Tuesday, November 13, 2012

how to take the GRE—and not die, or fail

Can I just say that taking the GRE might have been one of the worst experiences of my life?

I am home and stripped of my clothing; this—derobing—is my first bit of advice for you if you're a similarly unfortunate soul who has to take the test. When you get home, get undressed. Picture yourself removing the filth of the GRE from your body. If you're not into metaphor, I'm pretty sure you're going to sweat super hard, so you smell bad and should get out of your clothes. No joke, I saw some incredibly moist pits in the waiting room.

I am writing to you as a survivor of the traumatic GRE. GRE stands for "gross really-awful exam." Don't believe me, look it up. I spent many nights worrying about this exam; I spent, arguably, much fewer of those nights actually studying. I don't wish the test on anyone, but if you have to take it, here's my advice.

1. Study With Purpose
I'm not going to tell you to start studying early, because if you're anything like the people I know, you'd like to start studying early, but there's the paper coming up, the party you're trying to organize, the party you have to clean up for, shit tons of work (likely at least 40 hours a week's worth), some major holiday, a crisis your best friend suddenly goes through, and then—WHOOPS—it's the weekend before you take the GRE. I won't shame you. If you have tons of spare time, I hate you, but also start studying early. If you don't have lots of spare time, be purposeful with how you study.

I'm not genius, but there are some things I'm pretty good at, and some things I definitely suck at. Buy a study guide or download the practice test from ETS' website and look through it. Take a practice test as a diagnostic if you want. What's important is to look at where you're doing well, and note where you're messing up. For me, I always blow hard at reading comprehension and exponents (eww), and I'm good at sentence equivalencies and algebra. I made sure to really practice the skills I needed work on, while sporadically checking in on the areas I felt already comfortable with. My suggestion would be to use the free options of sites like MyGRETutor to see where you need to focus your efforts; you can try some problems, separated by type, for free and it'll show you your score on them. I bought the Princeton Review guide, which came with access to online practice tests that broke down your score into the different skills and how you did on them. This feature was unbelievably valuable. Oh, and time yourself. Timed practice is so important! All these problems can be solved with infinite time, but you have about 1-2 minutes per question. Gross.

2. Take Your Study Stuff With You
Don't carry around a GRE guide, because that is lame. What you should do is download GRE apps for your iPhone; I know y'all post your beautiful Instagram pictures, so you all have fancy phones!  :) I would highly recommend downloading a GRE vocab flashcard app. My favorite is Brainscape's app; if you want to try it online, play around with it here. You can, of course, make your own flashcards too, but it was worth it to me to shell out 5 bucks and not have to do all that work. (Remember, I have zero free time.) If you have your study stuff with you, you are much more likely to find some time to study, and lord knows you never leave your phone at home. I studied vocab during carpool to school, on my lunch break, and in bed. If you're reaching to stalk your ex-boyfriend on Facebook again or are about to tweet about the awesome tuna sandwich you just ate for lunch, flip through some flash cards instead. Trust me, it'll be more rewarding in the long run.

3. Be Comfortable
I took the GRE twice. The first time I took it—a month ago—I had a medical problem that flared up in the middle of it. While this health complication is not a new thing, it was definitely exacerbated by the stress my body was under; as a result, I was not able to do my best on my exam that first time (a serious understatement, haha). Things happen that you can't control. Everything you can control, however, you should adjust to help you as much as possible.

Examples? Okay, well, here's the obvious: sleep. Seriously, sleep, don't study all night. I put in ear plugs last night to make sure my dumb (and oh-so-lovable) cat would not wake me up with her yowling. I'm talking about some serious sleep; I was not messing around with that! Eat a filling breakfast, which, college students, does not mean cereal.

Know your body! I drank tea in the morning because coffee gives me jitters. Careful with caffeine; you don't get a bathroom break until 2 hours in. (Seriously, GRE, why do you do that to us?) If you're easily distracted like I am, use the noise cancelling headphones provided to you at the center—but be aware, if you have glasses like I do, they may pinch you after a while. And, of course, wear clothes you are comfortable in. You won't be able to take off your sweater once you're testing—why, I don't know—so I'd say wear a long sleeve shirt so you can roll your sleeves up or down as necessary.


Phew! So that, my friends, is my immediate advice after taking the GRE and not getting horribly sick halfway through (second time's the charm). I wore this little number to get me through it. The guy taking my picture before the test said I looked Parisian; I told him it was GRE chic. ;)
(not this one, but one just like it)

American Apparel

Oh, and how'd I do? Well, you all know I'm going into poetry, and writing programs usually say 85th percentile is where it begins to get competitive. 

By a miracle of God, I scored 166 on the verbal. 

That's 96th percentile. I'm treating myself with a glass of wine and some Law and Order tonight. ;) Woo! I'm finally done! One less thing to worry about. :)


  1. Nice work!! I suffer so badly during exams because of the stress I put on myself (i tend not to sleep before exams..) which like you, tends to exacterbate a particular medical problem as well. so much fun. and I'm doing some very scary exams right at the moment. umm yeah I'm not sure where this comment is going I basically just wanted to whinge, and procrastinate, because this GRE is tomorrow, ugh. I guess I like knowing that other people freak out heaps about exams too :) it's a trouble with being a perfectionist!

    1. (gre being an actual, 'gross really-awful exam' not THE gre. that was confusing.)

  2. WOW- Congratualtions! That is incredible. You deserve a glass of wine- if not five! ;) Also, thanks for sharing the tips above! xo

  3. I did about 8 years of back-to-back degrees and LSAT studying so I definitely agree with all your studying tips - it's how I got myself through all the craziness!

    Alexandra xo


  4. a 166! holy cow girl! you did stellar! congrats i couldnt be happier for you! haha and im totally going to use your tips above!

  5. I took it twice as well! Wahoo to your writing score! I honestly don't even REMEMBER what I got on either with the new-fangled scoring numbers. I think I blocked it out of my head immediately after! And of course, decided after all of that complete hell that I wasn't even going to apply to grad schools haha. Oh well, at least I know I have a good-enough score there waiting for me if I ever need it in the next 4 years! Enjoy your celebratory wine and TV!
    xo Hannah

  6. Congrats! that is awesome - this is all great advice - I am fortunate to be in a career field where grad school really isn't necessary (it's all experience based because you need successful product designs on the market, not ideas about design theory, to get a corporate design job which is where I play). Anyhow - that outfit must have looked awesome.

    <3 katherine
    of corgis and cocktails

  7. I'm avoiding the GRE/grad school in general. Think I'm going to work a bit post grad first. These tips are great, though, and I'll have to keep them in mind for when the time comes!

    <3 Melissa


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