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Guide to Studying for the GRE

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By Ellie Wilkinson
Princeton University

You may have thought you were done with standardized tests once you got to college. But if you want to continue your studies in graduate school, one of the tests you'll probably need to take is the GRE.

If you haven't taken the GRE already, it may feel overwhelming to think about studying for it. There's a lot of material to cover, including tough vocabulary words and mathematical equations that you haven't used since high school. But don't despair: if you start reviewing now and do a little practice every day, you should feel calm and confident once it's time to sit down and take the test.

Here are three study strategies I learned while I was preparing for the GRE.

1. Target What You Need to Review Most

Before you begin a comprehensive, cover-all-the-bases GRE review, step back and think about what you really need to study. For me, it was definitely math. Because I had a limited time to study before taking the test, I decided to focus most of my time and energy on reviewing math skills and doing practice problems.

If it's not obvious what you need to study first, you might want to try taking a diagnostic test. The best ones can be found in GRE practice books, available on Amazon or in bookstores. I've recommended a few in the next section.

2. Buy Some Good Practice Books

The first book I bought was The Official Guide to the GRE® revised General Test, which is from the makers of the test. It includes a complete practice test with essay questions and sample essay responses, an assortment of problem sets and it even comes with a CD with software that emulates the computer-based GRE, so you can see what it's like to take the test on the computer.

The official book is helpful, but there's actually a lot of material available on the ETS' GRE website. You can download a Math Review PDF, and you can also see the complete pool of essay topics from which your assignment will be drawn on test day.

For those who are like me and need to work on their math skills, I found Nova's GRE Prep Course to be really helpful. It's a comprehensive review of the math you'll need to know for the test, as well as smart tips and tricks that'll save you time.

If math's a breeze and you're more worried about the verbal or analytical writing sections, Cracking the New GRE from The Princeton Review and Kaplan's New GRE Verbal Workbook have both been praised as accessible and clearly-written guides, chock-full of useful strategies and practice questions. You may also want to check out Barron's Essential Words for the GRE to brush up on your vocabulary.

3. Become Familiar With the Test Layout

Once you've reviewed some of the subject material, it's important to get a feel of what it's like to take the test. The ETS' GRE website provides a detailed explanation of the order and contents of each of the six sections on the test, and also offers a link to download the software that simulates what it's like to take the GRE on the computer. Remember, it's different from taking a paper-based test: Though you will have scratch paper, you won't be able to annotate directly in the test booklet because everything will be on the computer screen.

(Side note: ETS' computer-based practice test is helpful, but it's only available to Windows users for download. If you want practice software for your Mac, you might want to invest in Kaplan's new GRE Premier, which comes with a CD loaded with both Mac- and PC-friendly software that emulates the GRE computer-based test.)

After you get a sense of how the test is organized, run through the computer practice tests a few times. You don't necessarily need to take an entire test in one sitting, but it may be helpful to try to write the essays with time pressure, or to take the quantitative or verbal sections individually to see how you score. Then head back to the prep books to brush up on the concepts you still don't know or understand.

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With these three simple tips, you'll be able to gain the strategies and materials you need to rock your GRE review -- and the test. It worked for me, at least. Good luck, and see you in grad school!