3 Essential Steps to Success when Studying for the GRE

Posted by Allison D. on 1/29/18 5:59 PM


It’s time: you’ve committed to taking the GRE. You’ve gotten your hands on 10 pounds’ worth of test prep books, thousands of practice problems, and a dozen full-length tests. Oh, and you’ve got eight weeks to learn it all. Where should you begin?

Before you crack open any books, start by making a game plan. Set some ground rules for yourself about when and how you’ll study, and watch the returns to each hour you put in skyrocket.

1. Make a Habit

First things first: make it a habit. At some point over your scholastic career, a well-meaning teacher or parent has probably told you that regular study is more efficient than last-minute cramming. The problem with that advice is that it’s hard to implement. You may fully intend to spend an hour a day studying, but somehow you always find yourself neglecting the work for days at a time and “catching up” with a long, painful cram session at the end of the week.

Part of the problem is that you’re relying too much on your ability to exercise self-control in the moment. Instead, think about ways to build study time into your regular routine. Here are a few strategies:

  • Pick the time of day when you’re at your freshest and schedule a recurring calendar event for a GRE study block. It’s harder to break an appointment, even if that appointment is with yourself.
  • Remember that chore chart your first-grade teacher used? Create a grown-up version, and give yourself a literal gold star for every day you meet your study goal. It’s a good way to visualize progress.
  • Pair your study sessions with a treat you’ll look forward to. Tell yourself you’ll only drink coffee with an open GRE book in hand, or save your favorite TV show for after you’ve completed the day’s studying.

There’s no one-size-fits-all habit formation strategy; you’ll have to play around to see what works for you. Better than Before, by Gretchen Rubin, is a great resource for more tips like the ones above.

2. Work Deep

Now that you’re committed to regular study, it’s time to make sure you get the most out of every minute. One way to do this is to work deep. This phrase comes from productivity guru Cal Newport, who argues that focused effort is the key to meeting challenging goals. When we flit back and forth between studying, email, and social media feeds, we limit the amount of work we can accomplish. Multi-tasking may feel productive, but it’s not doing our brains much good. Here are some suggestions for making your study time deeper:

  • Eliminate your biggest distractions. Put your phone in another room, turn off your Wi-Fi, or download an app like SelfControl. If you get the urge to look something up or suddenly remember that you wanted to text a friend, write yourself a note and leave it for later.
  • If it feels too hard to ditch your phone for an hour, try the Pomodoro method. Set a timer for 25 minutes and focus like crazy. When time’s up, you get a 5-minute break to scroll/text/tweet to your heart’s content. Then it’s back to work for another 25-minute sprint!

3. Practice with Purpose

You’ve set aside blocks of focused time for GRE studying. But what exactly should you be doing during those precious minutes? Broadly speaking, you should practice with a purpose. It’s all too easy to go through the motions, churning through problem after problem without making much progress. Psychologist Anders Ericsson, in his book Peak, describes purposeful (a.k.a. deliberate) practice as having three elements:

  • Focus. Come up with a specific objective for each study session, and plan accordingly. Maybe your goal is to master the two-variable word problems that tripped you up on your last practice test. Review the overall strategies your prep books suggest, then work through a set of practice problems, first untimed, and then timed.
  • Get feedback. This is where a tutor can come in especially handy! He or she will be able to point out exactly where you’re going wrong, or what weaknesses you should target during your individual study sessions. If you don’t have access to a tutor, try carefully studying the explanations for each problem you got wrong and identifying any patterns to your mistakes.
  • Fix it. Now that you’ve identified the problem, how will you address it? Try another round of practice questions, but tweak your approach.

In sum, how you study is just as important as what you study. Your chances of acing the GRE go up when you commit to regular practice, devote your full attention to the task at hand, and work toward a specific objective each time.

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Want to read more on the subject?  Check out some of our other posts on the subject below!

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