Start Here: A Beginner's Guide to GRE Prep
(Vince's 4 main options to help you with your GRE prep are HERE.)
My name is Vince Kotchian, and I've been an independent GRE tutor since 2008. If you're just getting started with GRE prep, this guide is designed for you!
Here's what you'll find on this page:
- The TL;DR version of this guide
- The full version (with detailed descriptions of each GRE section)
- How the GRE's difficulty adapts to you
- What is a good GRE score?
- When should you take the GRE?
- My short answer to "How do you study for the GRE?"
- "How LONG do you need to study for the GRE?"
If you have any questions about this article, please feel free to contact me personally.
The GRE is a computer test that is about 4 hours long. It tests your writing, reading, vocabulary, and math skills.
Your 3 main to-dos:
- Get familiar with the GRE by checking out the official sample questions in this article.
- Take an official practice test to get a baseline score.
- Pick a study plan and get to work. (Link is to one of my free plans.)
Hey, if you're not really in a "to-do" kind of mood right now, check out my funny GRE vocabulary cartoons! Here's an example:
I think this easiest way for me to explain the GRE to you is to tell you what you'll experience when you actually take the test, step-by-step.
GRE Issue Essay
Time: 30 minutes.
The very first part of the GRE is writing the "Issue Essay", which is basically your response to a particular prompt. That prompt will be an opinion about something like government, education, the arts, technology, etc.
For example, here's one:
"To understand the most important characteristics of a society, one must study its major cities."
Your job will always be to write a persuasive essay in which you respond to that opinion. You'll be graded on how compelling your argument is, how well you support that argument, your essay's organization, and your use of standard written English.
Fun fact: ETS publishes all possible Issue Essay topics ahead of time, right here.
GRE Argument Essay
Time: 30 minutes.
Next, you'll write the "Argument Essay". This is your analysis of a short paragraph that contains an argument and support for that argument.
Here's an example:
"Woven baskets characterized by a particular distinctive pattern have previously been found only in the immediate vicinity of the prehistoric village of Palea and therefore were believed to have been made only by the Palean people. Recently, however, archaeologists discovered such a "Palean" basket in Lithos, an ancient village across the Brim River from Palea. The Brim River is very deep and broad, and so the ancient Paleans could have crossed it only by boat, and no Palean boats have been found. Thus it follows that the so-called Palean baskets were not uniquely Palean."
By "analysis", I mean that you'll be finding the flaws or assumptions in the paragraph and explaining what they are, what the alternate explanations for them might be, and how that would impact the argument.
You might not be used to that, but it's an easy skill to learn, and all the possible argument prompts have clear flaws.
ETS publishes all possible Argument Essay topics online, too.
(Reading comprehension is the foundation of being good at GRE verbal.)
GRE Verbal Sections
(Actually, it's random whether the first multiple choice section is verbal or math. But let's pretend it's verbal for now.)
Time: 30 minutes for 20 questions.
Questions 1 - 6...
...will probably be "text completion". These range in length from one to three sentences which contain one, two, or three blanks, and your job is to select the correct words in the answer choices to fill in the blanks.
For example, this one is only one sentence.
In parts of the Arctic, the land grades into the landfast ice so _______ that you can walk off the coast and not know you are over the hidden sea.
BTW, the right answer is Choice B, since the clue in the sentence is "you can walk off... and not know".
Questions 7 - 11...
...will probably be "reading comprehension", which is basically multiple-choice questions asked about reading passages of varying lengths. Most passages are short, but one will probably be longer, with multiple paragraphs.
Sometimes, you will be asked to "select ALL correct answers". These questions will present you with three potential answers and you can pick one choice, two choices, or all three choices.
Note: in addition to comprehension, certain questions are more logical and will ask things like "which answer would resolve the paradox?" or "which choice would best strengthen the argument?". These "critical reasoning" questions will probably comprise about 2 - 3 of the 10 "reading comprehension" questions in a verbal section.
Anyway, here's a quick example of a reading comprehension question:
Reviving the practice of using elements of popular music in classical composition, an approach that had been in hibernation in the United States during the 1960s, composer Philip Glass (born 1937) embraced the ethos of popular music in his compositions. Glass based two symphonies on music by rock musicians David Bowie and Brian Eno, but the symphonies' sound is distinctively his. Popular elements do not appear out of place in Glass's classical music, which from its early days has shared certain harmonies and rhythms with rock music. Yet this use of popular elements has not made Glass a composer of popular music. His music is not a version of popular music packaged to attract classical listeners; it is high art for listeners steeped in rock rather than the classics.
Select only one answer choice.
The passage addresses which of the following issues related to Glass's use of popular elements in his classical compositions?
A. How it is regarded by listeners who prefer rock to the classics
B. How it has affected the commercial success of Glass's music
C. Whether it has contributed to a revival of interest among other composers in using popular elements in their compositions
D. Whether it has had a detrimental effect on Glass's reputation as a composer of classical music
E. Whether it has caused certain of Glass's works to be derivative in quality
BTW, the right answer is Choice E, (the last choice) since the passage says "...the sound is distinctly his" - i.e., it's not derivative (unoriginal).
(Above: you studying?)
Questions 12 - 15...
...will probably be "sentence equivalence". These are one sentence in length, and contain one blank. Your job is to pick two answer choices that correctly complete the sentence and make it have similar meanings. These are pretty much like text completion questions, except you're picking two choices to fill in the blank.
Here's a sample:
It was her view that the country's problems had been _______ by foreign technocrats, so that to ask for such assistance again would be counterproductive.
The answers are "exacerbated" and "worsened", since they create similar meanings for the sentence and fit the clue "to ask... again would be counterproductive".
Questions 15 - 20...
...will probably be reading comprehension (again, some of these might be critical reasoning).
(Smiling while taking the test is probably not going to happen a lot even if you're prepared.)
GRE Math Sections
Time: 35 minutes for 20 questions.
The GRE tests concepts from arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and "data analysis", but does so with wordy questions that will not always be easy to solve, even if you understand the underlying concepts.
For more on this, check out my video: "The GRE is not a math test".
If you want to learn which math concepts might appear on the GRE, make sure to check out my guide to learning GRE math with the ETS math review and Khan Academy.
Most GRE quant questions will be multiple choice, but for one or two per section, you'll actually have to type in the exact answer into a box. And like verbal, some questions will be "select ALL correct answers".
Questions 1 - 8...
... will probably be "Quantitative Comparison". There will be a "Quantity A" and a "Quantity B", with four possible answer choices:
A. if Quantity A is always bigger
B. if Quantity B is always bigger
C. if they're always equal
D. if you can't definitely tell (i.e. with one trial A is bigger but with another, A is smaller or equal, for example).
Here's an example for you:
Lionel is younger than Maria.
Twice Lionel's age
Quantity A is greater.
Quantity B is greater.
The two quantities are equal.
The relationship cannot be determined from the information given.
The right answer is D (the relationship can't be determined). Here's one way to tell: If Lionel is 2 and Maria is 4, Quantity A will equal 4 and so will Quantity B.
But if Lionel is 1 and Maria is 450 (maybe "Maria" is a pine tree), then Quantity A is smaller than Quantity B.
Since two different possibilities occurred, we pick D for "can't be determined".
("Cannot be determined" is also an apt description of this cat's expression.)
Questions 9 - 20...
... will be multiple choice questions on a variety of topics. The exception to this is the 1 or 2 "type the exact answer into a box" questions.
Important note: You don't get penalized for wrong answers on the GRE. This means you should fill in an answer to every single question, even if that answer is just a guess. You might get a few right just from lucky guesses.
Now, you'll get more verbal and math sections. There are two interesting things to note, however.
1. By the end of the test, you'll have completed either three verbal and two math sections, or three math and two verbal sections. If you did three math, for instance, one of them won't count toward your score, and its data will be used to help determine how difficult individual questions are.
The way this works is that if most people got a question right on the experimental section, ETS will determine the question should appear on an easier section, and if most people got it wrong, they'll put it on a harder section.
2. The first verbal and math sections (that count) are medium-ish difficulty. But the difficulty of the next sections will depend on how well you did on the first ones.
For example, let's say you get 18 out of 20 correct on the first verbal section. The next verbal section will be harder. Don't worry - this is a good thing, since now the software thinks you're a high scorer, and even if you get fewer correct on the harder section, you'll still end up with a good score.
Another example: Let's say you get 6 right out of 20 on that first verbal section. The next verbal section will be easier. This is not good. Even if you get more right this time, your score will still, most likely, be below average.
And finally: If you get around half right on the first verbal section, the next verbal section will be average difficulty.
Hopefully, when you're taking the test, you won't be thinking too much about whether the section you're taking is experimental or about what difficulty is it, since A. you won't know for sure, and B. you'll just want to do your best, regardless.
(Your town celebrating your perfect GRE score with a fireworks display.)
After you're done with the test, you'll click "Report Scores", which will give you your unofficial scores for verbal and math.
Note: always click "Report Scores", since you can then decide if you want to send your scores to a particular school. The GRE offers score choice, so if you end up retaking the test, you can decide what test date's scores to send. If you mistakenly click "Cancel Scores", you can actually reinstate those scores, but you'll have to pay ETS another 50 bucks. Don't ever click "cancel scores"!
Both verbal and math are scored from 130 (which is like a zero) to 170 (a perfect score). The average verbal score is about 150, and the average math score is about 153. Of course, the numbers that really matter are the ones that your desired graduate school program considers to be competitive.
You'll also get a percentile score for each section of the test which tells you how you rank against ALL of the people who took the GRE for that particular section. If you're really interested, you also can look at ETS's data for percentiles specific to intended graduate majors on page 32 of this PDF.
Pro Tip: CALL your programs, tell them you're studying hard for the GRE, and say it would be helpful to get a specific sense of what scores would be competitive. I say to call, since they will probably give more info away over the phone than via email. And their website often will not provide any specific numbers other than minimum scores, which aren't very helpful.
You'll get your essay score online in about 10-15 days. That score is the average of your Issue and Argument scores, and will range from 1 to 6, in half-point increments. The average essay score is about a 4.
(Time to break out your planner.)
The good news is that the answer to this question is really flexible since the test is computer-delivered and available year-round. There really is no "should".
But let's work backwards, perhaps, from your program application due date - here's a really basic sample timeline. Keep in mind you can take the GRE more than once and decide which test date's scores to send to your programs.
January 1st 2022: application deadline
Dec. 15th, 2021: take the real GRE again
Nov. 15th, 2021: take the real GRE for the 1st time
September 15, 2021: start studying
If someone asks me this question, I always have four questions so I can fine-tune the above sample:
- When are your applications due?
- What's your goal score?
- What's your current score?
- When will you have a few months or so during which you won't be swamped with other responsibilities?
The answers to these questions will help me advise someone about a basic timeline (BTW, if you email me with the answers to these questions, I'll give you a quick opinion on an ideal timeline).
(Hammering a giant tire is an essential GRE study plan component.)
In a nutshell, you'll need to do several things to prepare:
- Build your vocabulary
- Learn math concepts that will be tested
- Learn some basic GRE math strategies
- Learn strategies for each type of verbal question
- Learn essay strategies for both essays
- Get a ton of experience doing real ETS GRE math questions
- Fully understand the ETS verbal questions you work on
- Take timed official ETS practice tests
- Thoughtfully analyze your mistakes
Since there is a lot to do, your biggest problem when studying for the test, especially at first, might be organization and feeling overwhelmed. Don't worry! I've got your back. I have detailed study plans that will walk you through everything.
Warning: my study plans are not as convenient and simple-looking as those you'll find from the big test prep companies, but that's because I wanted them to be as effective as humanly possible for people studying on their own. Be patient with the tasks as you get into them - you'll get the hang of it after a week or so!
It's just like any recipe: you want the full version, not the "quick and easy" version, if you want the finished product to be as good as it can be!
Also, unlike the study plans offered by test prep companies, mine focus on official ETS GRE material and won't waste your time with unrealistic prep company questions. The only thing you'll really need to buy are the ETS books and practice tests.
(GRE prep is more like a marathon than a sprint.)
In general, the longer you study, the more you can improve, since you'll have more time for things like vocabulary building and math experience building. I highly recommend using ALL the time you have. Find out when your applications are due and plan to take the test about 6 weeks before that - this gives you a 2nd chance to take the test if the first score is disappointing. You can take the GRE every 21 days up to five times each year.
Of course, there is a caveat to this - if your program uses rolling admissions, it will probably be easier to get accepted the sooner you submit your application - so you'll have to balance that against spending more study time to try to raise your GRE score.
I also probably wouldn't spend more than six months studying for the GRE. After that, there are probably diminishing returns - plus I seriously doubt you'll want to study that long! It's not like this process is fun for most people... :)
Ok, That's All I've Got For Now!