A Crash Course in the GRE


Editor’s Note: Ryan Arciero, a Poetry Editor and Assistant Non-Fiction Editor for the Jet Fuel Review has written this blog post about the GRE, or Graduate Record Exam. If you are thinking of taking the GRE, or know someone who is thinking of taking it, this blog post is a great introduction to the concept of the exam and what to expect when taking it. This post also contains some tips for taking the GRE, so be sure to read all the way to the end!

A Crash Course in the GRE

The GRE. Even the acronym sounds rather intimidating, doesn’t it? While the general revised GRE — officially known as the Graduate Record Examination — does indeed pose a sometimes daunting challenge in the form of a comprehensive test, it is by no means unconquerable. With a little practice and some intense studying, the GRE might very well be a factor in helping you reach higher educational goals, and ultimately turning your dreams into a future career.

Now why, you might ask, would one even consider taking the GRE? After all, don’t we take enough tests in our actual courses and classrooms? This is certainly true, but the Graduate Record Examination is not for an undergraduate grade. Rather, it is a nationally ranked and standardized test that often serves as an admissions requirement for many graduate programs here in the United States. It is both created and administered by the ETS (Educational Testing Service), and mainly measures applicants’ writing and critical thinking skills.
Although the GRE test may be taken for several important reasons, including academic and career-oriented purposes, I intend to focus on three major points in this post. These highlights include what the GRE exactly is, the test’s major components, and lastly some valuable study tips and caveats based upon my personal experience.

Let’s get started!

Just what is the GRE? Whether you are looking into getting an advanced degree for its own sake or (much more likely) aiming to secure a career that offers strong financial benefits and other opportunities, the program that a strong GRE score can help admit you into is invaluable. In essence, these comprehensive examinations include a variety of questions and a writing portion. Once your scores are established, you can opt to send them out to graduate schools of your choice; strong scores will help reflect your capability of advanced academic work.

The three sections included in the GRE are as follows:

  • Verbal Reasoning — Measures your ability to analyze and evaluate written material and synthesize information obtained from it, analyze relationships among component parts of sentences, and recognize relationships among words and concepts.
  • Quantitative Reasoning — Measures your problem-solving ability, focusing on basic concepts of arithmetic, algebra, geometry and data analysis.
  • Analytical Writing — Measures your critical thinking and analytical writing skills, specifically your ability to articulate, and support complex ideas clearly and effectively.

In need of some basic study tips? Don’t fret: a bevy of useful resources can be found online, though one of the most initially handy sites that I found in my own experience was none other than the ETS homepage itself. This page provides readers with a glimpse of what each specific section basically covers, as well as providing need-know-information like break times and scratch paper allowances.

As for my personal experience, I have actually taken the GRE not once, but twice. This is actually quite common for most students, as the first time taking such a massive test (it often ranges between four and five hours, depending on your pace) can be a bit off-putting. Of course, it’s highly encouraged that you study hard — ordering the official GRE Study Guide, available online via Amazon or other retail sites, might not be a bad idea — as the test can only be taken once every 21 days and no more than five times in a year. What’s more, each exam costs around $185, so make every question count.

For the Analytic Writing portion, you will have two thirty-minute sessions to write two separate essays: an Analyze an Issue essay and an Analyze an Argument essay. For the first prompt, you will be given a claim (such as whether teaching holistically is effective), and then need to write a brief essay backing up your opinion, using strong examples, evidence, and fluid writing. The Argument essay provides you with a statement rife with assumptions. It is your job to decipher those wrongful assumptions and explain why the statement is “full of holes.” There are few ways to study for this part of the exam, as it basically tests writing skills, though timing yourself for 30 minutes to answer a brief prompt can be great practice.

Concerning the Verbal Reasoning Section (as an English major, my area of choice), there’s one main study tip: LEARN THOSE VOCABULARY WORDS! From prevaricate (don’t lie to me) to iconoclast (you rebel, you), knowing these words will help with the reading comprehension and fill-in-the-blank question in this section. Also, try reading some scholarly articles in your free time, or pick up a copy of an informational newspaper; reading through the brief columns will help improve your skills on the big day. This test similarly includes two to three separate reading sections with 20 questions each, and you have thirty minutes to complete them.

Finally, the Quantitative Reasoning section (again, as an English major, this was like fighting a boa constrictor with my bare hands) consists of an additional two sections (again each at 30 minutes) with 20 questions each, ranging from algebra and geometry to arithmetic and word problems. Although none of the questions go above the high school math level, it is essential in order to succeed in this part of the GRE to dust off your old notebooks and review those formulas for slope, compound interest, and more. As with all sections on the GRE, if you do not know an answer, always guess! A blank is always wrong, but an educated guess can at least give you better odds. And with the timer available on the computer during testing, it’s also essential to keep track of your time.

Ultimately, however, I think the greatest tip that I can provide is to not sweat the exam too much. I did only decently on the first attempt, but was happy to see improvement with my second, so don’t be too hard on yourself. Although a good GRE score certainly is a factor in most graduate school applications, it is most definitely not the only defining part of who you are as a test-taker, scholar, and individual. Try your best, and if you have to “try your best” more than once (as I had to), you will be able to make the GRE your own, using it to round out your résumé as you take the next steps forward in your life.

If you take anything from this introduction to the GRE, remember these tips:

  • Study early and study hard. The GRE is a full four-to-five hour exam, so all of the general content you will need to know is not something you can cram in overnight. Give yourself at least a full month to review vocabulary, math terms, and reading strategies.
  • Try taking a few practice tests online before the big day. A variety of online resources are only a Google search away, but one of the best GRE preparations is to actually “take” a GRE practice test to help brace yourself for the real thing.
  • Know what the test-makers are trying to examine. The GRE essentially quizzes you on your critical thinking and writing skills. Read directions carefully, and know what to expect. The writing portions, for example, require that you first analyze an issue and then an argument. Become familiar with sound writing strategies and how to write a strong but brief essay to best help yourself succeed.
  • Always guess. During the test itself, never leave an answer choice blank. You are awarded for only correct answers, and I can promise you that a blank answer is NEVER correct. Narrow down your options in multiple choice questions, and then make an educated guess. It can really help your score.
  • Don’t waste time. All portions of the GRE are timed, and while it may seem that 30 minutes to answer 20 questions is generous, that half hour flies by when you are having fun — or perhaps not so much fun. Pace yourself well (again, this is why taking a practice test is useful), and never spend more than three minutes on a single problem. Guess and move on.
  • Go to the bathroom before the exam. This may sound silly, but a full bladder can be a bad distraction, and the clock won’t stop because you have to use the washroom. Although the GRE does provide test-takers with a 10-minute break halfway through the exam, but there will be two-hour sections when you will be timed non-stop.
  • Know your scores. Almost immediately after your exam, you will have the opportunity to see how well you did on the Verbal and Quantitative portions. Refer to the official ETS site to know beforehand what your scores mean (on a scale from 140-170). Depending on how well you did, you can choose to send out your GRE scores to prospective graduate school programs.
  • Do your best. Sleep well the night before, have a good breakfast, get a hug for good luck from a friend, and you will do just fine on that little thing called the GRE.

— Ryan Arciero, Poetry Editor, Assistant Nonfiction Editor

Ryan Arciero is a passionate reader, writer, and lover of all things fantasy. During his free time, he enjoys picking out a new book at the local library and jotting down ideas for a new poem or short story. Ryan is an English Literature major at Lewis University with a dream of becoming a college professor someday. He hopes to introduce his future students to the power that words can have, and how they enable us to express who we are. He is the author of two novels in the Babel series, and has been published in Lewis’ Windows magazine and Sigma Tau Delta journals. Ryan is looking forward to serving as a poetry editor for the Jet Fuel Review, and experiencing some of the great poems from writers with something to say.


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