standardized test with pencil

Your Road Map to Graduate School Part 2

A series to guide you through the long, arduous process of applying to graduate school programs.

Preparing for the GRE

After deciding on applying to graduate schools, one of the first things you should be doing is preparing to take the GRE (graduate record exam). The GRE is a standardized test that is used as a common measure to compare qualifications of applicants with various educational backgrounds. The test consists of three different types of questions: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing. The scores for these sections are used to supplement the rest of your application materials. While opinions vary on the importance of standardized test scores on graduate applications, it is still important to take this exam seriously because it is a required application material. Due to the nature of this exam, it can take quite some time to fully prepare for it (~3-6 months), so I have put together some tips to guide you through the GRE.

Start Early. We’ve all been there the night before an exam and we have yet to study for it. Sometimes it works out, sometimes it doesn’t. But the GRE is not an exam you want to procrastinate studying for. Not only is it a massive test (~4 hours long), but it can also have an impact on your future educational goals. I recommend starting your studying right around or after spring break to take the test mid-to-end of summer. It’s better to have more time than you need rather than trying to cram it all in the week before your test. Since you’ll still be taking classes, start slowly and build up your studying. Spend 1-2 hours per week on familiarizing yourself with the format of the test, the different sections, the timing, and the content that will be covered. If you can squeeze it in, take a full-length practice test before doing any studying. This will give a baseline for where you are now and will show you the areas you need to improve over the next few months. Once spring classes are over, you can bump up your study time to 1-2 hours per day reviewing math content, vocab, and do practice sets.

Order study materials. Since this exam is so important, ordering some study materials (with access to full-length online practice tests) is essential. Having paper exams is still beneficial to practice timing, but you need to practice with the adaptive format between sections. There are two verbal and quantitative reasoning sections. If you do well on the first section, the respective second section will increase in difficulty. If you don’t practice with this format, it can really throw you off during the real test. Additionally, I also recommend ordering a set of flash cards, so you can drill vocab whenever you have a few free minutes.

Here are the products I recommend:

-A set of three study books (general, math, and vocab) with content review and format information as well as practice sets and access to online practice tests

-Vocabulary flashcards (with access to a mobile app that is perfect to use between classes or waiting for the bus)

Practice under exam conditions. I don’t know about you, but I never practice this for regular exams where timing isn’t as big of an issue and the exam is taken with a hundred other students. But for the GRE, taking a practice exam under timed conditions, computer-based, without any study materials or distractions (such as that pesky cell-phone or roommates) is the best way to ensure you are fully prepared to take the exam at the testing facility.

Prepare to take it more than once. While some may take the exam only once, satisfied with their score, most people end up taking the GRE two or more times. This way, students can have another chance to improve their scores that they are sending to graduate schools. However, since the GRE costs $205 per test, it may be a financial decision on whether you can take it more than one time, all the more reason to prepare ahead of time. Also plan out the timing for when you will take the exam, leaving plenty of time if you might need to take it again. While the GRE is offered most days at the UIUC testing center, time slots fill up quickly because they are limited by the number of computers available. Also having a concrete test day will help focus your studying.

While the GRE seems like a daunting exam, it’s not something to panic about. Once you familiarize yourself with the format and content, you’ll be ready to go because it never changes! And remember these scores won’t define your entire application. It is only one aspect, so don’t worry too much about it. To summarize things to keep in mind: start early, order practice materials, take as many full-length tests that you can, practice under exam conditions, and prepare to take it more than once. Soon enough, you’ll be ready to conquer the GRE, bringing you one step closer to your graduate school dreams.

For more information about the GRE:

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Amber Rose

Amber Rose is a senior in Specialized Chemistry.