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How Not to Prepare for the GRE — a Top-10 List

Practice, practice and more practice is the single best way to prepare for the GRE — everyone knows that. But what about the worst ways? On this page you'll find the answer. Avoid the 10 pitfalls discussed below, or you might end up with mediocre GRE scores and a pile of rejection letters from your top-choice schools.

  1. Overconfidence in your test-taking abilities

    Perhaps your college GPA approached 4.0, or perhaps you "aced" the SAT back in high school. Even if so, don't assume that you can stroll into the GRE testing center and crush the competition. Be forewarned: There are many test-smart grad-school candidates out there who are taking the GRE very, very seriously. And so should you.

  2. Overemphasis on certain testing areas at the expense of others

    In preparing for the GRE, some test takers focus too much on the test areas with which they are most comfortable, while other test takers focus only on their weak areas while neglecting their strong suits. Both approaches are ill-advised. You'll be issued separate GRE Verbal, Quantitative and Analytical Writing scores, and each will appear on your GRE score report for five years. So even if the particular program that interests you most doesn't require an especially high score in your weakest area, you should hedge your bets by preparing diligently for every portion of the exam.

  3. Obsessing over troublesome practice test questions

    It's one thing to review a practice-test question that you've answered incorrectly to find out if you erred in your reasoning and to learn from that error. But it's quite another to dwell on one or two particular questions that you either "take issue with" or still don't "get" after a few reflective minutes. Get a second opinion, and then if you're sure it's the publisher and not you who has erred, by all means alert the editors (they'll appreciate it), and then move on. Obsessing over any particular practice question (which, by the way, won't appear on your actual GRE) is, in a word, counterproductive.

  4. Undue emphasis on practice-test scores

    Perhaps you have a particular school in mind as your first choice, and you think that you need a particular GRE score to gain admission to that school. Setting a goal for your GRE scores is understandable. But try not to concern yourself as much with your scores as with what you can constructively do between now and exam day to improve your performance.

  5. GRE burnout (over-preparation)

    You should plan to spend a significant amount of time and effort preparing for the GRE. It takes time to eliminate bad test-taking habits, to become comfortable with the exam's format and time limits, and to hone your verbal, math and writing skills. Yet, there will come a point when your attention, motivation and performance level peak. Beyond that point further preparation may prove fruitless, if not counterproductive. So don't drag out your GRE prep by starting several months in advance or by postponing the exam to give yourself more time than you really need for preparation.

  6. Unrealistic expectations

    Every individual is constrained by his or her own innate potential. Top GRE scores are simply not within reach for most test takers. Accept this fact, and focus on performing as well as you can reasonably expect of yourself. There's only so much that you can do, no matter the effort, to boost your GRE scores. Also be realistic about the benefits you can expect from any GRE website, book or course. There are no secrets or tricks to attaining top GRE scores.

  7. Not taking the GRE essays seriously enough

    Graduate programs clearly state their admissions policies regarding GRE Quantitative and Verbal scores, usually in terms of minimum acceptable scale scores. But many programs don't have firm threshold requirements for GRE essay scores. Does this mean that you shouldn't take the GRE essay sections seriously? No. Look at it this way: The highest-ranked program to which you might gain admission is one at which you're a borderline candidate. And it's borderline candidates who are going to receive closest scrutiny, which entails looking at GRE Analytical Writing scores.

  8. Insufficient practice under exam conditions

    The timed GRE exam runs at least 3-1/2 hours. Needless to say, endurance plays a significant role in GRE testing. Condition yourself to go the distance by taking at least two or three full-length practice tests straight through, with only a few short breaks. Try to simulate testing conditions as closely as possible. Ask a friend to serve as your proctor; take the exams in computerized format; and limit your use of word-processing features to the ones available on the actual exam.

  9. Fatalistic thinking

    Many test takers tell themselves: "I'll give the GRE one shot, and if I do poorly, I'll just forget the whole idea of going to grad school." Don't succumb to this sort of fatalistic, self-defeating thinking. If you have time and can afford it, register for and take the real GRE once as a dress rehearsal — just to get comfortable with the testing environment. (You can cancel your scores immediately after the test.) You'll get some of those butterflies out of your system, and if you're like most test takers you'll be far more relaxed next time. In fact, ETS statistics show that among GRE repeaters, the great majority improve their scores the second time around.

  10. Taking the GRE too late to retake it

    Admission application deadlines can vary widely. Find out the earliest deadline you need to meet, and schedule your GRE testing date early enough so that you can retake the test and still meet that deadline. In any event, try to schedule your testing date for a time when you're free of distractions and time-consuming commitments.

    NOTE: If you want to repeat the exam, the testing service requires that you wait more than 60 days; so plan accordingly to avoid the time squeeze.