Do you want to know the best way to study for the GRE? In this guide, we’ll fill you in on the foundational principles of good GRE preparation. Then we’ll review some common studying methods to help you figure out the best way to study for GRE high scores. Finally, we’ll close out with some essential tips you can implement with any study plan.
The Best Way To Study for the GRE: 5 Key Tips to Guide Your Preparation
No matter what method you use to prepare for the GRE, there are some foundational principles essential to designing and implementing any GRE prep plan. Here are five things to guide you in planning out the best way to study for GRE success:
Put in Time for Score Improvement
What’s the main thing you need to improve your GRE score? Time! If you don’t put in the hours, you aren’t likely to see much of a score jump. So not matter what you decide is the best way to study for the GRE for you, you have to put in the time to make score improvement happen.
Here are our expert estimates of about how long it takes to get certain point increases. Note that these are total point increases, not per-section point increases. (So spending 40 hours could get you a 5-point increase on one section or 2-3 points on each section).
- 5 points = 40 hours
- 10 points = 80 hours
- 20 points = 160 hours
- 30 points = 240 hours
Keep in mind that these are rough estimates and the actual time-per-point-increase will vary from person to person. It depends on how fast you learn, how quickly you pick up new things, how comfortable you are with the underlying material, and so on.
Study What’s on the Test
The best way to prepare for GRE success is to study what’s actually on the test. This might sound really obvious, but it’s easy to fall into a trap here. You might hear that the GRE has a math section and think, “Ah! Math! I haven’t done that since high school!” And then the next thing you know, you’re frantically pulling out old textbooks and drilling yourself on every concept willy-nilly.
Do not do this. Before you review any content, familiarize yourself with what is actually on the test. See what’s on the math section and what’s on the verbal section. Then, figure out what content you need to study and focus on that. More preparation is only better if you are actually studying the right concepts!
Furthermore, don’t assume the GRE is going to be like other tests you’ve taken. While some of your standardized test-taking skills may transfer over, you need to work on strategies specific to the GRE. This means learning the particular GRE question types and directions and honing techniques to approach each type. If you previously prepared for the GMAT, it might help you some, but it doesn’t mean you don’t need to do anything!
Figure Out What You Need to Focus On
Odds are, one of the sections is going to be more important for your grad school admissions process than the other. If you’re going into a science or math-focused field, you’ll need to focus more on your Quant score. If you’re going into the humanities, focus more on your Verbal score.
While you shouldn’t totally neglect the other section, it just makes more sense to determine which one is more important early on and put more energy into it.
Target Your Weaknesses
Any great preparation regimen needs to focus primarily on addressing your weak spots. You’ll see the biggest point improvements by focusing on topic areas and question types that you currently struggle with.
Working on areas you’re already strong in isn’t a very efficient use of time. Your strengths just need a brush-up and fine-tune to be test-day ready!
Practice Makes Perfect
When you’re trying to get better at something, you need to practice! For the GRE, this means both that you need to put in the practice time, but also that you need to practice the skills you struggle with. If you’re missing a lot of geometry questions, review the material you need to know and keep doing geometry practice questions until they get easier.
Drilling your weak points is the best way to eliminate them and hone your skills for test day. It definitely feels good to churn out correct answers, but if you avoid the things you really need to practice, you won’t see improvement.
What Is the Best Way to Study for the GRE? 4 Methods
Here are four methods people use to study for the GRE. Which is the best way for you to prepare for GRE success? We’ll go over the pros and cons of each method to help you figure it out.
Keep in mind that lots of people use a combination of methods to prepare. This option is great, and definitely not discouraged!
Finding your own preparation materials and creating your own study plan makes for one of the most common—and cheapest—GRE study methods.
- You have total control over the entire process. You can select the materials you’re most comfortable with, the pace, how often you study, how you structure your sessions—everything is up to you! You can also target the areas you know that you need to work on most without worrying about having to do busy work you don’t really need.
- This is pretty much the most inexpensive prep option available, especially if you capitalize on free resources and check out prep materials from the library!
- You have to keep your own motivation levels up. Without a scheduled class or meetings, it can hard to force yourself to complete a planned study session if you aren’t in the mood. One way to circumnavigate this problem is to let someone else know when you plan to study. Ask them to check in with you and help hold you accountable!
- It takes effort to design a study plan! Even if you use one of ours, you’ll still have to track down the content and strategy review materials that work best for you and constantly fine-tune your study sessions to target your weaknesses.
- It can be hard to identify specific weaknesses to focus on, especially if you have a lot of improvement to make. Since the success of self-studying as a method partially depends on your ability to target weaknesses, this can be an issue.
Is This the Best Way to Prepare for the GRE for You?
It’s definitely possible to make real, meaningful improvement in your GRE scores through self-prep. The more motivated you are to put in consistent time and effort, the better this strategy will work for you. Especially if you’re also on a budget, this could be the best way for you to study!
However, if you aren’t very self-motivated, self-preparation may not be the most effective option for you. You might end up not doing much preparation at all, which defeats the point!
You might also not do so well with this strategy if you have trouble pinpointing your weaknesses, or if you feel lost and don’t know where to begin. You could consider trying something more self-contained, like Manhattan Prep’s 9-book preparation series, to get more structure. However, be aware that any self-contained prep-book plan is going to have some deficits. It’s also not going to be the most effective way to target your specific weaknesses.
Online Prep Course
Online preparation platforms and courses are a relatively new phenomenon in GRE preparation. Both established test-prep companies like Barron’s and Kaplan and newer enterprises are offering online GRE studying options.
- A good online program can help identify your strengths and weaknesses and assign lessons and practice based on that information.
- A good program will help provide structure to your study program and track your progress.
- Online programs include everything you need in one place: high-quality practice questions with robust answer explanations, in-depth content review lessons, and even strategy help!
- An online program is generally much cheaper than hiring a private tutor or taking a prep course, whether you pay a subscription fee or access or pay a flat fee for a given course.
- Lots of online programs out there are just bad. Don’t assume just because it’s from a big-name test prep company that it’s high-quality! Many online programs are just regurgitated prep books with little to no personalization to the program.
- An online prep program may not be enough on its own, especially because many don’t use official GRE resources made by ETS. If you do go this route, I advise supplementing with official GRE practice tests at the very least.
Is This the Best Way to Study for the GRE for You?
If you choose the right platform, an online program could be your best way to prepare for GRE success! A good program will provide more structure and guidance than self-studying at a fairly affordable price. This can really help you if you are motivated to study on your own, but don’t know where to begin or how to structure your sessions.
However, quality control for online prep is an issue. Check reviews and see if you can get a free trial or a refund before you commit to the cost in case you don’t like the program.
Additionally, I do advise that even if you’re using a great prep program you also include other resources in your prep. At the very least, you want to take advantage of the official ETS practice tests available.
On the other hand, if you aren’t very self-motivated, an online prep program won’t really be any better for you than self-study, and it will cost a lot more!
In-Person Prep Course
Another popular GRE prep option is the in-person preparation class.
- The class schedule forces you to stay on track and holds you accountable for preparation.
- Some prep companies offer a score increase guarantee. If you meet your terms of the guarantee, you can often get either a refund or an additional prep class for free if you don’t get the promised score increase. So at the very least, you have some protection against completely wasting your money.
- You may not get much personalized attention in a prep course. Lessons will be targeted to the entire class, not to your specific needs. The bigger the class is, the less your needs will matter. This makes the process pretty inefficient.
- Prep classes are notoriously boring, especially if you don’t have an amazing teacher. And you probably won’t have any control over what teacher you get!
- Test prep courses are also incredibly expensive. It can actually be more expensive than hiring a private tutor for a limited number of hours.
Is This the Best Way to Prepare for the GRE for You?
If you’re bad at staying motivated, a prep course can be a good way for you to prepare. It will help you stay on track and give you some built-in prep time. If you make friends with anyone in your class you can even get some built-in study buddies!
However, this really isn’t the most efficient way to prepare overall. You’ll almost certainly spend time working on concepts and question types you already have a handle on, and you may not get in enough preparation time in areas you’re weak in. But I want to stress that it’s definitely better than nothing if you think you’ll have a hard time doing any preparation otherwise.
If you’re going to take a prep course, do some research on what’s available in your area. If you can get a recommendation from a friend—especially if you can get the same instructor—that’s a good starting place. I would also try to take a class with some kind of improvement guarantee and/or refund policy. Note that if there is a point improvement guarantee, there is usually some fine print involved, so make sure you meet your end of the policy! For example, you typically have to take the test within 30 days of completing the course to be eligible for the guarantee.
If you can afford a private tutor, you’ll get lots of personalized one-on-one GRE preparation attention.
- A high-quality GRE tutor can provide benefits that no other prep program can. They will help you create a structured study plan, identify your weaknesses, explain concepts, and pick out the best study materials. A good tutor can proactively identify and respond to your needs more than any other system.
- A tutor also helps keep you motivated. This works both because you’ll be accountable to them for your studying, and because they can provide moral support throughout the process!
- A sub-par tutor is just a waste of your time and money. If they can’t help you make a successful study plan, identify the best resources for you, and explain concepts and strategies in a way you can understand, they won’t be very helpful! A good tutor won’t just be a high-scorer, but also a good teacher.
- Private tutoring can be very expensive!
Is This the Best Way to Prepare for the GRE for You?
Depending on your situation, a private tutor might be the best way to study for GRE success. First, you need to be able to afford a tutor! You also need to be able to identify a really good tutor. You want someone who can show you that they are a high-scorer. But you also want to make sure they are a good teacher and you have a positive rapport with them. It’s best if you can at least talk on the phone before committing to tutoring sessions. It’s even better if you can talk to former students of a prospective tutor!
A tutor is especially helpful if you want to make large point improvements. You’ll get a lot out of the targeted attention and guidance in this case.
One thing to note is that if you’re worried about the price, you can usually opt to pay for just a few hours with a private tutor. What’s the point of this? Well, they can help you structure your studying and figure out what you can do on your own time to really make the most of your preparation.
The Best Way to Prepare for the GRE: 5 Critical Tasks to Complete
No matter what you decide is the best way to study for the GRE for you, there are a few specific components you should incorporate into your study regime no matter what. These things can be implemented with any of the four studying methods above. However, they are critical if you want to get the most improvement possible out of a given plan.
Set a Goal Score
A goal will give you something specific to aim for when you prepare. This will help you stay motivated because you’ll be working towards something concrete. It will also help you build your study plan because you’ll know how much you need to improve before you’re ready to take the test!
So what should your goal score be? If the information is available, it should be based on the middle 50% or average scores for programs that you’re interested in applying to. In general, you should aim for a score 1-2 points higher than the highest number reported by your program(s) of interest. Aiming for a score higher than that isn’t a great use of your time for admissions purposes (although it may help you get fellowships). The GRE is only one part of your application, and not the most important part. Admissions committees will be more impressed if you demonstrate all the things they are looking for than if you hit the GRE out of the park. For more on setting a goal score, see the advice in our guide to what makes a good GRE score.
Use High-Quality Prep Materials
Get the most out of your studying efforts by using high-quality preparation materials. If your materials are confusing or don’t seem very much like the real test, it doesn’t matter how much you study. Your improvement will be limited by your materials.
The best practice materials come straight from ETS. They make the GRE, so their questions are the closest to the real deal!
Of course, there are other valuable preparation resources available as well. We’ve compiled recommendations and guides for the best ones here:
- The Best GRE Prep Books
- The 21 Best GRE Mock Tests
- How to Use Khan Academy for the GRE
- 357 Essential Vocabulary Flashcards
Learn GRE Format and Directions
Any GRE study plan should involve learning the format and directions for the test. You don’t want to be surprised by anything you encounter on test day. So learn everything there is to know about the format: the number of sections, their order, what each section covers, and what question types are on the test.
You should also be familiar with the directions for all sections and question types. This will help keep you from messing up because you don’t really understand the directions. It will also mean you won’t need to spend time reading them on test day. This saves time for individual questions; it also lets you take a bit of a mini-break when the section directions are displayed to recharge your brain.
Luckily for you, you can get detailed information on all of this in our guide to the GRE format!
Identify Strategies That Work for You
It’s important to develop consistent strategies to address the GRE. This will help you approach the test in a systematic way. You’ll also be able to manage your testing time more efficiently and stave off panic if you have practiced approaches to questions and sections!
Here are some guides to help you figure out strategies to address various parts of the test:
- 2 GRE Passage Strategies
- 5 Top Tips for GRE Sentence Equivalence Questions
- 7 Top Tips for GRE Text Completion Questions
- 8 Tops Tips for GRE Quantitative Comparison Questions
- Best Strategies for GRE Scratch Paper
- How to Ace GRE Quantitative
- How to Ace GRE Verbal
- 34 Essential Tips and Strategies
Work on Pacing
Even if you know everything there is to know to ace the test, if you can’t answer all the questions in time, it won’t matter. So your best way to study for GRE mastery should definitely involve practicing your pacing! The best way to do this is to time yourself during practice tests and sections.
Verbal and Quant both give you 25 questions on each subsection. You’ll have 35 minutes on each each Verbal subsection, giving you 1:24 to answer each question. For Quant, you get 40 minutes per subsection. That leaves you with 1:36 to answer each question. Of course, some questions will take more or less time than that, but that guideline can help you stay on track and gauge if you’re spending too much time on each question.
Best Way to Study for GRE Success: Critical Takeaways
So what is the best way to study for the GRE? Here are five foundational principles of good GRE preparation to help you identify and implement the best possible plan:
- Study exactly what’s on the test
- Figure out what you personally need to focus on
- Target your weaknesses
- Practice to improve!
- Be ready to invest time
There are four major GRE preparation approaches you might consider. One of them is bound to be your best way to prepare for GRE mastery!
- Self-prep: Self-prep is the best way to study for GRE success if you are pretty self-directed and on a budget!
- Online prep program: An online prep program is good if you have the motivation to study, but you’re looking for some help structuring your study.
- In-person prep course: This isn’t the most efficient way to study, but if you aren’t very self-motivated to study for the GRE, it can be a good option.
- Private tutor: If you can afford a private tutor and you can hire a good one, a tutor can definitely be one of the best ways to study for the GRE! They can really give you to deluxe preparation experience.
Here are five critical tasks to complete throughout the course of any preparation plan:
- Set a goal score
- Use high-quality prep materials
- Learn GRE format and directions
- Figure out what strategies work for you
- Work on pacing