The GRE: A Game of Chess

Here’s our latest blog from our guest blogger. If you’re thinking about graduate school this is a must read. Our blogger did such a great job on her GRE and her grad school applications that she’s gotten into one of her top pick schools! Here’s the low-down on the oft dreaded, but required testing game…

The GRE: A Game of Chess

The Graduate Record Examination, or GRE exam, is generally a mandatory requirement for graduate school applicants. The majority of schools and programs do require GRE scores from applicants though some schools waive GRE requirements based upon their own set of criteria – undergraduate grade point average, for example. Currently, the going maximum age for test results cannot exceed five years by your application date. In the past, paper versions of the GRE were the standard, but now that format is mostly reserved for international applicants testing in foreign countries. In America, today’s test-takers can expect to take the exam as a computer-based test for much of its challenge arises from the exam’s most notorious feature – computer adaptability.

CAT exams, or computer adaptive tests have no pre-determined formula of questions. Each question arrives randomly at first, then the exam adjusts based upon test-taker performance. This sounds simple enough, but many do not realize that it is actually the difficulty level which adjusts to your performance. So, as you get more questions right, the difficulty level increases. Ill-advised test-takers may succumb to the pressures of increasingly challenging questions when this is actually a good sign. The harder your questions seem, the better you are likely performing on the exam. However, getting harder questions is of little advantage to you unless you can answer at least every-other-one correctly.

Preparing for the GRE is essential. Since it costs both time and money to take the exam, it is important to give the test serious attention. Additionally, test regulations prohibit taking the test more than once in a calendar month, which furthers the importance of studying if school deadlines loom. There are many tutoring and test preparation services which provide test-taking strategies and basic concept review prior to your scheduled test date. I enrolled in a three-month course though there was a brief single weekend format available as well. Since my undergraduate education was six years prior, I knew I needed a more extensive review, particularly in math.

The general GRE consists of three sections – verbal, analytical, and writing. Some schools do not require writing scores, but pretty much all of them require the two major sections consisting of verbal and analytical. The verbal section is full of high-level, challenging vocabulary words situated within question contexts such as analogies, reading comprehension, and antonyms. While you may feel adept at vocabulary questions, the unfamiliar vocabulary words can halt your high score. I strongly advise purchasing additional vocabulary word flashcards for the exam. To prepare, I memorized 500 commonly tested words and they definitely showed up on test day.

The analytical section tests not only your knowledge of math concepts from algebra, geometry, probability and quantitative comparisons, but also tests your ability to strategize under time constraints. As a timed test, the GRE stresses many test-takers with difficult material and just enough time to complete required questions. Commonly, many test-takers find it beneficial to review old math textbooks and some purchases GRE math guides for additional help. As with the vocabulary section, it is simply not enough to know the material; you must be able to complete questions in a timely manner and perform under the added stress of increasingly difficult questions when your answers are correct.

Practice exams are an essential component of test preparation. Online exams are the best resource available as many of them self-grade for immediate results. Most tutoring programs provide online exams in addition to classroom review with an instructor. I highly recommend test-takers invest in a preparation course with a tutoring service in order to have access to online practice tests. Since the actual exam is computer-based, test day will be less stressful if you already know how to navigate questions without relying on paper and pen. If you cannot afford a test preparation course, look for books that supply access to online practice exams.

GRE writing consists of a variety of exam topics which can be reviewed on the ETS or Education Testing Service website beforehand ( This is the only section of the exam that is not a CAT portion. Your exam questions are randomly selected from thousands of choices and you will certainly want to practice writing with speed, clarity and solid organization. Be careful to avoid spelling and grammatical errors, as graders will dock points for that. In total, there are two essays and practice essays are helpful for test day. However, online practice tests are not able to grade your essays, so you may need to ask an English teacher for help if you are not enrolled in a preparation course where your instructor can grade essays for you.

There is no single secret to performing well on the GRE exam. Every test-taker is different and some need more review than others. In order to do your best, commit to studying for at least two months, six days a week. This can be done when you sign up for a test preparation course or buy test preparation books. Once you have your study materials, schedule your studies and pace yourself through the material. Remember to allot a day off each week and take a brief break if the material becomes overwhelming. If you are struggling with a particular area, consider enlisting a private tutor’s help. Many local colleges and universities house college students able and willing to teach GRE concepts, especially if the tutor has taken the exam before.

Perhaps the most important part of studying for the GRE is properly acknowledging the level of challenge involved and laying out a study plan for your individual needs. Since the SAT or ACT mostly tests concepts, it is much like playing checkers. You are either right or wrong, bad move or good move. Conversely, the GRE tests concepts and problem-solving strategies used to get to the right answer. Combined with time limits, high levels of difficulty and questions that adjust to your performance, it is very unique. To succeed with the GRE, be ready to play a good game of chess.


  1. Re your comment: “Since the SAT or ACT mostly tests concepts, it is much like playing checkers. You are either right or wrong, bad move or good move. Conversely, the GRE tests concepts and problem-solving strategies used to get to the right answer.”

    In many ways similar to the GRE, the SAT strongly tests “concepts and problem-solving techniques”. In fact, the SAT is almost 100% a test of logic. Many students do not realize that most of the Payback is in the question, not the answers. The SAT has a design that can be “reverse engineered”. That design is based on the College Board’s recognition that most students can’t wait to get to the answers, and will neither spend enough time on the question, nor will return to the question when “stumped”.

    Why bother to look at the answers if you don’t have a sense of what that answer should be?
    This simple and logical approach to the test is the key to higher scores…if a student is willing to grasp that logic, and PRACTICE that logic.