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The Biggest Mistake I Made on the GRE

Take the GRE with no regrets! Wanna know how? Our friends at CollegeXpress are here with some helpful, first-hand advice.

I took the GRE several years ago when I was applying to grad school, and I have to admit, I was pretty proud of my verbal score. It was close to perfect—but not quite.

I’d studied so sedulously, spending hours and hours memorizing countless, seemingly esoteric vocabulary words, and my life became so full of quiescence that I turned into quite the saturnine recluse. When test day rolled around, I was feeling sanguine and hopeful. And then I reached the first critical reading question and my dreams of a perfect score came crashing down.


Memorization is only half the battle

As you study for the GRE, there are several ways you can prepare for the verbal section. My best advice is to read voraciously and challenge yourself as a reader. We all need to enjoy those “bubblegum for the brain” types of books and magazines every once in a while, but dipping into Tolstoy or Nabokov from time to time will help keep you sharp and improve your vocabulary—and a good vocabulary will help you not only on the GRE, but in grad school and in your future career as well.

Learning to be an avid reader will help you learn and memorize new words over a long period of time. But if you have a short amount of time in which to study for the GRE, you’ll need to devise a plan to cram all that memorization into a few months. Find what works for you. For me, it was writing out all of the words and definitions by hand and quizzing myself on the entire list at least twice a day. And it worked: when I took the test, I knew the correct answer to almost every text completion and sentence equivalent question. But I fumbled on the critical reading questions because. . .


Timing is everything

Sure, if I’d had all the time in the world to work on the critical reading questions, there’s no doubt in my mind that my verbal score would have been in at least the 95th percentile. But unfortunately, the GRE is a timed test. It’s not enough to simply know the answers and how to arrive at them. You need to know the answers and how to arrive at them quickly, and that’s where I failed in my GRE study plan.

I did take several practice tests, which is important, but I didn’t force myself to adhere to the exact time constraints that were imposed when I took the real test. As a result, I robbed myself of my best possible score because I didn’t recreate the test day environment as closely as possible.

For me, the critical reading questions were what gobbled up my time and forced me to rush through (and incorrectly answer) successive questions so I could finish on time. For you, it might be problem solving in the quantitative section or organizing your thoughts quickly and logically for the analytical writing section. Whatever your Achilles’ heel on the GRE may be, it’s better to find out now rather than on test day so you can work on overcoming it.


Tips for success

In hopes that you’ll be able to avoid a fate similar to mine, here are a few tips to help you study and prepare more effectively for the GRE:

  • Give yourself as much time as possible to study. Don’t wait until the last few weeks before the test and expect to get a perfect score, because you won’t.
  • Stick to a schedule. Create a study plan and stick to it. Don’t skip a day thinking that you can make it up tomorrow—you’ll end up saying the same thing tomorrow and your procrastination will begin to snowball. Prolonged studying always trumps cramming.
  • Practice, practice, practice. Take several practice tests, stick to your timer (scout’s honor!), and try your best to approximate the environment you’ll be in on test day.
  • Turn to the experts. Relying on a tutor like those as Magoosh can help you ensure that you’re studying as efficiently as possible.
  • Take a break. All studying and no play makes Jack a dull—and exhausted—boy. Giving yourself a mental break from time to time is just as important as diligently studying. Spend too many hours hitting the books and you’ll find the information just isn’t sticking. Give yourself a breather.
  • Don’t sweat it! If you’ve truly studied your hardest, you’re going to get the score you deserve.

Stephanie Farah is a blogger for, a comprehensive college and scholarship search website. She earned a B.A. in English at the University of Texas at Austin and a Master of Journalism at the University of North Texas. In her free time, she enjoys cooking, traveling, and hanging out with her Great Dane. You can follow her on Twitter.


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2 Responses to The Biggest Mistake I Made on the GRE

  1. N Rehman February 14, 2014 at 1:24 pm #

    well i read your experience with just cramming the words ,but most people suggest that if someone cram the Manhattan 500 essential and 500 Advanced words that give you pretty much good advantage on Gre Text Completion and Sentence equivalence questions …..what you say about this …… and my specific questions is that if i need to appear in 2 months time fro gre how many words should i cram in this 2 months time to have good score on verbal .
    Warm regards

    • Rita Neumann
      Rita Kreig February 14, 2014 at 1:29 pm #


      Thanks for your question. 🙂

      The more GRE vocabulary words you know, the more likely you’ll score well on the Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence questions. But I would recommend focusing on the words that commonly appear on the GRE, rather than cramming 1000 words into your brain in 2 months. That’s tough to do!

      Here’s a 2 month Verbal-Focused study schedule to check out:

      And don’t forget that we have free flashcards too!

      Good luck studying!

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