How to Prepare for the GRE

☕ 17 min read

I recently gave the GRE. When starting out, I was overwhelmed by the bevy of resources, advice, and guides. This is a compilation of the strategies and resources that helped me the most. Hopefully, these will narrow down your search.

Initially, I planned on preparing for a month but I had to reschedule twice because of the pandemic. Overall, I ended up preparing for 50 days (~160 hours). Although these strategies worked for me, they may not work as well for you. But they should at least point you in the right direction.

Start Here

The Graduate Records Examinations is a standardized test that is required by most graduate schools in the United States (and a few in Canada) for admission. Studying for the GRE will take anywhere between 2-8 weeks (perhaps more) based on your goal and schedule. You’ll have to make a daily commitment in order to do well, so make sure it’s required by the university you are applying to and note the average or minimum required scores (usually broken down by quantitative and verbal section).

This guide is broken down into the following sections:

  • GRE Overview - An overview of the format and scoring of the test
  • General Study Tips - Some studying tips to help you learn efficiently
  • Recommended Resources - A detailed list of the resources I found most useful broken down by section
  • GRE Specific Tips and Strategies - Suggestions on how to practice for individual sections and take practice tests
  • My Routine, Stats and Experience - Some stats about how long I studied, what I studied, and my at-home exam experience

GRE Overview

The GRE tests your critical thinking, analytical writing, verbal reasoning, and ability to interpret and analyze quantitative problems based on basic math concepts. It is administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS). You can read more about it here.

There is also an experimental, unscored section. This can be either a quantitative or verbal section. Sometimes you’ll be given a research section instead of the experimental quantitative or verbal section.

The test takes ~4 hours to complete.

Section Breakdown

Analytical Writing (1 issue essay + 1 argument essay)

  • 30 minute per section
  • Scored between 0.0-6.0 (in 0.5 increments)

Quantitative Sections (2 sections)

  • 20 questions per section
  • 35 minutes per section (1 min 45 secs per question)
  • 7-8 quantitative comparison questions per section
  • 12-13 problem solving questions per section. These can be broken down into the following types:
    • Numeric entry
    • Data interpretation
    • Multiple-answer questions
    • Five-answer multiple choice (most common)
  • Score Range: 130-170
  • Every question is worth the same number of points

Verbal Sections (2 sections)

  • 20 questions per section
  • 30 minutes per section (1 min 30 secs per question)
  • Problem Types:
    • Text completion (one, two or three blanks)
    • Sentence Equivalence
    • Reading Comprehension (contains paragraph argument type questions which are different from regular comprehension questions)
  • Score Range: 130-170
  • Every question is worth the same number of points

Experimental or Research Section

  • You are likely to see either an experimental section or a research section but not both
  • These don’t count towards your score
  • The experimental section can be either a quantitative or a verbal section
  • You won’t be notified whether a section is experimental or not, so try your best in every section

Computer Adaptive Testing

The GRE is computer adaptive. Everyone starts with a medium section. The next section’s difficulty (easy, medium, or hard) is determined by your performance on the first section.

It is not question adaptive which means the difficulty will only change when you move to a different section.

You should do your best in every section. Do not miss questions on purpose in order to get an easier second section. This will drastically lower your score. Getting a hard section means a higher score.

General Strategies and Tips

These strategies should help you learn more efficiently.

If you want to learn more about these strategies and why they work, check out the book A Mind for Numbers by Dr. Barbara Oakley or her course Learning How to Learn on Coursera.

Set Your Goal (Target Score)

The minimum required score varies across universities and programs. Some programs require a high quantitative score while others prioritize verbal scores.

You can check out the official scoring information here. The mean verbal reasoning score is 151 and the mean quant score is 153. Percentile breakdowns can be found here.

Without a clearly defined goal, you won’t be able to formulate an effective strategy. Check out the requirements for your desired programs before you start studying.

Determine Your Baseline

Before scheduling your exam, you should review the syllabus and practice some questions. This will give you an idea about your strengths, where you need to improve, and what kind of routine you should follow. ETS helpfully provides the Math Review (pdf) and Math Convention (pdf) chapters from the official quantitative guide for free.

Check out every single concept before taking your first practice test. It may seem a bit long but that’s mostly because of the example problems.

Make a Plan and Stick to It

It is essential to have a plan since you’ll have to study consistently for weeks. If you don’t have a daily routine you’ll be more prone to procrastination and demotivation.

I used this guide as a base. Additionally, I solved all of the quantitative problems in the 5 lb. Book of GRE Problems by Manhattan Prep that are not included in the plan (don’t do the verbal questions from this book). This plan is based on the official books (check out the super pack for the complete package).

If you are using Magoosh then this guide may be helpful.

Be Consistent

Consistent practice will be much more effective in the long term. Cramming a lot of information at once will reduce your retention. Make sure to practice and review daily to solidify your knowledge and intuition. You should make a daily routine that is consistent to get into the habit of studying. This will prime your brain for studying during specific times during the day.

I used to study from morning until lunch break every day (9 AM - 12:30 PM). I scheduled my exam in the morning since I was used to solving GRE problems during this period.

Study in Short Chunks

Studying for long periods without breaks will hamper your ability to retain information. It’s much more efficient to study in 25-30 minute chunks than studying for hours on end. I would recommend studying no more than 3-4 hours daily. Anything more than that is likely to result in burnout and lack of retention. The technique mentioned above is called the pomodoro technique. Check out this video to learn more.

Take Notes

Make note of the new concepts you are learning and mark any question that you found difficult. I took notes in OneNote and marked the questions I found difficult so I could easily review them later. On the day before the exam, I only reviewed the marked questions.

Use Active Recall

When reviewing information do not just skim through your notes. Try to recall the exact information from memory before checking your notes. You will be much more likely to remember the information later. Flashcards are excellent for this purpose. I use Anki to make flashcards. I’ve also found Notion to be really helpful since the toggle feature allows you to use active recall by hiding the answers. Check out this video for tips on how to use it. I personally didn’t use it for my GRE prep but I’ve been using it for other courses I’m doing.

Use Spaced Repetition

When learning new things you should review them more frequently. As the new information starts to embed in your memory you can slowly reduce the review frequency. Eventually, the information will stick in your long-term memory. I use an app called Anki which has a robust spaced repetition algorithm and a lot features for creating flashcards. This is the app I used for learning vocabulary (much better than the Magoosh app). More details about how to use app can be found in the verbal tips section.

Use Analogies and Metaphors

Analogies and metaphors can help you understand problems and retain information better. The more detailed your imagination, the better you’ll be able to recall it. For example, check out this article for analogies on probability and statistics.

Test Yourself

Testing yourself is one of the best ways to make sure you’re actually retaining all the things you’re learning. In addition to the practice tests, you could test yourself twice a day, once in the morning and once before going to bed.

Track Your Progress

Keeping track of the problems you are solving can be a great motivator. It’ll also keep you more accountable and allow you to plan better. I took notes in OneNote, maintained a daily journal, and kept track of the problems I solved in a spreadsheet. At the end of the day, do a review and adjust your next day’s tasks accordingly. This primes your brain to focus on the tasks instead of worrying about what tasks to do.

Try Different Perspectives

When you get stuck on a problem, try approaching it from a different perspective. There are usually multiple ways of solving a quant problem. For example, compare the articles here and [here].

Take Rest

Your brain requires rest to embed information into long-term memory. Not thinking about a problem you’re stuck on also engages your diffuse mode of thinking which might provide you with a breakthrough. And make sure get plenty of sleep as it’s crucial for long-term memory formation and mental health. Account for rests in your plan and schedule in order to sustain motivation and prevent burnout.

The following are the resources I have found most helpful. I mainly used the official books and the 5 lb. Book by Manhattan Prep for preparation, supplemented by free videos online from Khan Academy and Greg MAT.

The Official Books by ETS should be prioritized over everything else. These problems are the most similar to the ones that appear on the test. You could buy the Super Power Pack, Second Edition which contains the Official Guide, Official Verbal Reasoning Practice Problems, and Official Quantitative Reasoning Practice Problems books.

Study Guides

GRE Forums

Analytical Writing

Guides

Pool of Topics
The essay topic will be given from these lists.

Verbal Reasoning

A few people have mentioned that they have found it difficult to improve their verbal score with just the resources mentioned here.

If you need more guidance check out Greg Mat+ ($5 per month). It’s a monthly service by an amazing GRE tutor which will give you access to weekly live classes, tons of past recordings, PowerPrep test walkthroughs, study plans, and a Discord community. My friend managed to increase his verbal score from 149 to 161 in a month just by working through the recordings!

I highly recommend watching his free verbal strategy videos if you are still not sure whether to purchase the service or not. I’ve personally worked through his free videos and they are the best strategy videos I’ve seen so far.

Practice Problems
You should solve verbal problems only from the official books. The problems in other sources don’t seem to be representative of the ones set by ETS.

Vocabulary

  • Magoosh Vocab (Common & Basic)
    • This is the only vocabulary deck I studied (~650 words).
    • Studying the advanced deck won’t really benefit you much. The extra time would be better spent on solving problems and reading long passages.
    • I would suggest using Anki instead of the Magoosh app since it provides more granular self assessment and better features such as card marking, dark mode, and card preview. Get the Magoosh Vocab deck for Anki from here.
  • Vince’s Complete Guide to Learning GRE Vocabulary
    • A comprehensive guide on how to learn vocabulary.
    • Read this if you are having a hard time learning only from the Magoosh deck.
  • Wordnik
    • It’s an online dictionary that contains sentence examples from various sources. Helpful for learning words in context.
  • Etym Online
    • Online etymology dictionary
    • Sometimes learning a word’s origin can help you remember it better.

Strategy Videos

Reading Suggestions
The GRE contains mostly academic texts and opinion pieces. Reading novels, magazines, and news won’t help you much. Instead, focus on scientific articles, long form essays, and opinion pieces.

Quantitative Reasoning

Practice Problems

Concept Guides

Concept Frequency Guide

Concept Explanation Guides

  • Vince’s Complete GRE Math Concept List
    • Contains a list of the relevant Khan Academy videos organized by chapter.
  • Better Explained
    • Provides detailed explanations of concepts to help develop the intuition behind them.
    • Complement the videos from Khan Academy with the articles on this site.

Strategy Guides

Calculator Guide

  • The GRE Calculator
    • Click on any of the math challenge problem banners to test out the calculator.
    • Get familiar with its functions and limitations.

Formula Sheet

Practice Tests

Official Tests

Unofficial Tests

Miscellaneous

GRE Specific Tips and Strategies

Analytical Writing

  • The issue essay is always given first.
  • The argument essay is particularly susceptible to formulaic writing, which means it’s easier to write. Check out Greg MAT’s guide to learn how to approach them.
  • Improve your typing speed. You’ll only have 30 minutes to write 450-600 words. If you type slowly you won’t be able to finish on time. Aim for at least 50-60 WPM.
  • Practice topics from the pool of topics on the ETS website. Your prompt will be given from this list.
  • Try to leave 4-5 minutes for review and editing.

Verbal Reasoning

  • Read chapter 3 of the Official Guide (GRE Verbal Reasoning) to get an overview of the section.
    • You can also get an overview and try out sample problem types here.
  • Learn to use and recognize vocabulary in context.
  • For words with multiple meanings, use the one preferred by ETS (learn definitions from vocbulary decks by Magoosh or Powerscore).
  • I used Anki to practice vocabulary
    • Download the Magoosh deck from here.
    • Open Anki and import the deck.
    • When learning a new word don’t press “Good” or “Easy” until you’ve seen it a few times.
    • You can flag cards for later review.
  • Watch Greg MAT’s verbal strategy guide videos here.
  • Read every day. Check out the Reading Suggestions under the Verbal Reasoning Resources section for some interesting reads.

Quantitative Reasoning

  • Read chapter 5 of the Official Guide (GRE Quantitative Reasoning) to get an overview of the section.
    • You can also get an overview and try out sample problem types here.
  • Check out the frequency guide to see which types of problem of you should focus on.
  • Build a strong foundation and intuition before focusing on solving problems quickly. Check out the guide for Khan Academy videos here and concept explanations here.
  • Almost none of the problems in the exam require complicated computation. If you have a solid grasp of the concepts, you’ll be able to solve most problems within the allotted time.
  • Don’t rely on the calculator. It should be used sparingly.
  • Practice mental math every day. You can play math games on your phone (Android or iOS).
  • DO NOT memorize formulas without understanding. Watch the Khan Academy videos, try to derive them yourself, and practice different problems to internalize the intuition.
  • Always read the explanations of answers, even when you get them right.

Practice Tests

  • Do not give a practice test until studying for at least a week or until you’ve reviewed all the quant concepts.
  • Treat them like the real test.
  • Solve the sections that you didn’t get during the test. For example, if you get the hard section for the second part, solve the easy and medium sections too after the test.
  • Always read the explanations of the answers.
  • Mark the questions you get wrong and review them periodically and 1 or 2 days before the real exam.

My Routine, Stats, and Experience

I studied in the morning - usually from 9 AM until lunch break (around 12:30 PM). In retrospect, I probably should have allocated about 30 minutes for review in the evening every day.

Some stats:

  • Total Problems Solved: 1847 (excluding Math Review examples and some problems on Khan Academy)
  • Total Verbal Problems Solved: 404
  • Total Quant Problems Solved: 1443
  • Total Hours Studied: ~160 Hours

I solved all of the problems in the three ETS books and all the quantitative problems in the 5 lb. Book.

Also, I kept a daily journal, marked the problems I got wrong for review, and kept a tally of the problems I solved in a spreadsheet.

At-Home GRE Experience

After rescheduling my exam twice, I decided to give the at-home GRE instead. You can read the details of the procedure here.

The main drawback for me was not being able to write on paper. I had to use a whiteboard which slowed me down by 4-5 minutes. Although I was still able to finish all of the sections on time, I did not have time for review on the hard sections.

I’ve also heard that some people had technical issues during the test. But I don’t think a large number of people experienced this issue. Ask around if you want to be sure.

Overall, I’d suggest waiting for the test centers to reopen if you are not in a hurry. I had to complete the test to focus on some other things, so I opted for the at-home test.

I hope you’ve found this guide helpful. If you have any corrections, suggestions, or questions, feel free to contact me.