How long to prepare for the GRE is an essential question. There are very few activities in life where we do not have to answer similar questions. Can you imagine going on a backpacking trip without figuring out how long you will be gone for prior to leaving? You could run out of food and water!
I have been working with students for seven years and many of them who did not reflect on how long they should prepare for the GRE did not hit their target score. Studying for the right amount of time, through the right prep courses, is one of the keys to success on the exam. In this article I will discuss the optimal time you should spend studying for the GRE and exceptions for people who need to spend less or more time prepping for the test.
Also, time spent studying is of little value if you are not studying properly, so I will discuss the biggest mistake students make when studying.
There are three primary categories students fall into when deciding how long to prepare for the GRE:
In order to know which category you are in, you must first come up with a target score.
If you go onto the website of the program you are applying to, they should have the average GRE score for their admitted applicants. Adding 2-3 points to their average GRE score will ensure your score is competitive for the program. This will be your target score.
Next, you will want to take a diagnostic test, or practice full-length GRE, in order to see how close or how far you are from that target score. You can find a list of the best free practice GRE exams here.
Furthermore, you do want to keep in mind your application as a whole. The GRE is but one of several elements admissions will be considering. Be honest with yourself when evaluating how competitive the other elements of your application will be.
For example, does your GPA far exceed the program’s average GPA for admitted students? If so, perhaps you will be just fine submitting a GRE score that is right around their average. On the flip side, if your GPA is lower than the program’s average you might want to consider adding 4-5+ points to their average GRE score when deciding on your goal.
The average timeline for students to spend studying for the GRE is three months. This will likely work for you if you have taken a practice GRE or diagnostic test and are within 20-23 points of your target score. Once again, it is important to be honest with yourself.
Let’s say you are a bit over 23 points, but you know you simply forgot a lot of math formulas. If math was always a strong subject for you in school, and you feel confident about refreshing on concepts and picking up momentum, then you are probably fine to study for three months. However, if you know math was always a struggle for you then do not try to conquer the Quantitative section too quickly.
A three month timeline should be enough to complete at least three POWERPREP practice exams (these can be purchased on your ETS account), enroll in a GRE prep class and/or receive tutoring, and work through GRE test prep books. Obviously, not everyone will enroll in a class, but everyone should be completing the POWERPREP exams and working through books.
The GRE Official Guides by ETS are the most important books to work through. These are the only books that will contain practice questions written by the same people who write the GRE. However, on a three month timeline you will have the ability to complete additional material.
For those of you who feel like you are struggling with strategy–perhaps you are running out of time early on in the section or feel overwhelmed with the content–you probably need to focus on your test-taking approach. I highly recommend Manhattan Prep’s GRE Strategy Guides to supplement the ETS Official Guides.
If you feel you have mastered strategy and simply want additional practice questions, I recommend Manhattan Prep’s 5 lb. Book of GRE Practice Problems.
There are two reasons why you might be spending a month or less preparing for the GRE: you took a practice test and are only a couple points off from your target score (perhaps 3-6), or you simply have no choice. If you decided to apply to graduate school or an MBA program last minute, you probably don’t have the luxury of spending three months preparing.
If you only have a month to prepare, your main priority should be completing and reviewing the practice GRE exams, the POWERPREPS, on your ETS account. I would try to take one a week. Furthermore, if you have the time, I would attempt to work through as much of the Official GRE Guides by ETS as possible. I would not focus on any other material outside of these two things.
There are a couple reasons why you might want to give yourself over three months (perhaps six or more months) to study for the GRE: if you took a practice GRE and are 27-30 points away from your target score, or you simply know you will not be applying for graduate school/MBA program for a while but want to start prepping.
One of the biggest mistakes students make is to spend too long working through GRE test prep material. There is no benefit to spending six months or more going through the GRE test prep books. GRE test prep books focus primarily on mastering question types, not reading and math fundamentals. If you are scoring in the bottom percentile of the GRE, it is likely you need to work on your reading and math fundamentals. Until you build these skills, you will not be able to make progress with GRE questions.
Hence, you will work through all the GRE test prep books without making progress and run out of valuable study material.
If you are going to spend six months or more preparing for the GRE, do not start using GRE books until you are three to four months out from your exam. Here is what I would suggest:
Four or More Months Out: Start to build your math skills by working through an Algebra and Geometry book. The majority of math that appears on the GRE stem from algebra and geometry concepts. Take your time reading through reviews of math books or go to your local bookstore and flip through a couple. Find books where you understand the writer’s explanations.
Furthermore, subscribe to The Economist and read at least two articles a day, five days a week. As you read, focus on summarizing the main ideas/arguments as you go, to the point where you can text a friend a summary of what you read. Time yourself as well. The goal is to increase your reading speed and understanding of the text at the same time.
Four to Three Months Out: Once you are around four months out from your GRE test date, start working through Manhattan Prep’s GRE Strategy Guides and ETS’s Official GRE Guides. Also, make sure to complete the POWERPREP exams that can be purchased on your ETS account. Take one POWERPREP exam a month, ending roughly one to two weeks before your GRE.
Although there is an abundant amount of wonderful GRE prep videos online–and many of the self-paced courses I highly recommend are made up of videos–they can be dangerous. It is easy to passively watch a video and not gain much from it. If the instructor in the video is working out a problem, work out the problem as well in a notebook. Furthermore, summarize (out loud or in a notebook) the content of the video the minute it ends. You never want to spend more time watching videos than you do completing and reviewing practice problems.
I have said it once and I will say it again, not all GRE test prep books are created equal. There are books out there that might be popular because they were written from a well-known tutoring company, but they provide little strategy and questions that do not accurately reflect what you will see on the GRE.
For a list of the best test prep books, click here. Also, check out our top picks for GRE classes here.
This one is obvious but can be overlooked. It is important that you study in a quiet setting and during the time you are wide awake. If you are coming home from a long day at work and are starving, it is likely you will not retain much information if you try to study.
There are two types of breaks you want to avoid: breaks between study sessions and breaks during study sessions.
When you take the GRE, you want to go into the test with momentum. This comes from studying and completing POWERPRES consistently. If you study for a month and then take three weeks off, when you return to studying you will likely spend valuable time reviewing information. This is why studying for too long can be dangerous–people will get worn out and end up taking a long break.
Last but not least, you do not want to take frequent breaks during your study sessions. The GRE is a mental endurance exam, lasting 3 hours and 45 minutes. The ability to stay focused that long comes with practice. I tell my students to go one hour (at least) studying without distractions and to never go less than 30 minutes studying (unless simply reviewing vocabulary words or math formulas).