Vince's GRE test-taking tips
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The real GRE feels different. It might feel harder.
But it isn’t.
If you’ve been practicing the right way, you’ve been using a ton of official ETS practice material - and you’ve analyzed it… a lot. The GRE is standardized. It's gonna test the same things 99% of the time and use the same tricks.
The trouble is, taking a test for real feels scarier. After all, the score counts! When we’re scared, we something do things that aren’t effective (or that are straight-up dumb).
Before my students take a real test, I find myself repeating certain pieces of advice I’ve come up with over the years. The article on this page has my five favorites, along with why I say them.
If you'd rather watch my test-day tips video, then here you go!
I'd also recommend you check out this video I made about how to handle GRE time pressure.
1. Have one mantra per section.
It can be hard to remember even one thing to do let alone more than one. Pick one thing to execute for each section. When a section begins, write down your mantra on your scrap paper.
For example, before the test, you might say to yourself, “For each reading question, I will make sure I play devil’s advocate with my answer to make sure it’s defendable". When a verbal section starts, literally write that down (in shorthand) so you remember.
The idea is that if you pick too many things to focus on, you might forget to do them all. Pick one.
2. If you’re stuck, confused, and / or frustrated, move on.
Trying to power through a problem when you’re stuck isn’t a good idea, especially since you probably don’t know WHY you’re stuck.
It doesn’t matter if you “should” know how to do the problem. What matters is that you don’t waste any more time on it, since there are other problems you can do.
The beauty of this strategy is that if you DO move on and if you have time to come back to the question, you may understand it once you've done a few other questions and have looked at it with fresh eyes. Perhaps you misread it the first time, or perhaps your brain just needed a few minutes to ponder it subconsciously.
Tip: Make the decision to continue with a question or move on sometime between about the 10 to 30 second mark. You don't want to try to judge a book by its cover, since many questions are opaque at first, but if nothing's happening after 30 seconds, guess and skip. And of course, if you become stuck at ANY point while working on a question... guess and skip.
(Close your eyes, but don't let your mind wander this much!)
3. Develop rituals.
I use the word "ritual" because it has to be something concrete that you do the same way every damn time you begin a question, and every time you end a question. My favorite? Close your eyes. Take one deep breath. Open your eyes. Now begin the question.
If you haven't noticed, the GRE is not just a content test, it's a reasoning test. Noticing opportunities to use logical reasoning will perhaps give you a better way to do a problem than if you had just rushed to start it.
Even if you don’t notice a reasoning opportunity, READING THE QUESTION CAREFULLY is more likely to happen if you cultivate a ritual for beginning questions.
At the end of a question, make sure your answer makes sense. Pausing to think for a few seconds (as opposing to bubbling in your answer as quickly as possible) lets you consider the logic of your choice. Here, your ritual might be to re-read what the question is asking before picking an answer.
4. Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.
Ever try to put on your seatbelt too quickly and have it catch? If you try to do something too fast, you’re more likely to make a mistake.
Yes, the test is timed, and that clock is always ticking. But confident people don’t rush. They know, from practice and experience, that they’ll get the test (or enough of it) done in time.
The biggest mistake people make in terms of timing is to pace themselves as if they're going to work on every question in a section. That's a really bad idea for 90% of you: unless you've scored 165+ in practice, you need to be ok with not working on a few questions in order to have enough time to get the others right. You have to accept you'll get stuck on a few and be ok with moving on from them and maybe not even getting back to them.
You’ll naturally work as fast as you’re capable of working. Don’t force a quicker pace. This will help you avoid errors that might require you to redo a step. It’s just like putting on that seatbelt.
(The water won't always be this calm.)
5. Don’t expect smooth sailing.
Just like life, the real test won’t go 100% smoothly. So don't expect perfection. And just like in life, if you pour too much time and energy into the trouble spot, it may become even worse.
But unlike life, all questions on the test have the same value. It makes no sense to burn energy on one thing that isn’t going well – even if you’re trying for a very high score.
As the Beatles said, let it be. Save your energy for the many, many other questions you’ll have to do.
The Bottom Line
It can be easy to get flustered and frustrated in the high-pressure situation of taking a test that plays a significant part in determining whether you'll get into the school you want. Make sure you practice the above techniques EVERY TIME YOU TAKE A TIMED PRACTICE TEST so you'll have them in your repertoire come test day.
If you enjoyed this free guide, check out Vince's other free GRE resources.
Reminder that we help people prepare for the GRE who are applying to graduate school, business school, and law school. We also specialize in GRE prep for LD / ADHD students as well as older and non-traditional students.