How to Improve Your GRE Score

There is nothing more frustrating than feeling as though your GRE score has plateaued, especially if you are consistently scoring below what you will need in order to get into your desired graduate or MBA program. Unfortunately, knowing how to improve your GRE score can sometimes be anything but straightforward. 

Over the course of my test prep career, I have found it is not always helpful to simply point out what someone should be doing. It can be more beneficial to approach a situation by pinpointing what someone is doing wrong. If you’re wondering how to improve your GRE score, you have to ask why it hasn’t been improving.

Hence, in this article I will discuss the primary reasons students do not see score improvement on the GRE. Odds are you will be able to identify with one or more of these categories. By acknowledging the things you are doing which are less than helpful for your success, you can learn how to improve your GRE score. 

Why Your GRE Score Might Not Be Improving

Using Ineffective Test Prep Books

There are two primary qualities that would make a GRE test prep book effective. The first is that the practice questions closely mimic the ones written by ETS. Sometimes, companies fill their books with questions that are either too easy, too difficult, or are simply not on par with intricate wording of actual GRE questions. If these are the types of questions you are using to prepare, you could very well be thrown off when taking the real GRE. 

Second, a test prep book should provide test-taking tips, not simply black and white explanations on how to figure out a given example problem. The GRE is a reasoning test. This means success will not solely be determined based on how well you know the content (i.e. vocabulary words, mathematics formulas, etc). You will need to approach the exam strategically. 

Not Utilizing POWERPREP Exams 

If you are currently thinking “What the heck is a POWERPREP,” we have identified your GRE score plateau problem. On your ETS account, ETS sells four practice GRE exams for you to take in order to prepare for your actual GRE. These tests are the only ones on the market that have been written by ETS. 

Do not be fooled when third party companies try to sell you “GRE Practice Exams.” In reality, anything outside of the POWERPREPs are “GRE like” practice exams. In my opinion, I think third party exams are good for an initial diagnostic, to see how close or how far you are from your target score. However, once you start studying, I recommend only using the POWERPREP exams. 

Having Bad Study Habits 

This might be the category many people find themselves in denial about. Let’s talk about what would consist of bad study habits. 

First, having an inconsistent study schedule will make it hard to track how long you are studying per week. Your goal could be to study six hours a week, but if you simply decide to do this “whenever you get a chance,” those six hours could, in reality, be closer to three. On Sunday night, block off your desired study time on your calendar for the upcoming week and treat this time as if you are clocking into work. 

Second, how long are you studying for? This is a mental endurance exam. Building up your capacity to stay focused for almost four hours will take practice. If you are studying in blocks of time under one hour, you will not be able to develop this skill. 

Are you allowing yourself to get distracted? Even if you sit for one hour to study, if you are constantly dozing off, looking at your phone, or are distracted by whatever is going on around you, then it is likely little progress was made in that hour. The time you spend studying should mimic meditation–you need to be able to quickly go into a deep level of unbreakable focus. 

Make sure to put your phone away and set a timer for at least one hour when studying. Personally, I set a timer on my phone and then put my phone across the room. I do not allow myself to get up until that timer goes off. Furthermore, study when you are fed, well rested, and in a location that is quiet. It’s difficult to study if you’ve got food on the brain. 

Having an Ineffective Timeline

I think we all know cramming for the GRE is not a good idea. However, studying too long can be equally as bad. There are two primary problems with studying for too long: 

  1. You get burnt out, frustrated, and discouraged. If you are going on your seventh month studying for the GRE, it is likely you are feeling overworked and unmotivated. This will cause you to develop those bad study habits we talked about. Too much of anything is never good. When preparing for the GRE, you have to be sensitive to how much you can actually withstand and for how long. 
  2. You forget information. This is probably the biggest issue with studying too long. If you reviewed exponent rules over four months ago, you probably will have forgotten them and need to review. When you spend too long preparing for the GRE, eventually you hit a point where you are dedicating time and energy to re-learning concepts. This will contribute to you feeling burnt out, and the vicious cycle will continue. 

I think three to six months is the appropriate time you should spend preparing for the GRE. 

Relying on Book Explanations

Whenever you complete a set of practice problems in your test prep book, always attempt every problem. If there is a problem you do not know how to do, skip it for the time being and then try to figure it out by re-reading the chapter, utilizing Khan Academy (if it is a math problem), and so on. 

Also, do not go straight to the problem’s explanation before getting to an answer. If you find that you missed the problem, it is still important to not go look at the explanation. You want to attempt the problem several times and, when all else fails, then you can look at the explanation. Think of looking at the explanation as an absolute last resort. 

I cannot express enough how dangerous those explanations can be. They provide people with a false sense of understanding. Just because you can follow someone else’s explanation does not mean you will be able to get similar questions correct in the future. The battle to get to the answer, even if it takes twenty minutes, will cause you to truly know it. No pain, no gain. 

Not Learning From Your Mistakes 

I would say out of all the previous listed reasons why someone’s GRE score might not be improving, this is the most common reason. People do not learn from their mistakes.

One of the most helpful things you can do in order to improve your GRE score is to have an error log. This will be a journal where you not only re-work every question you missed from your prep book or POWERPREP exam, but where you will also reflect on why you missed said question. Think of it like a diary where you provide a deep reflection on every question you missed or spent way too long on. 

100 people could miss a question for 100 different reasons. It is important for you to figure out why you are missing questions in order to create a running list of the mistakes you make. Then, you will be able to work on no longer making those mistakes. These reflections will also help you to really get to know ETS and how they like to write their questions, wrong answers, and right answers. 

Click here for a list of common Verbal Reasoning mistakes and here for a list of common Quantitative Reasoning mistakes.

Needing an Instructor 

If you have read this entire article and are currently thinking “I do all of that,” or “I don’t know how to get myself to do all of that,” you might require an instructor. Often I have students who want to work with me simply because they know it will force them to stay on track. Also, perhaps you just do not like to learn from a textbook. That is okay! There are plenty of GRE prep courses out there to fit different schedules and budgets. Here is our list of the best GRE prep courses.

Tips on How to Improve Your GRE Score

Recommended GRE Prep Books

If you have not worked through the ETS Official GRE Guides, this is likely contributing to why your GRE score isn’t improving. ETS administers and writes the GRE. There is no other company that has written GRE practice questions that are completely identical to the ones produced by ETS. However, some companies have come close. 

Manhattan Prep has broken up the two crucial elements every GRE prep book needs–accurate practice questions and good strategy–into two different books. Together, they provide you with a great GRE foundation. The Manhattan Prep Strategy Guides are filled with various tips to help you navigate through the different GRE measures with accuracy and speed. You can then put these skills to use by working through the Manhattan Prep 5 lb Book of GRE Practice Problems

You should never only use Manhattan Prep books. No matter what, you must work through the ETS Official GRE Guides before test day. Outside of ETS and Manhattan Prep, there are other books that can be helpful pending on what measure you need to improve on. Click here for a detailed list of the best GRE prep books. 

Recommended POWERPREPS 

If you want to truly be prepared for what you will see on test day, you must make sure to take these tests. The first two POWERPREPs are free. Although the POWERPREPs 1 and 2 will mimic the structure of your actual GRE, the first two free practice tests will not grade your Analytical Writing measure (only the Verbal and Quantitative Reasonings). That does not mean you should skip the essays when taking the tests. Also, although you will see the correct answers to your missed questions, no explanations will be provided. 

The second two exams, known as POWERPREP PLUS 1 and 2, will grade your Analytical Writing section and provide explanations to the problems. These tests are not free and cost $40 each. Taking the POWERPREPs will provide several benefits, including:

  1. Exposing you to the types of questions you will see on test day and overall structure of the GRE.
  2. Enabling you to build up the mental endurance needed to stay focused for three hours and forty-five minutes.
  3. Working on your pace–Always complete the sections in the time provided and do not start and stop the test to take a break.
  4. Tracking your GRE progress–I recommend taking the POWERPRESPs about three or four weeks apart, depending on your timeline. Try to take your last POWERPREP about one week before your actual test date.

How to Improve Your GRE Score: Summary 

Knowing how to improve your GRE score can be a tricky business, but figuring out what you might be doing wrong is a good place to start. The most common mistakes people make when preparing for the GRE are not using effective test prep books, not taking POWERPREP exams, preparing for too many months, studying in intervals that are under an hour, relying too much on reading book explanations, and not keeping track of the mistakes you are commonly making. 

Once you discover what it is you are doing wrong, or not doing at all, you will be better equipped to prepare yourself to take on the monster that is your GRE General Test and master its scoring