Tackling the GRE


Before you decide on taking the GRE, you’ll want to make sure it’s the test for you (more on that here).  Once you do, you’ll want to lay out your game plan for crushing it.  I studied for the GRE for about a year, which is probably longer than most test takers and nearly unnecessarily long.  I feel like if someone really stays on course with their studying, and practices daily, they could probably achieve similar results with 6 months (or fewer) of prep.

Since b-school applications come out in the summer, ideally you would want to have everything wrapped up the winter prior (which leaves you some wiggle room should something catastrophic happen).  I’d say aim for a December test date the year before you apply.  So, if you’re looking to apply for Fall 2017 enrollment, take the test this upcoming winter.

You can take the GRE as many times as you’d like, but typically admissions officers will see that, and obviously fewer attempts looks better.  The difference between saying “I scored in the 95th percentile on my fifth try” and “I scored in the 95th percentile on my first try” is obvious.  The fact that you can score highly on your first attempt at any standardized test speaks volumes about your natural intelligence, work ethic, or both.

How to Study

I’ve had a lot of people ask me over the past couple of months, “how should I study to get a high score on the GRE?”  The answer isn’t as complex as it is work intensive.

Nailing the Quantitative Section

As I said in my post about the GMAT vs. GRE, the quant section of the GRE is basically a ramped up version of the math section from the SAT.  When taking my first practice exam, I asked the Kaplan representative why this was, and he said that, “we know that every student is not a math student, so we don’t expect many of the test takers to have had much exposure to math over the past few years in college.  Thus, the section has many similarities to the math you learned in high school.  We do, however, know that everyone has been reading in college, and so the verbal section has been made a lot more advanced than the verbal section on the SAT, comparatively.”

What does that mean for you?  It means that you already have most of the concepts that the GRE math section will test buried somewhere in your head, you just need to dust them off.

I used the Kaplan GRE Math Workbook (you can purchase it here), and I found it to be a great comprehensive review of the things I had forgotten from high school.  ETS (the guys who make the GRE) have a list of topics that you’ll find on the test here, an amazing free study guide here, and a summary of mathematical conventions here.

ETS also has several quantitative problem sets to practice with:

It is imperative to go through these questions, since they obviously are highly reflective of the difficulty and style of the real GRE quantitative section questions.

With the Kaplan workbook, I found it easiest to start with chapter 6 and finish the book from there (doing about a section every other day).  It is a great refresher.  Then, I went back and did all the practice problems from the previous chapters.

You are allowed to use a calculator on the test, but it is limited in its functionality.  It is best to practice with a calculator similar to the one you’ll use on test day, and you can find one here.

The calculator you’ll use on test dayScreen Shot 2015-03-13 at 9.50.39 AM

Nailing the Verbal Section

As I mentioned earlier in the post, the verbal section of the GRE is supposed to be more difficult than the quantitative section when compared to their respective SAT counterparts.

For the verbal section, I did much of the same thing.  I alternated math sections with a verbal section from the Kaplan GRE Verbal Workbook (purchasable here) every other day.

I did the ETS practice problem sets:

These resources really helped with the reading aspects of the section, but I knew that I would really have to beef up my vocabulary to score where I wanted to.  I tried the rote memorization tactic via Kaplan’s GRE Vocabulary Flashcards, but quickly found this to be too tedious and time consuming.  It was then that I stumbled across the most helpful item in my GRE preparation: membean.com.

Membean is a different way of learning vocabulary.  The site uses 8 unique formats of introducing you to a word, including:

  •  A short context quiz
  • An image that will represent the word
  • A short clip of an actual movie or television show interaction featuring the word
  • A memory hook/mnemonic device
  • A word constellation showing related words
  • “Word ingredients” showing roots, prefixes, suffixes, etc.
  • Example of the word as used in texts, magazines, etc.

What all of this means is that you develop a much deeper consciousness of the word.  Your brain has so many hooks to that word that it is very difficult to forget the word after learning it.  You may forget the definition for “sagacious” at first but then remember the giant image of Ben Franklin that went with it and reason that it means “wise” from there.  The site gives you periodic quizzes based on words you have recently learned or haven’t practiced in awhile, taking the guesswork out of the equation.

Membean’s “sagacious” page

Screen Shot 2015-03-13 at 10.26.23 AM

It is not a free service but it is incredibly cheap.  I recommend the “voyage” plan, where you get unlimited access to over 1,400 words and 900 roots for 6 months for $9/mo.  The website describes the plan as “the best way to gradually and incrementally build a durable word memory,” and I agree.  6 months is the perfect amount of time to learn these words and is very doable.  I went on the site every day for about 30 minutes when I had free time and never felt like it was taking too much time out of my schedule.  There is even a free 3-day trial option.  You can see all of the GRE plans here.

The Analytical Writing Section

I actually never studied for this section.  I had read that admissions officers focus more on the verbal and quant sections (specifically quant) so I just didn’t write any practice essays.  In hindsight, I probably should have prepared a bit more for the section, but it is also quite difficult to “study” for the writing section since there is no one to grade the essays.  I’m not saying to neglect the essays, but they should be the last section you study for, and only do so if you feel confident with the other sections and have some spare time.

Test Day

Before you show up to take the test, you’ll want to establish a routine of some sort.  This routine should involve getting up at a specific time with enough time to spare before the test time, getting ready, eating a substantial breakfast, and traveling to the testing site.  If you normally exercise in the morning, do that, too.  You should start doing this routine a week or so before the test, so that your body is adjusted and isn’t surprised by any changes on the big day.  You do not have to actually go to the testing site each day, but check to ensure that you would’ve left yourself enough time to arrive at least 15 minutes early.  You must visit the test site at least once, though, as seeing and becoming familiar with where you’ll be taking this important exam can take a lot of the edge off on test day.  I remember that the place that I took the test at was hidden in a tiny corner of a huge plaza and it too me over 15 minutes to find it.  Needless to say, if I hadn’t first visited the site, I would’ve been freaking out come test day, jeopardizing my score.

One key thing to note is that you should not be overstudying the week before the test.  Most likely, if you don’t know it yet, you won’t.  Keep up the practice but don’t ramp up to 5 hours a day or anything.  You’ll do more harm than good.  Also, do not study at all the day before the test.  It seems counterintuitive but you want your brain at its full capacity and ready to work.  I tried not to do anything too brain intensive the day before and spent most of the day chilling out, watching TV, reading, and playing video games.  You really just want to rest and relax your mind…it’ll be worked hard the next day.


So, that was essentially my GRE study plan.  Like I said, no too complicated.  You just have to be diligent and stick with it and the results will come.  Alternate GRE math workbook and GRE verbal workbook every other day (about 1 hour), and top that off with 30 minutes of membean per day.  Every two weeks or so, do a practice test.  Repeat for 4-6 months and you’ll be set.

For reference, I ended up getting a 166 in verbal reasoning (96th percentile), a 165 in quantitative reasoning (90th percentile), and a 4.5 in Analytical Writing (80th percentile).  Screen Shot 2015-03-13 at 10.49.10 AM


Using the GRE to GMAT score converter, that is about a 730 GMAT score.  You can find the percentile chart here and the GRE to GMAT score converter here.

Screen Shot 2015-03-12 at 11.14.57 AM

You can get a GRE free practice test here, or take one in person for free here.

You can register for the GRE here.  It is wise to do so a few months before you want to take it for two reasons:

  1. Spots fill up fast!  You want to get a date that works for you at the most convenient location possible for you.
  2. It gives you a set goal.  If you know you have to take the test on…December 18th, for example, you are far more likely to take your studying more seriously than if you hadn’t selected an actual date.  It is easier to push the test off and slack on studying without a set date.


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