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How to Prepare for the GRE FAST

Many last minute GRE students wind up studying to beat tight grad school admissions deadlines.
Many last minute GRE students wind up studying to beat tight grad school admissions deadlines.
Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images

There are many reasons why someone might have to prepare for the GRE in a short time frame (two months or less). Some students are offered admission into a 3+3-style undergrad-to-graduate program with little advance notice. Others decide to accelerate their grad school plans. The rest are the procrastinators (you know who you are). Whatever the case may be, if you find yourself facing a GRE exam in two months time that you haven't prepared for, take a deep breath. This article will give you the rundown on the best tips for efficient preparation.

Formulate a Plan

The first key to preparing for the GRE in no time flat is structure. You are going to have to set aside days and times each week for intensive practice and study. If you can't spare at least 8 hours per week for GRE preparation, you probably shouldn't be taking the test. In order to maximize retention of the material you've covered, you should alternate study days between quantitative and verbal topics. Closer to the test plan to take a practice test a week and remember to give yourself at least one day off a week to help relieve stress.

Adopt the GRE Mindset

After 15 years as a private tutor, one of the most common phenomena I've witnessed is the hardworking, intelligent student with a high GPA who "just can't handle standardized tests." Does that sound familiar to you? The main reason that such bright and diligent individuals so often get tripped up by the GRE is that the GRE is set up differently from most undergraduate exams. In high school and college courses professors inculcate a certain quantity of knowledge. They then review the structure of their exams in advance. On test day, students see tests that are familiar in structure and designed to evaluate just how much of the required subject matter they've acquired.

The GRE, on the other hand, assumes you know the material it's testing, or at least most of it. Think about it. The math is high school level; in fact, there are virtually no math concepts tested on the GRE that are not also tested on the SAT and even fewer than are tested on the ACT. The point of the GRE is not to evaluate your knowledge of right triangles or to solve single-variable equations but rather to use familiar concepts to test your ability to solve problems. The makers of the GRE go out of their way to trick you into trap answers or to bait you into long-winded, unnecessarily complex solutions to problems that are more logical than anything. They do this not to torture you but to see how well you can think on your feet.

There are two key concepts you have to incorporate into your studies and test taking. First, you don't have to aim for 100% accuracy (unless you want or need a perfect score). Every GRE score corresponds to a certain number of correct answers. Rather than spread yourself too thin trying to answer every single question correctly, you should throw yourself into correctly tackling the magic number you need to reach your goal score. Browse all the questions in a section and select the ones you know how to do. Do them correctly and check your work. Second, you don't have to show your work. There are often ways to solve problems that don't involve complex algebra. You know what these are: plugging in the answers, picking your own numbers, estimating.

Simulate Test Conditions

Although you will undoubtedly buy a GRE prep book of some sort (or be given one if you opt for professional preparation), the real test is administered on a computer. On test day you will be sitting at a computer terminal with headphones on and six sheets of paper to write on. According to The Yahoo! Style Guide "a computer screen displays text at a lower resolution, with less detail and sharpness than a printed page and many people feel that their eyes tire faster reading text on a screen." In addition to eye strain, you're also going to have to get used to not being able to draw on geometry diagrams, underline passages or cross off answers. You'll be typing your essays on an old-fashioned word processor that has cut and paste functions but not spell check. Your calculator will be onscreen and it will be a four function (plus square roots) device very similar to what the average person has on his or her cell phone. For your own good, you need to recreate these conditions as often as possible.

Study Vocabulary NOW

If you can't keep straight the difference between ambiguous and ambivalent, you may have a problem with vocabulary. A good starting place is to look up a list of frequently tested GRE words and go down the line to see how many you know. If you have 90% or more down, you're in pretty good shape. If you know 80-90% you should compile lists of the words you don't know and focus on those. If you know less than 80%, vocabulary should be a significant part of your study plan. While flash cards remain the study method of choice for many, a great resource in these exciting times is the smart phone app. There are literally hundreds of GRE vocabulary apps available on the Appstore and Android Marketplace. These apps have functions that separate the words you know from those you don't and can create quizzes that focus on problem words until you retain them. And if you're like me and you always have your smart phone nearby, you can carry your vocabulary words with you wherever you go.

Call in the Professionals

Test preparation has been around for a long time for a very good reason: standardized tests are, by definition, predictable. Test prep professionals make it their mission to know the tests as well as the test makers do. An asset of the best books and classes is the ability to prioritize the concepts that are taught most frequently, illustrate exactly how these concepts are usually tested and to point out the pitfalls that typically trap the unwary. My experience as a GRE tutor also allows me to see inefficiencies in each student's test taking process of which the student is not aware. While this option is more expensive than going it alone, it works great for students with busy schedules, those who feel overwhelmed and those who lack the self-discipline to study by themselves.

Rich Carriero has worked in the standardized test prep industry since 1999. He is currently the Director for GRE and GMAT tutoring at Next Step Test Preparation.

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