August 17, 2022, by

Thinking about taking the GRE?  Read over this list of the most important things to know about the GRE as well as some expert tips and tricks to help with studying and getting a top score.

1. Focus on what matters most

The GRE has seven sections, but only four of them really matter.

After the two essays will be five sections including two Verbal Reasoning sections with 20 questions each in 30 minutes per section and two Quantitative Reasoning sections with 20 questions each in 35 minutes per section.  There will also be a fifth section that is experimental and not part of your score.  The Verbal and Quantitative sections alternate and are what really counts on the GRE.


2. Study the math you need, skip what you don’t:

The quantitative sections will cover topics from arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and probability and data analysis.

There will be no questions covering:


Imaginary numbers






Or any other advanced topic from beyond PreCalculus

There is plenty of math to study for the test, so to save time and skip all of these areas that definitely won’t show up on the GRE.  Instead, focus on practicing quick mental math, learning algebra rules well, especially exponent rules, and memorize geometry and probability formulas.  Make sure to practice all this math on a lot of realistic practice test questions as well.


3. Study with the best resources available

The official practice tests and books by ETS (the org that runs the GRE) are all top-quality materials and have the most accurate questions of any source available. Unofficial question sources can be helpful for skills development, but rarely accurately mirror the trickiness of and exact content of the real test.  For example, unofficial vocab questions usually rely exclusively on obscure vocabulary words to generate difficulty, whereas the real GRE uses some tough words but mostly creates difficulty by the construction of the sentence and the relationship between the blanks. Unofficial Quant material tends to more closely mirror the real thing but are rarely as good as real ETS questions.

4. Carefully decide when to take practice tests: there are few available, so don’t waste any

Unlike many other standardized tests, there are few official released practice GREs available.  There are two paper tests, two free online practice tests, and three online paid practice tests ($40 each).  That’s it for the current format.  The GRE adapts, getting easier or harder on later sections based on earlier performance.  Paper tests cannot adapt and therefore must include more questions of a greater range of difficulty.  All available practice tests other than the three paid tests, called Power Prep Plus 1, 2, and 3, are more than 5 years old.  The GRE has changed some over the years, and so the content and scoring scales of these tests is not quite accurate for the test you’ll take. As a result, the best practice tests are the three paid tests.

5.Prepare for the GRE with a strong game plan

Start by taking a baseline practice test using one of the online PowerPrep tests from the ETS website.  Take it under realistic timed conditions so you get the best information about where you’re starting from.  Make a study plan that gives you plenty of time to review material as needed.  For most people, this is 50-100 hours of studying over 6-16 weeks before a first official test.

Also, make sure to give yourself enough time to retake the test if you need to.  You’re allowed to retake the GRE 21 days after taking it, and you get your scores back immediately at the end of the test, so you’ll quickly be able to figure out if it’s worth planning to take again.  You can register to take the test on almost any day of the year, and you generally do not need to sign up far in advance.  A week or so ahead of time is usually plenty of time to find a good time slot, especially if you opt to take the test at home.  Most grad school applicants benefit from getting in their applications early into the admissions cycle, and scores last for five years, so it’s better to take the test sooner than later.

6.Decide early whether to take the test at home or in a computer lab

The GRE allows test takers to complete the exam at a test center or at home on their own computer.

The big advantage to taking the test in a lab is that the environment is controlled.  The lab will enforce noise restrictions, make sure you have a good working computer that can pull up the exam software without issue.  The downsides are that you can’t have a snack or a drink, your options for when to take the test are a little more limited, and you might feel less comfortable than taking the test at home.  When taking the test in a computer lab, you can use scratch paper (blank printer paper) to take notes during the exam.

The big advantage to taking the test at home on your own computer is comfort.  You can take the test in the same spot you are used to doing practice tests on your own equipment, alone in your own room.  This doesn’t work for everyone, depending on your living situation, but is usually preferable for those who can make it work.  Most students taking the test this way find that it allows for a more relaxed testing atmosphere, which cuts down on stress levels and makes it a little easier to perform.  The downsides are that you are required to take notes using a handheld white board and dry erase marker, rather than scratch paper, you have a higher risk of accidentally breaking a test security rule (e.g. if you accidentally leave an iPad on the side of your desk), and you have a much higher chance of running into issues with tech.  The GRE is amazingly flexible when tech issues come up.  If your internet dies right before you start a test, or your computer isn’t compatible with the software, they are fine letting you reschedule after you get the problem worked out.  That being said, if any tech problem does arise, it will be incredibly stressful, and likely throw you off if you are able to complete the test that day.  If you do decide to opt to take the GRE at home, do everything you can to make sure your environment strictly corresponds with all test security rules and that you update your computer and do anything you can think of to ensure it will be compatible with the GRE test software.   Many students who don’t make any effort to check compatibility have technical issues that delay their test start and cause a lot of stress.

Once you’ve decided how to take the test, practice it that way.  If you’re taking the test in a computer lab, use scratch paper as part of your studying.  If you’re taking the test at home, use a small dry erase whiteboard.  You should try to do your studying in a format that matches the real test so that the real thing feels as familiar as possible.


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