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How to Study for the GRE

So you’ve picked up a couple of the latest GRE books. You’ve rolled up your sleeves, grabbed your cup of Americano and are ready to tackle the GRE. Almost daintily, you open the first page, the pulpy whiff of paper hitting you. Slowly, you read through each page. After an hour, you’re at page 15. You take a last swig of your coffee, thinking, “Ah, 300 pages to go…”

The truth is that GRE prep is not linear. Even if you’ve spent years successfully preparing for tests—you are taking the GRE exam, after all—by reading through the assigned material page by page, the GRE is a very different test. How you end up studying can greatly affect your final score.


Don’t go page by page – the jump around approach

Common sense says to open a book up at the first page and methodically go through the book, page by page. Indeed, I’ve known many students who have taken this exact approach while prepping for the GRE. It rarely turns out well. By the time they get to the geometry section, they have forgotten many of the math concepts they learned a hundred pages back. Instead, of reviewing and refreshing any such concepts, they soldier on, page by page, hoping to attain GRE enlightenment when they reach the end of the book.

Our brains learn through repetition, by revisiting concepts that we learned yesterday, last week, or even two hours ago. By randomly jumping around in a book, you can get exposure to a variety of different question types, some you’ve seen (and hence the useful reinforcement) and others you haven’t.

Let me be clear: I’m not endorsing a totally scatterbrained approach. You should still follow a schedule, to an extent. But after 40 minutes of trying to wrap your head around three-dimensional shapes, take a break by flipping open to a section you did last week. Have a go at some of the practice problems. You still missing some? Did you already forget a formula (or two)?

If the answer is yes, that is in no way a bad thing. It’s just your brain telling you it needs a little extra practice, but by giving it another go you are ensuring that you will retain the knowledge this time around (see the bit on letting ideas incubate).


Don’t just use one book

Using only one book can spell doom. There are a variety of books (and resources) out there. Use the best ones, and you will learn the best strategies and practice with the questions that are similar to what you’ll see test day. Here is a link to our book reviews, so you can know which books to use, and which one’s not to use.


Learn from your mistakes

Some mistakes are careless; other result from a conceptual misunderstanding. In both cases try to identify what wrong. If you missed a question, because you mixed up the number you’d written down on scratch paper with the one you chose onscreen, anticipate you’ll do the same in the future (that way you’re on guard in the future). If it’s conceptual breakdown, try to tease apart the thinking that led your to the wrong answer. Think what you’ll do differently the next time you have similar problem.


Vary up your study sessions

This idea dovetails nicely with the “Jump around” approach. If you always find yourself doing math problem sets independently of verbal sets, mix the two together (this will make the transition between test sections much easier). You might also want to consider studying in a different room or an entirely different place (as long as it’s quiet!).


Allow time for ideas to incubate

Our brains are magical, mystical creatures. Exactly, how they work is still beyond the grasp of neurobiology, notwithstanding the amazing breakthroughs in the last twenty years. For some reason, when you give your brain a rest, it synthesizes information learned in the previous weeks.

Of course timing these incubation periods can be tricky. But if you’ve been studying vocabulary nonstop for the last two weeks and words seem to be slipping out of your mind, your brain may need a rest, or try to practice GRE math. Afterwards, you will be surprised that your neural pathways have solidified; words that seemed to slip from your grasp are now more firmly lodged in your brain. Again, rest can be a very subjective thing. But a day or two off every couple of weeks can definitely be salutary.


The “It’s okay to fail method”

So often, the fear of making errors keeps us in a straitjacket. When we practice don’t worry about missing a question. Not only relish at the opportunity to learn from your mistakes, but also try out questions that take you out of your comfort zone. Sure, you may likely get the question wrong, but the experience of trying to work out the question can often be highly instructive. The key is not to go too far out of your zone. For instance, if you’ve heard that combinations/permutations questions are difficult, try a few of medium difficulty. But don’t try the question that has a solution that contains more exclamation marks than a comic book (those are factorial signs, by the way).


Remember to practice, practice, practice! And of course, using the right materials is essential. How are you going to study for the GRE? What are you most concerned about studying? Let us know below!

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6 Responses to How to Study for the GRE

  1. Sarah August 2, 2013 at 12:03 pm #

    Hey Chris! Loving the Magoosh system so far but I have a question: Do you know approximately how many sheets of scratch paper you are given? I know not to ask for more because they will take your old stuff that you may still need. Thanks!

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele August 5, 2013 at 1:00 pm #

      Hmm…that is a good question. I’m searching my memory and I believe I was given three sheets. It was definitely more than one; but it wasn’t a whole lot. I guess learning to write small during mock tests will be helpful. If we are not careful–esp. during the stressful test–we can end up using half a page for one problem.

      Sorry I couldn’t be more exact on the number of pieces of scratch paper. Good luck :)!

  2. Deborah March 20, 2013 at 4:28 pm #

    When I studied for my GRE, I decided that I could do ANYTHING for two hours. I dared myself by setting a timer and digging in to one of my GRE books. Sometimes I never heard the timer ring because I was so engrossed. Other times it was a relief to hear it ring. Partly never knowing which way it would go kept me motivated too–even in the parts I liked the least (math, math, math).

  3. James March 12, 2013 at 6:59 am #

    To the Magoosh team:

    Yesterday I was accepted into Virginia Tech’s Developmental and Biological Psychology PhD program, and I don’t think it would have happened without this great website and it’s devoted staff. The first time I took the GRE i score the old equivalent of about a 900 (500 verbal, 400 quant). But after using your site for a little over 6months and following your advice with supplementary materials like NOVA’s GRE Math Bible and using LSAT tests, I took the GRE again and scored the old equivalent of a 1330 (verbal 600, quant 720). Thank you so much, I’ll always remember this site as a part of my success, can’t thank you enough!

    -James M. Brown

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele March 12, 2013 at 1:14 pm #


      Congratulations, that is great to hear! I am very happy that we played a part in helping you get admitted to such an excellent program. Ultimately, your hard work and perseverance were key in helping you boost your score by almost 500 points (old scale).

      Best of luck in your graduate studies :).

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