By Shaquilla Harrigan
Graduate school applications require you to manage several components over the course of about a year. One of the most stressful parts of the application process is taking the GRE exam. The GRE is a standardized test that many graduate degree programs use for entry. The GRE consists of the following sections: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, critical thinking, and analytical writing. While thinking about the exam may give you flashbacks to the SAT or ACT, the GRE is a little different. Some of the main differences include: 1) it’s taken on a computer, 2) costs more to take and send scores, and 3) the question difficulty adapts to how well you score as you take the exam. A major upside to the GRE is that there are frequent testing times in numerous locations; especially since you are allowed to take the exam every 21 days.
1. Should I take the GRE in the first place?
Traditionally, students applying for master’s or doctoral programs (i.e., non-professional graduate schools) are required to take the GRE. However, to increase the socioeconomic diversity of applicants to law school and business school, several programs are now accepting the GRE in lieu of the LSAT or GMAT. You should make your testing decisions early in the process so you can account for studying time. If you’re not 100% sure which exam is the best for you, talk with your mentors/letter writers or the admissions offices at your prospective programs.
ETS, the organization that oversees the GRE, has put together a series of resources for both admissions officers and aspiring law and business students considering taking the GRE. The GRE ($220) is cheaper than both the LSAT ($455 including exam, CAS, and CAS report) and GMAT ($275 or $300 depending on format). So, if exam cost and/or “more bang for your buck” is a priority, I recommend taking the GRE. Check out the list of law schools and business schools that accept the GRE as well as how the GRE compares to the LSAT and success in MBA programs.
2. Give yourself enough time to take the exam at least twice before the application deadlines
I hadn’t taken any standardized exams since high school, and I was incredibly nervous about the GRE. This wasn’t only about knowledge, but it was also an exam that tests strategy and reasoning. I wanted to take the GRE early enough so that I would be able to take it again before the application deadlines if need be. I’m glad I made that choice because I took the exam twice. I received my first set of results, and I was happy with my reading and writing scores, but I knew I could do better in the math section. I gave myself a month to study with an emphasis on the math section before re-taking the GRE. My math score vastly improved, and I was more confident in my application. I took advantage of ETS’s ScoreSelect option which allows you to send the highest combination of scores to schools. For law school applicants, the LSAT score submission rules are the same whether you take the GRE or LSAT; students must send in scores within the last five years.
Harvard Law School (as an example) uses the following language about score submissions: “Pursuant to ABA Standard 503, all applicants to the J.D. program must take the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) or the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) General Test. The Law School Admission Council (LSAC) reports all LSAT scores from the past five years. Similarly, applicants who choose to submit a GRE General Test score (instead of, or in addition to, the LSAT) are required to report all valid test scores from the previous five-year period.”
Make sure that the timing of when you’d take the GRE the second time includes enough time for studying and sending the scores by the application deadline.
3. Develop a Study Plan and Timeline
While you are working on your application materials at least six months in advance of your graduate school deadlines, you should limit your GRE preparation to a shorter time frame within that. I recommend spending no more than three months of intense studying. Figure out how many hours a day you want to review questions and how many practice tests you’d like to take before the actual exam. A study plan based on diligence and consistency is better than cramming material. Also, remember that it’s ok if there are days you take breaks or don’t get as much done as possible.
Don’t forget to keep in mind that some programs have rolling admissions or multiple application deadlines. Schedule your tests to meet the most strategic deadlines for yourself.
Learning how to efficiently study and manage multiple tasks will serve you well once you enter graduate school. Use the GRE test-taking and graduate school application process as practice for the real deal.
4. Using the GRE to get Scholarships
One last consideration for when you should plan to take the GRE is if you are planning on using your scores to help you apply for scholarship opportunities. Some school-based merit awards use transcripts and test scores to determine eligibility. There are also many external awards for which the GRE is useful.
Shaquilla Harrigan is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on education and training programs for Kenyan youth. Prior to beginning her PhD, Shaquilla was a Princeton in Africa Fellow in Nairobi, Kenya. She graduated with a B.A. in Social Studies from Harvard University.