How to Achieve a Competitive GRE Score

by mba

A stepping stone to success

Tyler York is the founder and chief executive officer of Achievable, a test prep company leveraging technology to help students succeed in their most important career-advancing exams such as the GRE, FINRA exams, and USMLE. In his over 10 years of experience, Tyler has been inspired by connecting customers with products that they love and that help them reach their goals.

What skills does the GRE test and actually develop through preparing to achieve a high score?

Contrary to the pop culture understanding of the GRE, the GRE doesn’t actually test how smart you are. Instead, it tests your ability to solve problems creatively and consistently over four hours. You want to prioritise strategies that focus on arriving at the correct answer as quickly and reliably as possible. Utilising strategies with good ROI (i.e. using “semantic clusters” to infer vocabulary rather than memorising thousands of words) also helps to accelerate progress.

The skills that the GRE develops are more related to doing good work and being thoughtful in that work. You will learn concentration and concentration endurance in order to study for and then ace a four-hour exam; mindfulness and sustained attention to detail as you aim to thoughtfully complete each question; and creative problem solving: how to beat “the game” of the GRE and optimise for your best result.

There are two types of GRE – the General Test and Subject Tests. What is the difference, and when should applicants sit Subject Tests?

The GRE General Test is what most grad school applicants have to take, much like the SAT general test is required of most undergraduate applicants and then two SAT subject tests that are more specific. The GRE General Test is an aptitude test (i.e. a general assessment of ability), whereas GRE Subject Tests are achievement tests (i.e. how much you know about a specific subject).

Worth noting as well is that the GRE General Test is computer administered all year round, while the Subject Tests are paper administered only three times a year in April, September, and October. And the General Test contains multiple timed sections across just over four hours, whereas a Subject Test is one section taking two hours and fifty minutes.

We recommend that applicants only sit the GRE Subject Tests when it is required or clearly advantageous for you – otherwise you are doing a lot of work for not a lot of benefit. Obviously, you will need to sit for one if a graduate programme requires that you do so for their programme’s application. In addition, you may also want to sit a Subject Test when you want your knowledge in a specific subject to be recognised; when a certain score on a subject test will allow you to “test out” of prerequisite courses; or when it will make you eligible for merit-based scholarships.

What skill base should students have to start preparing for the GRE General Test?

Fair or not, the prerequisite skills for taking the GRE General Test are similar to those that you leave undergraduate college with at a US university. You will need high-intermediate English language proficiency, good time management, and deductive reasoning. That said, you can actually avoid most of the algebra on the GRE and do very well on the GRE with fluency in basic arithmetic.

Most importantly, you need to have time to study for the exam before you start preparing. We recommend that you set yourself up for success by creating a study schedule that will realistically contain the amount of study hours necessary to reach your goals (more on that later), and sticking to that schedule. We also recommend using our Achievable GRE course, which covers the entire exam as well as setting a study schedule, mindset, and other helpful tactics.

How to Achieve a Competitive GRE Score

What are your tips for GRE test takers who are not native speakers of English?

You are embarking on a great challenge. As Orion, our GRE author, would say, you’re “climbing Everest backwards”.
To start, practise reading and writing graduate-level English as much as possible. Many graduate research papers are online for free, and these same papers are your reading comprehension passages on the exam. Smart YouTube channels like Wendover Productions can also be helpful.

Also, if you are in school, try to find faculty or student groups to practise advanced English writing and speaking skills. And use the “free write” tactic, in English, to practise writing hundreds of words in 15-30 minutes. Orion explains this in episode 21 of our GRE Snacks podcast.

You should not try to memorise vocabulary for the entire English language. The GRE contains words that even English speakers have never seen before. Instead, use semantic clusters (which we teach in Achievable) or learn how to infer the meaning of words based on their context. Also, don’t get discouraged. Many non-English speakers have earned great marks on the GRE – it’s just harder. You can do it!

How long does test preparation take to achieve a high score?

The short answer is that it depends on the score you are aiming for and what your score is now (i.e. the size of the gap between a student’s target and baseline scores). Obviously, increasing your score by larger amounts is more difficult and takes more time. But in addition to that, increases in score are progressively harder to achieve as you get closer to the ceiling because of diminishing returns and the need to be perfect to reach the top echelon. Perfection is hard, much harder than going from 80% correct to 90% correct.

As far as hard numbers are concerned, Orion recommends a minimum of eight weeks, preferably twelve, of consistent studying to prepare for the GRE. Do not expect to be able to do this at the last minute.

How can students check their test prep progress and create realistic expectations for their test scores?

You should take a full GRE practice exam or section exam before you study, then take them consistently as you study. ETS, the makers of the GRE, have an official practice exam that has two versions – it is often worth using one of these as your first, score-setting exam. Then, as you continue to use a prep programme and take other practice exams, you’ll be able to track your progress quantitatively and see how much time you’ll need to reach your goal.

As far as expectations go, remember that it gets harder and harder to increase your score the closer you get to the top. Put simply, going from 150 to 160 is much easier than going from 160 to 170 – in either category. This increased difficulty increases your time commitment as well, as it takes more studying to get closer and closer to perfection. Research the GRE score percentiles of the programme and school you’re targeting to see what you should be aiming for, as it is often far less than a perfect score (more on that in the next answer).

Do you encourage students to sit the GRE more than once to achieve the highest score they can?

It is always best to be one-and-done! However, it’s pretty normal to sit the GRE multiple times. If you don’t get the score you want on your first official GRE attempt, don’t be discouraged.

Now, rather than aim for the highest score you can, you should be more concerned with achieving a good enough score relative to your competition at your programmes of interest. That’s it. A good enough score is the median score of successful applicants to last year’s class of a specific programme. Figure out where you are applying (you should do this first anyway), look up their median GRE scores for your chosen programme, and voila! you have your targets. Significantly surpassing this good enough score does not meaningfully improve students’ chances of admissions.

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