• Heidi Waite

GRE: Tips & Tricks

Updated: Jul 3, 2020

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is just one more hurdle you've got to jump though to apply to graduate school. It's a crazy long (4hr) - not to mention, expensive - test with 3 sections including quantitative, verbal, and writing skills. Yet, studies have found little correlation between the GRE and success in grad school. Additionally, many fear this exam puts minoritized groups at a disadvantage. For these reasons, many schools have dropped the requirement. Nonetheless, some programs still require it.

I have had many friends and undergraduate students ask me for GRE tips, tricks, and resources. I thought I'd make a quick summary blogpost with resources and my study approach. I took the exam over 3 years ago now, but I'll do my best.

[Before I begin, I wanted to say that the GRE is quite expensive. Check the website to see if you are eligible for a reduced price. As a McNair Scholar, I was able to receive a discount. So investigate a little to see if any programs you are part of might also give you a waiver.]

General tips

  • Start studying early! I began studying 3 months before the exam. I would do 1+ hour of study a day. A week or so before the exam, I also spend 3 days taking 3 full-length timed exams (see later bullet).

  • Get a review book. You can buy one or try checking one out from the library.

  • Practice, practice, practice. Like all standardised tests, it's more about learning how to take the exam than testing your actual knowledge. How do you do that? Practice! Use your review book and free online practice tests to practice answering GRE questions. You start to see common themes and the type of questions they ask.

  • Practice in the format you'll take the exam. The GRE is taken on the computer, so it's best you practice in the same way - use a scrap piece of paper to do your math, use the online calculator, etc. At first, don't worry about the time limits but start timing yourself as soon as you feel comfortable. Timing is really important on this exam. Here are a few places to take practice exams: kaplan or the GRE official ETS website. ETS has ways to practice with the calculator (the second link).

  • If possible, take a prep course. I took a prep course and it was extremely helpful. They can be expensive though. Luckily, I was sponsored to take one.

  • Put together a study group. I found this really useful! We would get together, take a timed section together in a room, and then go over it together. It really helps to learn from each other.

  • Don't freak out! You got this! I was sooo over studying and the exam in general that by the time I sat down for the test, I was no longer stressed. I went in with the mentality "I know what I know & I'll do my best". I was weirdly calm. I wish the same for you! You'll also get a "score" at the end of your exam that might freak you out! But try not to worry about it too much. It's not yet weighted against how everyone else did that day. If it was a hard exam and everyone does horribly, you're percentile (which is what really matters) might go up. You usually get your official exam scores a month or so later.


You'll either get an "issue" or "argument" essay. I'll briefly talk about each. But first, forget the 5 paragraph essay! You'll want an introductory paragraph and a conclusion paragraph, but then you'll want a paragraph for each supporting point. That can be 2 paragraphs or 5.

Issue essays will talk about broad topics that anyone can relate to or that no prior experience in necessary. These prompts will normally be about moral or social issues. It's key though that you realise that the topic is complex and there is no clear solution. You've got to argue both sides. I'd recommend spending the first 5 or so minutes to brainstorm the pros and cons of the issue. Then begin by writing an introduction paragraph that includes 1) the issue (paraphrase the prompt), 2) admit the issue is complex and has many viewpoints - state those, 3) thesis statement of how you will discuss both sides in detail. The next few paragraphs (2-4) are where you give specific examples of the pros and cons list you made. Make sure you have contrasting points of view. If you are running low on time, write at least 2 body paragraphs with contrasting views, jump to the conclusion, then come back to write a third paragraph. In your concluding paragraph, make it clear that is it the conclusion (i.e. "In conclusion", "In summary") and recap all you've written ("As the examples above illustrate..").

Argument essay prompts will have a main point, premises supporting that main point, and underlying assumptions (that are not explicitly written). The assumptions are always WRONG. Do not agree with the prompt. Always argue against it. Usually the assumptions are casual (A causes B), analogy (A is similar to B) or statistical (survey A implies B). First, brainstorm for 5 mins about the main point, premises, and what assumptions they are making (4-6 at least). Your paragraphs will address these faulty assumptions. In your introduction, paraphrase what the prompt claims, then discuss the premises that main point rests on, and finally, say that the assumptions they are based on are flawed and explain how you will examine them in this essay. Each paragraph after will outline those assumptions, give examples that contradict it, and explain how the assumptions affect the validity of the argument. In your conclusion, write a summary of the issues with the prompt's argument. If possible, recommend how it can be improved.


I'd suggest going through this review on the main concepts you need to know. My main recommendation is doing many practice questions. I guarantee you these math questions are not like any math test you've taken before. Practice is your best bet!


The biggest challenge for me in the verbal section was the vocabulary. I studied new vocabulary using podcasts and a chrome plugin called Magoosh.

  • The podcast really helped me! I would listen to a podcast episode on my drive to and from school (I took the GRE as a senior in undergrad). His podcast was my favorite because he'd give great examples and fun ways to remember the word. I am sure there are a lot of other podcasts out there too!

  • Magoosh was a cool chrome plugin that gives you a new word every time you open a new tab.

For the reading comprehension sections, I would recommend practice yet again.

I hope these general tips help! I wish you all the luck. I also just want to say: you're intelligence is not reflected by this one standardised test. Don't let a score bring you down. You got this!

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