How To Study For The GRE By Yourself


Tip: Rather than following a pre-made, one-size-fits-all GRE study plan you find online, I’d highly recommend devising your own, using my advice below for each part of the test. You are the one who needs to figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are, where to spend more time and less time, and what parts of the GRE the programs to which you’re applying care about.

Ok, ready? This is gonna get detailed, so bookmark this page and take your time digesting my advice.

Foundational Skills

I break this down into several areas:

Vocabulary – learning new words that the GRE is likely to test. Many verbal reasoning questions will depend on whether you can define the words in the question and / or the answer choices. My #1 recommendation is to learn GRE words daily from GRE Vocab Capacity (the book I co-wrote). We define over 1,300 GRE words with mnemonics to help the definitions stick in your brain. We also have a word root index.

  • I also like both the Manhattan GRE Essential Flashcards and their Advanced Flashcards – they have relevant words, memorable sentences, and synonyms of words – all in an easy to carry box of cards.Ideally, make or use a flashcard for each word you’re learning. Include a pronunciation so you can use it in speech, a brief definition, a mnemonic, a sentence using the word, and any synonyms you also want to learn. See my blog for examples and a chart explaining how to organize your vocab studies.
  • Your daily reading (see below) will also help with GRE vocabulary. Look up words you don’t know; they’ll be easier to learn since you’ve seen them in context. Any words you see in a normal publication are fair game for the GRE to test. Whatever method you use to learn vocab, quiz yourself. It’s easier to retain things if you’re quizzed on them.

Reading Comprehension – building your ability to understand the literal meaning of what you’re reading and to understand how different parts of a passage function in relation to the whole. You’ll have to be able to read passages written at a graduate level in areas like the humanities and sciences: this skill is the cornerstone of your GRE verbal prep. The longer you have to prepare, the more important improving reading comprehension becomes. If you don’t have very long before you take the GRE, it can be difficult to improve your reading skill in an appreciable way – it’s usually a skill that takes a while to build.

  • My #1 recommendation is to read academic journals – ETS adapts many passages from academia. Read about all kinds of different topics; you’ll understand a passage better if you’re familiar with its subject matter. Also read anything from Arts and Letters Daily, the New Yorker, or the Economist, which are all written at a high reading level. This will improve your comprehension and passively teach you vocabulary. It will also give you material for the essays!

Math – mastering arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and data analysis concepts. Mastery is important, since you’ll also have to reason your way through many questions, not just plug numbers into formulas or solve for x.

  • My top recommendations are to use the Manhattan Prep GRE Set (if you have more time, like 4 or more months) or CliffsNotes Math Review (if you have less than 4 months) to build conceptual knowledge. Use ETS’s math review (which is online here) to build conceptual knowledge, too.
  • Important: for concepts you have never learned or that you’re otherwise weak on, use Khan Academy to build foundation through videos and exercises.
  • I’ve made a spreadsheet that classifies the math questions in the Official Guide by concept and technique so you can practice applying a concept once you’ve learned it. Learn, apply, rinse, repeat. Make sure you build in review sessions; you want to be reviewing topics when you’re starting to forget them. I’ll get into actual math technique for the GRE in Step 4; by technique, I mean methods for doing certain question types.

Essays – learning how to write both the GRE Issue Essay and the GRE Argument Essay. Read everything ETS writes about the essays on its website; it offers lots of good advice. In The Official Guide, as well as in the Verbal Practice book, there are sample essays from real GRE takers. These are great models for your writing since you can see what the ETS graders reward.

  • Next, read and brainstorm the topics for the Issue essay and the topics for the Argument essay; ETS publishes all possible essay topics on its website. Then, write practice essays untimed at first to develop your skills, then write them timed once you’re happy with how the untimed ones look. I highly recommend getting a good writer to look at your essays. They Say, I Say is the best book I know of to improve your writing, since it quickly allows you to incorporate academic writing structures into your own writing.

Logic – learning how to solve critical reasoning questions. These are questions that involve strengthening or weakening an argument or explaining a paradox. Comprehension is secondary to logical reasoning here, and these questions demand different skills.

  • My #1 recommendation is to get a copy of the GMAT Verbal Review (any edition) and work on Critical Reasoning questions. The GRE modeled certain questions on the GMAT (the two companies now compete for business school applicants). You will see questions just like these on the GRE, but ETS hasn’t published very many.

Learn Technique

Each GRE question type can be made easier with good methodology.

I AM a tutor, so I’m biased, but I think the best way to learn technique is from a tutor, so you can talk through the nuances of questions with another human.

What About Online Classes?

I offer a complete GRE course which I produced for LinkedIn that I think is helpful. Magoosh is good, too.

What About In-Person Classes?

I tend to steer people away from most organizations’ classes. In a nutshell, I am one of the very few long-term, full-time tutors out there. Tutoring is not a common career, so most tutors are working part-time while they finish grad school or look for a "normal" job in their field of interest.

Also, good tutors can make much more money working for themselves than they can working for big organizations. So the GRE tutors who work for big organizations are usually inexperienced. Once they get more experience and realize they can find clients on their own, they leave the big company and it hires more newbies.

This is why big organizations don’t usually tell you who’s teaching their GRE classes.

If you're interested in checking out my GRE classes, you can read about them on this page.

Warning: If you’re learning technique from a static source like a book or a video, be prepared to experiment and be flexible. If a technique isn’t working on a certain ETS question, it may be the technique’s fault more than yours. Think about it; talk about it with someone else; try a different way.

GRE Practice Material

GRE verbal practice and GRE math practice with real (ETS-written) questions is crucial to hone your technique and to get realistic experience.

Buy The Official Guide and its Verbal Practice and Quantitative Practice supplements. These are the most important practice books, since they contain authentic GRE sample questions, which are more complex and realistic than any other company’s.

I’ve explained all the Quantitative Practice Book’s questions on my Youtube channel.

You can supplement with Barron’s 6 GRE Practice Tests (which I co-wrote) – just make sure you eventually master the ETS problems. I also like the Manhattan 5 lb. book of GRE practice problems. Keep in mind these books are for extra math practice and are less useful for extra verbal practice.

First, practice untimed. This is your chance to work on concepts and techniques without time pressure. Timed practice is best done once your skills and techniques are sharper.

Always circle troublesome questions or questions you guessed on, so you can review them. Don’t write in your books – when you review questions, they should be blank.

You will probably want more than two computer practice tests, so I’d supplement with Manhattan Prep’s online GRE practice tests (which are available with the purchase of any of the books in the Manhattan Prep GRE Set). Don’t analyze Manhattan tests too much – they’re not the real thing. I’d aim for taking 5-8 practice tests during your prep.

I’d take the first ETS Powerprep Timed Test about halfway through your prep, and take the second one toward the end of your prep. Analyze both… a lot (see review step below). Don’t forget that there are easy, medium, and hard sections for the second sections of both math and verbal in each test. Here’s an answer key that will enable you to get to them all.

My friend Brian has published a thorough guide to using the ETS Powerprep software.

A final source of new questions is this ETS practice paper test, but I’d do it last, since it contains some questions from the Powerprep tests.

Review – The Most Important Step!

Reviewing is where you learn the most about the GRE and the rules it plays by.

After each tutoring lesson or study session, review my notes and the problems we/you studied within 48 hours.

Review problems, identifying what was tested, ideal technique, and takeaways. Write these things down. You should be reviewing problems you got right as much as you review ones you missed. Keep working with a question until you can explain it to a friend. This will let you get much more out of the ETS books, since it should be taking you at least three times as long to review a question as it takes you to do one. The good news? Review is what makes you better at the test! Review, don’t just do!

Now go back and work on concepts and techniques until you’re ready to practice again. A good way to organize your study time is to split it into thirds: one-third concepts (like vocab and math concepts), one-third practice (writing essays and doing practice questions), and one-third reviewing (analyzing previously done questions). Eventually, you’ll want to do questions you got wrong again – from scratch – so don’t write in your books, and wait until you’ve forgotten a question to redo it.

Bonus Recommendation: You’re applying to grad school soon, right? I highly recommend reading Graduate Admissions Essays – it’s an intelligent overview of the whole application process, not just the essay. The author, Donald Asher, is an expert on admissions, and I learned a lot even though I’ve been doing this for a long time.

I hope this guide helps you prepare for the GRE. Questions? HMU.

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