So you’re about to finish your undergraduate studies and are thinking hard about applying to graduate school. You have a good undergraduate GPA and you already have some possible schools in mind to attend. There is only one thing left that you must do: Take a graduate school admission test. If your field of study is in the arts or sciences, there is a good chance the test you will have to take is the Graduate Record Examination, or GRE.

Who Takes the GRE Test?:

GRE is a standardized test that is taken on a computer in a testing center. It is generally a requirement for any student who wants to gain admission into graduate studies in the arts & sciences fields or in engineering. Sometimes, if a student has a very high GPA and intends to remain at the same school (where the undergraduate degree was earned) to take graduate classes, the GRE test requirement could be waived. But in most all other circumstances, this test has to be completed for admission.

GRE Time Constraints:

The GRE test is comprised of three main sections: Analytical writing; verbal reasoning, and quantitative reasoning. Here is a breakdown of the various sections; what you can expect to see on each; and the amount of time allowed for completion:

Analytical Writing– An Issue writing assessment and an Argument writing assessment are included in this, the first part of the GRE test. The Issue essay is allotted 45 minutes for completion while the Argument essay is given 30 minutes.

Verbal Reasoning– With this part of the test, the student will have to answer a total of 30 questions. The time limit here is 30 minutes.

Quantitative Reasoning– This is the mathematics part of the test and it consists of 28 total questions. The time for completion is 45 minutes.

GRE Strategy:

Strategy is critical to completing each section of the GRE and maximizing the possible score. Let’s breakdown each part of the GRE and discuss ways to maximize points:

Analytical Writing

The GRE test begins with the analytical writing section. This consists of two essays: One Issue- related essay and one argument essay. With the issue essay, the test will present two different topics and give students the choice to select one of them. With the argument essay, there will be one topic presented (no choices) and the student will have to compose an argument.

With each of these essays, students are expected to compose a response and type the response into a text box on the screen. This text box works in the same way as a standard word document, with a few exceptions. Copy/paste functions are available, along with a few other tools. But as you might expect, there is no spell check; no grammar check; and nothing else that will help steer you in the right direction for proper writing. You must figure these things out on your own, because they are used to deterine your overall grade.

The best way to approach these written tasks is to first write down, on your provided scrap paper, a quick outline of what you plan to write. First, you need to decide what position to take on the issue or the argument. Next, you need to decide on a few key points you wish to make, to back your point of view. It is generally a good idea to also provide one counter argument followed by a good reason (or two) why your position is better. This is recommended because it shows that you have a full understanding of the pros and cons of the discussion. Finally, you need a closing paragraph that restates the original argument or issue and why you have taken the position that you did.

The GRE test makers do not necessarily care about the total length of an essay, so don’t worry about stretching out paragraphs to take up more space. In fact, there is a very good chance that doing this will cause your score to decrease, not increase. The reason is because the graders will recognize the redundancy of your response and will deduct points. Also, you should avoid using “big” words. No one will be impressed that you possess an incredible vocabulary. And, once again, there is a chance that using unknown and/or unpronounceable words will actually lower your score rather than raise it.

Grammar and spelling are both considered by graders when they read your essays. They also consider the logical flow of your writing and how well you can articulate a given point. They look for a good introduction; a body of two or three paragraphs; and a good, strong close that finishes the essay with confidence.

Since there is no way to check your spelling or grammar when you type your response on the screen, it is imperative that you proofread your essay! You should never take a chance by failing to proof your work. Most every one of us makes typos and simple grammatical mistakes when we type ideas on a screen as they come to mind. A quick proofreading will eliminate almost all of these simple mistakes and improve your score. Once you have finished typing your response, it is recommended to allow about five to ten minutes for proofreading.

Verbal Reasoning

This part of the GRE is comprised of four different types of questions: Sentence completion, Antonyms, Analogies, and Reading Comprehension. The 30 questions in this part of the test are divided almost equally among these four areas.

Sentence completion questions are among the easiest to answer and a student should get through them quickly, allowing more time for the other, more difficult questions. With these, a sentence is presented with one or two words missing. In the answer choices, the test lists five possible words to fill the blank(s). This is not a spelling test. The five choices are all different words, spelled correctly. The test is to see if you, the student, can fill in the blank with the word that fits into the sentence. Thus, you need to have a general idea about the meaning of the sentence itself and the meanings of the five selections. If you don’t know the meanings of all five words in the selection choices, you should at least try to narrow them down by crossing off choices that you know are incorrect. Then, you should look for key words in the sentence itself and then find a choice that flows from the sentence. Most of the time, the word selections given are easy to moderate in difficulty. But if you start to get several correct in a row, you could have a sentence pop up that is so difficult, you may not know the meanings of any of the five answer choices. This is where you have to make your best, educated guess based on looking at the other words in the sentence and finding the answer choice that seems like the best fit.

Antonym questions are the most direct, but they can present difficulty to those with a limited vocabulary. With these questions, the GRE will display one word on the screen, followed by five, single word answer choices. It is up to you to choose the one that means the opposite of the word given. Sometimes, the choice is obvious. But these can get difficult, forcing a student to narrow down choices and make the best possible guess. If a student comes across one of these and has no clue what the word means, one way to help find the correct answer is to look through the answer choices and write down a word that is the opposite of each. Often, there will be an answer choice or two that do not even have an opposite. These can be eliminated right away. For example, a word like “cat” doesn’t have an opposite and thus cannot be the correct answer.

Analogies are the next area of the verbal section and these require the student to have a general idea of the meaning of words and be able to recognize patterns of comparison. For each question, the GRE test will display a set of words separated by a colon. The answer choices will then display two words also separated by a colon. It is up to the student to find the pair of words that present the same analogy. For example, let’s say the question prompts the words “brave: cowardly”. These are opposites, so in the answer choices, one would need to look for a pair of words that are opposites. The test makers will purposely place word pairings that are very similar to the same analogy, but in opposite direction. This is meant to catch the test maker off guard.

The majority of these analogy questions are direct, but it is possible to get a pair of words that make no sense. When this happens, a process of elimination should at least help narrow down the selection choices. Take a good look at the two words presented and decide how the comparison is being made. Are the words opposites? Are they synonyms? Does one word stand for something large and the other one something small? Does the second word build upon the first one and intensify its meaning? Once you have answered this question, all you need to do is look in the answer choices for a similar analogy or narrow down by eliminating answer choices that present completely different analogies.

Reading comprehension is the final part of the verbal reasoning section of the test. These consist of reading passages followed by about three questions relating to the passage. The passages can cover almost any subject and the questions can cover any number of testable skills, from critical reasoning to logic to main idea and more. With these questions, a common strategy is to make notes on your scratch paper about the content and author’s intention for writing the passage. Often, you will need to look back at the passage to answer the questions but having these notes on your paper will at least help you to organize the thoughts and more quickly locate the place in the passage where the answer to the question resides.

Quantitative Reasoning

This part of the GRE test has fewer total questions than the verbal reasoning section: 28 as opposed to 30. However, these questions are generally more challenging and that is why the GRE allows quite a bit more time per question. Students get a total of 45 minutes to answer all of the questions in this section, or approximately 1 minute and 36 seconds per question.

There are two types of quantitative questions on the GRE: Problem solving and quantitative comparisons. Problem solving questions are word problems and they come in many shapes and sizes. They test the ability to use algebra, geometry, set theory, number theory, averages, fractions, percentages, rates and speed, and other basic math skills. There is no need to know calculus or other advanced math. A basic understanding of mathematics should be enough to get through this section of the test.

With problem solving, the GRE will often present a word problem that seems to require knowledge of algebra to complete. Knowing how to setup formulas with variables is usually helpful and will save time. But most problems can be solved without an extensive knowledge of the rules of algebra. Consider this word problem:

An airline charges $300 for each adult ticket and $250 for each child’s ticket. On one specific day, 200 total tickets were sold for a total sales volume of $56,000. How many more adult tickets were sold than children’s tickets?

A. 10
B. 15
C. 25
D. 30
E. 35

Some students would panic when presented this question because they would be uncertain how to setup an algebraic equation. But this, and other problems like it, can be solved without knowing the equation. What you can do is use the numbers in the answer choices to first compute the number of each ticket sold. For example, choice “A” shows a difference of 10 tickets. Since the adults and children’s tickets must sum to 200, we know that the number sold (if this was the correct answer choice) would have to be 105 and 95 because these are the only two numbers that add up to 200 and have a difference of 10. Then, you would simply multiply the number of adult tickets by the stated price; the number of children’s tickets by the stated price; and then add the two together. If they sum to $56,000, you have found the correct answer. I think it’s a safe bet that most students who take the GRE are not sure how to setup an algebraic equation. Most students would probably use a method like I described or something else.

Quantitative comparisons make up the remainder of the GRE math section and they involve making a comparison between two columns. The two columns, labeled “A” and “B”, will have a numeric value; a formula; or an inequality underneath them. For each of these questions, the student must look at the columns and determine if “A” is larger than “B”, if “B” is larger than “A”, if they are equal in value, or if there is not enough information given to determine an answer. Some of the problems in this section are straightforward and require a simple computation to work them. Others require using a strategy and recognizing certain GRE patterns to solve them.

An example of a straightforward problem would be the following:

Column A: 3/4 multiplied by 1/4
Column B: 3/8 multiplied by 3/8

To make this comparison, one simply needs to compute the amounts. In column “A”, the fractions multiplied will equal 3/16. In column “B”, they will equal 9/64. Now, all one has to do is make the fractions comparable by changing one of them so that the denominator matches the other. Changing 3/16 to a number over 64 gives us 12/64. This is larger than 9/64, so column “A” is larger.

Other times, the GRE will give you a problem that isn’t as straightforward. Consider this example:

Column A: The cube root of 990,000, minus 7
Column B: The square root of 10,000, minus 5

Which of these is larger? Is it necessary to try to compute the cube root of 990,000? The answer is no, it is not necessary. The test makers know that students cannot reasonably be expected to compute the cube root of a number like 990,000 without the aid of a calculator. So how does one solve this problem? The key is to look at the numbers and figure out an approximate answer- something that is very close in value to the number given. Looking at column A, we are presented with a number that is just a little less than one million. Does one million have an exact cube root? Yes, and the answer is 100. So, the cube root of 990,000 must be a little less than 100 and with 7 being subtracted away, the final answer to this problem has to be less than 93. Now, looking at column B, we know that 10,000 has an exact square root equal to 100 (100 times 100 equals 10,000). Thus, if we subtract 5 from this, we get an exact result of 95. Column A was determined to be less than 93, so we now know that “B” is larger.

This pattern shows up again and again on the GRE. There is generally no need to try to compute the exact amount for both columns. Usually, by using estimation, you can figure out which column is larger. Knowing the exact value of column “A”, in this example, is meaningless. All we are out to find is which column is larger. We want to do this as quickly as possible and making estimates works in the majority of cases.

What About My GRE Score?:

The GRE is scored using a scale of 200 to 800 for the verbal and math sections. The score is in increments of ten and there is also a final, overall score using the same 200 to 800 scale. With the essays, the grading ranges from 1.0 to 6.0, in increments of one half point.

Depending on the school a student wishes to gain admission, the score obtained can have significant meaning. The overall median score for the GRE for all test takers is around 560. Many schools will require a score of at least 600 for acceptance. And if you’re aiming high and want to get accepted into a top tier graduate school, you will likely need a score of around the 700 level to make yourself competitive.

Final Thoughts:

The GRE test is a moderately difficult test that many graduate students will be forced to take as a requirement for university admission. I teach courses in test preparation and I have worked with many students who were serious about their GRE test score and determined to get the best score possible. They enrolled in my class to gain a competitive advantage over other students trying to gain acceptance into the same program at the same school.

Preparing for a test like the GRE takes time and patience. Learning the content is one thing, and this could very well be a matter of memorization (in the case of math formulas) and refresher (for rules of grammar and definitions of words) for many students. Depending on how long it has been since you were in school, many of these mathematical formulas and rules of grammar may have been long since forgotten. The best way to refresh is by finding study material for the GRE. This can be obtained by purchasing a book on the subject or by looking for GRE material on- line. There are many web sites that offer sample tests, examples of questions, and other exercises intended to get the student back in the proper frame of mind for test taking.

If it has been a while since you took a standardized test, there is one thing about it that has changed and might make you uncomfortable. The GRE, and many other admission tests, is now administered on a computer. Gone are the days when everyone met together at a local university lecture hall to take one of these tests. Now, they are taken at a testing center, such as Sylvan. And since they are taken at a center, there is much more flexibility than in the past. A student can schedule to take the GRE at the time of his/her choosing, and many centers even offer the test on weekends.

Other than the added flexibility and the fact that scores are available immediately (except for the written part) upon completion of the test, these computer adaptive tests (or CAT) offer many unique challenges that many students do not like. First of all, the way the CAT system works, the questions that each student gets will be different. This is because the computer will adjust for each correct and incorrect answer. As you answer questions correctly, the computer responds with a more difficult question and raises your score. If you are incorrect, it responds with an easier question and lowers your score. It continues this pattern until the very end, at which point a score will have been determined based on the level of difficulty a student has reached after the last question is answered. This is why it is so important to answer as many questions correctly at the beginning as possible. If you answer too many questions incorrectly at first, you will sink into a deep hole that you may not be able to recover from. You also need to avoid stringing together consecutive wrong answers. What this means is that, if you are forced to guess because time is running low, you should alternate between working through a question and making a guess. For example, if there are only two minutes remaining and you have five questions left to answer, a good strategy would be to guess the first one, work the next, guess the third, work the fourth, and guess the fifth. This will give you a better chance for maximizing your score. If you try to work out the first two, and then guess the next three in a row, you will end up with a slightly lower score because your three consecutive guesses, if they are all incorrect, will cause your score to tank.

Another challenge with the CAT format is the fact that a student cannot go back and change answers. In the old days, when tests were administered on paper, a student could go back and change answers as frequently as desired. But this is no longer possible with the CAT system. Once you have answered a question and proceeded to the next, you can never go back. Often, a formula or some other useful fact might pop into your memory that would have helped answer a previous question. But, unfortunately, it makes no difference with the CAT testing format. You cannot turn back, so once you have answered a question, you should push it out of your mind. You will never see it again.

One other thing about the GRE that is especially annoying to students is the inclusion of a “Prestest” section within the test. What this consists of is a second verbal or quantitative section inserted within the main test. It is identical to the actual test, so there is no way of knowing if what you are taking is a Pretest or the real thing. This mystery section doesn’t figure into your grade, but you have to take it seriously because you can’t take a chance on it turning out to be one of the actual, graded sections of the test. This lengthens the test by another 30 or 45 minutes and because of it, you can expect to have either two math and one verbal or two verbal and one math section to complete when you arrive at the testing center.

ETS (Educational Testing Service) is the group that administers the GRE and most other college admission tests. Consulting the web page, ets.org, is a good place to start your inquiry into the GRE test. Here, you will find practice questions and a few full- length tests that can be downloaded for a small price. There are many places on- line to get information about the test and to begin your studying. The ETS web page is a good place to start, but I recommend looking for others as well. One of the keys to winning the GRE race is practice. I tell my students to take as many practice tests as possible before scheduling the actual test. It is from these practice tests that students will become familiar with the flow of questions, the patterns of answers, and the general “feel” of these CAT- based testing systems. One should never go into a test like this one blind; that is, without any type of preparation. Anything you do, even if it consists of only a handful of practice questions on the internet, is still better than nothing at all.

Taking a test like the GRE is a challenge to many students and obtaining a better than average grade can make all the difference between gaining acceptance to the school of your dreams and getting stuck going to a college that is second- rate. Study and practice are the keys to success with the GRE and other standardized tests. Refreshing yourself on the rules of grammar and various mathematical formulas is important but as I have demonstrated, formulating a strategy is also important to GRE success. Knowing how to spot patterns, how to utilize shortcuts, and how to make the best possible guess are all important methods that all GRE students should know. With the right strategy and a good level of general knowledge, students should have no problem breezing through the GRE and getting a top score: one that will command respect and that will increase the likelihood of gaining an acceptance letter to one’s graduate school of choice.