In a perfect world, we would all budget our time flawlessly. We’d have advance warning of our own needs, desires, and priorities. All large events would be slated into our calendars well in advance and in time slots when we had the brain-space and free time to give such events the focus they demand.
In reality, however, this is rarely the case. Both crises and windfalls of good fortune land in our front yard when we’re least prepared, and the most meticulous scheduling is blown off-course by unpredictable life events or personal realizations.
What I’m saying here is, sometimes people decide to take the GRE at the last minute. Maybe you’re one of those people, and if you’re doing so, you’re not alone. Maybe the reason for taking the test arose suddenly, maybe you all at once discovered a graduate program that’s absolutely perfect for you, and then discovered that the last possible day to take the GRE in order to get your scores in on time is -- hooray! -- next week. Or tomorrow! Maybe you’ve known about the GRE date and your application deadline for weeks or months, but life or work or anxiety or any myriad other factors got in the way.
The bottom line: The test is in less than two weeks and you’re not prepared. You’ve barely cracked a book, you haven’t taken a practice test or you’ve only taken one, on which you did poorly. The most “GRE Prep” you’ve done is maybe talk to a friend who’s taken the test. You very badly need a strategy, but time is running out and you don’t know where to start.
What do you do?
First of all, be realistic. While a private GRE verbal or math tutor can help, you’re not going to raise your score by a huge margin in two weeks, excepting the case of a miracle. But there are things that you CAN do.
Take A(nother) Practice Test
First, before anything else, take a practice test. Even if you’ve taken one before, even if the test is in two days. Taking a practice familiarizes you with the format, time frame, and overall experience of the test you’re about to take. It also gives you something to work with, in the form of immediate diagnostic results. Use your results to determine where you need to put your focus. You don’t have a lot of time, so you need to isolate your weaknesses and attack them. You probably won’t be able to also spend time building up strengths or working equally on every section of the test. The practice will give you the best sense of what to prioritize when you only have time for the top priorities.
Be Aggressive about Vocabulary
The vocabulary-based sentence completion questions on GRE, as I’ve covered in a previous blog post are hard. Mega-hard. Seriously hard. These problems are just gross. They’re extremely difficult even if English is your field of study and you’ve been at the top of every class in English all your life and you’re taking the test to apply for prestigious graduate programs in Literature or Writing. Therefore, vocabulary is always a smart place to throw your focus when you have to pick only a couple areas to prepare. The key to vocabulary is studying it absolutely every day, religiously. Ideally, you should both collect vocabulary words from questions you missed in practice sections, and also use a secondary vocabulary list or app. Spend at least 30 minutes drilling vocabulary between when you take a practice test, and when you take the real test.
Memorization is the Key to Math
Vocab is a good last-minute solution to the Verbal study because it’s memorization-based, and therefore in most cases, will yield results as long as you put in consistent time on it. Quant can approached in a similar way, one that can be thought as “Math Vocabulary.” There are certain equations, rules, and definitions that are tested again and again on the GRE. Memorizing these will make a huge amount of difference even if you struggle with Math and don’t have time to substantively improve your comprehension. Using a combination of practice problems and, ideally, a study guide, compile a list of equations, rules, and terms (the equation for the slope of a line, for example) and their definitions. If you can amass one double-sided page of this “Math Vocabulary” and memorize it cold, it is likely to make a significant difference to your score.
Up Your Reading Level
On the passage-based reading sections, practicing these sections is important, but also, if you have a week or two before the test, you can improve your chances of doing well by incorporating reading into your schedule during the time between when you begin studying and the test. Set a page number you have to hit, make it realistic but higher than you’d like it to be, and read something that has an advanced level of complexity, such as The New Yorker, The Economist, The New York Times Magazine, etc. Non-fiction is far more useful than fiction, here, as the passages tend by and large to be non-fiction style and content. Make sure you make this reading practice a daily occurrence, and your ability to focus on and comprehend the passages on the GRE will likely improve. Think of this like working out the relevant muscles in the days leading up to a big game.
Psychology is as Important as Methodology
Control what you can control. You don’t have a lot of time, which means you need to figure out what you can control, and what those things are is going to be limited. You can’t gain full mastery of every question type, fix all your persistent errors, or guarantee a perfect score (sidenote: you can’t ever do that last one). But you can control a number of things, including how your own mental and emotional state affects your performance. You’re probably stressing out in the extreme. Find a way to stop. Practice relaxation strategies, both in the days leading up to the test as you prepare, and when you’re in the room taking it. Your methods for combatting anxiety should be as defined and concrete as the concepts, vocabulary words, and approaches you’ve memorized. Know what to do if your attention starts wandering, what to do if you start to panic, and what to do if a question seems impossible. The answer could be as simple as looking out the window, closing your eyes and counting backward from ten, or going on to the next problem. But know what the answer is so you don’t exacerbate your stress by having to fumble for it.
Don’t do this. Don’t do this. Don’t leave your GRE preparation until the last minute if you can help it. Work methodically, and ideally, work with a private GRE tutor—Cambridge Coaching offers tutors in Boston, New York, and online—who can map out your strategies, teach you the concepts where your understanding is shaky, diagnose your strengths and weaknesses and create a plan of attack specifically suited to you. Don’t do anything of the things in this post; do that instead. But if life happens and you can’t, everything above will help you out considerably.
For more relevant reading, check out these other blog posts, written by our private GRE tutors from Harvard and MIT]: A Secret Weapon for Learning Vocab, What Happens When a Tutor Takes the Test?, and How to Combat Test Anxiety.