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How to Study for---and Pass---the GRE

Updated on February 4, 2017

Steps to Follow for Passing the GRE

If you are planning to enter graduate school, you are probably aware that most colleges and universities require that you make a certain score on some type of entrance test. One of these tests is the Graduate Record Exam (GRE).

Several years ago, I decided to enter the doctoral program in a major university that required a composite score of 1000 on the verbal and quantitative sections of the test. That requirement is for the GRE form that was given prior to 2011. The scoring after 2011 is different, but strategies for studying for the GRE are similar.

The only math courses I had taken were Algebra I and Plane Geometry----and that was in high school! I knew I had some serious studying ahead. After talking with several friends who had succeeded in passing this test, I armed myself with a stack of books and made a plan. Your particular course of action may vary according to your strengths and weaknesses, but here are some general guidelines to follow in preparing for taking the GRE.

1. Start with the basics and keep it simple. The first step is to brush up, or remediate, any weak areas ahead of time. Since I knew my skills in algebra and geometry were weak, the first step for me was to purchase a basic algebra and geometry book/workbook. This little book covered every type problem one could encounter in a basic Algebra I course, as well as problem solving related to plane geometry. In looking over the current selections on Amazon, I found several books similar to the one I used. In selecting a book, be sure to look inside before buying. Also, look at the reviews and buy one with at least a four-star rating.

2. Book format is important. Each book divided the chapters into different categories according to the type problem. The author subdivided each chapter into sections: First, a presentation of the problem, next, an explanation of how to work the problem, and illustrations. After the illustrations of the problem, the author displayed similar problems for the reader to solve---one at a time. The answers were always on a separate, yet easy-to-find page. Each answer described the reasoning for the answers in detail. This book took me systematically through each problem. The author assumed the reader knew little or nothing, and that assumption was perfect for me!

3. Set a schedule and stick to it. This step was probably the most difficult. I spent an average of two hours each night and four nights per week working problems. I usually added another six hours on Saturday, and by the week’s end, I had spent about fourteen or fifteen hours working math problems. As I worked through the book, I noted problem areas and I repeatedly returned to the difficult problems. These math study sessions lasted almost six months. By the time I completed the book, I knew a lot more about algebra and geometry than ever and was ready for the next step.

4. A GRE Preparation course was the next step. The local university offered one of these courses, and I signed up. One word of caution: Some private companies offer these course reviews for a variety of standardized tests. If the course employs the same teacher for both verbal and quantitative instruction, ask to see their credentials. With higher-level math and English or reading comprehension, few professional teachers are highly competent with specialized training in both subject areas. In addition, be sure the course includes instruction regarding the differences in this test after 2011, particularly with the scoring.

5. The course covered quantitative and verbal. I did not have to take the analogy section, but I remained in the class for that part---after all, I had paid for the entire course. As I worked through the math problems, I was grateful that I had studied independently before signing up for the course because my math skills were considerably better than they were six months earlier.

6. Independent Studying. At some point during my algebra-geometry marathon study sessions, I purchased a book called, Cracking the GRE (Princeton Review). Recently, I noticed a publication called Essential Words for the GRE (Baron’s GRE, Philip Geer, author). The Essential Words book lists vocabulary words to know for this test in order of importance. Although I did not have this particular book, I liked the way the author listed the 300 most essential words to know, and then he proceeded to less essential, but important vocabulary words.

7. More independent study. While taking the GRE course, I began to tackle the verbal section more heavily. I made index cards on the vocabulary words presented in the course. The word went onto one sideof the card and the definition and a workable sentence using the word went on the card’s back.

I divided the index cards into three groups----those word that I easily recognized and remembered, for the second group, I placed the words that were not so difficult but still needed study, and finally, I placed into a third group of words those that were extremely difficult. Every day I reviewed the words that needed more work until I could put them into the “know well” stack. I reviewed the “know well” list occasionally, but not often. Those difficult to learn words are the ones that took the most time. I learned only 3-4 new ones in this group each day. Everyone’s learning style and vocabulary level is different, so the number of new words to tackle each day will not be the same for everyone.

8. Learn the maximum each day without overload. Decide what you can learn without being overwhelmed and don’t attempt too many at one time. To learn these difficult words, I wrote a sentence with the word and added the sentence to the index card. I continued this process until I had learned all the new words in the book.

9. Reading comprehension---some tips. In preparing for the verbal portion of the GRE, be sure to study how to find the main idea. Several books are available. I like the one by John Langan, Ten Steps to Building College Reading Skills and Ten Steps to Improving College Reading Skills (Townsend Press). Although these books are extremely simple, you will find yourself learning more tips for effective reading comprehension than you could imagine, and then you apply the principles to the more difficult passages on the GRE practice tests. Some of the strategies you will need for the reading comprehension include finding the main idea, looking for test answers within supporting details, understanding inferences and implied main idea, and determining what a word means from its context---all are strategies that work well with any reading selection. You can proceed through one of these books and move on to apply them with the GRE material. See my hub entitled “How to Help Your Child Find the Main Idea.” These instructions apply to reading any passages. That link can be accessed here:

10. Learn how to guess on the GRE. Finally, after polishing my math skills for about six months, taking a GRE prep course, and studying independently, I went to the last step in the process: I purchased a book that explained how to guess on the GRE. I recently looked for a book with a similar title and couldn’t find one. However, I noticed that one of the Princeton Review GRE study books contains a section on how to make correct guesses when you don’t know the answer. I recommend making sure you include some last minute studying on how to guess when all else fails.

This GRE study plan worked well for me. First, the brush-up on math allowed me to tackle my weak areas and bring my math skills to a higher level before I got into the more difficult GRE math questions. If I had not begun slowly, I think I would have been overwhelmed with the realization of how little I knew about math. Instead, I began slowly and worked up to more difficult problems gradually. By the time I got to the GRE course, I had the basic skills mastered; therefore, I accomplished far more with the GRE course because I wasn’t struggling with the lower level skills.. Overall, it took me about six months of working independently before I was prepared to take the GRE course. Not everyone will need that much time.

In the whole scheme of events, the important thing is that I met the goal I set. Without a plan---and this one worked for me---, I doubt I would have made it. When I took the GRE, I scored 100 points higher than the required score, and I entered the doctoral program, the next step in the process.



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    • simondixie profile imageAUTHOR

      Nancy McLendon Scott 

      4 years ago from Georgia

      Thank you! I'm not sure I would qualify as an expert, but I've been through this process. I'm just sharing the experiences that helped me the most. I appreciate your kind comments.

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Passing GRE is not at a big deal, but with the help of experts like you it become much easier. Thanks for sharing your views.

    • simondixie profile imageAUTHOR

      Nancy McLendon Scott 

      4 years ago from Georgia


      I believe that there is no ONE particular book that has it all. For me, using a combination of methods and books was the best way to study. I found that learning the material---reviewing the math/algebra/geometry, etc. and English/reading came first. Since I have always been weak in math/algebra, I spent at least 6 months reviewing these subjects----every night for about 2 hours and on Saturday for about 6 hours. Then I took a preparatory course designed especially for the GRE. I went through that course on weekends until finished, and then I bought a couple of GRE books and studied those. A book that focuses on strategies is essential, but not until the content has been mastered. A book that helped me a great deal was "How to Guess on the GRE." (that may not be the exact title but that's close). That book helped me to guess on those questions for which I had no clue.

      I hope this helps.....I used a combination of books and methods.....Good luck if you are getting ready to take the GRE. I hope you do well. THank you for your comment.


    • Exam Masters profile image

      Vishal Mody 

      4 years ago from Toronto

      What is the best review book for the GRE in your opinion?

    • simondixie profile imageAUTHOR

      Nancy McLendon Scott 

      4 years ago from Georgia

      So true. Tips and hints for studying can only guide.....the process is a long one that (for me) was not quick. That is important for students to remember. THank you for your insightful comment.

    • profile image


      4 years ago

      Gre exam is very important so students must keep in mind that only hardworking can help for passing it

    • simondixie profile imageAUTHOR

      Nancy McLendon Scott 

      5 years ago from Georgia

      Thank you for your helpful comment. My daughter is getting ready to study for the GRE, and I'm going to pass these (links) along to her. This kind of feedback is one of the bonuses of being involved with hubpages. I appreciate your suggestions! Thanks again.

    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Preparing for the GRE can be cumbersome especially when you are out of college for a long time. You kinda forget the basics and have to start from scratch. I took the GRE last month and got 324. I've used several online resources during my prep. I've found this interesting! Check it out!

      Also check this out!

      I personally liked the way they use a incremental methodology of studying. Vocabulary Flashcards also helped me a lot.

      Hope this helped. Thank you!

    • simondixie profile imageAUTHOR

      Nancy McLendon Scott 

      6 years ago from Georgia

      Thank you! It worked for me---several friends gave me tips that they had used (all of the above) and they worked.

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 

      6 years ago

      I remember the GRE and how much I had to study for the test. It asks questions that are abstract and I have to take time to analyze them. Unfortunately, it is time and that also affected my answers. Great tip for those who need the information.


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