Applying to grad school has a bit of a “you must be joking” quality to it.
If you’re a current undergraduate, you’ll be looking at grad school entry requirements at the same time that you’re racing toward graduation requirements—you’ll be wildly darting back and forth between finishing one intense life chapter and beginning the next.
Returning students have it just as hard—they’ve spent some time out in the ‘real world’ and have decided to get a Master’s or PhD as part of a response to all the chaos or anxiety of life as it exists… which does not slow down just because of a decision to return to school.
None of these scenarios is conducive to spending hour after hour preparing for a standardized test that stands between you and graduate school admission. The GRE probably feels like an afterthought, or a false barrier, or something you’ll be able to handle (just look at everything else you’ve handled!).
Trust me, though. You DO need to actually study for the GRE.
I took the GRE in the midst of defending my undergraduate thesis, planning for graduation parties, working with a couple of highly emotionally demanding organizations, and finding myself in a relationship. All of this took a lot of attention, time, and focus. I knew I wanted to pursue a Master’s degree, and I was reasonably certain that my resume would be up to the task.
But I had to take the GRE.
I did NOT want to take the GRE.
I didn’t study. Or, more accurately, I didn’t study in a way that made any real difference. I failed to learn anything specifically about the test. I knew there were sections covering math, reading, and writing. I waltzed into the experience in a cloud of hubris and anxiety, assuming I would ace the reading and writing (because that’s what I’m best at!), and that I could brush up on enough math to not completely embarrass myself. I think I spent about three hours darting around the internet, trying to remember how to divide fractions and re-learn the order of operations. Again, the whole goal was to not embarrass myself.
I embarrassed myself.
I bombed in math. And (to my complete mortification) I also bombed in writing.
My only shred of dignity came from some impressively high reading skills. But that glow was a dim one—not only had a test informed me that I couldn’t write, but I also had the very recent memory of sitting down, pencil in hand, and thinking “oh crap, I have no idea how this test is supposed to work.”
(Note: even the language about the test takes some learning: it’s not “reading, writing, and math,” but “verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing.” As though all this wasn’t hard enough already)
Additional note: Someone commented and I want to share her advice here: If you're reading this and thinking "I can do it on my own," take a practice test and see where you're at! If you're happy with your result, you'll have a feel for the test and can choose to use your energy elsewhere. I will also envy you forever.
Learning the Test
The GRE, like most standardized tests, is only somewhat about testing what you know. A significant chunk of the battle is learning what the test is looking for, and what strategies you can use to arrive at good results. These are not secrets. This information is written in the official study guides. Learning the ‘tricks’ is not the equivalent of a cheat code in a video game—it’s more like learning the actual rules of a sport, rather than just running around in energetic circles.
When I sat down to the GRE, I didn’t know what kind of writing would be expected of me. I sort of assumed it would be like an essay section of a classroom final: take three pieces of information and form an argument. It’s not like that. It has its own weird structure with a unique interior logic.
Similarly, in the multiple choice sections I hadn’t really looked into the logic on skipping questions vs. guessing. Does a blank answer count against you more, less, or equally to an incorrect choice? (The answer, by the way, is GUESS because you won’t be additionally penalized for a wrong answer versus a blank answer. I wish I’d known that with full confidence for the math section!) This system is different from other tests, and will change your strategy as you’re choosing which questions to dedicate more time to.
The list of ‘test specific’ strategies is a pretty long one. The GRE is complicated, but it’s not an endlessly long test. The questions follow specific patterns and result in knowable strategies and ideas. The secret is figuring out what will most help you, and committing to learning those strategies before test day so you can approach the test with confidence.
You can’t get away with not knowing math. Or vocabulary. Beyond the strategies discussed above, you do actually need to know the facts and methods of reading, writing, and math.
The truth is, you do actually need to study.
There is a whole range of preparation materials available to you, from free (and possibly sketchy) prep outlines available on blogs to crafted and vetted resources provided by pros. You can also pay for tutoring services, making your study experience a personalized one.
Whatever you do, YOU NEED TO STUDY. Choose one or several resources and get to work. Start early, make a plan, and actually prep for the test.
Here are two good choices for GRE preparation:
- The official ETS (Educational Testing Services) tools for GRE preparation (including study guides, sample questions, tips, and scoring guides) ranging from free to paid materials
- Magoosh Test Prep services, which include extensive video and written guides to the logic of the test, as well as clearly outlining the specific information and strategies you need to get the grade you want.
So **full disclosure** I have an affiliate partnership with Magoosh. If you sign up to their online test prep course through this link, I get a commission at no extra cost to you. But here’s the thing: I’ve been using their site myself—going through and actually figuring out how to quickly multiply fractions or how to deal with the whole ‘real numbers’ situation. I’ve been toying with the idea of continuing my education, and if I do so I’ll need better test scores. And the results of the practice tests I’ve taken through Magoosh have been encouraging, especially after the humiliation of a couple of years ago.
Take a Practice Test
No matter how much you're dreading it, take a practice test. Set aside a couple of hours, sit down, and scribble away desperately in the comfort of your own home. You can't get practice results for the written section, but for the math and reading sections you'll be able to have an accurate estimate of where you're at, and what you can expect on the day.
You can use the practice test in two ways: first, to verify that you actually do understand the basics of the test. There won't be any surprises once you've done it once. Second, you can find out if you're in a reasonably comfortable space with your test scores, and how much work you should put in between now and the test day to improve your score.
Making it Happen
Wherever you are on your GRE journey, I wish you luck. If you’re hustling through the final days of your undergraduate experience, congratulations to you! If you’re plotting a return to student life after some time out in the ‘real world,’ or at a mid-career point where further education has become a goal… best of luck to you!
There are a million plans, distractions, and general actions required of you. But you also need to prep for the GRE. Take a deep breath, get a study guide, and go to work. Who knows, you might even use those analytical writing skills someday…