Earning a graduate degree can hone your skills and net you a promotion. It can boost your salary, too. The proof is in the paycheck: Four-year college graduates earn about $51,000 a year, but those with advanced degrees earn double that amount [source: Clark].
Before you cash in, though, you'll need to understand how to study for the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). Many graduate degree programs require that all applicants take the GRE, a nearly four-hour test that assesses verbal, quantitative and analytical writing skills. Graduate programs use the exam as a window into an applicant's overall skill sets and consider GRE scores along with transcripts, resumes, letters of recommendation and other qualifications.
Doing well on the GRE can require a good deal of preparation. Although the exam's designers say the it's intended to measure only general ability -- meaning you shouldn't have to study for it -- that doesn't mean it's a good idea to simply walk in on exam day and hope for the best. This is especially true if you've been out of school for several years or if you're applying to a competitive graduate program that accepts a limited number of applicants. You may be unfamiliar with some of the vocabulary and math skills on the exam, but will still need to earn the highest possible score. You'll also need to formulate an essay. Our 10 tips to help you prepare begin on the next page.
Know the Exam
The first step in preparing yourself is to learn what to expect from the exam's format and structure. The GRE has three types of sections, and each has a time limit in which it must be completed:
- Verbal: Two 30-minute sections testing vocabulary, grammar and reading comprehension skills. Question types include text completion, sentence equivalence and reading comprehension.
- Quantitative: Two 35-minute sections testing arithmetic, algebra, geometry and data analysis skills. Question types including comparing values, solving word problems and analyzing data. As of Aug. 1, 2011, a calculator is permitted.
- Analytical Writing: One section with two separately timed 30-minute essays testing your ability to write clearly and effectively. The first asks you to state and support your opinion on an issue, and the second asks you to evaluate an argument.
In most testing places, all sections of the GRE are taken on a computer and the verbal and quantitative sections use computer-adaptive testing. This means that if you answer questions correctly, the computer will give you harder questions that are worth more points. Answer them incorrectly, and you'll get easier questions -- but getting them right won't boost your score as much.
It's a good idea to familiarize yourself with how the computer interface works to ensure that you're used to the format. You can learn more about the system, in addition to how to schedule your exam, at the GRE Web site [source: ETS].
Prepare for the Right Test
The GRE revised General Test replaced the GRE General Test on Aug. 1, 2011. Online and print study guides are still available for the old test, but it's important to select a recently updated guide or program so that you can study for the most recent version of the test.
Although the revised GRE still measures critical thinking, analytical writing skills and verbal and quantitative reasoning, the design of the test has changed [source: ETS]. The revised GRE includes:
- The option to edit or change answers within a section
- The ability to tag questions using a "mark and review" section
- The ability to navigate through a timed section by skipping questions and returning to them before going on to the next section
- An on-screen calculator for use during the computerized quantitative reasoning section (those taking the paper test will be provided with a calculator at the testing site)
The use of a calculator indicates a shift in the way mathematical skills are measured. Instead of requiring test takers to rely heavily on manual computation, the revised GRE puts more weight on reasoning skills [source: Take the GRE].
Develop a Study Program
Whether it means attending a class twice a week or picking up a review book at the library, you'll want some help in studying for the GRE. Experts suggest starting preparation anywhere from 4 to 12 weeks before the exam so that you can master the material without forgetting anything [source: The Princeton Review]. If you're looking for courses or tutoring, test prep companies such as Kaplan and Princeton Review offer a range of services both online and through in-person classes across the country. For more independent study, these companies also publish comprehensive study guides, many of which contain testing software that simulates the computer-adaptive testing used on the GRE.
Whatever study program you choose, you need to be sure that it will properly prepare you for the conditions of the exam. For example, practicing with pencil and paper will only help so much if you're going to be taking a computer-based exam.
Another source of practice questions is ETS's Powerprep Software, which is available on the official GRE Web site. The software is free, and it is made by the same company that develops the GRE. The software has only two full practice exams, however, so you may want to take one at the beginning of your study regimen and the other toward the end in order to measure your progress.
Try Physical and Mental Workouts
There's more to improving your GRE scores than practicing with a study guide. If you really want to do your best on the GRE, add physical and mental workouts to your study routine, too.
Researchers have found new evidence that regular cardiovascular workouts may boost brainpower as much as 20 percent, regardless of age. According to one study of adults ages 21 to 45, a three-month exercise program that included aerobic activity increased blood flow to the brain and caused new nerve cells to grow in the part of the brain that's responsible for memory and cognitive aging [source: Stenson].
Mental exercises can boost brainpower, too. Whether you study a map instead of using a GPS to navigate to a new destination or seek the novelty of mastering a brain-teasing game like Sudoku, thinking your way through new and complex sets of problems will help you develop problem-solving skills, as well as the cognitive ability to understand relationships between varying concepts [source: Kuszewski].
Embarking on a course of mental and physical exercises will, at the very least, give you the stamina to complete the nearly four-hour exam -- and could potentially result in improved GRE results, too.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Another crucial element of preparing for the GRE is getting lots of practice with the types of questions on the exam. For the verbal section, the biggest hurdle is usually the vocabulary, so you might want to make flashcards and study the roots of certain words. For the quantitative section, make sure you develop systems for doing arithmetic quickly and become familiar with different types of charts and graphs. For the writing section, do practice essays so you'll feel comfortable gathering and expressing your thoughts in a short period of time.
Again, it's important to mimic the conditions of the exam as much as possible when you practice. For instance, don't stress yourself out by trying to do basic calculations in your head because the current version of the GRE allows you to use a calculator. And, because you'll be evaluated for spelling and grammar on the writing section, make sure you don't practice your essays in a program with autocorrect features turned on.
Steady Your Sleep Habits
College students who don't get adequate sleep on weekends have been found to forget up to 30 percent of the material they've learned during the previous week, even if they spent plenty of time hitting the books [source: Gardner]. Positive sleep habits can help improve memory and sharpen focus, especially if you're learning something new [source: Sparacino].
If you could benefit from better (or more) sleep, make a few simple changes in the weeks leading up to your GRE. Establish a bedtime ritual that helps you wind down, such as listening to music or taking a warm bath. If your mind continues to race, writing down your thoughts can help you relax. Turn off the TV and stay off the Internet; electronics stimulate the brain and you'll wind up needing extra time to fall asleep. Train your body when to go to sleep -- and when to wake up -- by sticking to the same timeline every evening and morning [source: Mayo Clinic].
Learn to Balance Your Time
Because you'll be taking an exam under rigid time constraints, it will be important to strategically manage your time -- even during practice sessions. Although the revised GRE that debuted on Aug. 1, 2011, allows you to go back and review your answers within a section, you'll need to make sure you leave yourself enough time to complete all the questions within each section.
One important consideration for managing your time is that it's important to have extra focus on the early questions of the math and verbal sections. If you answer these early questions correctly, the computer-adaptive testing system will provide you with more high-value questions, which will help you achieve a higher score. If you get them wrong, however, you'll be stuck with lower-scoring questions. For the first 10 or so questions, move slowly and double- or triple-check your answers. However, you should always keep an eye on the clock, making sure you have enough time to finish.
Don't waste your time trying to guess whether the questions on the exam are getting harder or easier. Moving deliberately through the exam will help increase your score; trying to get into the computer's head will not.
Boost Your Vocabulary
The GRE tests your vocabulary skills using direct and indirect methods. For example, you'll need a good vocabulary to correctly answer questions in the verbal reasoning section. However, you'll also need to understand the meaning of words throughout the reading passages and in all the other sections of the test, too.
Some study guides include lists of 3,500 words or more that test takers are advised to learn before trying the GRE. While this can seem overwhelming, there are a few ways to boost your vocabulary. First, start by selecting just four to six words per day to concentrate on learning, and associate the words with pictures that make them easier to remember. In addition, if a word contains a prefix or suffix, use it to deconstruct the meaning -- a helpful tip if you're ever stuck during the actual test [source: Srivastava].
Focus on Your Weaknesses
As the date of your GRE nears and your preparation strategy threatens to become a blur of practice tests and study guides, take a step back. Start by reviewing your performance on your latest practice test and identifying your lowest scores by section. If, for example, your verbal reasoning score lags behind your scores on the other sections, it makes sense to spend more time reviewing this area.
Begin by concentrating on the specific questions you answered incorrectly. Review them and determine the correct answer. You'll soon find out if something simple is tripping you up, such as rushing to choose an answer before moving on to the next question. If that is not the case, you may discover that you need to review an particular block of material.
Keep in mind that you may not need a GRE-specific study guide to review for the test. For example, most of the GRE math section is aimed at 9th grade (or lower) skills, which means that any exercises that focus on middle school math will help [source: Mendelson].
Come Up with a Test Strategy
As we discussed previously, you'll want to move through the exam as quickly and confidently as possible to receive higher-scoring questions and still finish on time. This means that you'll need strategies for dealing with questions that you're unsure about.
For the writing section, the best strategy is to have a set routine for collecting your thoughts so you won't become flustered or disorganized during the exam. For the quantitative and verbal sections, where every question is multiple choice, you'll want strategies that will help you eliminate answer choices as fast as possible so that you can at least make a confident guess.
For quantitative questions, you can plug in the answers provided rather than try to develop the answer on your own. For verbal questions, where answers can be less concrete, consider the opposite strategy of formulating an answer in your head and then selecting the option that's the best match. That way you can use key word characterizations such as parts of speech and verb tenses to narrow down your choices.
In the end, the best way to cope with each section and question will be whatever feels most comfortable for you, which is why practicing the exam is so important.
Learn more about the GRE, graduate school and how you can prepare for them by visiting the links on the next page.
Your whole future balances on acing one test -- but no pressure. We have 10 tips on how to stay calm, make a plan and study effectively for the MCAT.
- 800Score. "What is the GRE and What Does it Test?" (Dec. 20, 2011) http://www.800score.com/gre-c1p1.html
- Clark, Kim. "How Much is that College Degree Really Worth?" Oct. 30, 2008. (Dec. 17, 2011) U.S. News and World Report. http://www.usnews.com/education/articles/2008/10/30/how-much-is-that-college-degree-really-worth
- Educational Testing Service (ETS). "About the GRE Revised General Test." (Dec. 20, 2011). http://www.ets.org/gre/revised_general/about/
- Educational Testing Service (ETS). "Prepare for the Test." (Dec. 20, 2011). http://www.ets.org/gre/general/prepare/index.html
- Educational Testing Service (ETS). "Test Content and Structure." (Dec. 15, 2011) http://www.ets.org/gre/revised_general/about/content/
- Gardner, John. "Your College Experience." St. Martin's. (Dec. 20, 2011) http://www.bedfordstmartins.com/Catalog/product/yourcollegeexperience-ninthedition-gardner
- The Graduate Educational Information Service. "GRE Test Prep." (Dec. 20, 2011). http://www.greprepinfo.com/
- Green, Sharon Weiner and Ira K. Wolf. "Barron's GRE." Barron's Educational Series. August 1, 2009.
- GREexplorer. "GRE Preparation Tips." (Dec. 20, 2011). http://www.greexplorer.com/Preparation-Tips.html
- Kaplan. "Kaplan GRE Exam 2010: Strategies, Practice, and Review." Kaplan Publishing. June 2, 2009. (Dec. 20, 2011)
- Kuszewski, Andrea. "You Can Increase Your Intelligence: 5 Ways to Maximize Cognitive Potential." March 7, 2011. (Dec. 15, 2011) http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/2011/03/07/you-can-increase-your-intelligence-5-ways-to-maximize-your-cognitive-potential/
- Mayo Clinic. "Sleep Tips: 7 Steps to Better Sleep." (Dec. 15, 2011) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/sleep/HQ01387
- Mendelson, Brandon. "How to Ace the Graduate School Entrance Exam." Nov. 17, 2011. (Dec. 15, 2011) http://www.lifehack.org/articles/lifestyle/how-to-ace-graduate-school-entrance-exams.html
- Take the GRE. "Common Questions Answered." April 2011. (Dec. 15, 2011) http://www.takethegre.com/email/eupdate/newsletterPDF_April_042111.pdf
- The Princeton Review. "Cracking the GRE, 2010 Edition." The Princeton Review. June 9, 2009. (Dec. 20, 2011)
- Sparacino, Alyssa. "11 Surprising Health Benefits of Sleep." Fox News. Jan. 28, 2011. (Dec. 15, 2011) http://www.foxnews.com/imag/Wellness/11+Surprising+Health+Benefits+of+Sleep
- Srivastava, Shipra. "How to Memorize Barron's GRE Wordlsit." (Dec. 15, 2011) http://learnwordlist.com/blog/how-to-memorize-barron's-gre-wordlist/2010/10/gre-word-list-test-blog-barrons-vocabulary
- Stenson, Jacqueline. "Exercise Makes Your Brain Brighter at any Age." MSNBC. Jan. 6, 2010. (Dec. 15, 2011) http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/34644422/ns/health-fitness/t/exercise-makes-your-brain-brighter-any-age/#.Tu5ICphrWS1