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GRE Preparation: Where Do I Begin?

philosophyWith the start of summer, I’ve been receiving a lot of panicked calls and e-mails from test-takers in their early stages of preparation. Much of the panic is some variation of the following: “I haven’t done math in years, but I need to get a [insert score here] for the schools I’m applying to! What should I do?”

If the above is at all representative of your situation, the following advice is for you. Step 1: Breathe! Okay, now that you’ve calmed down, it’s time to take a diagnostic test. You can take one from the official GRE website (, or from a commercial company (I recommend Manhattan GRE or Kaplan; and once my book is published, I highly recommend McGraw Hill). You might view the idea of a full-length GRE as daunting, but it shouldn’t be. The point of the diagnostic test is to give you a baseline, from which you and/or your tutor can develop an appropriate plan of attack. So, let’s say you take your diagnostic, and your fears have been realized: You’re rusty on even some of the most basic algebraic concepts. Where do you go from here? As I mentioned in my previous post, the GRE is, above all, a reasoning test. But before you can start implementing this reasoning, you’re going to need to spend a good month or so reviewing the basic mathematical concepts that appear on the exam.

This can be daunting and sometimes humbling, but it’s a necessary evil. It’s impossible to dive into tougher GRE questions until you’ve developed this base. Once you feel confident that you understand the basics, the next step is to learn 1) the reasoning style that the GRE rewards and 2) specific test-taking tactics for the question-types. The leap from content knowledge to efficient implementation of this knowledge is the most difficult and most important part of your preparation, and you should expect it to take 1 – 2 months. During this time, you should be doing official GRE questions and select questions from commercial companies that mimic the style of the real exam. At the same time, you should also be learning more advanced content that you didn’t fully cover during your review of the basics — topics like rates, probability, overlapping sets, weighted averages, and absolute value. Once you’re at the point where you’re confident with both your content mastery and your ability to apply this knowledge within the time constraints of the exam, it’s time to move on to practice tests. I generally recommend 2 – 3 weeks of practice tests, with 1 – 2 per week. The point of the practice tests is to 1) develop stamina for the grueling 4 hours ahead of you on the real exam 2) develop an appropriate guessing strategy, based on your weaknesses and your score goal and 3) continue working on any topics that continue to trouble you on your practice tests.

Once you’ve hit your target goal on consecutive practice tests, it’s time to dive into the real thing. Good luck!

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