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If you are interested in pursuing higher education in the field of psychology, there is, at least, one common denominator to gaining entrance into your preferred graduate program: the GRE. Whether this is your first time around, or you’re re-taking the test to earn a higher score, a structured study plan is a must. Keep reading to learn more about the test and a strategy to prepare yourself for satisfactory performance.

About the GRE

Similar to the ACT and SAT exams required for enrollment in undergraduate school, the GRE, which is short for the Graduate Record Examination, is a mandatory test for acceptance into advanced degree programs. Most graduate schools in the United States, including master’s, specialist and doctoral degree programs, in addition to many business schools, now require successful completion of the GRE as a qualification for admission. The test is designed to measure general academic ability beyond the undergraduate degree independent of a specialty area; so, the test is useful across subject areas.

In 2011, the previous standardized version of the test was refitted to form the GRE revised General Test. The reformatted exam is multi-staged and adapts by difficulty level between sections. For example, performance on the earlier portions of the test define the level of difficulty for those that follow. Scores were changed from a scale ranging between 200 and 800 to one from 130 to 170.

The computer-based GRE revised General Test lasts 3 hours and 45 minutes and composed of the following three sections:

  • Analytical Writing. This section consists of 2 essay questions that determine your capacity to perform detailed analysis of example material, conceptualize relationships between different words and sentence fragments, communicate relevant information effectively and support your ideas. This section includes an Issue and an Argument essay item.
  • Verbal Reasoning. This section determines your ability to engage in reading comprehension, critical and analytical thinking, and text completion. It also contains 2 sections made up of about 20 questions per section.
  • Quantitative Reasoning. This section measures your aptitude for problem-solving, drawing conclusions, and performing basic arithmetic operations. There are 2 sections made up of about 20 questions per section.

How Much Weight Does the GRE Have?

A common question among test-takers is how important are GRE test scores in the overall picture of the graduate admissions process. The GRE falls in line with other consequential requirements for graduate study such as your GPA, letters of recommendation, and those all-important examples of experience on your CV. But, how important is the test in the grand scheme of things?

The answer to that question is anything but simple. The GRE is weighed differently between schools, programs, and departments. One program may focus more on GPA, while another emphasizes having stellar recommendation letters. Therefore, as you advance through the graduate application process, you may find a range of test score requirements.

It’s likely that you may have one detrimental aspect of your application that needs balancing out. If your GPA is only mediocre, it could suit you to really put in extra effort studying for the GRE and adding flair to other elements in the applications. Know what’s important to your top school early on, so that you can cater your application package to their standards. In cases where your GPA and GRE are borderline, you will really have to shine with your recommendations, writing sample, and resume to catch the committee’s eye.

How Far Out Should I Study for the GRE?

Another mutual question shared by potential applicants is how long they should plan to study for the test before taking it. Again, there is no one size-fits-all answer. As score requirements vary from school to school and program to program, scoring potential varies from student to student. In general, you would probably want to devote anywhere from 4 weeks to 6 months to studying based on the following factors.

  • The score requirements of your choice programs/schools. If your top schools have lofty standards, more time and effort into studying could result in you meeting those standards. 
  • Previous test-taking abilities. If you have had severe test anxiety or demonstrated poor performance on other standardized tests, a longer study period could help strengthen your weaknesses.
  • The length of time you have been out of school. If you’re hopping back into the educational-attainment saddle after several years off, you may need more time to brush up on…
  • Your mathematical abilities. Already have an extreme aversion to math? Dedicate more time to acquiring new skills in this area.
  • Your verbal abilities. Had previous issues with timed writing exams, you basically never ever read anything, or is English a second language for you? Individuals who rarely read and analyze information or have trouble interpreting words and definitions due to language barriers may want to invest extra time into advancing their verbal skills.

GRE Test Prep 101: Your Study Plan

Once you have pinpointed your weakness, if you have any, then you’ll know how to structure your study sessions. If you have always excelled at taking standardized tests, for instance, you may be okay with a few weeks practice simply to familiarize yourself with the format of this particular test. Don’t overestimate your abilities, though. It’s better to study a little more than necessary than a little less.

Step 1. Set Your Schedule

Now it’s time to really sit down and map out your study time. Of course, getting into graduate school is a top priority for you to advance your future. So, you’ll want to be sure you are giving yourself the adequate time needed to sufficiently learn new information and techniques.

Examine your calendar for the stretch of time you’re planning to allot for studying (i.e. 1 month, 2 months, 6 months, etc.). Remove all days or weeks in which you are otherwise engaged with activities like work, school, vacation, and important occasions. Consider what’s left and set a schedule for a couple hours each week to study. Note that if you are only dedicating a month, you may have to allot more time each week.

Step 2: Break the Task Down

Once you understand the format of the test and what each section measures, determine how much time you need to spend on certain concepts. Choose one subject to study each week or each month depending on how much time you have. Be realistic about how much you are dedicating to each subject area. You may need more time to spend on analytical writing sections than verbal sections. Yet, if you have historically poor math skills, you may want to allot more time to focusing on strengthening those abilities.

Step 3. Gather Practice Materials

There are many online and paper resources for GRE prep. Modify the materials you get to the concepts in which you need the most help. Different websites and resources will concentrate on different aspects of the test. There are whole books that discuss test-taking strategies alone without even delving into any specific verbal or mathematical concepts. Most of your materials should center on your weak areas. Still, take the time to schedule in and practice on areas where you are normally strong to boost morale and further develop those skills.

Here are a few suggested resources:

ETS GRE Test Prep

Practice Tests from Princeton Review

Practice Questions from Kaplan

Steps 4. & 5. Get Adequate Practice and Evaluate Periodically

As you study each subject area and get acclimated to the style of the test and the questions, you should frequently test your knowledge as you gain new skills. Plan to take a practice test weekly to track your progress on weak subjects and to ensure you are still strong in other areas.

Plus, as your test date draws near, revise your study schedule to more specific concepts. Early on in a 6-month study plan, you may have allotted one hour per week on Verbal Reasoning test skills. However, as you get closer to the test and recognize which areas you need help, you may want to narrow these sessions to particular strategies within verbal reasoning such as a day for Sentence Equivalence.

Also, you may have noticed a strength in answering multiple choice questions but need to strengthen your talent for open-ended entry questions. Constantly reassess your abilities so that you are on target for meeting your specific goals.

Taking the GRE is a significant rite of passage when pursuing an advanced degree. However, your test-taking process can be relatively issue-free when you take the time to develop a plan that suits your particular needs and is geared towards the requirements of your choice schools. Get started developing your GRE study plan today.

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