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It might be one of the most important tests of your life, but it doesn’t have to feel scary.

Don't panic, you can prepare for that exam (Image via iStock)

The Graduate Record Exam (GRE) is a three-hour, forty-five minute exam that is required as part of students’ application to graduate school. There are three sections on the test: Analytical Writing, Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative (Math) Reasoning; together they determine your final score. There are two essay questions to be completed in thirty minutes and five multiple choice sections: three Verbal and two Math or vice versa.

You can register online for the GRE test at www.ets.org/gre for a fee of $205. Before you walk into the testing room, make sure you prepare as much as possible. The few tips below can enhance your score and give you peace of mind during the exam.

1. Create a Study Plan

Studies have shown that concentration, comprehension and memory progressively decrease after forty-five minutes of studying. Therefore, you want to arrange your study time after the pattern of forty-five minutes studying and a fifteen-minute rest/break. Plan to study four days a week for about a month before you take the exam. You should start without a specific tactic to each topic to see what your starting score would be. From there, you can tweak your studying approach to fit your needs.

There will always be something you missed on the practice exam. Take time to focus on that specific problem so that you can avoid making the same mistakes on the actual exam. Admitting weaknesses can be difficult, but it will help you improve your score by concentrating your effort on the problems that give you the most trouble, which will improve dramatically after a month or two. Make sure to read the explanation for each problem thoroughly and do not ignore one section, such as math, to study for a more challenging one, such as verbal. Give balanced attention to both topics, so that you can do well in each area.

2. Process of Elimination

Work on questions that give you the least trouble first. The GRE lets you skip questions in a section, so you can move on to ones you are comfortable with and go back to the difficult questions at the end. If you are struggling with one question, do not freak out! Use the process of elimination to increase your odds of getting the question correct and raising your final score.

Read the information and copy problems onto scratch paper carefully. Double check what you’ve written before solving a problem to avoid wasting your time on an incorrect question. Plus, working through an entire problem only to find that you got a number wrong can be discouraging.

Scratch paper can help you with not only the Math portion but also the Verbal one. When you are attempting to multitask, you may make a mistake and get off track. Scratch paper allows you to write down essential information as you narrow your choices down to a possible correct answer. It may happen that you are down to two answers after the elimination process; if so, use your best guess and move on. It is important you do not spend too much time on one question since the test is timed.

3. Know Your Vocab

Brush up on your math vocab. There’s a chance you have not seen terms such as factor or standard deviation for a while unless you are a math major. Most GRE websites have lists of terms you should familiarize yourself with, which will help with your comprehension of questions in Math sections.

Building your vocab for Verbal section is just as important. You can buy flashcards in stores or make your own from available lists of commonly used words on the GRE. A strong vocab and accurate understanding of word use will help you on questions where you are stuck between two answer choices.

You can look at flashcards when you’re waiting in line, sitting on a plane or having a long car ride. There are even mobile apps in which you can make your own flashcards or use the ready-made GRE flashcards. Most of these apps are free on smartphones. If you learn a hundred new words, your Verbal score can improve by a few points.

The flashcards will also help you with sentence comparison questions. These questions require you to choose two words that fit best into the gap to produce two sentences with similar meanings. The best way to solve these problems is to cover up all the answer choices on the screen. Read the question and think of a word you think fits perfectly in the sentence. After that, look at each choice individually, you may find the exact word you just thought of or a very similar one.  The process of elimination may help here as well. If you can know one choice is correct and eliminate three out of the remaining four, it is most likely that you had identified the correct two.

4. Do Not Depend on Your Calculator

You are given an online calculator during the test, but you do not want to rely too heavily on its assistance. Use the calculator when you are multiplying two and three digit numbers, finding percentages or averages, working on Order of Operations questions or those with decimals. Try no to not use it when you are doing simple problems such as converting fractions to decimals, solving calculation-heavy operations, or adding/subtracting negative numbers.

Even if math is not your strong suit, make sure you do give proper attention to this portion of the exam. Practice fractions and the order of operations to avoid struggles with basic problems. The calculator should only be used when necessary. That way, you may save yourself some time on the exam.

5. Prepare for the Essays

There are two essays on the Analytical Writing portion: one on an issue and one on an argument. Topics for the essay tend to be about loss, growth, education, the role of government, individuals and society, etc. You may find the pool of topics on the “Published Topic Pools for the Analytical Writing Measure” page.

It is wise to familiarize yourself with these topics beforehand, so you have an idea of what to expect and how to tackle each topic. With both essays, it is important to organize your thoughts before you start writing the paper. Form a breakdown of the points you want to cover in each paragraph and decide on your thesis, which will be the focus of your paper.

Reading good writing can improve your own writing. Take time to read editorials and think critically about the work you are reading. What is the author’s main claim? Does the author back up their claim with specific points? What is the author trying to argue? Reading comprehension has become a bigger part of the GRE exam, so focusing on your reading skills will give you confidence during your verbal and essay portions.

6. Practice Tests

Educational Testing Service is the only source of real GRE questions, and arguably your best one. There are also free guides available for public use. CrunchPrep GRE, Barron’s TestPrep Blog and Magoosh GRE Blog are just a few of the common resources available online.

There are prep courses and books available too if you feel you need more help than what the online resources provide. The practice tests, however, are only useful if you take them once a week and do not take them the night before the exam. Instead, warm yourself up before the test with a few, basic questions.

7. Relax

GRE scores are only a portion of your entire graduate school application. It’s okay if your score is not the highest. Make sure other parts of your application stand out, so you are not relying solely on your test score. All the hard work you’ve put into your undergraduate years also counts, and universities will consider the other parts of your application beside your standardized test result.

Remember: Do not try to take a crash course on the exam the night before or burn yourself out studying material over and over again. This can actually hurt your score. Your mind will struggle to process all the information you are giving it and desperately need a break. You are able to learn even better after taking a break from constant studying. As long as you use the tips above and prepare in advance, you will pass the GRE.

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