The Grad School Series: Taking the GRE

One of the questions that I get asked the most about applying to grad school is, “How did you prepare for the GRE?” While I don’t think one way to prepare for the GRE that will work for everyone, I’m happy to share my experience and give some general tips and tricks.


Though I wasn’t 100% sure that I wanted to go to grad school last year, I noted when doing research which of the schools I was applying to required the GRE (all of them) and what the average scores were for each school. I knew right away that I would need to take the GRE but was assured by my friends who had applied that none of the schools I was interested in required impossibly high scores. After doing a little research, I noted that each of the schools required average reading/writing scores and below average math scores. Phew.

Graduate School GRE Score Research

Different schools listed their scores differently. Some listed the actual average score of the students they admitted, and others listed the average percentile. There are several websites that have fortunately done the work of converting the scores to percentiles and vice versa, for those of us who, you know, score below average in quant.

Once I knew that the schools required the GRE and what kind of scores I should shoot for, I started to look into what the GRE actually is. I knew that it was a test, but I had no idea what kind of material it covered, where to take it, what it cost, etc. Research was necessary.

The GRE is a standardized test required by most graduate schools. It measures verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing. There are hundreds of locations around the country that administer the test (as well as other tests required by universities and professions) and they charge $200 to do so. In general, the tests shows that you can get it together enough to schedule, show up for, and sit through a long and tedious exam.


If you’re looking into and setting up your GRE exam a month before grad school applications are due, it’s already too late. It is important to give yourself time to schedule the exam, prepare for the exam, take the exam, and time for your scores to be transferred to and received by your schools. You may want to include an additional month (at the least) in case you do not do well and need to retake the exam. A good, safe GRE timeline is six months. A  pushing it timeline is three months. Less than that, and you’ll have to take what you get. 


I started studying the summer before I took the GRE, but I didn’t study consistently. The first thing that I did was turn to the commonly used vocabulary words sections and make notecards for any of the words I didn’t know. I flipped through them a couple times, but I have to say that I didn’t pick up very many words that I didn’t already know through the course of studying.

The next thing that I did was study test taking strategies. The strategies were helpful and I had never previously learned them or used them in a methodological way. I’m guessing that a lot of students learn these when taking the ACT/SAT in high school, but since I didn’t take those exams they were new to me. Some of the key strategies that I practiced were skipping questions, how to use scratch paper, elimination, ranking remaining answers, and using what you know about the remaining answers to make a decision. These were all helpful tools and are explained more in the books I’ll link to at the end of this section.

I focused the rest of my time (the month leading up to the exam) practicing math. I started at the very beginning of the math section of the book I was using and worked my way through. I did not have a very difficult time and felt fairly confident that I would do well.

About a week before the test, I started too look up examples of essays for the analytical writing section. I found it most helpful to look at essays that scored a 6, 5, 4, etc, to see what higher scoring essays had that lower scoring essays did not. It takes some time to understand what the differences are, but it starts to make more sense as you spend more time reading them and look at responses to different questions.

For practice, I used the following books.

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I also used the practice tests that are located on the GRE website. I printed them out and wrote ALL OVER the paper. I recommend using the practice tests on the website as they are previous questions and are most likely to reflect what you’ll see on the exam.


Taking the test ended up being a lot different from what I expected. I arrived at the testing center early. I realized when I got there that I had forgotten something at home that I needed afterwards and I called my mom to ask her to bring it to me. When I notified the prison guard working at the front desk (actually a nice 80 year old woman) that my mom would be dropping something off for me, she pretty much lost her mind and thought I was the most suspicious person on earth. Don’t follow my example.

Aside from that, the check in process was fairly easy. You check in and are assigned a locker where you are required to put all of your non-clothes belongings including watches, FitBits, and phones. If you have snacks, you’re allowed to leave them in a little kitchenette/locker area. I left my snacks (cuties and hershey’s kisses) here along with bottled water and chapstick.

Next you go into a room where they double check your identity, pat you down, and scan you with a metal detector. Real cool. They give you paper and you are reminded to be as quiet as possible while you are in the testing room. Then they take you to your chair and let you get started.

I don’t 100% remember the structure of the test but it was different from what I expected. There were several sections and it seemed to take much longer than I thought it would. I was extra upset when another math section popped up when I thought I had already completed the math sections.

The vocabulary sections were quick. They go by very fast and it is a little nerve wracking because in my case, I either knew them or I didn’t. I don’t like guessing.

The math sections were completely different from what I had prepared myself for. They were a lot uglier on the computer screen than they would have been written typed out on a sheet of paper. The formatting was weird. They were more complex than I expected. I probably got half right on each section.

The writing section was fine. You are given two essays to write. I highly recommend using your scratch paper to make an outline before starting and saving time to go back to edit / fluff with extra detail after initially finishing.

When I was done, I was done. I saw my scores for math and vocab and I was horrified.


I am not overly proud of my results and I know that there are things I could have done differently in order to do better. I also know that I could have tried to take the exam again to try for a better score. However, I also think it’s important that we share our experiences and be honest so that other people have realistic expectations.

public policy GRE scores

All of my scores were below average for the schools that I was interested in attending.  I was really upset and grumpy and cried to everyone around me about how I wouldn’t have a future. (Remember, I wasn’t even sure that I wanted to go to grad school before I started this process.) A family member offered to pay for me to retake the test, but I wasn’t sure that I would do any better and I knew the results wouldn’t get to the schools in time. I decided to only apply to my top two schools, and I curbed my expectations by telling myself that it was very likely that I would not get into either.

I was very happy when I was accepted into both.


If you want to go to grad school, you have to take the GRE. How you do on the GRE is completely subjective and does not determine whether or not you will be a good graduate student. In my case, it didn’t even impact my acceptance. As far as I can tell, the only draw back is that I will not be receiving funding for grad school. On the other hand, if I do well my first year there will be plenty of opportunities to earn scholarships/financial support for my second year.

If your scores are due in December, I recommend the following timeline.

May – June: Research schools, find out if you need to take the GRE, figure out what scores they require.
July – September: Study regularly. Start learning new vocabulary. Take practice tests to get an idea of what you’ll score.
September: Schedule and pay for an exam in October.
October: Study daily, take the exam. If you don’t do well, immediately schedule a second exam.
November: Take a second exam if necessary. Make sure the schedule allows for the scores to be received by the application due date. Add an extra week in to be safe.

Please let me know if you have any other questions about the process, or any tips and tricks you would like to share.

2 thoughts on “The Grad School Series: Taking the GRE

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