How to Study for the GRE in 3 Easy Steps

If you’re in the midst of preparing for the GRE general test or just getting started with your studying, you might be wondering how to study for the GRE effectively.

In this article, expert GRE tutor, David Baird, lays out the most effective way to get ready for the GRE exam—in just three simple GRE study steps. In fact, the approach explained here is based on the official Menlo Coaching GRE Curriculum.

Most test takers spend more time on the GRE than they need to. By working with the right study materials (official GRE test questions, full-length practice tests, and ideally, a private GRE tutor), you can achieve your target GRE score in as little as 10 weeks.

You Will Need:

  1. The right GRE study materials: official GRE practice tests and practice questions.
  2. Time: most test takers spend more time studying for the GRE than they need to. With the right method, 10 weeks should be enough time to prepare for the GRE.
  3. An effective GRE study plan: having established your baseline, your test prep should focus primarily on your weak spots while developing your skills in other sections. Some students struggle with the verbal reasoning section and others find they struggle with their quantitative reasoning skills. With the right GRE study schedule, you should build accuracy in both areas without overly committing to one section.
  4. Ideally, a private tutor: GRE experts know how to prepare for GRE without wasting time.
By working with the right study materials, you can achieve your target GRE score in as little as 10 weeks.

Best Way to Prepare for the GRE Exam

Smart GRE preparation involves three steps:

  1. Refresh: The refresh step focuses on relearning underlying content.
  2. Learn and apply: The learning and application step revolves around deconstructing problems and learning how to combine your core knowledge with the most effective and efficient GRE strategy.
  3. Practice: The practice step will help you hone your pacing and test-taking skills while strengthening any remaining weak spots. 

Follow these steps to make your GRE study more efficient—and win acceptance to better graduate programs!

How to Prepare for the GRE Exam in 3-Steps

Step 1: Refresh 

Before you can focus on improving the baseline abilities described above in the context of the GRE exam, you must address your weaknesses in the test content. This is the basic starting point for GRE prep that will help you achieve your target score and is one area in which self-study creates problems: you need well-made GRE-specific drills that focus on exactly the skills required for the exam.

The official resources only provide a limited number of these types of organized drills, so to truly become fully trained in the exam content, you will need to use a much broader-based high quality GRE curriculum to help you quickly fill in your knowledge gaps. Once you complete this initial refresh, you will continue to increase your fluency even more in the next steps.

If you don’t have complete mastery of the underlying knowledge, you create a hard ceiling for the score you can achieve.

For many GRE takers, the underlying content on the exam is not much of a challenge—so make sure your content knowledge and fluency won’t hold you back!

If you find that you suffer from a distinct content weakness (statistics and vocabulary are two common areas of deficiency), you may need to spend extra time at the beginning of your GRE preparation process addressing those content issues.

Test Your Content Readiness
Here is an example of a full GRE quant question that is mainly just about content. If you find this problem challenging, then it is likely your content knowledge and fluency for factors/divisor shortcuts is not where it needs to be, and you need to spend more time in step 1 (don’t worry if you get stuck here on this question…most students have at least a few content weaknesses in this specific area of arithmetic):

Each of the following numbers has two digits blotted out. Which of the numbers could be the number of hours in x days, where x is an integer?

A. 25,06
B. 50,26
C. 56,02
D. 62,50
E. 65,20

The presentation of this question is definitely somewhat abstract. However, that being said, the initial step to set up a solution path for this question shouldn’t be all that difficult to identify. If x needs to be an integer and x is the number of days, then the total number of hours must be a multiple of 24 (as there are 24 hours in a day).

Most students will likely also be able to see that 24 can be factored a number of different ways. For example, 24 is 24 x 1, 12 x 2, 8 x 3, and 6 x 4. Consequently, x would need to be a multiple of each of these factors (1, 2, 3, 4, 6, 8, 12, and 24).

Here’s where some advanced content knowledge now comes into play…

If you don’t know your factoring “shortcut” rules this can be an almost impossible problem to solve quickly. Furthermore, if you only know some of your factoring “shortcut” rules but not others (i.e. you know the shortcut rule for 3 but not the accompanying rule for 4), you may also find yourself stuck on this problem.

For example, there is a shortcut rule for quickly identifying if a very large number is divisible by 3. For those of you who aren’t familiar with the rule, it’s actually quite simple. You simply add up all the digits in the number and if the sum of its digits is divisible by 3, then the overall number is also divisible by 3.

That’s great but the difficulty here is that you can’t apply this shortcut rule to the values provided in the answers as you don’t know all the digits in the number (as two of the digits are blotted out in each answer choice).

Luckily, if you know the divisibility shortcut rule for 4, you can solve this question in a matter of seconds. Once again, for those of you who don’t know this divisibility shortcut rule, it’s actually even simpler than the divisibility rule for 3.

Since 4 goes into 100 (four quarters are a dollar), you don’t need to worry about anything in the hundreds digit (or higher). All you need to do is identify if 4 goes into the last two digits of the number. If it does, then it means that the overall number is also a multiple of 4.

Luckily, here in this question, the last two digits of the larger numbers are not blotted out. Thus, if we ignore everything but the last two digits, what we are left with is…

A. 06
B. 26
C. 02
D. 50
E. 20

Four obviously doesn’t go into 06 evenly. Nor does it go into 26, 02, or 50. However, 4 does go into 20 evenly (4 x 5 = 20). Therefore, the correct answer is (E).  

Nice and simple, non? Unfortunately, the ultimate problem here is that, perhaps next time, the GRE will test you on the divisibility rule for 5, or 6, or 8, not 4. Which means that it’s important to have comprehensive knowledge on all the divisibility shortcut rules up to a certain point (Menlo’s rule of thumb is to learn your divisibility shortcut rules up to 10).

In closing, with the right knowledge base, this is literally a 10 second problem to solve. Without the relevant content knowledge though, you will most likely end up investing a significant amount of time trying to solve this problem (using a less efficient methodology), and either end up getting stuck, being forced to guess, or getting it wrong.

Remember: In terms of GRE Math content, make sure you learn your Divisibility Shortcut Rules up to 10!

Step 2: Learn and Apply

Once you have refreshed all the core content knowledge (this goes quickly for most people), then the fun begins!

For each content family, there are particular types of questions that appear repeatedly and contain important patterns. Studying for the GRE is not about learning content in a vacuum—it is about the application of content to solve difficult problems. Most of the difficulty lies in unpacking the question to see what knowledge you need to apply. 

To do this properly, you should use a highly-organized self-study curriculum, in which you do many of the same types of problems multiple times.

Many GRE takers who choose to self-study fall into a common trap: they use Official GRE practice questions in a random, non-strategic manner. Working in this way will cause you to miss important patterns and opportunities to employ time-saving techniques—this is also one reason people receive lower scores on test day despite getting the answers correct in their own self-study.

When using Official GRE questions, make sure to group the problems by content. Numerous tutors and test prep companies provide a free categorization of problems from the official resources in different online forums.

Quality instruction will greatly speed up this essential component of the GRE preparation process. With the wrong instructor, you might find that you get the correct answers to the practice questions, but you struggle to achieve your target score on test day.

With an effective GRE tutor, you will:

While you might eventually develop similar strategies to study for the GRE and recognize key patterns on your own, you will likely take much longer and still overlook some critical test elements.

The goal of this step is to empower you to properly deconstruct every practice question that you miss or solve inefficiently and learn from it. Otherwise, your GRE score will typically not improve much, even when you have completed 1000+ questions. Why? You don’t truly understand the reason you got the question wrong, so you don’t make the necessary improvements and adjustments to strategy, approach, and mindset.

If you choose to self-study, focus most of your time on getting the proper takeaways from each question

At Menlo Coaching, we require our GRE students to keep detailed error logs to ensure that any incorrect answers are learned from and improved upon.

Test Your Application of Knowledge
To see an example of how proper application of key knowledge can effectively boost your GRE Math score, take a look at this challenging Statistics problem:

The buyer of a certain mechanical toy must choose 2 of 4 optional motions and 4 of 5 optional accessories. How many different combinations of motions and accessories are available to the buyer?

A. 8
B. 11
C. 15
D. 20
E. 30

This complex and layered combinatoric problem has the potential to stump most new GRE test takers. Maybe you know one of the permutations or combinations formulas and attempt to calculate the solution using one of them? Maybe you try to brute force the problem and try to manually calculate it out on paper? Maybe you just stare blankly at the problem for a few minutes and then guess?

The reality is that you will only get this question correct quickly if you know the relevant applicable combinatorics theory, have a solid efficient solution methodology (i.e. a template), and have seen other problems of this specific question type before. GRE question writers know how to build extremely complex problems, but patterns still emerge within the standardized pool of questions they create.

Success on this question starts with knowing some advanced combinatorics theory. One key to solving combinatorics questions quickly is to be able to identify how many “sources” there are in a problem (i.e. 1 or more). We are going to refer to problems with just one source as “Same Source” problems and those with more than one source as “Different Source” problems.

If we apply this knowledge to the above question, we can say the following…

When choosing motions, the buyer selects 2 motions from a pool of 4 motions. We can categorize this as a Same Source problem as we are only dealing with motions.

When choosing accessories, the same logic applies. The buyer selects 4 accessories from a pool of 5 accessories. This, thus, is also Same Source as we are only dealing with accessories.

A second required theoretical element is knowing how “order” affects the result (i.e. does order matter?). We will ultimately define these problems as either an “Order Matters” problem or an “Order Doesn’t Matter” problem.

In this case order doesn’t matter as, for example, if you select up and down motion followed by side to side motion for your toy, this is the same as a toy that has side to side motion as well as up and down motion.
Now comes the tricky part…

How does one solve a Same Source – Order Doesn’t Matter problem?

Well, the short answer is that there are multiple ways to calculate the answer. One approach is to learn the factorial formulas for permutations and combinations and apply the applicable formula here to each situation (i.e. motions and accessories). Another approach would be to Brute Force the answer our manually on paper. Last, but not least, one could also be taught a Same Source – Order Doesn’t Matter solution template and then just apply it to the question at hand.

Here is a summary of how the solution template works:

Let’s say there are 5 accessories, and you are choosing 3 accessories.

In this example, the template would be as follows:
5 • 4 • 3
3 • 2 • 1

First, you set up 3 columns (since you are choosing 3 items).

Second, you take your larger number (here that number is 5) and multiple down by 1 (5 x 4 x 3) in each column in the numerator.

Third, you take your smaller number (here that number is 3) and multiple down by 1 (3 x 2 x 1) in each column in the denominator.

Fourth, you divide the resulting two numbers.

If one understands the principle of 5 • 4 • 3 over 3 • 2 • 1 and then just memorizes this template, they can now solve any other Same Source – Order Doesn’t Matter problem the GRE could give you in a matter of seconds.

Remember, all the GRE can do is change the size of the larger number or change the size of the smaller number.

For example, if there were 17 motions and you only chose 2 motions, the solution (following the logic of the template) would be two columns with math as follows:
17 • 6
2 • 1

In this question, we have 4 motions, and we are choosing 2 motions. This means the solution would be two columns with math as follows:
4 • 3
2 • 1

which equals 12 / 2 = 6.

However, we also have 5 accessories, and we are choosing 4 accessories. This means the solution would be four columns with math as follows:
5 • 4 • 3 • 2
4 • 3 • 2 • 1

which equals 5.

Unfortunately, we still aren’t done the problem as the GRE has decided to throw in a final complicating factor for us to deal with. When we combine the motions and accessories together, this question now becomes a Different Source problem (i.e. the two different sources being the motions and the accessories).

So, how does one solve a Different Source problem?

Answer: All you have to do is multiply the numbers together. That’s it.

Just memorize this Different Source solution methodology (multiply the #s) and then, going forward, simply apply it to any future Different Source problem you encounter.

In this case, since we have 6 combinations of motions and 5 combinations of accessories, the math would be as follows:
6 x 5 = 30. Therefore (E) is the correct answer.

Remember: To get these types of high-value GRE quant questions correct on test day, you need to be properly prepared. Memorize “5 • 4 • 3 over 3 • 2 • 1” as your Same Source – Order Doesn’t Matter solution template and “Multiply the #s” as your Different Source solution template and you won’t struggle with these types of Advanced GRE Combinatoric questions ever again!

Step 3: Practice

So… you have refreshed and mastered most of the core content. You have learned how to effectively deconstruct GRE practice questions, and you are able to quickly recognize where the true difficulty lies in most problems. Are you ready for the exam? Not just yet.

While refreshing content and learning how to apply that knowledge, it is difficult to also focus on exam pacing and other best practice test-taking skills. But the right pacing and test-taking skills, such as following the optimal question order, are vital to achieving a high GRE score on test day. This means that once you have covered main content areas sufficiently, the next step would be to complete multiple timed practice sets using official practice questions and then thoroughly reviewing your performance on these practice sets. 

You can study by yourself fairly well during this phase, as you are simply doing timed sets and practice exams to work on both test-taking skills and pacing.

A tutor can help you better analyze your overall performance, but you should be able to make proper adjustments if you take the time to carefully unpack each timed set and practice exam. 

Throughout this process, you will recognize any ongoing weaknesses, and you will master the process of completing a certain number of questions in a defined period—especially by running through a full GRE practice test.

You will become better than most test takers at deciding when taking an educated guess is the smart decision and when being a little stubborn, such as when you feel you can eventually get the question correct, is the better approach.

The third step in studying for the GRE culminates with a series of official practice exams that indicate accurately where you stand and where you still need some work.

Remember: unless you have zero previous experience with the GRE, it does not make sense to take on a practice test too early in your preparation process as there are only 5 official practice tests available for GRE students! The only way you get faster and better on the exam is by improving your content knowledge and your strategic approach to problems.

Other Considerations for GRE Preparation

The approach and content involved in your GRE exam preparation should be one component of an overall GRE study plan. 

In planning your schedule, pick a smart time frame and set aside roughly 10 weeks of test prep time. In those first five weeks, refresh all the underlying exam content and learn how to properly deconstruct and attack GRE problems of each type—steps 1 and 2. 

Following that initial period, begin step 3. Do a lot of timed practice sets and work through a full practice test regularly. Unless the practice tests are way off from your target score, when test day comes, you should be ready to face the actual GRE exam head-on, reach your target score, and be done with the GRE forever!

The Menlo Coaching 10-Week GRE Study Plan template offers a structured starting point from which to build your quantitative reasoning, verbal reasoning, and analytical writing skills while strengthening your strategic approach to the exam.

Are you ready to boost your GRE prep today? Speak with a Menlo Coaching GRE tutor today to achieve your target GRE score in just 10 weeks!

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