General GRE Strategies
It’s time to talk strategy, specifically study and test-taking strategies.
It’s no secret that getting a good score requires lots of time, energy, and
preparation. We’ve included many strategies throughout this book, from general
strategies to help you on test day to question-specific step methods that will
ensure you have an effective plan of attack for very question type you face. So,
without further ado, here are the general strategies designed to help you
prepare for and beat the GRE:
- Unleash Your Inner Warrior
- Get Online
- Set a Target Score
- Pace Yourself
- Remember the Order of Difficulty
- Use the Process of Elimination
We’ll spend the rest of this chapter looking at each strategy in detail.
Unleash Your Inner Warrior
You bought this book for a reason. You don’t want to sweat through
every question. You want to be an elegant, test-taking warrior, a destroyer
of the GRE and all questions therein. The mistake many students make is
taking the GRE cold—with no preparation, not even so much as a flip through
the information booklet. By familiarizing yourself with every type of
question, you can approach each one coolly and calmly, knowing in advance
what needs to be done to get it right. It’s about switching from survival
mode to attack mode, and it’s attack mode that will help you score high.
Everything tested on the GRE is covered in this book, so you can
forget about digging out that algebra textbook or notes from Intro to
English. Best of all, your confidence will continue to grow as you learn
more about the exam and the specific techniques for each section.
Remember too that the test is predictable. The test makers announce in
advance which concepts and skills will be covered by the GRE. A predictable
test is a beatable test. We’ll go into more detail during our review of each
section, and you’ll have a chance to practice on sample questions. Knowing
what you’ll see on test day means you can study and prepare.
The GRE is a computer-based test, so you’ll need to devote some time
to familiarizing yourself with the mechanics of an online exam. We can’t
stress this enough: Taking a computer-based test is different from taking a
pencil-and-paper test. You’ll be using a mouse instead of a pencil, you’ll
be clicking from question to question, and you’ll be reading a screen rather
than a page.
At this PDF
/testprep/gre/, you’ll find both a short
mini-quiz (to provide a quick taste of what to expect) and two full-length
practice tests. Note that the second test is only available to customers who
have purchased this book. Use the card at the back of this book to get your
You’ll also want to head to the GRE’s very own website, www.gre.org.
There you’ll be able to register for the test and download the test makers’
PowerPrep software bundle, which includes sample questions. Last but not
least, you can access the pool of Essay topics at
Set a Target Score
Concrete goals are better than vague hopes. Here’s a vague hope: “I
want to do really well on the GRE.” Okay. Go study everything. In contrast,
here’s a concrete goal: “I want to score 600 or above on the Math section.”
Concrete goals allow you to come up with a specific plan. This will make the
time you spend preparing for the GRE much more efficient, leaving you more
time to enjoy your life.
When setting a target score, be honest and realistic. Do some
research, and contact the graduate programs you want to apply to about their
score requirements or cutoffs. Unlike the SAT, you don’t necessarily have to
do really well on all three sections of the GRE in order to get an
acceptance letter. And lest you forget: A good score on the GRE is the score
that gets you into the graduate program of your choice.
Base your target score on the range required by the schools you want
to attend. Aim for a target score that’s a few points higher than the
average for those schools. You can also gauge your target score by the
practice tests in this book and online. If you score a 500 on the Math
section, don’t set your target score at 700. You’ll just get frustrated and
you won’t know where to focus your preparation time. Instead, your target
should be about 50 points higher on each section than your score on the
practice test. Use this new target score to set your expectations when you
move on to other practice tests. You can download the official GRE PowerPrep
software from ETS and take the two actual practice tests that they provide
If You Reach Your Target Score . . .
Take yourself to a movie, eat some candy, go IM your friends for
several hours, or do something else to celebrate. But just because
you’ve hit your target score doesn’t mean you should stop working. In
fact, you should view reaching your target score as proof that you can
do better than that score: Set a new target slightly higher than your
original, pick up your pace a little bit, and kick some GRE butt.
Slow and steady wins the race and beats the test. By working to
improve bit-by-bit, you’ll integrate your knowledge of how to take the
test and master the subjects the test covers without burning out. If you
can handle working just a little faster without becoming careless and
losing points, your score will certainly go up. If you meet your new
target score again, rinse and repeat.
We advise you to pace yourself in all kinds of ways: as you’re
planning your application process, as you’re studying, and as you’re taking
- Pace yourself while you’re planning. Find out the due
dates for your grad school applications. The GRE is offered year-round,
so make sure you schedule to take it with enough time to meet any
program deadlines. You’ll also want to make sure you’re not taking it
while you’re going through finals, switching jobs, getting married,
adopting a cat, or doing anything that might detract from your study
- Pace yourself while you’re studying. The GRE covers a
lot of material, and it can seem overwhelming if you think about it as
one huge block. That’s why we’ve divided this book into parts, so that
you can tackle the concepts and strategies when it’s most convenient for
you. To prevent cramming or burnout, structure your study time far in
advance. Write up daily or weekly study goals—and meet them. Use e-mail
reminders or calendar programs to your advantage.
- Pace yourself while you’re taking the test. If the
GRE were an untimed exam, scores would be much higher. The GRE
challenges you to get the most right answers in a very short amount of
time. As you begin studying, don’t worry about time. Practice individual
questions and problem sets without looking at the clock. When you feel
comfortable with the strategies and start seeing some real improvement,
then start timing yourself. Eventually, you’ll want to take a timed
full-length practice test to see how you’re scoring within the time
In general, you can afford to spend an average of about 60 seconds per
verbal question and about 95 seconds per math question. Remember the order
of difficulty (more on that below). Work as quickly as you can without
making mistakes on the initial questions so that you’ll have time to
carefully work through the hard questions. Don’t feel like you should be
timing yourself on every single question. Ultimately, what matters is that
you complete the sections, answering as many questions correctly as you can,
within the time allotted. How long you actually spend on each question is up
The Essay section gives you 45 minutes to plan and draft the Issue
essay and 30 minutes to do the same on the Argument essay. After you’ve
mastered the Math and Verbal review, you should begin doing some timed
writing to get used to writing strong essays within that time frame.
As mentioned above, on test day, you’ll have an on-screen clock, which
will count down the time you have to complete the sections. Although you’ll
be given the option to hide this clock, it will automatically alert you when
you have just five minutes to go.
Remember the Order of Difficulty
The GRE software adapts to your skills as a test taker. At the start
of each section, you’ll be given a few questions of medium-level difficulty.
If you answer the initial questions correctly, the GRE will automatically
begin giving you harder questions. The more difficult questions you answer
correctly, the higher your score. If you make mistakes on those initial
questions, however, the GRE will begin giving you easier questions.
If you think you’ve got the answer to an easy question, don’t
second-guess yourself: You probably do. If you’re looking at what you
consider to be a difficult question, you might want to check your answer
just to make sure you haven’t made a careless mistake. No matter what, don’t
get hung up on trying to determine a question’s level of difficulty. Do the
best you can, but once you click the answer, forget about it—and concentrate
on the next question.
Use the Process of Elimination
The GRE software won’t let you skip or leave questions in the middle
of the section blank, so you should always guess when you don’t know the
answer. But don’t just randomly click the middle choice and move on.
Instead, eliminate answers you know are wrong, and then guess from the
remaining choices. If you’re stuck on a nasty-looking question, work through
it as best you can to try to eliminate any of the answers. As you’re looking
at the answer choices, remember to eliminate distractors,
or choices that look temptingly correct but aren’t.
- Math distractors. On Math questions, distractors will
often be those numbers you’ll come to in the process of solving a
problem. They’ll be the numbers you get when you’re halfway done or when
you make a careless error such as mistakenly making a negative number
- Verbal distractors. On Verbal questions,
distractors will be words that sound very similar
to words in the question, or they’ll be words that relate to a feeling
or event discussed in the question.
Think of the process of elimination like this: If you don’t know the
answer to a standard multiple-choice question, you have a 20 percent chance
of blindly guessing correctly. If you can eliminate just one choice,
suddenly you have a 25 percent chance of getting the question right. And if
you can eliminate three choices, you’ve upped your chances to 50 percent!
Throughout the upcoming chapters, we’ll show you how to spot—and
dodge—distractors by reviewing common GRE answer traps.
No doubt, mastering the GRE is a considerable undertaking. As you’ll
soon see, however, the test is extremely systematic, coachable, and
conquerable. Ready to get started? Okay, let’s do it.