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Power-Studying for the GRE: Break Into the Upper Score Echelon by Studying Smarter, Not Harder

January 18, 2012 | Comments: 0 | Views: 566

The Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) are the cause of stress, heartache, and consternation for thousands of college students, recent graduates, and young professionals every year. There is no denying the fact that a GRE score literally can open or close graduate school doors and, subsequently, make or break a student's graduate education. So much pressure focused into a single day's performance can lead even the smartest students to study for the GRE in unhealthy ways that only seem like they might help, whether through panicky late-night cram sessions, repetitive and unhelpful practice testing, or disorganized flipping through prep books.

A quality GRE study program, however, engages the student in test preparation using a systematic, progressive series of steps that, when followed, all but guarantee higher test scores and the ability to score at your maximum potential.

It is no secret that tutors and teachers who regularly sit for the GRE for tutoring/teaching purposes are regularly able to score in the 99th percentile, oftentimes with perfect scores. Is this because they are smarter than everybody else? As a tutor who has scored in the 99th percentile on the GRE, I can confirm that we are not! No, rather, it is because we practice day in and day out on GRE questions, we know what to expect on the exam, and we approach it from a relaxed, systematic point of view.

Importantly, though, this does not mean that a "one-size-fits-all" solution exists. People learn most effectively in different ways, and what works for one person might -- or might not -- work for you. This is why, in the first few days (or even weeks) of studying, you should regularly revise your methods of studying to refine them and find what works best and most efficiently for you.

With that said, however, there are several systematic steps that anybody can take that are proven methods of boosting your potential and your GRE score to its maximum.

Start with a practice GRE

Practice tests are available from a wide variety of sources, including in books available from your local bookstore or at the official Educational Testing Services (ETS) website. You will take a lot of practice tests throughout your GRE preparation, but starting with a practice test before you even begin studying is a vital and crucial step that will tell you what your strongest areas are, what your weakest areas are, and even (in some ways) how to study.

Take the practice GRE under simulated actual exam conditions. That means give yourself approximately four to five hours (actual exam time is 3 hours and 45 minutes not including several short breaks) of alone time, sit down in a quiet place, and fill out the actual test form (or take it on a computer, if you are taking the computer-based examination). This is hugely important for several reasons, including giving you a sense of timing and reducing the stress in what to expect.

Once you have a final score on your first practice test, you will be able to set your goals for increasing that score and analyze your results to focus your studying in the areas where it is most needed and effective.

Set aside daily time to study GRE issues and questions.

The word "daily" is SO important here; study daily, and this will keep concepts and -- more importantly -- pitfalls and mistakes fresh in your head. Your future is important, and you should take this seriously. Setting aside a few hours a day for a few weeks may seem like a pain, but it is a small sacrifice to make in order to obtain a GRE score that can open doors for you for the rest of your life.

With that said, you should not be studying for more than 3-4 hours per day except when taking practice tests. The concept of "diminishing returns" applies to your GRE study programs as well as it does to economics, and after four hours of studying, you will only be making yourself tired and forgetting what you learned in the first hour. Instead, give yourself plenty of time (two months or so is a good target) before the exam to bang out a few hours of study per day. Give yourself one day off per week and go do something that will take your mind off the exam for a bit. Your brain can use the rest and -- believe it or not -- will often come back stronger after a day of rest.

This applies with extreme importance in the week before the exam. Do not follow what others are doing and start pulling all-nighter cram sessions in the week or days just before the exam. This is going to tire you out, and concepts and answers will start to run together. By the day of the exam, you might feel prepared, but you are never going to score at your maximum potential if you use the "cram" method.

Obtain high-quality study materials

I have seen time and time again students both on the internet and in my classes/tutoring sessions who talk about "low-cost" or "free" study GRE programs. I have to be blunt here, folks: the GRE is all about your future and potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars (or more) in potential earnings, folks, not figuring out your daily commute to class or how to repaint your bedroom. Get the best and use the best. Leave the experimentation to the tutors and teachers who can put out trustworthy reviews based on long experience.

While many students prefer to use full in-person study GRE classes through Kaplan, Princeton Review, or private tutors, note that incredibly high-quality study programs are out there that won't cost you an arm and a leg. If you're on a tight budget, at a minimum you should have a high-quality preparation book. I usually recommend Kaplan's, Barron's, or Princeton Review's GRE prep books. These books are great and cost under $20.

Of course, many students choose to use these books in combination with a class or private tutoring, and if you can afford it, this can be one of the best options out there. But the important takeaway here is that you should not try to study for the GRE without guidance. This isn't about ego or intelligence; it is about experience, and if you have not taken the GRE before -- or only taken it once or twice -- let people who have taken it many times and devoted their careers to helping students get higher scores guide your studying.

Practice makes perfect

While the GRE study exercises are great for learning material and strengthening your weak areas, there is no substitute for the real thing -- except for a simulation, of course! Take practice exams under simulated conditions at least once every two weeks. That means take it at the same time of day, in a quiet place, and in the same format as the real exam will be (computer or paper-based).

I know, I know, and I hear it all the time: four or five hours is a lot of time to set aside for this, and you have a job and/or a career and a life. But it is so crucial that you test yourself under actual exam conditions that it is worth it, and if you only have time to either study or take a practice exam, do the latter. Go over your answers either immediately or the next day, and learn how and why you missed any questions that you did.

Keep track of the questions that trip you up and which you cannot answer in under one minute. These are the types of questions where you should concentrate your efforts on getting faster and more accurate.

Get plenty of rest, exercise, and eat right. Every day

Your brain functions best when it is well-rested and well-nourished. This means that you need to eat a balanced diet with plenty of proteins and vitamins, get 8-10 hours of sleep per night, and at least get some physical exercise to help your blood flow (increased blood flow to the brain means faster and smarter brain function). Try studying in the evening or right before you go to sleep, as your brain will continue to process what you have studied while you're unconscious.

Exercise is also important. You don't need to be a gym rat, but get your blood flowing to your brain at least once a day with a nice long walk, a quick jog, or even a rigorous workout if you like.

This becomes especially important as you approach exam time. A minimum of 8 hours of sleep the night before the GRE is completely mandatory. I tell every one of my students that if they don't get 8 hours of sleep on the night before the GRE, I will haunt their dreams forever!

Track your performance and goals

Tracking your goals and performance is important for confidence building and ensuring that you are keeping your studying on the right track. Be realistic-but-optimistic about your goals -- you are unlikely to be able to increase your GRE score from average to perfect in only a couple of months, but you can certainly bring it up a substantial amount.


I hope you have found this article helpful as a good jumping-off point in your GRE journey! Best of luck to you in your pursuit of a graduate degree, and I hope to hear from you when you have crushed the GRE and gotten into your first-choice grad school!

Lisa Fourniadis is a student counselor, career specialist, and private GRE, GMAT, and LSAT tutor for students in the Washington, DC Metropolitan area, and the administrator of the Study GRE website. She has a Masters Degree in Measurement, Statistics and Evaluation, and has devoted a huge chunk of her career to standardized exams and helping students to master them. Ms. Fourniadis has taken the GRE numerous times as part of her job and has scored in the 99th percentile.

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