GRE Test Prep
August 22, 2014 7:00 PM   Subscribe

I need to take the GREs and I am very poor. I have been told by other people who took the gre that the test prep class is necessary, and it is prohibitive even with the grants and payment plan they offer. The class seems to offer a bunch of books and tests, plus an app. Buying the book also seems really expensive, but less than the class. I have also been told that the books are enough? I want to do my best, as I have a number of disabilities that make test taking very difficult.
posted by PinkMoose to Education (25 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Practice tests from the library? Other students?

I don't know what disabilities you have, but standardized tests are basically learning question types and then building muscle memory. Get enough questions, understand the format, and you're 80% there.
posted by batter_my_heart at 7:02 PM on August 22, 2014

I didn't take a class, just used books that I got at the library. I did end up taking the test twice because my verbal score wasn't as high as I liked. I don't have any disablilties though.
posted by chainsofreedom at 7:02 PM on August 22, 2014

Best answer: I used to teach GRE, before they had the computer tests. My best advice is always

- take a sample test, timed and see how you are doing compare to how you want to be doing
- spend what little money you have on actual tests and take these as close to testing conditions as you can (timed, no breaks except what you would have, etc) and track your progress
- get Princeton Review books from the library and use them to study for the sections that you need work on

There are some math things to know, some vocabulary to know and a lot of it is strategy along the lines of "If you think you know the answer on a hard question and you are an average student, you probably are getting it wrong. If you think you know the answer on an easy question and you are an average student, you probably have it right" and then knowing how to tell where you place and where the questions place. I haven't done any of this in a long time, but the world of standardized tests hasn't changed much, it basically can't change much. Basically be goal oriented and figure out what sort of scores you need to get into places you want to get into and then aim for that. Good luck. It's a racket but one you can beat.
posted by jessamyn at 7:05 PM on August 22, 2014 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: i am very poor at math, and am not sure that I can teach myself math. Do the books from the library have enough questions? I've been told that learning the shape of the test is more important than learning the material. I have severe anexity, among other things--but the anexity is making me nervous.
posted by PinkMoose at 7:14 PM on August 22, 2014

The math videos at may help and they may even have a test prep section there.
posted by harrietthespy at 7:20 PM on August 22, 2014 [5 favorites]

The test doesn't have anything more advanced than algebra and geometry. If they require you to use a complicated formula, they will tell you what it is. Sparknotes talks about this. You can probably do less math than the test even has on it and still get a decent score. And yes, getting a test prep book will teach you the "shape" of the test which will be helpful and help you know how much math you will need to do. If you can't teach yourself this level of math, Khan Academy can help you but remember you don't need anything more advanced than algebra. Many schools have very good "how to get ready for the GRE" websites, this one pretty much maps on to my experience with what works.
posted by jessamyn at 7:20 PM on August 22, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I think you'll be fine with study guides (either purchased or borrowed from the library) and online tests that mimic the structure of the exam. The GRE website ( has a slew of example tests and hints, tips and tricks that you can access. If you have a documented disability, there are also test prep materials on the website that are in accessible formats. If you are diligent about carving out time to study, the books and website are a great place to prepare.

Don't let the test psych you out. Remember that it's just a step to the next thing you want to do and treat it accordingly--and you can always take it again if you need to. (And, to be honest, depending on the type of program you are interested in and what your background is, some universities are more forgiving than others in re: GRE scores. My university program took in a guy who super duper bombed the exam but who had a great background in research as an undergrad and a reputation for being a hard worker.)
posted by GoLikeHellMachine at 7:25 PM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

I took the GRE cold with NO study, I did fine. Do some practice tests from the library or on line to see where you are and just keep taking practice tests.

Don't freak out until you've taken a stab at it.

I wouldn't bother with test prep. Just learn how the test works, and play to your strengths.

Do you need a particular math score for your program? If so, what is it?
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:26 PM on August 22, 2014

Response by poster: Looking at amazon, there are hundreds of GRE prep guides, and I am lost there. Is there a good one. Is there a website that does prep questions well? If I get a book out of the library, with a cd or a link to a password protected website, will there be a limit of the amount of people who have done or can do those exams (like there was when i did other standardized tests)?
posted by PinkMoose at 7:30 PM on August 22, 2014

I studied exclusively from library test prep books. You shouldn't have to be teaching yourself the math from scratch, just reviewing - there's nothing on there that wasn't covered in high school. The list of vocabulary words was very helpful for me - there's a few obscure words I have literally never heard other than in the prep books and on my GRE.

There are also some free practice tests you can do online. I would learn the stuff from books first, and then do those as test runs.

I did find my test itself a bit stressful, but not in a way a test prep course could have prepared me for. It was one of those "treat you like a criminal" situation where they confiscate your water bottle. Also, everyone is taking a different test, so some people had extra supplies like headphones that I wasn't expecting. Definitely look into getting extended time if you have a disability so you have time to adjust.
posted by fermezporte at 7:30 PM on August 22, 2014

I'd recommend the Princeton Review test prep books. (Full disclosure: I taught for Princeton Review for a few years, and trained for Kaplan, but their content didn't seem as helpful to me.) You basically memorize problem/question types and best procedures for "solving" them, and then run through some tests to make sure you can recognize the various problems/questions.
posted by unknowncommand at 7:38 PM on August 22, 2014

Best answer: I'm taking the GRE on Monday, so I can probably give a better answer after that, but I found the book made by ETS (the people who make the test) to be the most helpful, and most of the information that's in it can also be found on their website. I initially bought the Kaplan book but thought it was awful. I also used an ipad app from Manhattan Prep that seemed pretty good. As others have said, my strategy was mainly to take practice tests and go over what I got wrong and why, and then to look up areas in which I was generally weak on Khan Academy or similar sites.
posted by milkweed at 7:50 PM on August 22, 2014

I studied using exclusively the materials available for free on the ETS website (which are quite extensive), and did well. If you need extra practice, I would head to the library and ask the librarian for help. You absolutely do not need an expensive course.

Agreed with fermezporte that the testing conditions were stressful in a weird way -- I was sick and they limited how many tissues I could have, I guess because they worried I would smuggle out snot-covered answers?! But I think some of that is just knowing it will happen going in so that you are not surprised.

You mentioned you are bad at math. Presumably that means you are using the GRE to apply to a program with little or no emphasis on math, yes? (If not...probably rethink that, a PhD in engineering is not going to work for someone who can't do high school-level math, for obvious reasons!). If we're talking about a program like English or History, the school is likely going to care way more about your verbal score than your math score anyway, so perhaps that can help with the nerves on that portion at least. You don't want to totally ignore it, but you don't have to feel you need a perfect score.

Finally - do you have any friends (or friends of friends) who are studying for the GRE at the moment? If so, I think doing some study dates can help with motivation and stress reduction. One thing I think the courses ARE good for is forcing you to get your studying in so you don't waste the money you paid for the class. :) So you just need to figure out how to create that motivation a different way.
posted by rainbowbrite at 7:57 PM on August 22, 2014

Response by poster: i will be taking theology. the department i am most interested in, is heavily weighting verbal, looking over the ETS site, this is excellent material. i wont take the course.
posted by PinkMoose at 8:02 PM on August 22, 2014

Best answer: I thought that CliffNotes Math Review for Standardized Tests was helpful in terms of going back over the actual math concepts (rather than the structure of the test's math sections/questions). Otherwise, concentrate on practice questions/tests from ETS. The library should have GRE books from other test prep companies (Kaplan, etc), and you can use those to study test taking strategy and get some extra practice questions. That's the stuff I used (took the test in 2013) and I did well. I probably could have done better if I'd reviewed the math concepts more, but I honestly didn't study much because I didn't think there would be much payoff in putting tons of work into the GRE rather than into other aspects of my application (such as taking pre-reqs at the community college, etc).

Don't stress yourself out too much, because GREs are generally important to the university rather than to the specific department that you're applying to. As I understand it, what happens in most schools is that the department you're applying to goes through the applicants and picks the ones they want in the new cohort based on things like resumes, areas of concentration, essays, recommendations, and undergrad transcript/GPA. If you risk looking underqualified in a general area (like if you don't have a background in quantitative analysis, but you program requires some quantitative analysis), then a good GRE score in that area will help your application. I would recommend that you don't worry too much about your vocabulary score in regards to your application to the theology department, though, as long as you didn't major in a very technical subject in undergrad and as long as you didn't go to undergrad in a non-English-speaking country. Otherwise, the GRE is just so far down the list of the department's list of priorities in terms of how they're judging your application that it's basically a non-factor. When the GRE becomes important is when the department passes your application on to the university asking them to admit you, and the university has to decide if your scores or undergrad GPA are so low they're going to be an issue for the university or you're a flunk-out risk, or if your scores or undergrad GPA are so high that you'd be a feather in the university's cap and they want to throw some extra money at you to get you to study there.

I'd think of the GRE more as a way to score some scholarships or fellowships rather than as a factor in whether or not you'll get into a specific department/school. That's what worked for me, anyway!
posted by rue72 at 8:45 PM on August 22, 2014 [2 favorites]

Regarding the math section, what helped me was finding review materials that detailed how the questions--word problems especially-- boil down to a limited number of types that you can learn to recognize and solve in standardized ways, e.g, drawing little diagrams to show the relationships between the elements. Just because it's multiple choice doesn't mean you have to solve the problems in your head.
posted by carmicha at 9:47 PM on August 22, 2014

Some notes about what worked for me:

Studying vocabulary paid off immensely. So did spending a good solid week studying math, even though it wasn't vaguely relevant to the programs I was applying for. I had an old GED prep book I used to work through basic high school math as much as I could stomach. The Kaplan books are awful; they routinely had me scoring in the high 1400s with very little study under my belt, and I was aghast. I never scored within a hundred points of that on the other practice tests, and unsurprisingly, I also didn't on the real thing. On the computerized test, if you answer a question correctly, it gives you a slightly harder question; if you answer one incorrectly, your next question will be easier. I don't remember how easier/harder questions are weighted, but you can gauge your performance based on the questions you're getting. At some point I got a long division question! (Also at some point I realized other non-mathy questions were getting harder and harder, which I took as a good sign even if I became less sure of my answers as I went.)

Also, for what it's worth, I applied to seven grad programs and got into five--two of which I didn't even meet the minimum GRE requirement for, and they still let me in with excellent funding. Which is to say that a good GRE score is helpful, but unless you utterly bomb the test, everything else you include in your grad school application will be more important.
posted by tapir-whorf at 11:25 PM on August 22, 2014 [1 favorite]

I 100% did not study for the math section of my GREs and concentrated on the other stuff because I figured bringing my score up from abysmal to mediocre wasn't going to matter to my humanities program. And I was right!
posted by Potomac Avenue at 1:01 AM on August 23, 2014

How much weight is put on the GRE is very school-dependent. I am personally aware of some schools where the university's body governing graduate programs ('the Graduate School') will not allow exceptions for minimum acceptable GRE scores no matter how much the individual department begs. What this means is, follow the excellent advice regarding GRE test prep provided by the other commenters above, do the best you can, and apply to a variety of schools - some of them may not care about GRE scores, some of them may use them in the first pass culling out applicants.

I am somebody who tends to do well on standardized exams, but I've found the computerized tests difficult especially for the math section, because I can't apply time management practices I would use in a pencil and paper test. In a pencil and paper test, I will mentally allocate a maximum amount of time for each question and skip a question if I feel I am taking too long on it, and then return to it if I have time left after going through the rest of the questions. I can't do this in computerized tests, and I feel like I'm running out of time and end up guessing for the last couple of questions. So my own recommendation is to go through as many practice tests as possible, developing an internal clock for the test.
posted by needled at 5:07 AM on August 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

I took the GRE in the first year the computerized test was offered. I practiced with both a book full of actual previous tests and with simulation software developed by ETS. I found that my scores were virtually identical with both, so using one was a relatively good predictor of the other.

HOWEVER, if you have test anxiety, I highly recommend you get the software. While my scores were the same, I found the computer version of the test infinitely more stressful. The computer version is designed to adjust the difficulty of the questions until you're getting about half of them right. The thing is, if you're the kind of person who's applying to grad school, you're probably not used to what it feels like to take a test where you're struggling your hardest and still getting half the questions wrong (you won't know you're getting it half wrong, but you'll feel that it's that hard). It feels very discourating when the test feels that hard, even though it means you're doing well. Practice with the software and get used to this feeling and prove to yourself that it doesn't mean you're doing poorly.

Also, you'll want to do a couple of practice tests before you start studying so you know A) Where to concentrate and B) What advice doesn't apply to you. For example, the study books I had all said that for the reading comprehension section you shouldn't waste time reading the passage (I kid you not). They said you wouldn't have time to answer the questions if you read the passage and provided other techniques for finding the correct answers. There may be people who don't have time to answer the questions if they read the passage. I must read faster than average because I had no problem. And while the additional techniques are useful, reading the passage if you can surely can't hurt.

There will be things like that for you: The general advice may be useful in general, but not necessarily best for you. Take some practice tests before study so you'll have a sense of this.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 7:26 AM on August 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

I used this as a supplement to the books - which I would recommend finding at a local library if possible - but the free stuff at was really helpful to me in terms of understanding the basic question formats.
posted by littlegreen at 7:47 AM on August 23, 2014

Just to briefly comment on the importance of the score (and to echo needled): my ex-boyfriend got rejected from many schools that he applied to for a humanities PhD probably because of his GRE score (the one school at which he had behind-the-scenes information definitely did in large measure because of his score). Some schools absolutely do use GRE scores as minimum bars for entry. It can feel like a pointless hoop to jump through, and some schools probably won't care, but if you want to maximize your chances of success I would put some effort into it and give it your best shot.
posted by ClaireBear at 8:00 AM on August 23, 2014

Since a few people have mentioned the way the test adjusts based on your answers, I think it's important to note that the GRE general test now adjusts based on how you do on a section, rather than on each question, and does allow you to skip and return to questions within the section.
posted by milkweed at 10:23 AM on August 23, 2014

I just want to Nth the Princeton Review book(s). I used Math Smart and Math Smart II to get those skills back up, then their GRE book. I tested very well and wholly attribute that success to them.
posted by MansRiot at 2:45 PM on August 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Some public libraries subscribe to educational services that include test prep, including sample tests and full-text ebooks. Ask at your local library.
posted by bentley at 3:00 PM on August 23, 2014

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