Journey to Grad School: Preparing for the GRE

By Laura Sliker

Although I was sure I wanted to go to graduate school, taking another standardized test didn’t at all appeal to me.  I would have to slay yet another proverbial dragon. In my mind, I saw a giant book full of questions, just like the ones I had filled out three years ago while preparing for the SAT. I thought I would never again need to find the function of x, or analyze a vague writing passage. Well, it never hurts to hope.

Mental Preparation

I was a sophomore when reality set in about the GRE. It’s a long test–somewhere in the five hour range. It contains math, writing, and reading comprehension. There’s no avoiding it; if you’re taking the GRE, it’s time to bust out those high school algebra books, unless you took more algebra-type math through college, in which case you have my sincere admiration and probably know a great deal more about GRE math than I ever will. Sure, not everyone struggles with the math section of the GRE, but everyone struggles with some aspect of the test, so I hope that sharing my difficulties will help you feel less alone about yours.
First off, I’m a procrastinator,  so when I got to college and realized I would have to take a math course, I saved it for my senior year. Unfortunately, that means I haven’t had math class in nearly five years. Words have so much more appeal to me than numbers, so I put off learning the equations and formulas I should needed for the GRE. By testing time, the GRE and its math problems scared me so much that I ran into the waiting, outstretched arms of Kaplan. I didn’t intend to get a job with Kaplan as part of the process; that was an amazing twist of fate. Initially, I was the obsessive last-minute test-prepping junior. However, having now worked for Kaplan for almost a year and knowing a lot more about how to be successful on grad school admissions tests, I can most definitely say I do not recommend being that person. On the upside, I have a lot of recommendations that you should take instead.

Take Advantage of Free Test Prep Resources

Wherever you find them. Kaplan has a ton of free online events to prep students for the GRE, and when you go register with ETS to take the test, they’ll give you some free resources, too, like practice tests and study guides.

Remember, the GRE is NOT an Abilities Test

This is the single most important thing I’ve learned from studying the Kaplan method of GRE prep, and since this is the closest I can get to screaming about it from the rooftops, I’ll explain it. The GRE is NOT a measure of how well you can do algebra, or if you understand the intent of the author of a certain passage, though having those skills is helpful. It tests your ability to  use logic in determining the answers to different sorts of problems. Let me say that again. This is a logic test, so set aside your fear of polygons and word roots and think about logic puzzles instead. If you want to learn more about Kaplan’s methods, take advantage of free online events and resources— they were the top resources I used before getting my job with the company, and they really will change the way you look at the GRE.

Taking the GRE

As for the test itself, I’ve got to admit, my experience wasn’t much to write home about. My local ETS center was small; the room only had 11 desks. I walked in, put my stuff in a locker, got handed some pencils and scrap paper, and was seated  in front of a desktop monitor displaying the words ‘GRE Exam for Test Subject: Laura Sliker’ along with a long string of numbers I assume identified me in the ETS system.
My hands shook for a solid minute before I could coax myself to press the start button, and that was it. I spent the next four hours writing, solving, and analyzing everything in front of me to find answers. Then came the part I like so much better than any standardized test I’d taken in the past: a big button that said, “Report to retrieve scores.” I couldn’t believe I didn’t even have to wait five minute to find out how I did.  Another deep breath, more shaky hands, and after what seemed like forever, I decided there was no way I’d done badly enough to not want to report.
A fresh screen with two numbers, reading and quant. I read off quant, and it was like I expected (like I said, I may never truly understand algebra and I’ve come to embrace that it’s part of who I am). Then I saw the reading score, and it was hard not to cry. Thanks to Kaplan and my own hard work, the number on the screen was higher than I had ever hoped it could be, so close to perfect that I could count the number of questions I must have gotten wrong on one hand.
I was asked if I wanted to send my scores to schools, and I dumbfoundedly went down the list of my potential programs, sending off scores one by one. Someone came in to deactivate my computer terminal after that and told me my writing scores would come in in about 2 weeks. I walked out to my car and smiled with relief for the first time in what felt like weeks. I did it, and it was so much easier than I expected. It felt like magic. Then the waiting game began….

Considering applying to graduate school? Check out our free guide to grad school.