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Graduate Matters

Tips to help you ace the Graduate Record Examinations on a budget

By clarifying your goals, creating a detailed study plan, and maximizing the many resources that are available, you will increase your chances of doing well on this test.


In the spring of 2020, I began my Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) journey in preparation for applying to graduate programs in counselling psychology. Amidst the first wave of lockdowns, papers were scattered across my empty living room floor, full of vocabulary lists and practice math problems. Studying for the GRE became a part-time job and continued to be so for months to follow. During the process, I gathered a wealth of information and strategies for tackling this feat.

The GRE is a standardized test used widely by graduate and professional programs across the globe as one of many admissions assessment measures. It is administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS). The timed test assesses verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing skills as a proxy for preparedness for graduate-level education. It is a six-part test of just under four hours, with a 10-minute break after the third section. The analytical writing section is first, followed by four randomized verbal and quantitative reasoning sections and one unmarked experimental section. The results are given as a percentile based on each year’s pool of test-takers; to score highly, you must score better than a percentage of your peers. This, along with the comprehensiveness and length of the test, makes it especially challenging.

Following the pandemic, many graduate programs from Canadian universities have removed the GRE requirement or made it optional. For instance, while I completed the GRE and used the scores during my first year of applications, none of the programs required it when I reapplied in 2022. For domestic students, achieving a competitive GRE score is only recommended for a handful of programs, most of which are in business, computer science, engineering, and psychology. Even so, having a competitive score can be advantageous for international students.

Here are some strategies, tools, and tips that can help you navigate this test:

Clarify your GRE goals

Consider which graduate schools and programs you will apply to and whether they require or recommend a GRE score. If the exam is required, explore whether there are publicly available records of average scores from past successful applications. Use this as a general guide for your goal scores on the GRE. You may email the program coordinator or attend an information session to inquire about how their admission committee values the GRE against other application materials. Some programs will not consider the GRE at all.

You may also consider reaching out to current students in your desired program (e.g., via LinkedIn or connect through a network or mutual friend) to ask for an insider’s perspective. Gauge the program’s competitiveness by the percentage of applicants admitted each year. Also, familiarize yourself with the GRE’s structure, scoring method and questions types before taking your first practice test to identify key areas for improvement. Finally, simulate the test-taking environment by following guidelines such as adhering to time limits and using a GRE-approved calculator.

Follow a study plan for the GRE

It is typically recommended to take the GRE three to four months before program application deadlines. To ensure adequate preparation, it is advisable to allocate at least two to three months of study time before the test date. This preparation time is useful as the GRE assesses skills developed over a long time, including foundational math concepts, critical reading, and vocabulary range. Depending on your goal scores, your number of study hours per day, and your current baseline score, you may plan for more or less time. By starting early, you will have ample time to retake the exam before the application deadlines should you want to improve your scores. You can write the GRE once every 21 days for a maximum of five times in one calendar year. Your best score will be used.

Remember to tailor your study plan to your specific goals. For example, your verbal reasoning scores may be sufficient, but your quantitative reasoning may need more work. In this case, your study plan would include more quantitative reasoning topics. You can find detailed study plans with timelines here or here.

GRE resources

Here is a summary of resources to simplify your study process. Take a moment to explore each of these, especially the overview of resources. As a general rule, use official ETS materials whenever you’re practising test questions to heighten your chances for improvement. Most prep companies will create questions rather than use those by the ETS. Although they resemble each other, they are not assessing the same skills.

Overview materials

  • Find an overview of resources here and here. These contain all the resources you’ll need.
  • Two free GRE practice tests. Use these sparingly!
  • Purchase ETS GRE prep books. It is common to find current editions in like-new condition for around $20 on Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist, or Kijiji.
  • Consider getting the GRE Big Book for practice tests. It contains 27 full-length past GRE tests from the ETS, also available here.
  • Sign up for com to access thoroughly explained study materials, practice test run-throughs, and live group tutoring for US$5 per month!
  • Learn the structure of the GRE.
  • Learn strategies for answering different question types on Gregmat’s YouTube account. For example, here is one for text completion and word selection.

Quantitative reasoning

 Verbal reasoning

  • Vocabulary flashcards of GRE vocabulary. This is the first step in your verbal reasoning preparations.
  • A spreadsheet of all current GRE words with links to quiz videos.

 Analytical writing

  • Use this ETS tool to score your practice essays.

What to expect when taking the GRE

Be sure to get an adequate night’s sleep the night before as well as a nourishing meal on exam day. The test should not be a surprise if you used ETS materials, including timed tests, during your review. Wear layers and bring a snack and water to remain comfortable during the exam, either at home or at an exam center. Strategize ways to maximize your time during the exam. For example, you can answer the easiest question types first to ensure enough time before tackling the more challenging questions. Once you complete the GRE, you can send your scores to four graduate programs for free. Have each program’s four-digit GRE code ready beforehand to take advantage of this.

GRE preparation can be a long journey. It is normal to go through feelings of frustration and discouragement. If you do not achieve your goal score the first time, remember that test-taking is a matter of practice, and you can retake the exam if time allows. You’re developing valuable skills that will continue to serve you in your professional and academic pursuits. Gather as much information as possible about your desired program, know your target scores, have a plan, set reasonable goals, and remember to rest.

Is the GRE required for your graduate program? If so, what was your experience with the GRE? Please share your thoughts in the comment box below. Happy studying, and good luck!

Chelsea Chen
Chelsea Chen is a student in the MA(Ed) program in counselling psychology at the University of Ottawa.
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