How to Study for the GRE

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Manhattan Prep GRE Blog - How to Study for the GRE by Chelsey Cooley

Are you just starting to study for the GRE? Already studying, but not sure whether you’re doing it right? We’ll lay out exactly how to study for the GRE, from today until test day.

Before You Study for the GRE

If you’re thinking about studying for the GRE but you haven’t gotten off the ground yet, here’s where to start.

The first step is to learn the format of the test. Take an hour or two to read about the problem types. There are quick descriptions in the Official Guide to the GRE, and also on the official GRE website here. You don’t need to be confident solving all of these problems just yet—you just want to be sure there aren’t any surprises when you take your first practice test!

By the way, go ahead and take a practice GRE before you start studying. Here’s a link to a free GRE practice test. No excuses! If you’re pressed for time, you can skip the two Analytical Writing sections at the beginning. Make sure that you take all of the Quant and Verbal sections, though. You might be thinking that you want to study a bit first, in hopes of getting a higher starting score—but the point isn’t to get a great score on this one. The point is to understand exactly what you’ll need to learn and what skills you’ll need to develop. One of the best ways to do that is through hands-on experience. Plus, once you’ve taken a practice test, the GRE will no longer be nearly as mysterious.

Choosing a GRE Study Style

Here are your basic options if you want to study for the GRE. You don’t need to fully commit to just one of these right now, but knowing which one you’ll start with will help you plan your studies.

Each of these options has its advantages, and it’s totally fine to start with one and then switch to another.

For most people, a GRE course is a good way to go. You’ll be exposed to all the material that could appear on your test, in both Quant and Verbal. Having homework and a syllabus lets you focus on the work instead of worrying about what to study next. Plus, accountability and regular communication with an instructor go a long way.

Self-study works well if your study needs don’t line up well with an official GRE course. If you’re totally comfortable with one part of the test, but need a lot of work on another part, self-study can allow you to focus on the material you really need. If you want to work through the material more quickly, or more slowly, or if you need to take some time away from studying, self-study adds a lot of flexibility. GRE Interact is a set of interactive video lessons that cover all the material on the GRE, plus guidance on how to use them.

Interact comes along with all the books and resources you’ll need. But if you choose to do self-study without Interact, here’s a list of resources to pick up now:

You should also sign up for an account at ets.org and familiarize yourself with the PowerPrep software.

Finally, GRE tutoring is especially useful if you’re struggling with a specific topic or topics—having an expert to talk over the issues with one-on-one can help you get unstuck. If you want to do self-study but you also want more accountability to keep you on track, consider tutoring. Here’s more information about our GRE tutoring program.

Next Steps When Studying for the GRE

At this point, you have a sense of how you’d like to approach your GRE studies, and you’ve gathered the resources you’re going to use. Take an hour or two to flip through the books and materials you’ve gotten (whether through your course or on your own). Make sure you know what resources you have available.

Next, there are a few more things you need to do to maximize the efficiency of your studies. The first is to create a problem log. Start your problem log today, even though you haven’t done a lot of problems yet. If you have time, start filling it in with the problems from your first practice test!

Also, create a study calendar. Start by looking over your schedule for the next couple of months. (Are you still wondering when to take the GRE? Check out this article for help!) Note any times that you won’t be able to study, and plan out the specific dates and times that you’ll definitely spend on your GRE work. You don’t have to have your study schedule completely nailed down yet, but you’ll be more likely to stay consistent if you know exactly when and where you’ll study for the GRE.

Learning the Basics

Depending on how you scored on your first practice test, you might be feeling like you have a very long way to go. For a lot of us, this is especially true for the Quant side of the GRE: if you haven’t used your high school math skills for years, they’ve probably gotten pretty rusty.

If you need to review the very basics, here are a few places to start!

For Quant, the fastest way to jumpstart your math review is to sign up for GRE Math in a Day. You won’t learn all of GRE Math in one day, but in six hours, you’ll get a thorough refresher on the material you’ll need in order to study effectively. More importantly, you’ll leave the session with a study syllabus that you can keep following all the way to test day.

You can also start with GRE Interact, which covers both Quant and Verbal. One advantage to using GRE Interact is that you can repeat the lessons as many times as you want—and you can pause and look up anything that’s unfamiliar. There’s plenty of tough material in GRE Interact, but there’s also a lot of solid work on the foundations.

On the Manhattan Prep GRE blog, we’ve written a series of articles on math basics called GRE Math for People Who Hate Math. It doesn’t cover everything, but it touches on a lot of the topics that are most intimidating for people who haven’t studied math for a while. Here’s where you’ll find the full series. (Are you wondering whether you can ace GRE Quant, even though you’re math-phobic? We’ve written about that, too, and the answer is yes.)

For basic vocabulary, the 500 Essential GRE Words will get you started. Here’s a lot more information on how to study GRE vocabulary, too! Start working on vocabulary as early as possible: the more you spread out your review, the more likely you are to recall the words you’ve learned on test day.

Your GRE Study Outline

What you do next depends on whether you have a test date scheduled. If you need to take the GRE by a certain date, go ahead and sign up for a test a few weeks prior to that date. (Here’s a lot more information on planning a test date.) Then, you’ll work backwards from that date to match this outline to your needs. However, if your test date is flexible and your priority is hitting a particular score goal, you can wait on signing up for the test. In that case, you’ll get started with the beginning of this outline, then stay in the second phase until you’re happy with your practice test scores.

Either way, think of your GRE studies as having three phases.

Phase 1: Learning the basics. If you’ve followed along with the plan in this article, you’ve already made some headway on this! Take some time to take your first practice test, review the basic material, get very familiar with the question types and the test format, and set yourself up for GRE success.

Phase 2: Mastering the material. This is the longest and most important phase. In this phase, take a practice test about every 2 weeks. Each time you take a practice test, spend 3-6 hours during the next few days reviewing it in depth. Then, plan out your next 2 weeks of studying. This should include a mix of reading or watching new material, reviewing old material, and doing sets of practice GRE problems. Your brain thrives on variety! Don’t only study the weaknesses from your previous practice test, either. Spend at least some time every week reviewing material you feel confident with. During this period, you should also learn about 50 new GRE vocabulary words each week.  

Phase 2 is where you’ll do most of your learning. This might mean solving problems from the 5lb. Book of GRE Practice Problems, reading the GRE Strategy Guide, working on GRE Interact lessons, or meeting with your tutor. Adjust your plan based on the results from your practice tests, and build in plenty of time—two study sessions per week—to review material you’ve already learned.   

Phase 3: When you have two to three weeks remaining before test day, change your focus solely to review and strategy. To perfect your strategy, take one final ‘dress rehearsal’ practice test. Then, do longer (10+ problems at a time) timed problem sets with problems from various different topics. Use what you’ve learned, relax, and make smart strategic decisions. During this period, do a final review of everything you’ve learned. This is a good time to create some GRE cheat sheets for key topics! A few days before you take the test, tone it down and spend some time relaxing and preparing mentally. Don’t take a practice test right before the real thing—you’ll just wear yourself out.

GRE Study Dos and Don’ts

You know when to study for the GRE and what to do first, so here are a few more tips on what to do while you’re studying.

Don’t take too many practice tests. Practice tests, despite the name, don’t count as studying! The lowdown on why that is—and how many practice tests you should actually take—is here.  

Do mix it up. There are two basic theories of studying: “blocked” studying and “interleaved” studying. In blocked studying, you study one topic until you totally get it, and then you move on to the next one. In interleaved studying, you mix it up, studying multiple new topics in the same day or in the same study session. Blocked studying is how most of us have traditionally studied in school, but the science shows that interleaved studying is more effective for almost all of us. Interleaving can be frustrating, but if you really want to take advantage of how your brain learns best, pick up multiple study topics at a time and return to them in short, spaced-out sessions.

Do take breaks. Take regular breaks during a study session, even if you don’t feel like you need them. Take a rest day at least once per week to let your brain recover and avoid burning out.

Don’t feel pressured to get through more problems. There’s something really satisfying about finishing a GRE problem, and something even more satisfying about finishing a lot of problems. However, no matter how many problems you do, you’ll never see the exact ones that will appear on your GRE. You’re much better off doing a moderate number of problems and reviewing them so thoroughly that you’ll recognize similarities in other problems you see on test day.

Do write down everything you do. Your problem log is your number-one ally when you study for the GRE. Here’s how to make an awesome problem log for GRE Quant.

Do continue to study material that you feel comfortable with. This is known as “overlearning,” and it’s critical to GRE success. Why? Because the GRE doesn’t just test whether you understand the material. It also tests whether you can use it creatively. To develop this skill, you need to keep practicing beyond the point where you feel like you “get” the material!

A lot of research has been done in recent years on both learning science and test preparation. Don’t waste time studying for the GRE ineffectively. Spend a little time now planning out how you’ll study, and your journey to GRE success will go much more smoothly. ?


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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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