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Grad School Series: GRE

Once you have determined that you need to go to graduate school to achieve your goals and have checked to make sure that the graduate school you are applying to requires the GRE (see end of the current post for more information), you might have questions about how to prepare for the GRE. I have asked a current graduate student, Jacqueline Lechuga of the Social Cognition Laboratory to write a guest post about the GRE. She has much more recent experience with it than I do, so I thought her insight would be valuable. The majority of the content is Jacqueline’s, however I added some additional information I thought would be useful to readers. I would also like to thank Anna Drozdova from the Adolescent Development and Delinquency Laboratory for some of these resources.

If you are applying to graduate school, you might have to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE; administered by Educational Testing Services or ETS), a standardized test that assesses verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing. There are many resources out there that can give you general guidance on the GRE, including ETS’ website. There are also several GRE Prep Books that might be useful, including The Official Guide to the GRE General Test and Manhattan Prep 5lb Book. Below, I also include some specific advice and resources for the three sections.

Verbal Reasoning. The verbal reasoning section heavily tests your knowledge of vocabulary words. Thus, increasing/improving your vocabulary can be extremely helpful for increasing verbal reasoning scores. You might have worked on this type of skill for the SAT, ACT, or previous standardized test. Working on improving your vocabulary through things like flashcards, reading, or even word-of-the-day resources might be helpful. Magoosh’s GRE Prep & Practice also has helpful practice for verbal reasoning and can be done on a phone app (there’s also a free version).

Quantitative Reasoning. The quantitative reasoning section tests your math abilities. Most of this mathematical knowledge is actually concepts you should have learned in high school. It’s not necessarily difficult material, but you probably haven’t studied it in many years! Studying the review chapters for mathematical concepts included in the GRE prep books or on Magoosh’s GRE Prep & Practice is usually the best way to study for the quantitative reasoning section because these books focus on the skills you need to know the most. I encourage you to practice completing the mathematical problems without the usage of a calculator. Using the calculator for simple mathematical problems can actually slow you down, which means you’ll have less time to complete harder problems that actually require the calculator.

Analytical Writing. The analytical writing section will test your ability to evaluate and create arguments. To perform well in this section, practice dissecting arguments and creating outlines for arguments you want to make. This section is divided into two tasks: issue and argument. In addition to GRE Prep books, the ETS website is also helpful for both of these tasks. For the issue task, there is a pool of issue topics and sample responses; for the argument task, there is a pool of argument topics and sample responses.

The GRE is offered continuously throughout the year (unlike the LSAT). I highly encourage you to take practice tests under testing conditions, including time limits and the formatting you will be taking the test in (i.e., online vs. on paper). I also encourage you to take a practice test before reviewing or practicing any material in order to test your baseline, and then taking practice tests semi-regularly to check your progress (similar to the LSAT). While you might want to spend more time on your weakest section, make sure you are dedicating time to reviewing all sections.

Although there are many free or low-cost resources available, you might consider paying for a prep course if you can afford it, especially if you are not doing as well on the practice tests as you would like. However, you should also be on the lookout for other ways to save money on the GRE. For example:

  • Some universities (like UTEP) and online groups offer prep courses for the GRE that can be low-cost.

  • If you receive financial aid, you might be eligible to receive a partial fee waiver for the GRE. You should ask your financial aid office about this. Keep in mind there are deadlines to apply for the waiver.

  • You get to send your GRE scores to five universities for free during the testing day. It is a good idea to have the information of the universities you will be applying to, so you can send these scores for free during the testing day. If you are not satisfied with the GRE score, don’t send them – you can even cancel them.

I encourage you to start preparing for the GRE early once you know you need to take it for several reasons. First, if you are unhappy with your scores, you can retake the GRE; however, you won’t be able to take it again for 3 weeks. So, you want to make sure you have enough time to re-take the exam, if needed. Also, it can take up to 4 weeks for scores to be sent to the universities you specify. Therefore, you should ideally be taking the GRE for the last time no later than 2 months before your application deadlines. Which means you need about 4 months if you want to be able to take it twice and longer if you need more attempts. In general, the GRE is not a tricky test, so hopefully with hard work and preparation you’ll be able to succeed and get the score necessary for acceptance to your desired programs.

Note: You should check to make sure that the graduate programs you are interested in require the GRE or other standardized tests before taking them. There’s currently a movement of schools dropping the GRE requirement in response to research demonstrating that the GRE is costly, biased, and not a good predictor of academic achievement. And with the pandemic, many schools have dropped the GRE requirement temporarily or provide waivers. So, I recommend looking into what the programs you are applying to require in terms of entrance exams. If it is unclear and you can’t get an answer from the programs you are applying to, you’ll probably want to take it to be safe.

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