How Many Practice Tests Should I Take Before the GRE?

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Manhattan Prep GRE Blog - How Many Practice Tests Should I Take before the GRE? by Chelsey Cooley

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Practice tests are like cupcakes. Having one or two is great, but if you go through the entire batch too quickly, you’ll end up regretting it.

Before you decide how many GRE practice tests you’ll take, let’s talk about why we take practice tests. There are two good reasons to take a practice GRE:

  • Assessment: You want to know what score you’ll get.
  • Practice: You want to practice your test-taking skills.

Assessment will tell you whether you’re studying the right material in the right way. Score not moving upwards? You need to make some changes to how you’re studying, what you’re studying, or both. There’s also a phenomenon known as the testing effect: regularly testing yourself on the material you’re learning makes you more likely to remember it later.

However, too much assessment can be dangerous. Imagine that you take a practice GRE, and get a much lower score than you were hoping for. So, you decide to take another practice test the next day, hoping to learn that your low score was just a fluke.

But, the next day, your practice GRE score is actually lower than the previous one. You start to panic. You had planned to take some time off over the weekend to relax and unwind, but you take a third practice test instead. You feel awful the entire way through the test—tired, anxious, and unfocused. And at the end of the test, your score is even worse than the previous two.

You’ve just spent almost ten hours taking GRE practice tests and gotten almost nothing out of it—plus, you’re feeling demoralized and worn out. You just fell victim to an assessment spiral.

Imagine failing a test in a college class, then being told to take the exact same test again immediately, without a chance to study and learn the material. That would be totally pointless. If you wouldn’t put up with that in a college class, why would you do it to yourself while studying for the GRE?  

Only assess yourself when you think that things have changed. Don’t take a practice GRE until you’ve completely analyzed the previous GRE and spent some time studying the weaknesses that appeared on the last test. That should take at least a week, and ideally ten to fourteen days. Learning takes time and patience. Repeatedly assessing yourself, when you haven’t had time to make changes, will only wear you out.

Let’s look at the second reason to take a practice GRE: practicing your test-taking skills. Here are some issues that taking full practice tests can help you with:

  • Test anxiety
  • Fatigue
  • Time management
  • Scratch paper management
  • Recognizing problem types
  • Strategy selection

But, here’s what taking practice tests won’t help you with:

  • Math
  • Vocabulary
  • Reading

On each practice test, most of the problems will not be high-value for you. They’ll be too easy or too hard, or they’ll be in areas that you don’t need to study. Over the course of three hours, you may only see a dozen problems that are really valuable. If you spent the same three hours with the 5lb. Book of GRE Practice Problems, you could finish and review three times as many high-value problems. In short, taking a practice test is an inefficient way to learn content.

Have you ever reviewed a practice test a few days after taking it and realized that you didn’t even remember solving half of the problems? When you’re under stress, your brain doesn’t form new memories as effectively. You probably don’t learn as much from seeing a problem on a practice test as you do from seeing that same problem in a normal study session.

Regular practice tests will make you better at time management, managing your scratch work, and quickly choosing an approach for each problem. However, practice tests aren’t the only way or even the best way to practice those skills, and practice tests won’t help you with other crucial skills—addressing your weaknesses and learning new material. So, think of your full GRE study plan as a balanced diet: eating a cupcake once in a while is good for your mood, but eating nothing but cupcakes will make you sick.

If you have about ten to fifteen hours to study each week, you should take a practice GRE every other weekend. Build time into your schedule to fully review every practice test you take—your review process should take at least as much time as you spent on the test. Between practice tests, you can evaluate yourself and work on strategy by doing sets of mixed problems, along with working on specific areas.

Take your very last practice test a week before your test date, then resist the temptation to take another one, even if your score isn’t what you were hoping for. Practice tests are valuable, but only if you treat them realistically. They’re tools that will help you assess yourself and practice certain skills, but they aren’t the most important part of your plan. 📝


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Chelsey CooleyChelsey Cooley Manhattan Prep GRE Instructor is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Seattle, Washington. Chelsey always followed her heart when it came to her education. Luckily, her heart led her straight to the perfect background for GMAT and GRE teaching: she has undergraduate degrees in mathematics and history, a master’s degree in linguistics, a 790 on the GMAT, and a perfect 170Q/170V on the GRE. Check out Chelsey’s upcoming GRE prep offerings here.

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