Studying for the GRE – Are Your Students Using the Right Habits?

gre studyingOne of the interesting things I’ve discovered as a GRE instructor is that many students have little or no plan when it comes to studying for the GRE. While most students will set occasional timing goals for themselves – things like “I’ll try to study for an hour later tonight” or “if I have time, I’ll take a practice test this weekend” – what they fail to realize is that those aren’t plans; those are whims. And waiting for a whim is no way to study for the GRE.

If your students struggle with studying for the GRE, then ask them this simple question: what is the point of studying for the GRE? Seems pretty easy, right? It’s to get better at the GRE. But here’s the thing: it’s more than that. It’s to get better at taking the GRE. A slight difference, but significant. Somebody who gets really good at doing GRE problems in bed, in pajamas, at 3am, is doing themselves a disservice, because nobody will ever take the GRE in that environment. That’s the classic example of a person who is practicing GRE problems, but isn’t preparing to take the GRE.

So, to help your students prepare most effectively for GRE success, the first thing you need to do is help them design their training session to replicate Test Day. That means getting students to:

  • Go to a library, a bookstore, a classroom on campus — just anywhere other than their house, apartment, or dorm room. They will be able to focus for a longer time with fewer time consuming distractions.
  • Put their cell phones on airplane mode while studying. The GRE is testing, among other things, how well test-takers can concentrate and focus for long stretches of time. Just like any other skill, it’s something that requires practice in order to improve.
  • Design their regimen so that they are ideally studying in 3 hour chunks. Why that long? To build essential stamina — the GRE is actually even longer (roughly 4 hours), and students need to be prepared for that.
  • Study during the same time of day as their test. If the test is scheduled to begin at 10am, then students should start studying at 10am. If the test is scheduled to begin at 2pm, then they should start studying at 2pm. Students need to get really familiar with doing GRE problems during the same time of day as their actual GRE.
  • Mimic Test Day by doing everything they would do in the time before, during, and after the test. That means eating Test Day snacks, doing exercise, drinking caffeine, and so on. The better students are able to mimic whatever their exact Test Day routine will include, the better off they’ll be.
  • Always use #2 pencils and scratch paper; refrain from using pens or mechanical pencils.

Okay, excellent. Your student has found a quiet spot in the library, it’s the right time of day, they’ve got a granola bar and water, and they’re ready to rock. Now what? Well, the name of the game when it comes to studying for the GRE is quality, not quantity. Doing problem after problem after problem won’t help students improve much on this test. To truly improve on the GRE (and, for that matter, any other standardized test), it is essential to constantly be evaluating performance. Answering a question incorrectly is simply an opportunity to learn and enrich one’s knowledge of the test.

In fact, a student’s goal when practicing shouldn’t be to answer every question correctly – instead, the goal should be to eventually completely understand every problem they see in their practice. That means reviewing and in many cases re-working the questions that were answered incorrectly. In fact, whenever students sit down to study, roughly half of their time should be spent reviewing the work they just did. If your students aren’t devoting enough time to reflection and review, then now is the time for them to start.

Don’t let students wing it when it comes to studying for the GRE. Give them support and structure by encouraging them to study in a test-like environment, and encourage them to focus on review and reflection.