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GRE Best Practices Leading Up to Test Day


So. You’ve put in the hours. You’ve studied for weeks. You’ve practiced Vocab, drilled Sentence Equivalence, memorized your right triangles, learned your equations. You can calculate the area of a circle at the drop of a hat.

Now all you have to do is take the test.

As you approach test day, there are several GRE best practices to keep in mind that can help to optimize your performance.

1) Don’t Cram

The best way to study for the GRE is at a medium pace, diligently and with discipline, over the course of 8-12 weeks. By the time you are done studying, you will need to have spent at least 100 hours studying. People who show the most improvement will end up studying 200 hours or more.

There is a direct relationship between the amount of time you spend studying and the amount your score will improve. There is no way you will be able to put in those hours in the final few days leading up to the test. In fact, burning yourself out in the days before the test is likely to lead to reduced performance, since you will be tired and drained and you probably will find yourself obsessing over a single topic when you should instead be maintaining a broad overview of the content.

2) Plan Carefully

While it will be impossible to learn all the content of the test in the weeks leading up to test day, that doesn’t mean that those last few weeks aren’t critical. This is the period when you cement in your mind all the things you’ve learned throughout your studying and build your confidence in such a way that you feel prepared and ready to tackle the test. You should carefully map out your study schedule for at least three weeks leading up to the test.

At about 2 weeks out, you should take your first ETS practice test. This will give you a fairly solid sense of where you stand. If this score is nowhere near where you want it to be, this is an opportunity to ask yourself: Did I really study my hardest? Could I do better? If the answers to these questions are No and then Yes, then you may want to consider postponing the exam or taking it merely for practice. Ideally, you will walk into the testing room on test day ready to do your best on the first try. It is far better to go in there and get it over with on the first attempt than to draw it out and make the studying process longer than it needs to be.

After taking ETS practice test #1, it’s time to review. You have a week to go through this test carefully and learn it inside and out. Thoroughly reviewing and understanding all the questions in each practice test is one of the best ways to build mastery in the final weeks leading up to the test.

At 1 week out, take practice test #2. This will be your final round of practice and review. Once again, go through all the problems in the week leading up to the exam and make sure you understand all the places you went wrong, as well as celebrating any victories that you had so that you can repeat them on the day of the test.

In the final few days, continue to review your old exams. Go through problems from old tests that you’ve seen before, but haven’t seen in a while. They should be vaguely familiar, but not so familiar that you remember the answer. This will build a sense of fluency with the problems and motivate you as you go into the test.

3) Maintain Perspective

Remember that the GRE is only one part of a rich, multi-faceted application. While your score on this test is undeniably important, since it is perhaps the only aspect of the application on which everyone is on an equal playing field, there are a variety of other ways to shine. Putting effort into your personal essays will allow your unique perspective and experience to show through. In addition, recommendations from previous bosses and employers should not be overlooked. This is one of the best ways for admissions committees to get a sense of your unique skills and contributions.

After test day, there are several things to keep in mind. First, remember you can always retake the test. Thanks to a revised policy implemented by ETS a few years ago, test-takers can now decide which of their GRE scores they want to send to institutions. Any score you don’t like, you don’t have to send. So if you find yourself having an off day, it’s not set in stone.

Finally, believe it or not, you may find yourself benefiting from some of the skills you learned while studying for the GRE in other aspects of your life. For example, the skills required in the argument essay, in which you critique a statement and suggest ways the argument is flawed, are extremely important in many aspects of life and work. This is just one of many ways that the GRE can be helpful in areas outside of the test-taking arena.

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