Secrets to acing the GRE

By Xavier

So, you’ve decided to apply to graduate school? Congratulations! I’d say you’re 50% of the way there. All you need to do now is fill out your applications, submit your transcripts, secure some recommendation letters, and…take the GRE. Yikes!

Don’t sweat too much: contrary to popular belief, the GRE isn’t such a difficult test. In fact, in most ways, it’s just a glorified SAT. Moreover, unlike the MCAT and LSAT, many students achieve perfect scores on the GRE every year. This means that with the right preparation, you have a great shot at earning a top score. Below are some tips for acing the test and staying stress-free along the way.

Quantitative Reasoning section

Even though the GRE is used for graduate school admissions, it doesn’t test graduate school-level math. It doesn’t even test undergraduate-level math! Paradoxically, the only math you’ll need for the GRE barely touches on anything past Algebra I. No logarithms, no imaginary numbers, and certainly no calculus. You read that right!

Hiding in plain sight on is a PDF containing every topic tested on the QR section of the GRE. That’s right, the GRE makers have taken the guesswork out of the equation by telling you exactly what you need to study. I repeat: the GRE will test you on these topics and nothing more. ETS even gives you example problems that plainly show how these topics will be tested. Therefore, my biggest piece of advice is to memorize the few definitions and formulas they explicitly mention. There aren’t too many, just a few. For example, know the difference between mean, median, mode, and range. Know how to calculate the area of a circle and the volume of a sphere. Know the difference between natural numbers (counting numbers) and real numbers (any number on a number line, including counting numbers). Simply go through the document, highlight anything unfamiliar, do some practice problems, and move on. Rinse and repeat: it’s that simple!

Verbal Reasoning section

The Oxford English Dictionary contains approximately 600,000 words, and a native English speaker knows less than a tenth of these words and uses just half of them in everyday speech. But, they still speak the language! The “fancy” vocab tested on the GRE is approximately 800 words, and I can guarantee you already know, or at least sort of know, half of them. And, on the GRE, “sort-of-know” is usually good enough. The secret to acing the Verbal Reasoning section of the GRE is to familiarize yourself with a list of frequently-tested vocab words. Don’t memorize, familiarize. In my experience, you can be confident you “know” a word if you can use it in a simple sentence. (The belligerent child likes to start fights. The loquacious student likes to talk. Easy!) I would recommend the Princeton Review GRE Power Vocab book: it breaks down all the words you’ll need to know into short, digestible lists and provides easy-to-remember one-word definitions. Most importantly, it’s exhaustive, meaning these are the only words you’ll have to memorize for the test. Some tutors and test-prep companies recommend reading The New York Times or Anna Karenina to prep for this section. While those are worthy pursuits, you’ll get more bang for your buck if you stick with memorizing this vocab, especially if you’re in a pinch for time.

Analytical Writing

Ah, the dreaded Analytical Writing section. Don’t worry, you can conquer the AW section with a few easy tips!

The way the writing section works is you’ll be given a prompt that describes a two-sided scenario and you’ll be asked to argue for one of the sides. The prompt gives you information that can be used to support either side of the argument, and which side you choose is completely up to you. It doesn’t matter which side you choose, so pick whichever side you’re more comfortable arguing for. 

The GRE rewards a very specific writing formula that may not feel like “good English” but will earn you top marks. First, write an introductory paragraph that summarizes the prompt. The last sentence of this paragraph should be your thesis: [State the side of the argument you’ve selected] because [insert three reasons derived from the prompt]. Next, write three paragraphs. Each paragraph should argue for one of each of your three reasons. The structure of each paragraph can be very similar: in fact, you should almost feel like you’re writing the same paragraph three times. Next, write a paragraph that counters any evidence in the prompt that could be used against your argument. Your counterarguments don’t have to be airtight analyses; just show that you acknowledge there is proof for the other side, but that your argument is better. If you get into trouble, remember the three Ds of debate: discredit, downplay, and delegitimize. It works for politicians and it will work for you too! Finally, write a summary paragraph using the following formula: restate your thesis, summarize your evidence, and briefly summarize your counters to any opposing arguments.

Two final pieces of advice. First, write as long of an essay as possible. The graders give bonuses for longer essays, and you shouldn’t stop writing except to proofread your work in the final few minutes. Second, use simple language: only use words you completely know how to use correctly and can spell correctly.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Don’t just study. Practice! Do practice problems after you cover a new math topic, quiz your vocab over your lunch break or on your daily commute, and write practice essays based on prompts from previous GREs. Take a few full-length practice tests in simulated GRE conditions: the GRE is shorter than the MCAT and LSAT, but it is still a test of stamina. Finally, make sure to sleep plenty the night before the test, stay energized, and stay relaxed. You got this!

Xavier graduated from Yale College in 2019 with a BS in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology. During the summers, he researched Type II Diabetes at Yale Medical School and HIV at Harvard Medical School. Currently, he is pursuing a Neuroscience PhD at Columbia University.


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