Are you thinking about applying for graduate school? Most schools will require you to take the dreaded GRE—the test meant to determine how well you would do as a graduate student. And as a first-year graduate student, I had to go through taking the GRE. I thought I would share what I learned about the experience so that you can do your best!

The GRE for English students consists of three sections: analytical writing, verbal reasoning, and quantitative reasoning. You take the analytical writing part first—you get a prompt and you have to write an essay to go along with it. There are two prompts: issue analysis and argument analysis. In the former, they give you an issue and you write an essay saying your opinion. For the latter, they give you someone’s rationale for some action, and you have to debunk their logic. After that, you can take either verbal reasoning (reading comprehension, text completion, and sentence equivalence) or quantitative reasoning (math and science). And then you’d take the other, whichever you didn’t take first, and repeat the process.

Keep in mind that you’ll have to take a “dummy test” so that the test-makers can improve the test for next year. This means that the first verbal or quantitative test you take, you’ll have to take a total of three times. But this doesn’t mean you can slack off. They randomize the dummy test, so try your best on all of them!

1. Study smart
Most academic programs require students to take some perquisite test. I bought and read a Kaplan GRE textbook and completed all of the practice tests. But when I actually took the test, I think I used one thing from both the quantitative and qualitative sections (one word and one equation). The rest was a good amount of guessing.

What saved me in the qualitative section (English and language) was the fact that I studied Greek and Latin roots for words. With that knowledge, I was able to best guess the meanings for the words I didn’t know, based on their roots. I think this also saved me time because these roots are found in many words, which made my studying more comprehensive, compared to using those silly word lists (which is what we all prefer).

2. Take the practice tests
The practice tests I took simulated the test-taking environment, especially the computerized tests. It’s a mentally-draining, way-too-long process, and I believe that taking the same type of tests over and over will provide you with the mental stamina to not max out halfway through the test. I know it sounds horrible, but it’s worth it.

3. Give yourself time
As someone who signed up for the GRE in August (wanting to take it in August), I was left with very few options. I had to take it the week after signing up—that week was nonstop studying and practice tests. While I felt like I learned enough for the test, I believe that giving yourself time to practice will make everything more concrete. Ultimately, you’ll feel more comfortable going into the test the more time you study.

4. Collaborate!
Collaboration is especially helpful when studying for the GRE because you can learn new things! My friends gave me good study tips that I used. But you can also team up with friends who are better at one section than you are—they can probably teach you better than a study guide can.

You can also collaborate by visiting the UCWbL! The GRE begins with a writing section that has particular expectations that a tutor can help you with. Developing an eye for how to answer prompts can take some time, and it’s a lot easier when you work with someone.

5. Remember that the score doesn’t really matter
No matter what everyone else tells you, the score doesn’t amount to much when applying for graduate school. I believe a realistic, good score is a combined score of 300, which is near the 50th percentile. But when I was applying to graduate school, a program that denied me (someone with a decent score) accepted someone who got close to 40th percentile. This just proves that what you do outside of the test matters most.

Join the discussion One Comment

  • Rachel P. says:

    Thanks for sharing, Maggie! I also found planning to take the test twice helpful, in addition to the strategies you mentioned. The first time I took the GRE, I didn’t expect to do well, because I’m not the best test-taker. So I wasn’t surprised when my scores were mediocre. I just considered that first test a “dry run,” scheduled another test date, and took it again. My scores were much better the second time. Taking practice tests is always helpful, but nothing can really prepare you for what it feels like to take the test “officially,” so I always advise people to budget time to take the test twice, if they can. (There’s a mandatory waiting period after your first test date if you want to take the test a second time, so when I was considering my application deadlines, I took that into account and scheduled my first test far enough in advance so that I’d have time to take it again, if I wanted to.)