Succeeding on GRE Test Day: The Best Ways to Prepare

Preparing to take the GRE for your grad school applications? Here's what you can do to minimize your worries and maximize your chances of success on test day.

No matter how early you begin your GRE preparation, it can still feel like GRE test day arrives before you know it. Most test-takers will be at least slightly anxious at the prospect of sitting down for the exam: after all, most US graduate programs do consider your scores when looking at your application for admission. But never fear! With some advance preparation, you can minimize your worries and maximize your chances of success on GRE test day.

Before test day

Choose the right test day

While it may seem obvious, many test-takers pick GRE test dates that are either way too soon or way too far away. The pitfalls of choosing a test date that's too soon are obvious: you won't have enough time to prepare yourself to get the score you want. But what's the problem with choosing a test date months from now? First, it'll reduce your motivation to start studying immediately. More importantly, if you wait until the last minute to take the GRE, you won't have a chance to retake the exam if you need to. A lot of students find they do better on their second official exam, so definitely leave time for a retake well before official program deadlines.

Know the test

Maybe you're thinking back to the undergraduate admission process, where you may have walked into the SAT or ACT with little to no preparation and did well enough to get the score you wanted. With the GRE test, though, it'll be a different experience altogether. The GRE measures reasoning, just as undergraduate admission tests do—but it does so using complex math patterns and vocabulary terms you will need to learn (or at the very least refresh your memory about).


To do well on the GRE, you will need to prepare—and the earlier, the better. There are many different GRE prep courses available online, and taking at least one GRE practice test early in your preparation will help familiarize you with the test format. From there, work on learning and mastering the gaps in knowledge that "diagnostic" test revealed, continuing to work on areas of weakness and reinforce your strengths. 

Related: Guide to Graduate Admission Tests: GRE, GMAT, LSAT, MCAT

On test day

Calm your mind

Even with the best preparation, anxiety can still cause test-takers to score lower than they're capable of. Other than being prepared for the experience, a few techniques can help you lessen this pressure. Gentle stretching, visualization, and slow, calm breathing can all help focus your energy. Getting some exercise the morning of the exam can also help you burn off excess anxiety (and flood you with some much-needed endorphins at the same time). 

Let it go

During your practice, you'll have learned about GRE timing—and you'll know that it's tight. You'll have just over a minute for each question, other than the essay. What this means for you as a test-taker is that if you're spending 10 minutes trying to crank through a question you're just on the verge of getting right, you're not answering other questions that you definitely would get right—if you only had the chance to see them. Don't let the clock freak you out, but do be mindful of how long you're spending on each problem. After a certain point (around two minutes is a good cut-off), eliminate the answer choices you can and make your best guess.

Related: Top 5 Grad School Test–Taking Strategies 


If you've scheduled your exam early enough, you'll have the chance to retake the GRE. This is great news, because it means the first time you take the official exam, you can treat it as a dry run. No pressure, just a learning experience. And if you're going into your retake, remember that admission committees look at more than just test scores—so relax, focus, and do your best. You can handle this!

Learn more about the GRE in the Gradate School Applications section on CollegeXpress.

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About Rachel Kapelke-Dale

Rachel Kapelke-Dale blogs about graduate school admission for Magoosh. She has a BA from Brown University, and did her own graduate work at the Université de Paris VII (Master Recherche) and University College London (PhD). She has taught and written about test preparation and admission practices for eight years.


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