The General Record Exam, or GRE, is one the leading causes of anxiety among graduate school applicants. No kidding, right? The prospect of taking a multi-hour timed exam is enough to rattle all but the most stoic. Luckily, I've been through the process and earned a top score so you can benefit from my experience. The most important takeaway is that the GRE is highly learnable with committment and patience.
In terms of preparing for the exam, you have two options:
I'm a big fan of this approach whenever possible. If you're able to study alone, I recommend reading through a short list of handpicked self-study guides. This will cost less than $100 and take 6-8 weeks in most cases (timing varies by person -- some need up to 12 weeks). You'll need to be highly disciplined and be capable of learning without outside help.
Option 1 - Personal Tutor: If you require assistane or prefer learning with a teacher one-on-one, find a competent personal tutor who's scored highly on the GRE (top 10%) and knows how to teach. GRE tutors often charge $30-60 an hour. A typical student might require 15-20 hours of tutoring at, say, $40/hour, costing around $600-800. If you go down this path, be sure to check your tutor's credentials (Where did they go to school? What is their GRE score? How often do they tutor? What results have they achieved with students?) and ensure that you're learning on a regular basis. Good tutors are rare and worth their weight in gold. Many advertise on craigslist.
Option 2 - Test Prep Company: If you prefer learning with a teacher in a classroom setting, you can use a test prep company like Kaplan, which offers courses taught by top-scoring instructors starting around $1,300 for 3 weeks. This can be a good option if you're the type of person that learns best in a large classroom setting. However, if you're placed in a class where you're better or worse than your classmates you may not maximize your learning since instructors teach with the average student in mind.
* * * Note that test prep materials are constantly being updated, so always double-check that you're buying the latest version! * * *
Build your Vocab With Manhattan's Flash Cards + Phone App
Manhattan Prep has put together a little box of flash cards containing 500 high frequency words that appear on the exam. Other test prep companies sell similar products, but can be hard to find as the GRE stopped testing vocabulary explicitly years ago. Even though the GRE no longer tests vocabulary explicitly (analogy and antonym questions have been retired), a strong vocabulary is still essential to achieving a top score. Each card has a word on one side and the definition, along with a sample sentence, on the other side. Bring these flash cards with you everywhere – on the subway, at work, in the bathroom, in the car, etc. You should try to learn a certain number of words each day, ideally 15 to 30, acknowledging that the human brain has limits to how much it can retain.
In addition, you can complement Manhattan's flash cards with a phone app. There are many to choose from, such as Magoosh's 1,000-Word GRE Vocabulary Flash Cards (click here for the iOS and Android). Find one that works for you and use it to complement Manhattan's flash cards -- but start with Manhattan, as I believe it's the best resource. Start memorizing vocab early to avoid an ignominious fate (GRE word – definition: marked by or attended with ignominy; discreditable; humiliating).
Read Barron's GRE Book Cover to Cover
Each of the three major test prep companies – Barron's, Kaplan, and The Princeton Review – publishes a study guide. In my opinion, Barron's is the single best overall resource for math and verbal. It offers clear explanations and practice questions that are on the harder end of the spectrum (i.e. more realistic). It also contains an extensive vocabulary list that can supplement the Manhattan flash cards. Ideally, you should set aside 3-4 weeks to go through this material. * * * Make sure that you're buying the latest edition of the book as Barron's puts out a new edition every year or so. * * *
Do Lots of Practice Questions from the Official ETS Book
After completing the above books, I recommend completing the practice exercises in the official guide published by the ETS. This is the only book published by the creators of the GRE and contains hundreds of actual GRE questions that have appeared in past exams. In total, you should set aside 1 week to go through this guide. Even though it's not pubished annually and it's questions are slightly out of date, there really isn't a substitute for actual past exam questions, no matter what the test prep companies say!
Take At Least Five Practice Tests
In order to avoid a panic attack on the test day, we recommend that you take five or more practice tests simulating real exam conditions. That means no distractions, no calculators, and strict timing. Besides the practice tests contained in the Barron's book, the official test maker, ETS, allows you to download two full-length exams (for free!) through their PowerPrep software. Taking two or more tests is an indispensable step to building confidence prior to the exam.
Personal Tutor or Test Prep Course
Personal GRE tutors can be found on craigslist, through university billboard postings or word-of-mouth (ask your friends or professors). Tutors will often ask to meet 2 or 3 times per week (e.g., Mon, Wed, Fri), allowing time in between sessions for homework. As far as test prep companies, Kaplan offers a 3-week course called GRE Prep in Person. It's one of their most popular programs, covering the exam in a structured classroom setting that meets twice per week. This is a good option if you learn better in a large classroom setting where a teacher calls on students, though I still recommend considering a competent personal tutor first.