For those planning on embarking on a journey through graduate school in the US, a necessary stepping stone is taking the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) as a part of your application. For the uninitiated, the GRE is a standardised admissions’ test for postgraduate study; a clear analogue to the Scholastic Aptitude Test’s (SAT’s) required for undergraduate study in the US. Like the SAT, the GRE is designed to measure the verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, analytical writing, and critical thinking skills that have been nurtured over the length of one’s learning years.
While the GRE is designed to serve as a predictor for postgraduate success, whether it does this job properly is another question entirely. Like the SAT’s, IQ tests, and all self-contained tests of ‘intelligence’, the GRE shares in their criticisms in being an outdated and flawed measure of ability. A common critique is that the GRE merely measures how well a person can master GRE test taking procedures. Like any examination, it is self-contained in that there is a syllabus, past papers and professional tuition serves that one can approach in order to prepare for it.
Furthermore, one can take the GRE up to five times a year. This arguably cheapens the GRE as a measure of ability compared to an examination in University as success would be a function of not only ability but how many times one is willing (and able) to take the exam to improve their score. For example, if you get a poor result then one can just seek out more tuition and, to an extent, be coached into success. In recent years, there have been a number of businesses seeing success in providing consulting services for individuals applying for universities especially for US universities given the perceived worldwide prestige of a member-institution of the Ivy League. Affluent parents would be willing to pay to ensure that their kids get a degree from Yale as opposed to Ohio State for example.
This confidence (or lack thereof) in the GRE is reflected in the varying weightings of importance one’s GRE score has in the admissions process of graduate schools across the US. In some institutions, it may just be a formality while in others it may treated as an important selection factor in the admissions process. A common practice is required students to achieve a minimum GRE score in order to reduce the number of applicants to an institution; a fairly crude but effective method in reducing the number of applications.
What further undermines the credibility of the GRE is that these examinations are written not by distinguished professors, renowned scholars, or even admissions’ officers. Instead of leaning individuals that ply their trade in the world of academia, it is ETS (the for-profit organisation that develops and administers the GRE alongside tests like TOEFL) employees that write these examinations.
Despite these criticisms of the GRE, no one has been able to offer a suitable alternative. Hence why the GRE, and tests like the SAT’s, remain a part of the admissions process for higher education. If the GRE results are viewed in the context of a candidate’s entire application – to determine whether or not the results make sense – in corollary to their undergraduate GPA or past research experience would be more appropriate.
Given that the GRE does not look like it will be going anywhere anytime soon, we will explore how you can start to prepare to take the examination. The best preparation for the GRE will comprise of revising with official GRE practice material made available by ETS, solidify a plan of study in the lead up to the actual GRE test and rounding off your knowledge by internalising third-party practice materials for the GRE.
Revise with the official material provided by ETS
When preparing for the GRE, or any examination for that matter, working with material directly from those who are responsible for writing and administering the exam is always a good way to go. There are a number of resources that ETS recommend one revises with, but arguably the most important one that is available for purchase is the Official Guide to the GRE General Test, Third Edition. To find the full list of products (both free and paid), look on their website.
Develop a plan of study
In order to maximise the value from all of the resources available in the field of GRE preparation, there needs to be a considered plan of attack. The first step would be to create a realistic schedule for daily study. While it is all well and good to aim for two hours a night of preparation, that will more likely than not fail to eventuate. Since many people will be juggling GRE prep alongside full-time work, it is essential to develop a plan from at least a couple months out of the actual GRE test date. This includes weekends set aside for study as well as on which evenings during the week you can block out for study. Preparing this timetable for study is an essential first step.
Browse through third-party practice resources.
While the official material should be the first port of call, once you have exhausted that resource it would be wise to seek out additional GRE resources made available by third-party providers, there are a lot of online websites that provide such services, but you need to make sure you are landing on a secure and authentic website so that you don’t fall prey to any malicious activity. GRE essays and practice tests could be useful to round off your knowledge after having internalised all of the official content made available by ETS. You can also outsource a GRE tutor who was previously successful in the exam.
While the aforementioned strategies are necessary in the lead up to the actual sitting of the GRE exam, preparation will go more smoothly if you make every attempt to hone the general skills that the GRE is designed to test. This means that during the course of your undergraduate study, interview preparations, professional placements, and work experience, it would serve you well to adopt an attitude that strives for improvement. This means always seeking out feedback, actively identifying and working on your areas of improvements. By making a habit of these behaviours, you will be hitting two birds with one stone; not only will you be showing your professors/boss that you are making every attempt to better yourself but you will also be giving yourself a leg up in the GRE.