northeastern University with a BA in English and a minor in international affairs, and in 2017 with a master’s in English Literature from Harvard University Extension School. Outside of work, Jess is usually doing yoga, running, traveling, or eating ice cream cones on the beach.


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