So … The GRE. What to bring? Is there special GRE scratch paper? Are there fancy GRE pencils? Custom GRE calculators?
The answer is yes — kinda.
Checking in to a testing center can be a dehumanizing experience. You must empty all your pockets, store your valuables in a locker, and, once you are inside the testing area, maintain complete silence.
These regulations are understandable, as they help to prevent cheating. But they who taketh away also giveth: along with a pencil, the test monitors will provide you with scratch paper before you walk into the exam room.
It is important not just to use it, but to use it wisely. Below are some important points to keep in mind when using scratch paper.
Tips for Using GRE Scratch Paper
Keep in mind that you will get more than enough scratch paper. If you happen to run out, raise your hand. The testing center manager will walk over and provide you with more paper.
You will also receive a standard No. 2 pencil. You cannot bring your own writing implements.
You cannot write on the scratch paper before the section begins. The reasons for this are twofold: it would not be fair if you were able to dump all your formulas and high-frequency vocabulary on the page before you even begin the test. Second, students used to write answer grids on the paper to help them eliminate mistakes, giving them an unfair advantage. As soon as the clock starts you can write whatever you want on the scratch paper, answer grids included.
Tip #1: Develop good habits
Below are several tips you should keep in mind when using scratch paper. Do not wait to try them out on test day. Instead, practice doing problems and mock tests with scratch paper by your side, applying the tips below.
Tip #2: Keep your GRE scratch paper organized
Do you find yourself furiously scribbling off the margins of the paper? I certainly do. So practice keeping your work organized. Remember that you don’t need to economize space — just raise your hand if you need more paper.
Tip #3: Keep it neat
I have awful handwriting. I used to write short stories by hand and could never read them. Perhaps they were Pulitzer-prize worthy… the world will never know. (Luckily, I switched long ago to various electronic mediums). Since high school, I’ve been able to avoid writing anything by hand, so it’s not surprising that my handwriting has devolved into something pre-K. Since you’ll be writing by hand on your GRE scratch paper, a little handwriting practice will do you some good.
For the GRE, I typically don’t write much more than numbers when I use the scratch paper. Even then, I tend to mistake 7’s for 9’s, and 2’s for 4’s. The only solution I’ve found is to slow down just a touch. Though this might cost me an extra second, such a precaution can save me from a lot of careless errors. So if you’re like me — though I’m sure your writing is more legible than mine — my best advice is to slow down a little. Doing so will also help you be organized so you’re not writing at odd angles and running off the page.
Tip #4: Don’t overlap
If you try to stuff too much on one page, you are likely to start mixing up information in problems. You can also get easily lost going back and forth between the computer screen and your GRE scratch paper. By only doing a few problems per page and making sure that those problems are organized neatly, you prevent yourself from making careless mistakes and spending unnecessary time trying to figure out where you wrote your answer.
GRE What to Bring
You can’t bring your own scratch paper, but I wanted to talk about what you allowable stuff you should bring to the testing center.
Don’t underestimate the need for caloric infusion midway through the grueling four hours of test taking. In fact, because you’ve been nerves all morning and likely didn’t sleep that well, you might not even be aware of how hungry you are. But when you feel those abdominal rumblings midway through a long passage on the idiosyncrasies of casting in Elizabethan plays, to be without sustenance is to send your already fried nerves into overdrive.
You can’t actually bring snacks into the testing room — but you can bring them into the testing center. You’ll get a locker the size of ten GRE prep books stacked on top of each other. You can squeeze most kinds of snacks in here, and you might even have room for a diminutive laptop. But you can only access your locker contents during break time. Technically, you’re allowed to leave the testing room, but the clock will be running. You’ll have to open the locker, get your stuff off, and then try to scarf down a banana (or whatever viands you’ve brought) all while the clock is ticking.
If you finish the section early, make sure you have enough time to get back, because the next section will automatically begin whether or not you are sitting in front of the computer. Of course, if your blood sugar has completely crashed and you are having visions, your main priority should be getting to your locker.
What I mean by this is you can’t bring a calculator to the exam. Sure, you can use a calculator, but that’s the one provided onscreen as part of the GRE test. So, sorry: you can’t bring your newfangled TI-2000-something or another hoping that it’ll make mincemeat out of any parabola the test throws at you.
Smartphone and laptop
You can bring these when you take the GRE. (In fact, you can bring just about anything to store in your locker). But you can’t access them till after your test is over. So don’t think you can type notes into or rely on your trusty “cheat sheet.” The only things you can remove from your locker are your snacks.
GRE scratch paper is a valuable tool. Make sure you practice good scratch paper habits before you walk in and take the test.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in January of 2012 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.