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The GRE: 5 Important Steps to Help You Prepare

GRE tips
Ryan Kelly
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Published on August 26, 2014
The GRE.  Most college students hoping to one day attend graduate school will have to first get through this exam.  In fact, I just took the test last week.  Before I get into any advice, I’ll tell you this:  The test is a beast in terms of length (roughly 4 hours), but not as terrible in terms of content.  As long as you prepare, a good score is certainly achievable.  Here are a few suggestions to help get you prepared:

1.  Get your hands on a set of prep books. 

I used the newest edition from Manhattan, but Princeton Review, Kaplan, and others also provide quality materials.  These books will cover all question types for both the Verbal and Quantitative sections, as well as strategies on how to attack the essays.  They will provide countless examples and practice problems to help you get the basics down.  While some books may go lighter on certain sections and heavier on others, they are still a great foundation upon which to build.  Now, people have their own opinions on which set of books/materials is more comprehensive (I can’t speak for anything other than Manhattan, for which I absolutely give my stamp of approval).  Do your research, and go with the options that is most appealing to you.

2.  Don’t let the math make you panic. 

Prime factorization? The area of a cylinder?  Combinatorics?  You probably haven’t dealt with this type of math in your college courses, or maybe none at all, depending on your major. Fear not, it’s nothing new.  It’s just stuff you haven’t seen in a while, and  I can guarantee you remember a lot more than you think.  Do lots of practice problems, and re-read those sections of the prep books to jog your memory.  And for anyone wondering, combinatorics is just a scary word for “How many different types of two-topping pizzas can Billy make with 14 different toppings?” Nothing you haven’t seen before.

3. Flashcards, people.  Flashcards. 

Imbroglio, halcyon, vociferous, bonhomie.  No, those aren’t characters from Game of Thrones (although if they were, Halcyon Imbroglio would be a total badass).  That’s just a taste of GRE-type vocab.  Unless you read the dictionary for fun or lived in 16th century England, most of these words will sound brand spankin’ new.  I found that it is helpful to keep a running list of all words you do not know as you review and do practice questions.  Then, go back to this list, define the words, and make flashcards.  There’s a seemingly endless supply of vocab that may appear in the sentence completion and equivalence sections, so try to segment your studying to salvage your sanity.  Tell yourself you’ll learn, say, thirty new words in a week, instead of studying hundreds of flash cards the day before the exam.

4.  Take as many practice tests as you can. 

Several sites, such as Kaplan and Princeton Review, will offer free full-length practice GRE exams.  These exams require a quick sign-up process (nothing more than an email address, password, and basic contact info), and will provide an instant score report along with feedback for your performance on the Verbal and Quantitative sections of the exam.  Again, they are full-length, complete with the same on screen calculator, making them the best tool to prepare you for the actual test.  Most sites which offer the free test will also offer further exams/practice questions for purchase, if you feel inclined to partake.  In my opinion, it would be very unwise to take the GRE without at least one practice test under your belt.  Get your mind used to the timing, and your body used to the four-hours-of-no-movement aspect.

5. Every essay prompt you may be given is already online.  Don’t let it go to waste. 

That’s right, every potential prompt for the “Analyze an Argument” or “Analyze an issue” is listed on the ETS website through which you sign up.  This pool has tons and tons of prompts, so don’t go in expecting to memorize all of them.  Nonetheless, it is a great tool to help you prepare for the writing portion of the exam.  Use prompts from this pool to do practice essays on your own.  Who knows, you may even get lucky and be presented with a topic you have just already studied.
In general, start your preparation at least a couple months in advance, and do a little bit every day.  Stay focused, get after it, and a competitive score will be in your future. 
Ryan Kelly

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