Cracking the GRE: Preparation

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is an assessment test required by many graduate schools. Graduate admissions and fellowship panels use GRE results in combination with undergraduate transcripts, personal recommendations, and other criteria to determine who will be accepted into their programs. The test is administered and scored by Educational Testing Service (ETS), a New Jersey organization that is the largest nonprofit testing service in the world.

There are two different GRE assessments offered by ETS: the GRE revised General Test and the GRE Subject Test. Different institutions require either or both tests to be completed. The GRE revised General Test assesses verbal and quantitative reasoning, critical thinking, and analytical writing skills. The GRE Subject Tests measure achievement in specific fields of study. Each Subject Test has been created to test the knowledge of students who majored in or have extensive knowledge of the subject matter.

Although the GRE revised General Test is designed to gauge general ability, you should not walk into the test without thorough preparation. Keep reading for GRE preparation information and tips that will help you achieve success in this important academic assessment.

Test Centers

There are roughly 700 test centers in more than 160 countries where you can take the GRE revised General Test. Most of these centers offer a computer-based test throughout the year on a continuous basis; in some regions, the test is available on one to three designated days per month. In areas where computer-based testing is unavailable, a paper-based test is offered up to three times per year in February, October, and November.

Detailed information about Test Centers and Dates is available on the ETS website. Members of the military, IR professionals, expats, and other U.S. citizens living abroad should be able to find a test center near their location.

GRE Timeline

Following these steps will help you get started in your GRE preparation:

  • Make a commitment by registering for a GRE account at My GRE and selecting a test center and date. Your test scores will be delivered to your designated schools 10 to 15 days after you take the test, so be sure to choose a test date that allows your scores to be reported before your application deadlines.
  • Set a study plan. Experts recommend starting your GRE preparation between 4 and 12 weeks prior to taking the exam. ETS offers free training guides and practice tests to download. There are also a variety of third-part prep courses available (see below).
  • Try several practice tests throughout your GRE preparation phase. Be sure to replicate the conditions of the exam as much as possible, including using a computer and sticking to strict time limits. Analyze your results and develop strategies for completing each section of the GRE with the highest possible score.
  • Focus on your weaker areas. For many examinees, the vocabulary questions in the verbal section are among the most challenging. Use word lists, flashcards and other tools to boost your vocabulary skills. For the writing section, complete practice essays and have them critiqued by an instructor or peer. This is important for even the most confident writers. To prepare for the quantitative section, practice completing math operations quickly and make sure you’re familiar with different types of charts and graphs.
  • As your test date approaches, ensure that you’re prepared both mentally and physically by getting plenty of sleep, maintaining healthy eating habits, and exercising regularly.

Recommended Guidebooks

ETS offers several free and low-cost GRE preparation resources, including short videos that provide tips and strategies. The Official Guide to the GRE revised General Test, which is available as an eBook or paperback, is an essential resource that includes hundreds of test questions and two full-length practice tests.

Another valuable GRE preparation resource is ETS Powerprep II Software, which is available as a free download on the ETS website. Powerprep II provides comprehensive overviews of each section of the exam as well as two full computer-based practice exams. Scored samples of Analytical Writing essays are also provided along with test-taking strategies and explanations of how each section of the test is scored.

Prep Courses

If you feel a course or tutoring is a better option than independent study for GRE preparation, Princeton Review, Kaplan and a variety of other companies offer both online and in-person prep services. Most of these companies also publish study guides for independent study. Before choosing a course, make sure they provide practice exams that closely resemble the computer-based model used by ETS for the GRE.

The GRE revised General Test replaced the old GRE General Test on August 1, 2011, so be sure to verify that all guides, sample tests, and other GRE preparation materials that you obtain from third parties are for the revised version of the test.

For more information on the GRE please see our post on GRE Quantitative Reasoning, GRE Verbal Reasoning and GRE Analytical Writing.