After successfully completing the GRE last year, I posted my seven-week GRE study plan on the /r/GREhelp subreddit. Since that post is now locked, I’ve reproduced it here, along with a few other tips sent in direct messages.
I started studying about seven weeks before my test date, and studied in two phases. In the first phase (weeks 1-4), I mostly followed the Magoosh 1-month study plan and completed all of the associated lesson videos and practice problems, as well as 13/20 vocab flashcards decks. In the second phase (weeks 5-7), I did ETS/Manhattan/Magoosh practice problems, reviewed vocab flash cards, and took five practice tests. You can follow along with in the studying tracking spreadsheet; just Make a Copy to edit, and then enter your test date in cell D52.
Phase 1 (weeks 1-4): Topic review, video lessons, vocab flashcards, general notes
- ETS Official Guide section overviews (2nd Edition Chapters 2, 3, and 5). This content largely overlaps with the Prepare for the Test content on the ETS website. Since I hadn’t taken a standardized test in eight years, this was a good way to get back into the groove and familiarize myself with the question types.
- ETS Math Review (also in the Official Guide 2nd Edition, Chapter 7). I did this early on to refresh my memory on the different quant topics, many of which I hadn’t used in five or ten years. It’s a good place to start, but the exercises are smaller, discrete components of typical GRE quant problems. I also looked through the Math Conventions to familiarize myself.
- Magoosh video lessons. I watched every video for both quantitative and verbal following the 1-month study plan and took notes about key points and strategies that I didn’t immediately remember. Some people on this subreddit don’t like the videos or the instructors, but I thought they do a great job as a refresher and merit the $100 price. For the videos that were mostly review, I played them at 1.5x speed to save time. Those who struggle with math or speak English as a second language might need additional review for the quantitative or verbal sections, respectively.
- General notes. As I said above, I took copious notes about less-familiar topics and strategies while watching the Magoosh videos, about 20 typed pages in all. At the start of each evening practice session, I glanced through my old notes to refamiliarize myself with the key points.
- Magoosh practice problems. I did every Magoosh practice problem (n=1,131) following the 1-month study plan, i.e. in the “Custom Practice” mode. The problems are generally on the harder side compared to the actual test, but they are excellent practice. The ability to target specific topics, question types, and/or difficulties is a HUGE advantage over practice problems from books. For example, I needed to get faster at algebra and exponent quantitative comparison problems, so one day I did twenty of those for extra practice. For the harder problems, I always watched the detailed explanation video even if I got it right in order to learn shortcuts and faster problem solving approaches that save time. I ended up with about 78% correct on both quant and verbal problems after the first time through; not great, but I got better as I went along.
- Magoosh Vocabulary Flashcards. I mastered the first thirteen Magoosh vocab decks (i.e. “Common” and “Basic”) using the iOS app. I think there are diminishing returns from learning the seven “advanced” decks; in my opinion, the time and energy to learn 350 more words is better spent doing verbal multiple choice and sentence equivalence practice problems.
Phase 2 (weeks 5-7): Practice tests, practice problems, vocab review, condensed notes
- ETS Paper Test 1: 161 quant, 167 verbal (Official Guide 2nd Edition, Chapter 8). I did this practice test about three weeks before my test date after finishing the Magoosh videos/problems but before starting any of the secondary studying below. This was a great way to get more comfortable with the structure of the test and identify weak areas that needed further practice. For the problems I struggled with and/or got wrong, I watched the associated Magoosh explanation videos.
- Condensed notes. I condensed my 20 pages of general notes into a four-page summary/cheat sheet. This strategy (which I first used in college) is beneficial because the time and effort that goes into making the summary helps commit the topics to memory. Also, printing out the cheat sheet and associating certain information with a physical location on a page helps memorization using the method of loci or “memory palace” technique.
- ETS Official Guide practice problems (2nd Edition Chapters 4 and 6). I did all ten practice sets in the Official Guide. It’s important to treat ETS practice problems like gold since they are most representative of the problems that will be on the actual test. For this reason, I chose to save these until after I finished the Magoosh videos and problems, lest I “waste” a perfectly realistic practice problem by attempting it before being familiar with the material. I also completed each set of problems before looking at answers in order to better simulate real test sections where I had to deal with the anxiety of not knowing how well I was doing. For the problems I struggled with and/or got wrong, I watched the associated Magoosh explanation videos.
- Vocab flashcard review. The biggest feature lacking from the Magoosh flashcard app is the ability to reset individual decks for later review. To get around this, I converted the PDF list of words, definitions, and sentences to tab-delimited text files (download here) that I practiced in the Flashcards Deluxe iOS app. I really liked this app because I could flag tough words as I reviewed the 13 “common” and “basic” decks to quickly create a single combination deck consisting only of flagged words. The app has a steep learning curve, but the granularity of the feature set is without equal.
- ETS PowerPrep Test 1: 164 quant, 166 verbal. I did this practice test about two weeks before my test date. I did the PowerPrep practice test in order to get comfortable with the computer-based test in case there were any relevant differences I should know about; there weren’t any except the slightly shorter length versus the paper tests and the scratch paper trick (see misc tip #2 below).
- ETS Quantitative Reasoning Practice Questions. As with the Official Guide practice problems, I saved these until after Magoosh so I didn’t waste the 100% real ETS questions when I didn’t know the topics. These quant questions are definitely harder than most of the Official Guide problems, but they are excellent training for people aiming for high quant scores in the test. I also timed myself during the mixed practice sets at the end to get a sense of when I should skip a problem and come back.
- ETS Verbal Reasoning Practice Questions. Same as above, I saved these problems until after Magoosh so I didn’t waste the 100% real ETS questions when I didn’t know the topics. Again, I timed myself during the mixed practice sets at the end.
- ETS Paper Test 2: 167 quant, 166 verbal (ETS Official Guide 2nd Edition, Chapter 9). I did this practice test about eight days before my test date after finishing the practice problem sets in the three ETS books. For the problems I struggled with and/or got wrong, I watched the associated Magoosh explanation videos.
- Manhattan 5 lb. Book of GRE Practice Problems. In the last week before my test date, I did four or five chapters of quant practice problems from this book in some of my weaker topic areas. The difficulty varies from much easier than the actual test to a bit harder, so keep that in mind. Also, since I was using the first edition I kept an eye on the errata that corrects mistakes in the book.
- Manhattan Prep Free Practice Test: 166 quant, 164 verbal. I did this practice test about five days before my test date. This was definitely harder than the ETS practice tests, especially vocab/verbal, but I’m glad I did it since there were some new vocab words that I hadn’t encountered in the Magoosh problems/flashcards. I found that some of the questions were oddly worded or more ambiguous than the ETS tests, but I suppose that’s the difference between real and imitation GRE problems.
- Revisit Magoosh practice problems. I revisited all of the Magoosh problems that I flagged or got incorrect the first time. This was great practice and tremendously satisfying since I could see how far I had come in the intervening 3-6 weeks. The ability to rapidly go back to this subset of problems is another awesome and unique feature of the Magoosh online system versus books.
- ETS PowerPrep Test 2: 163 quant, 169 verbal. I did this last practice test two days before my test date. I was a little bummed at my lower quant score, but this was largely due to spending too much time on a single hard quant problem instead of marking it and going back.
I nailed my essays, the first quant section, and the first verbal section. The second quant section, right after my 10-min break, was really rough: I didn’t even finish all of the problems before running out of time. I thought this doomed me to a 155 or 160 quant score, but I didn’t panic and pressed on through another verbal and a final quant. My final scores were 170 quant and 169 verbal; that second quant section must have been the experimental section.
- Time is the most valuable resource. Knowing shortcuts and faster approaches saves time that can be used to check work or revisit tricky problems–this is why it’s worth watching the explanation videos even when I got the problem right. It’s also important to take advantage of the ability in the revised GRE to skip problems and come back later. This has the added benefit of seeing a problem in a new light, which may reveal information or approaches missed the first time through.
- Set up scratch paper ahead of time. For the computer-based GRE, the clock doesn’t start until after the “Instructions” screen that says whether the section is verbal or quantitative. Take this time to set up scratch paper. For quant, I jotted down “1” through “20” over four pages of scrap paper to have room for equations and drawings. For verbal, I jotted down “1” through “20” on a single page with three horizontal lines next to each to keep track when doing process of elimination with 3-6 answer choices. Although this would only take a few seconds at the start of each problem, that adds up to an extra half minute over a whole section. I also felt like this routine helped me mentally prepare for each section in a zen sort of way.
- Don’t over-study. I found that studying more than about 2 or 3 hours a day had diminishing returns since my brain could only absorb so much information per day, even with plenty of sleep. I usually did around 60 to 90 minutes of topic review (i.e. lesson videos, flashcards) and 60 to 90 minutes of practice problems, which was about as much as I could handle after an eight hour work day.
- Simulate test day faithfully. I read the ETS test day information from the start to gain familiarity with the test center rules so I could simulate that environment as closely as possible. Since I was taking the computer-based GRE, I took computer-based practice tests or stood up the book like a screen so I could practice copying equations and drawings to paper (over the course of 7 weeks, there were at least 20 or 30 quant practice problems that I got wrong simply because I incorrectly transcribed an equation or expression). I also didn’t let myself drink water or go to the bathroom during practice tests (except during the 10-minute break). Making it as close to real as as possible prevented surprises on test day.
- Seek out scholarly/scientific reading to practice comprehension. A number of test prep guides profess the importance of reading relatively difficult writing, such as the New York Times (Magazine), the New Yorker, The Atlantic, etc. While these sources can improve one’s vocabulary, I think that a larger portion of GRE reading comprehension passages focus on scholarly/scientific topics with competing theories rather than politics or current events with more straightforward narratives. For this reason, I would recommend reading more science-focused journalism such as Nautilus (e.g. check out articles on endosymbiotic theory, the Late Heavy Bombardment, the origins of meteorology, or genetic sequence space). I think this is better practice for digesting different interpretations of unfamiliar topics than the aforementioned periodicals.
What about the writing portion?
I didn’t spend a ton of time on the writing portion because many of the grad schools to which I am applying (for computer science) don’t pay attention to that score. Even so, in Phase 1 I did watch the Magoosh videos related to the essays and wrote four practice essays which I then evaluated against the ETS rubric and the Magoosh rubric. In Phase 2 I performed a similar evaluation for the ten essays I wrote as part of the five practice exams. After reviewing each essay, I also identified instances where I could replace regular words with a more fancy vocab words and phrases. I also made sure to use lots of transitional phrases at the beginning of sentences (e.g. “despite this,” “even so,” “notwithstanding these assumptions”) since the e-rater apparently likes these.
That being said, the biggest suggestion is Misc Tip #1 from above: time is the most valuable resource. Having 3-5 mins at the end to reread, correct, and improve the essays will cut down on spelling and grammar errors that, despite great content and critical reasoning, hold back your scores. So when you practice, get comfortable writing quickly enough to have these few minutes at the end.
Why use the Magoosh “mixed practice” before having reviewed those topics?
One of the demotivating things about Magoosh is the “mixed practice” with quant where you have to try to answer questions on topics for which you have not yet watched the videos. This just requires some patience and perseverance. I actually shuffled around the order of a few videos to review some principles that I had completely forgotten so I wouldn’t be totally stumped with those Magoosh questions.
What’s the best way to stay motivated?
- Commit to a test date. It wasn’t until I picked a test date and forked over the $200 registration fee that I really felt motivated to study my butt off and do the best I can.
- Make a spreadsheet/calendar/gantt chart where you plan out what you hope to accomplish for each day of studying. “Seven weeks” sounds like a long time until you fill in the lessons and realize how short that is given the amount of material you want to cover.
- Study before beginning your work day. I started arriving at my office about 30-45 mins earlier than usual to get in some studying before the work day when I’m most alert. Studying right before bed was not effective when I was falling asleep at my desk. Morning studying was also good practice since I took my test at 8:30am.
- Block off a morning each weekend for catching up with video lessons/practice problems (in phase 1) or a practice test (in phase 2). It sucks to “work” on a weekend, but that’s prime time to get some studying in.
What should I do if I’ve hit a “plateau”?
If you’re hitting a plateau, I suggest thinking critically about why you got wrong answers for those questions. Did you make a small mistake in the algebra/computation for the math problems? Did you misunderstand a vocab word in the verbal? Did you spend too much time on a tougher question that forced you to rush through some other problems? Is there a particular kind of problem where you’re consistently struggling? There are likely to be patterns of problems where you make mistakes. Once you find these patterns, do extra practice problems from Magoosh or the Manhattan 5lb book as a “targeted study.” I had to do this with exponent problems and it helped tremendously.