Top 5 Study Tips for the GRE

Tip #1: Start early and study often!

If you majored in philosophy and haven’t seen a polynomial since high school, be realistic regarding how much time it will take you to refresh your knowledge of algebra and geometry, and then how much time it will take you to study GRE-specific content (such as the Quantitative Comparison format) and practice under timed conditions and on actual Computer Adaptive Tests. If it took you two years to learn algebra the first time around and you feel like you’ve forgotten it all, you can expect to need several months (at least) to get back in the game.

Similarly, if you majored in engineering and haven’t been regularly reading and processing college-level material in areas such as social science, literature, and historical analysis, it’s going to take awhile to become comfortable with and confident about that kind of material – not to mention the time it will take to substantially augment your vocabulary.

Now that we’re talking about vocabulary, let’s be clear: you just can’t cram vocabulary, and there aren’t a whole lot of shortcuts. Sure, learning roots can be helpful – if you know that “con-” means “with” and “-dign” (the same root in dignity and deign) means “worthy,” you could make some reasonable inferences about the word condign (which means “just or appropriate, especially as related to a punishment fitting a crime”). But, for the most part, you will have to learn 500 – 2000 new words, so it is best to begin as soon as possible!

Fortunately, learning vocabulary is something you can do on your own at very little cost – and the benefits of having a prodigious vocabulary (being perceived to be smarter, for instance) will last you a lifetime!

Tip #2: Learn Vocabulary in Context

Many students make the mistake of memorizing dictionary definitions of words without really understanding those definitions or being able to comfortably use those words in sentences.

You want to learn words like “traduce” and “bonhomie” the same way you know words like “study” and “mistake” – that is, you can barely even remember a time when you didn’t know those words.

While vocabulary lists, flashcards, and the like are important, some of the best vocabulary accrual occurs when you are reading difficult material (try The Economist, any of the articles posted on Arts and Letters Daily, or any book by Christopher Hitchens), and you go look up a word you just read in context.

If you’ve ever learned a foreign language, think about the words that were easiest to learn. When you’re in class, most of the words you learn (stove, tire, classroom, grandmother) seem equally important. But when you are actually in a foreign country, trying to speak that language, it is very, very easy to learn and remember words and phrases like “bathroom” and “How much?” and “No pigs’ feet, please.” That is, the easiest things to learn are things that you really wanted to know at the time that you looked them up. It’s easier to retain a new word when there’s a “hole” in your knowledge that you just cannot wait to fill.

Similarly, if you are reading something interesting and come across a word you don’t know, then you look up the word and consider its usage in the sentence you were just puzzling over – well, that’s almost as good as learning the word “bathroom” when you really needed to use one.

Finally, don’t hesitate to look up or ask someone about words you thought you knew, but seem to be used in novel ways. (Did you notice what I did just there? As a noun, a “novel” is a book-length work of fiction, but as an adjective, “novel” means “new, original.”) How about the use of “informed by” in the sentence, “Her historical analysis of family dynamics in the antebellum South is informed by an academic background in feminist theory”? (Clearly, the “academic background in feminist theory” isn’t talking – “informed by” means “influenced by” in this context). Or the use of “qualified” in “Dr. Wong could give only qualified approval to the theory, as the available data was limited in scope.” (“Qualified” here means “limited, conditional, holding back”).

If you read a definition of a word – on a flashcard, in a test prep book, or anywhere else – and it doesn’t make sense to you, look the word up in several online dictionaries, The Free Dictionary,Merriam-Webster, ask someone, and/or simply Google the word to see how other people are using it.

Once you’ve studied the definition, read the word in context, and worked the word into conversation three times (this can cause your friends to look at you funny, but it’ll be worth it!), that word is probably yours for life.

Tip #3: Don’t Leave “Holes in the Foundation”

It’s very satisfying when you figure out the greatest possible value of n such that 40 to the 60th power is divisible by 2 to the nth power (it’s 180). However, the GRE is a Computer Adaptive Test. That means that you will never even see a difficult question like the one above unless you have correctly answered easier questions. Students who focus only on the “brainteasers” while neglecting the basics do poorly on the exam.

Before focusing on the most difficult level of material, make sure you are completely solid on long division and remainders, the difference between adding and multiplying fractions, when you can cancel in an equation with many fractions, converting decimals to percents, converting fractions to decimals, finding a circle’s area and circumference, factoring polynomials, and many other high school math topics you may have forgotten.

If you feel like you understand all the material in your GRE prep books or class, yet you are still performing poorly on practice tests – well, when I watch the US Open, I understand everything Serena Williams is doing. But I’m still terrible at tennis. Understanding is not the same as executing. Nodding in assent as you read a test prep book is insufficient! You need to execute every problem, on separate paper (like the real GRE), within a time limit (1-2 minutes, depending on problem type).

If you find yourself missing problems due to silly mistakes, don’t just say, “Oh, I get it – that was just a silly mistake.” The GRE doesn’t give you points for understanding a concept but missing the question anyway. Figure out why you are making silly mistakes. Correct your misconceptions (Did you cancel the top of a fraction on one side of an equation with the bottom of a fraction on the other side? Did you, when multiplying exponential expressions with the same base, accidentally multiply rather than add the exponents?) Keep an error log. Root out every mistake and make sure that these “holes in the foundation” get filled.

Tip #4: Stop Using Your Calculator

From right now until you achieve your GRE goal score, I want you to make a vow. No calculators. Not at work, not at school, not in a restaurant when you’re figuring out the tip. Abjure your calculator entirely. (And don’t let Excel do your work for you either).

(If you simply must use a calculator at work, or while doing your taxes, then do the calculation on your own first, and then use the calculator to check your work).

Habitual calculator users often lose the logic of their calculations. By “logic,” I mean that, obviously, 235% of a number should be a little more than twice as big as the number, right? (Watch a bunch of calculator users robotically multiply a number by either .235 or 235, and then give absolutely absurd answers – of course, the correct procedure is to multiply by 2.35).

Since calculators are not permitted on the GRE, many calculations are created by the test writers to be quite neat and convenient. For instance, if 44% of 100 is 44, then 44% of 200 is ... 88. (Since 200 is twice 100, 44% of 200 is twice 44% of 100). Not that hard, right?

Along with cultivating a vocabulary obsession for the duration of your GRE studies, also cultivate a mental calculation obsession. Anytime someone mentions a number, practice doubling it and cutting it in half. (To divide by 4, just cut in half and cut in half again!)

The speed limit’s 55? Oh, so half the speed limit is 27.5 and twice the speed limit is 110. Triple the speed limit is 165 (I did that in my head by tripling 50 and then tripling 5 and then adding 150 plus 15). Reducing the speed limit by 10% would mean subtracting 5.5, thus yielding a speed limit of 49.5. (Actually, maybe you should only try this when you’re the passenger – safety first!)

Tip #5: Cultivate a Productive Attitude

The above might seem daunting (although an assiduous approach will indubitably redound to your success!) Some students say “I’m already a college graduate. Why do I have to spend months studying for this exam? That’s just too much time.”

Here’s a way to look at it – if you exercise for one hour a week, you’ve almost thrown that time away, because that’s not enough time to get results. But if you exercise for five hours a week, you’ll end up in much better shape! That is, it’s exercising insufficiently that is a waste of time.

Similarly, if you spend three weeks cramming for the GRE, you probably won’t improve your score that much. Three weeks cramming does sound like too long, because what you’re doing is really about the GRE and nothing else. But if you spend four (or more) months developing a more erudite vocabulary, reading graduate-level articles, becoming a master of algebra, developing a familiarity with statistics and data interpretation that will help you produce useful results in graduate study, and rediscovering your ability to do math without machines, then you have remodeled your brain for the better. That time is not lost! Those skills will benefit you forever (and in graduate school!)

Here’s something to think about –the GRE test writers aren’t evil. They don’t want to hold you back. They want to test real skills. Sure, you might be able to game the test a little bit with tricks and quick fixes. But probably not enough to achieve your goal score.

A serious, academic approach to GRE study isn’t about tricks and quick fixes. It’s about the actual material and skills that the GRE is designed to test. And no amount of time is too much to spend on becoming a more knowledgeable person with a brain that functions at a level of peak performance.

Jennifer Dziura has twice scored a perfect 1600 on the GRE. She teaches for Manhattan GRE in New York City and pens the Manhattan GRE Vocabulary Blog at

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