6 Effective GRE Preparation Strategies | Top Universities

6 Effective GRE Preparation Strategies

By Manhattan Review

Updated February 27, 2024 Updated February 27, 2024

Just as the SAT is a standard admissions requirement for undergraduate programs, the GRE General Test is required by graduate programs in most fields. The GRE is not specific to any academic discipline, but it does test your executive functioning skills. Your executive reasoning operates like the CEO of your brain, and the GRE test writers want to see how well that CEO performs in terms of analyzing data, solving problems, and thinking critically.

Success in the GRE is dependent on your ability to prioritize the information presented to you and organize it in ways that allow you to problem-solve efficiently. The following GRE preparation tips will optimize your performance:

1. Read a lot of analytical non-fiction

Do you think you could lose weight without avoiding snacks that have more calories than actual nutritional benefits? Properly feeding the mind is based on the same principle, and the best prescription for the health of your GRE skills is a well-balanced diet of reading material.

Spending time on GRE preparation will be too much of a chore if you don’t engage with supplementary analytical non-fiction in your spare time. Studies show that students who ace the verbal section of the GRE are often philosophy or liberal arts majors, who become well-acquainted with many types of narratives and academic writing in their undergraduate coursework.

Reading about subjects unrelated to your main areas of interest might not be your favorite leisure activity, but the effort will pay off. The GRE's reading passages require you to become a highly skilled reader of diverse materials, and students who are familiar with a wide variety of texts have a substantial advantage.  

2. Adhere to a regular GRE study plan

The exact amount of study time necessary for optimal GRE scores varies from person to person, but all students must develop solid command of the test, and this usually takes at least three months of careful GRE preparation. If you have the luxury of extra time, five months would be even better. The most important thing is that you develop a structured study plan and stick to it.

If you succeeded in your high school math courses and are already an avid reader, you might not need to prepare as much as test-takers with lesser aptitude in these areas, but your background can at best give you a head start. Do not become overconfident, and do not underestimate the GRE.

Create a realistic daily schedule that designates time for each GRE section, and make sure you cover all of the territory. You are ultimately your own teacher and coach. Just like flossing your teeth regularly prevents inconvenient and costly dental problems, you must preemptively study to ensure a smooth performance on the day of the test.

3. Take practice tests

When it comes to taking the GRE, one of the major roadblocks is stress. While you may find each section to be manageable on its own, taking the whole test (3 hours and 45 minutes) in one sitting is like running a marathon. You must be prepared and make sure you exercise, stretch, and build your weekly GRE mileage over the span of a few months. Students with insufficient stamina risk low scores which is why not taking practice tests is one of the biggest GRE preparation mistakes.

Taking practice tests will also help you learn to pace yourself. These will serve as valuable baseline reference points, and taking practice tests is a great way to build testing endurance. Practicing the full GRE will help you develop a feel for the test's mental and physical demands, which will eventually allow you to work through the entire test confidently and effectively.

Make sure to take your practice tests under conditions that are as close as possible to an actual GRE administration. You want your brain to become accustomed to taking the test in realistic scenarios.

4. Know your weaknesses

The areas you find most challenging on the GRE are probably the ones you dislike the most. If you’re a math whizz and have no use for verbose writing on esoteric topics, you will probably find swimming through dense prose akin to a quagmire. Conversely, people who find integers and exponential properties tedious usually have to fight tooth and nail to get through math concepts.

Knowing your weaknesses and how you can chip away at them will allow you to build a balanced pace of study. Do whatever it takes to structure your study plan so that you can target your weaknesses more effectively. It might be awful at first, but it will get less cumbersome.

When it comes to areas in which you’re comfortable, choose study materials that expand your skills and knowledge rather than exercises that are easy for you. The goal is to make yourself focus under the most challenging circumstances by working through material that you find weighty and difficult.

5. Chart your progress

In job interviews, prospective employers want evidence of how applicants have contributed to work projects. They always appreciate statistical, concrete proof of accomplishment (such as boosting the company’s sales by 5% or cutting operational expenses in half).

GRE prep can also benefit from clear benchmarks of performance. Charting your progress is an absolute necessity, because it will provide an overview of your score improvements and will objectively assess the effectiveness of your study techniques.

Your metric for improvement should have a consistent set of criteria, and you should measure your progress on a weekly or even daily basis. Regular self-evaluation will illuminate your improvements for each question type and section, and by tracking your study regimen, you’ll be able to fix any harmful patterns. By tracking your improvement, you'll be able to decide when the best time to take the GRE is.

6. Trust your gut instinct

You've probably confronted multiple-choice questions where you've narrowed down the options but can't decide between two plausible answers. You’ve analysed the problem, gathered information, evaluated your choices, and boiled them down to two by process of elimination.

“Gut instinct” can be a scary concept, since this is merely another way to describe intuition, or the ability to grasp something immediately without cognitive information. When you’re taking the GRE, hedging your bets on a 50% success rate (when you’ve reduced your answer choices to two) can be a bit unsettling. But if you have thoughtfully and purposefully learned the material and practiced the exercises, then trusting your gut can become a shortcut to making a rational decision.

As long as you have prepared yourself well and are executing sound test-taking strategies, it's OK to trust your instinct and carry forward with your intuitive choice. Everyone does a great deal of processing in the subconscious mind, and your gut feeling can help you solve a problem when your conscious mind falters.

Key takeaways

Effective GRE preparation will make you smarter and more adaptable. The rules for improving your GRE study habits are timeless, and in retrospect, obvious. By finding a dedicated study space where you can focus without distraction, you will be able to invest your full effort into achieving optimal GRE scores.

The GRE is the only general admissions examination that is accepted internationally by thousands of graduate schools, and it is a therefore useful test to have on your record. It's best to take a positive view of the GRE as an opportunity for admissions and scholarships, and a high GRE score can even offset a low GPA.

If you follow the strategies discussed above, your GRE study techniques will be sharpened. With a sufficient amount of time and effort, you can expect improvements in both your GRE scores and overall reasoning abilities.

Manhattan Review GRE Prep is brought to you by Manhattan Review, an international test prep firm. Founded in 1999 by Dr. Joern Meissner, an internationally renowned business school professor, our company helps students gain entrance to their desired degree programs by working to improve their admission test scores. Headquartered in New York City, Manhattan Review operates in many cities in the United States and in selected major cities around the world, including Hong Kong.

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This article was originally published in October 2016 . It was last updated in February 2024

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