How long should you spend preparing for the GRE?: planning your test prep journey

Davis: Hey everybody, this is GRE Bites. My name is Davis, and I’m an educator with over ten years of experience.

Orion: And I’m Orion, the founder of StellarGRE.

Davis: We’re here to bring you your weekly bite-sized episode on GRE prep and grad school admissions. Check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at And don’t forget, you can use the code “BITES” for 10% off any membership.

Okay. So today, let’s zoom out. We’ve had a lot of episodes kind of zoomed into particular strategies and particular sections, even you know how to deal with the mental landscape of taking it. But let’s just zoom big picture for a minute and talk about anybody who’s a student going in to take the GRE. How much time are they going to want to budget to prepare for the GRE, in general, broad strokes?

Orion: It’s a great question, one that I get very often from students who initially reach out for my services. Unfortunately, it’s hard to give them a very satisfying, definite answer.

Davis: Does it depend on the student’s capabilities?

Orion: Well, it depends on a lot of things; capabilities are one of those factors. I mean, some people are just faster learners than others. But I’m kind of under the impression that everyone can get better at this test, though some people are going to improve at different rates. Some of that is based on ability. Some of it is based on how hard they work, and also how smart they work. Sometimes, applying efforts in more strategic ways yields greater benefits than just massive action. The reason why is because everybody’s different. Some people come to me and they have extremely low baselines; they haven’t done any preparations on their own. They’re kind of low scorers looking for maybe just above the median.

Other folks come to me and they’ve already done a lot of prep on their own. They’re maybe even scoring in the low to mid-160s and want just a couple of extra points at the ceiling of the test. So, everybody is different. But because “that’s not a very satisfying answer” is not a very satisfying answer, this is also what I’ve come up with.

So, when I engage with students in private tutoring, I always give them a free diagnostic test to take before we meet. That gives students a very concrete and objective baseline. If you, listener, want to figure that out on your own, one of the best ways to do that is to download and take one of ETS’s free PowerPrep exams. It’s a full-length diagnostic, and you will get raw and scaled scores at the end of your administration. And that’s kind of like where you’re starting.

So those are your baselines. The next thing I do in an initial consultation is I gather more information about student goals, and specifically about their target scores. I think we did an episode about this, where target scores are the median scores for successful applicants at their top program of interest. So the point is, scoring significantly above that median does not increase a student’s chances of gaining admission to that program. This is because the best possible outcome on the GRE is not the securement of a positive but the avoidance of a negative. We’re just trying to dodge a bullet. No one is concerned because of the GRE; they get in because they couldn’t get past this filter in the application process.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: And if you can score at or around the median of successful applicants, that’s good enough; let it go and move on to other things, okay? So, it’s really important to know what those targets are because that gives us a delta between baseline scores and target scores. And that delta can be expressed in terms of either raw or skill points here. Basically, the bigger the gap, the more time you’re likely going to have to spend preparing for the test; the smaller the gap, the less time you want to spend preparing. Makes sense, right?

Davis: Yeah. So let’s say that you want to improve by 10 points on the quant and the verbal.

Orion: So that’s a significant improvement. I’ve seen students do that all the time. It’s also important to keep in mind which 10 points we are talking about. Going from a 145 to a 155 is substantially easier than going from a 160 to a 170. Right? That’s extremely difficult. So, the closer you get to the ceiling of a test, it’s sort of like the speed of light; it requires more and more effort and energy to make smaller and smaller gains. Okay?

Davis: So if you’re in the fat part of the curve, that’s the normal distribution, you can make more significant gains with less effort.

Orion: That’s another thing to keep in mind. And there’s also the fact that most people have differences, usually significant differences, between their scores on the various aspects of the test: the writing, the verbal, and the quant. I think in psychology, we call it ‘décalage’. I think that’s what it is; it’s a French word. I’m probably butchering it. You’re familiar with that, right? So basically, we just glean the meaning out of this.

Davis: In your experience, have you found that people require more time if they want to see a bigger improvement on verbal, or does quant generally take more time with prep?

Orion: Yeah, that’s a great question. If you want to see improvements there, in general, students can make faster and more significant gains on the quant than on the verbal. Okay, verbal takes longer to improve. Why is that? Just because of its sheer vocabulary. And that’s partly true. I mean, your vocabulary will exert a ceiling on your verbal score; if you don’t know 70%, if you only know 70% of the words on any given section, you’re going to have to accept the fact that you’re going to miss some points on the verbal section. And it’s harder to improve because there are literally tens of thousands of words in English that you could be tested on; there’s not like a master vocab list. And so, improving the vocab ceiling is time-consuming and frustrating because you can learn literally thousands of words, and maybe two of them show up on the test.

So it’s a challenge, but you do have to improve your vocabulary if that’s the bottleneck on your verbal score, right. It’s also very hard to learn to read for comprehension in a week or two. Right? Reading takes years. I mean, it took you and me, when we were children, years to really learn to read and maybe a decade to kind of like get good and enjoy reading. You know, a lot of people don’t enjoy reading because it’s a struggle.

Davis: Yeah, I get it, people generally don’t enjoy things that are not effortless. So I get that.

Orion: Then on the flip side, it’s faster and easier to improve on the quant because there are really only 50 types of quantitative questions. I think we’ve talked about that in my system. There are 50 quantitative diagnostic categories. And there’s like a clever strategy or technique associated with each one of those question types. And in the vast majority of cases, the only thing that changes are the values involved in these quant questions.

So if you can, like, do pattern recognition, diagnose the type of question you’re dealing with, you can remember the strategy or technique that worked for that question 10 times in the past; it’s probably going to work the 11th time, which is with the new values.

So, you can prepare on a much more granular level for quantitative questions than you can for verbal because so much depends on the vocabulary, the passages; you can only prepare in a more general sense. You have to be more flexible and high-level with verbal. But you can really get down to the specifics with quant, where it’s just like, just do this sequence of steps, and you’ll get the question right.

Davis: So, is there a baseline or threshold at which you’ll see positive gains? For example, you’re not going to be able to really improve your verbal section by just, you know, one to two weeks. And I’m guessing that cramming is not something that you can really do for the GRE. So, what’s the threshold at which you have a balanced, but still maybe aggressive, preparatory period? I’m just trying to get the bounds, like what’s the minimum number of weeks and then what’s the amount of weeks you don’t want to go past in prepping because it just becomes too long?

Orion: Well, I mean, I think that in general, people spend between two and three months preparing for this test. Okay. And one of the best things that you can do is figure out your baseline scores to figure out which side you’re stronger in and which side you’re weaker in. If you’re weaker in verbal, you should get busy learning vocabulary as soon as possible. And the good news is that there are a lot of free to low-cost resources to improve your GRE vocabulary. And if you can do what you can to learn as many new words as you can, then you’re going to position yourself to make better use of the verbal sets that you eventually practice with.

If you’re scoring high on the writing and the verbal and you’re scoring lower on the quant, maybe you can get away with doing, I don’t know, a month and a half to two months only. Personally, I approach GRE prep sort of like a boot camp metaphor. I like to go hard and fast to artificially prioritize this in my life for a shorter amount of time, and to attack it aggressively, so that I can improve my score as quickly as possible and move on with the rest of my life. The danger is if you can’t prioritize GRE prep for various reasons, because you have a job, you have relationships, you have a family, it’s like I get it. The longer the prep goes on, the more likely life is just going to get in the way and something is going to come up that will require your time and attention over and above the GRE. The longer you draw out the prep, the more likely that’s going to happen.

So, the shorter and more aggressive and intensive your prep, the less likely you’re going to get derailed. And the more likely you can strike while the iron is hot because you’ll take the test closer to your aggressive efforts to improve. That’s concrete, great, valuable advice I feel about how to train yourself for maximizing your GRE score right there: just concrete focus, prioritize it for a shorter period of time, and then strike while the iron is hot.

Davis: Thanks, everybody, for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with another bite-sized episode of GRE Bites. If you have a topic you’d like discussed on a future episode, let us know at And if you’re ready to take your prep to the next level, check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at You can use the code “BITES” for 10% off all memberships there. Talk to you soon.

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