What to Do When You Reach a Plateau in Your GRE Score

two plateaus in a desert during the day -magoosh

No matter the skill you are trying to hone, there will come a moment when you feel you’ve hit a plateau. The GRE test is no different. Your practice test scores, even after you study diligently for weeks, may not be going up. It is easy to conclude that all you work means nothing.

But do not despair! Below are some important pointers when you feel you’ve hit the wall with your GRE score.

First Thing to Do When You’ve Hit A Plateau in Your GRE Score

What’s the best way to solve a problem and make sure it never, ever comes back? Attack it by its root cause. That’s why the very first thing you should do when you’ve hit a plateau in your GRE score is to understand why you’ve hit a plateau in the first place.

Generally, there are three reasons why one’s GRE score would plateau, and it’s pretty easy to look inward and figure out which one of these three reasons apply the most to you:

  1. Do you find yourself drained before you even start your GRE study? Do you feel like your brain just can’t retain more information? Are you spending most of your waking hours studying and/or working? Then the main cause of your plateau is definitely exhaustion and I would wager a pretty large sum that this is probably the case for most people reading this post. Click here for tips on how to combat GRE exhaustion!
  1. If you feel like you still have plenty of fuel for GRE study but find that there are still some concepts that you need to brush up on, then the reason for your score plateau is most likely lack of knowledge, which is easily remedied! Click here to start building your GRE knowledge.
  1. If you have energy for GRE study and you feel confident on all the content, but can’t figure out why your GRE score won’t improve, then you should definitely look into how to generally improve your test-taking strategy. Check out the tips for changing your GRE strategy here.


What to Do When You Reach a Plateau in Your GRE Score Due to Exhaustion

Our brains, like our muscles, need rest. And like our muscles, brains need time to grow. If you’ve been studying every chance you get and your score still isn’t improving, you definitely need to take a break. Understandably, you don’t want to take too much time off. But even a three- to four-day break from studying vocabulary won’t cause you to forget all you’ve learned.

Improve your GRE score with Magoosh.

In fact, coming back after a few days’ rest will give your brain a renewed perspective. By taking a break from learning, your brain will have had time to process all that you’ve learned. So, for the sake of better studying, STOP STUDYING—at least for a little bit—and focus on some of the activities below.

Take Care of Your Body

It’s a shame how easy it is to fall into the GRE trap of only studying to the detriment of one’s health, even though taking care of your health is a way better strategy for increasing your test score than, say, cramming or studying when you’re exhausted. Who would have thought?

A good night’s sleep, healthy eating, and exercise are all linked to higher test scores. So instead of pursuing diminishing returns with your study, why don’t you reallocate you GRE time for a few days and intentionally focus on:

  • getting in those sweet 7-9 hours
  • filling your diet with some more brain foods
  • hitting the gym, the pavement, your apartment floor, or however you like to work out!
    • definitely make sure that you don’t skip out on good stretches, as you’ll need to work out all those knots you got from hours of sitting hunched over a book or computer (might I even recommend yoga?)
  • getting a massage (those knots are really no joke)
  • meditating (especially critical if you have test anxiety—even one minute a day will do wonders)
  • doing something creative, like a crafts project or strumming the guitar
  • catching up on shows you missed
  • really any other healthy activity you like doing to unwind

Spending a few days intentionally taking care of your mind and body and you’ll find that the word ‘polemical’—which you were having so much difficulty learning because you couldn’t get the image of a pole out of your head—suddenly makes sense. Just make sure to keep up the habit when you get back to studying too!

Focus on Other Aspects of the Grad School Application Process

If you’re already pretty good at working out, eating healthy, meditating, and all that jazz (and if that’s the case, please teach me your ways), then maybe the answer is to focus on other aspects of your grad school applications.

This process is soul-sucking, yes, but at its best, it is a great opportunity to really reflect on your personal and professional life until this point and dream about your vision for your career. Do some more research on the schools you’re looking at. Fall in love with some class descriptions or other program offerings. Tinker with your personal statements. Get on forums like GradCafe, which would be a great way to get some outside perspectives and not just stay ensconced in your own little GRE world. You can post some questions or offer your insights for other students’ questions, which would be another feel-good, mental-health-boosting activity to add to your list.


What to Do When You Reach a Plateau in Your GRE Score Due to Lack of Knowledge

One of the most important things you can do for your GRE prep is keeping a GRE error log. For every single practice problem that you do, you want to make sure you’re keeping a log of what you’re getting right and wrong and why.

This will help you know exactly which concepts you’ve got down and which ones you need to focus on improving. Keeping track of which questions you get right, a process that students tend to want to skip, is also important because sometimes you get something right purely for guessing and you want to minimize chance on actual test day as much as possible!

Once you have a solid list of the most important concepts that you’d like to review, the following resources can help you improve your understanding:

  • If vocabulary may be the source of your GRE score plateau, then check out our post on How to Study GRE Vocabulary for all the GRE vocab resources you could ever need.
  • With video lessons on every GRE topic and 1400+ practice questions, Magoosh’s GRE prep is a super affordable and accessible option.
  • Here is the latest list of the best GRE books if old-school studying is more your style or if you need to take a break from screens.


What to Do When You Reach a Plateau in Your GRE Score Due to Poor Test-Taking Strategy

Perhaps, GRE prep has become a very regimented routine for you. You maybe even have your favorite GRE spot, where you roost for a few hours. Having structure and discipline is critical to success, but up until a point. After a while, your brain may simply be getting bored. Here are a few tips for breaking up the monotony.

Focus on Different Parts of the Test

Many become too fixated on doing just one question type, or just one section on the test because that’s the area they need the most improvement on. If that’s you, then you’ll likely find that the answer to your GRE score plateau (hey, that kind of rhymes!) is to take a break from that question type or section. This allows your brain time to process what you’ve already learned and also prevents you from scoring lower on the parts of the test that you feel stronger on.

Take it from me: When I was studying for my GRE retake, I focused so much on getting my Verbal score up that I completely neglected the Quant section. My verbal score went up by 2 points, sure, but my Quant score went down by 2 points.

So do yourself a favor and give other sections some love. If you’ve been doing nothing but crunching numbers and cursing quantitative comparison questions, maybe it’s time to do some reading comprehension. If you’ve totally forgotten about the AWA section, it’s probably a good idea to flex your writing muscles—you can even try out some new vocabulary learned and write with the aplomb and sophistication of a GRE Text Completion.

Change Your Study Routine

Let’s say, hypothetically, that your studying routine pretty much always starts with a few Verbal practice questions followed by a review of your mistakes and then a set of math problems. After following this pattern for a month, your brain starts to become bored.

Surprise your brain! Any of the following should do the trick:

  • Do a mini-test in which you mix up doing five math problems followed immediately be a long reading passage.
  • Review material from a day or two before. Do you remember what you learned that day? Revisit questions you missed.
  • Even simply changing up where you study every once in a while can have a notable effect on your GRE score.

Keep an Error Log

We mentioned this in the section before, but it bears repeating over and over again. Reviewing your error long not only helps to break up the monotony but also helps to the root of why you may be getting questions wrong, even if you understand them conceptually.

What to Do When You Reach a Plateau in Your GRE Score? Study Smarter, Not Harder

The answer to a GRE score plateau is rarely “study more hours.” What you really need to be doing is take breaks as needed, not neglect your mental and physical health for the sake of studying, break up the monotony, and make sure you’re tracking your mistakes and learning from them.

For anyone else who has figured out how to blast through the GRE study wall, are there other reasons why one’s GRE score might be plateauing? Are there other strategies that worked for you? Let us know in the comments below!

A special thanks to GRE wizard Chris Lele for his work on this post!

P.S. Ready to improve your GRE score? Get started today.

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9 Responses to What to Do When You Reach a Plateau in Your GRE Score

  1. roja October 15, 2017 at 8:16 pm #

    Dear chris,
    This is roja,4 daya before I took my GRE.I was really frustrated after seeing my scores.I had been preparing for GRE so far 1 month. Even I bunked my clg on the month for 20 days and I worked my lvl best.I used Princeton review and Manhattan materials for preparing . Even though I have not covered the entire materials,I concentrated on the part in which I was not confident.Before one week of my GRE I had some other commitments from college like internals.Thus I didnt concentrate well on the final week,besides I was too preparing dor toefl in the amidst.I thought that I would definitely handle this hectic situation and would score good.My mpck scores are
    308 -manhattan
    I thought I would definitely end up with 305+ in final exam.but the big day was not affable with me.I ended up scoring 286,the score which I didn’t even score in my mock.i really frustrated after getting this. I wanna have my intake for this fall 2018. Kindly guidr me what should I do and guide me when to retake my test?….expxtng for ur reply…………..plzz reply ASAP

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert October 18, 2017 at 1:49 pm #

      Hi Roja,

      Wow, sorry to hear you got a 286. That certainly sounds frustrating. The good news is that it also sounds like the problems that led to your 286 can be avoided the next time you take the test. Really, you had the “perfect storm” of distraction and stress right before your test, with your other schooling responsibilities and your TOEFL.

      Given that you could avoid those problems if your’e able to focus more on GRE prep in the week before your next test, you might be able to study for a successful retake in just one month. However, since you are looking for admission a year from now, it sounds like you may have more than a month. And if you can spend more than four weeks preparing for the exam, you should. A longer prep timeline always helps!

      In your next study plan, I recommend taking 2-3 months if you can. I also suggest incorporating more books and materials from ETS– they make the most authentic GRE prep material anywhere, since they also make the exam. You may also want to look at some of Magoosh GRE’s study schedules for ideas on extra materials to use.

      And of course, you may want to consider including a Magoosh GRE Premium subscription in your next study plan. Our question sets are plentiful and ETS-like, and many students have found our GRE video lessons to be quite helpful. 🙂

  2. Shruti August 13, 2015 at 9:20 pm #

    Dear Chris,

    I am retaking the gre after about 5 years. This time it’s for a PhD application. I am quite thorough with the syllabus and know all the questions on the test, but just somehow not able to manage my time well while giving the exam and end up hurrying through questions ,aa a result I do them wrong and skip questions . How do u suggest I improve in this aspect while practicing?
    Also, if I am getting about 310 in my mocks now, is advisable for me to book for the rest ?

  3. Sukriti September 6, 2014 at 1:51 am #

    Hi Chris,

    Ever since I got to know about Magoosh, I became a huge fan of it. I have meticulously read most of the articles written by you (not only on Magoosh but also on Quora 🙂 )and all of them are extremely laudable. Very good job!

    I have definitely hit a plateau in GRE prep. I started preparing for GRE 4 months back and in the diagnostic test (Manhattan Prep) I scored Q157 and V149. After 4 months of studying diligently ( though I took a few breaks in between of 2-3 days) I took a mock test (ETS powerprep) and my scores are Q160 and V148. That is a negligible change.

    This is the result after completing the whole quant section of Manhattan 5lb book, reading strategies of all verbal and quant sections from Manhattan strategy guides and also learning 500 words from Magoosh vocab flashcards.

    What could possibly be the reason behind such a performance?

    Also after giving the practice test, when I sat down to analyze it, I realized that I could easily solve all the questions. It is just that my brain and my hands freeze when I see any difficult question or a difficult word while giving the test.

    What changes should I make in my study plan to see an improvement of scores within 2-3 weeks?
    I have decided to take GRE by the end of this month.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele September 8, 2014 at 2:23 pm #

      Hi Sukriti,

      I think you are on the right track by figuring out what is happening when you encounter a tough question: you are freezing up. I think almost all of us get that tight feeling when faced with a tough question. First, accept that the feeling is natural. By directly succumbing it or by trying to actively fight it, you only intensify it. Controlling your breathing so that you don’t take quick, shallow breathes (or any breaths at all!) will help you avoid going into stress mode, which we know does wonders for critical thinking abilities.

      You might also want to find some other clear reasons that you are missing questions. On verbal it could be as something as simple as that you rush to the answer choices before thinking the question through, thereby letting the answer choices think for you.

      I talk about these strategies a lot in our product and address them in our explanation videos, so you might also want to consider the Magoosh product in the few weeks you have left :).

      Good luck!

  4. Mibin March 3, 2013 at 1:01 am #

    Hi chris,
    I have been following your blogs since nov 2012, thats when i subscribed magoosh . You are doing an amazing job. Your book reviews were extremely helpful and i was able to get the right books for my study.
    I have given 2 manhattan tests and scored 310 and 311. Quant 152,154. Verbal 157, 158. Now that i have a month left for my GRE, can you please suggest me of how i should structure my studies till the exam. I am hoping to get atleast 320.
    Thanks in advance

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele March 5, 2013 at 3:06 pm #

      Hi Mibin,

      In the remaining month, I would pinpoint the three areas in which you struggle most (if you haven’t done so already). Really focus on improving in these areas. This blog is always a great resource to help you find useful points on whatever those areas may be.

      I would also do timed tests, preferably as many from the Official Guide to the GRE as possible. Make sure to really wrap your head around why you missed the questions you missed. (This process may relate back to your weaknesses).

      And don’t forget vocabulary – that one word you happened to learn right before the test can make at least a point difference :).

      Good luck!

  5. Niyati February 19, 2013 at 8:38 am #

    Hey Chris,

    I am definitely hitting a plateau with the gre, albeit of a different kind. I teach English Lit. at a University in India and plan to apply for a PhD program this year. However, the GRE verbal is proving to be my biggest nightmare.

    The first time I took the new GRE was with very little preparation and I managed to get a 160 verbal which was not sufficient for a phd application. The second time around since I was busy with a research program, I couldn’t prepare and therefore didn’t even manage to score a 160 (Well, no surprises there! I didn’t study at all).

    The third time around I decided to diligently study, took princeton review classes and put in a lot of hard work for 2 months–constantly assessing and reassessing my mistakes. I got a 163 v, 162 v, 159 v and 161 v in my Princeton review online tests, whereas in my manhattan gre free test I received a 165 v. However, in my final exam, I ended up with a 160 v again!

    Though I am quite disappointed, I have decided to take the GRE again and am interested in the premium course Magoosh offers. However, it would be great if you could shed some light on why I am stuck with a 160 v, even though I can sense that my reading comprehension, reasoning etc. has drastically improved.

    Thanks a lot, Niyati

    • Chris Lele
      Chris February 20, 2013 at 12:16 pm #

      Hi Niyati,

      Thanks for candidly sharing your experience thus far with the GRE :). I’m thinking there could be several factors at play here. One may simply have to do with your nerves test day. Of course everybody is nervous, but if you feel that you may be more prone to anxiety, learning coping techniques could be helpful.

      That said, a 160V isn’t that far off from what you were getting. I’m curious if you are consistently missing questions on one question type (say, multiple-blank TC), or if you are errors are random. Identifying the problem area, if there is one, can help you make your study sessions more targeted.

      Now you said that you worked with PR assessing your mistakes. Usually this helps. My own concern is that PR’s GRE material is much easier than what you’ll see test day. In other words, the insight you glean from learning why you missed a PR question won’t necessarily help you with an actual GRE question. This could explain why you feel that your reasoning/RC has drastically improved, yet to no apparent avail.

      What Magoosh offers are practice questions that are as difficult–if not more difficult–then the questions on the actual test (each question comes with a detailed explanation). The skills you learn solving these questions will help you test day.

      Let me know if that is helpful :). And also feel free to ask me any more questions relating to your experience thus far with the GRE. I definitely want to help you figure out how to boost your verbal score into the high 160s :).

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