How to get a real break on the GRE: take advantage of the test

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 you’ve talked in a recent episode about how the real challenge of the GRE test is sustaining mindfulness in the present for four hours, and that this can be the make-or-break quality for a person taking the test. So, for four straight hours, are there opportunities for breaks, or is it really just four hours nonstop?

Orion: Well, it’s sort of like sprinting a marathon the way the test is officially constructed. So, we say four hours as a nice round number, but the actual test is closer to four hours and 15 minutes, or four hours and 20 minutes, depending on whether you get a verbal or quant as your experimental section. In between most sections, you get a one-minute break. Then, about halfway through the test, you get a 10-minute break. If you’re taking the test at the testing center, that 10 minutes goes by ridiculously fast. It’s going to take you a minute to get out of the secure testing environment, another minute to access your things in the locker where you have your snack or your bottle of water, several minutes to go down the hall to use the bathroom, and then you have to add all those minutes back to put your things away and reenter the secure environment.

I’ve actually heard stories of students who didn’t make it back in time from the bathroom during the 10-minute break; the tests had already begun. So, they’re not allowed in — they are allowed in, but they just lose time. The test is like a moving train, and it leaves when it’s scheduled to depart. Then, nothing’s stopping it, right, until it rolls into its terminus. So, there are very few opportunities for legitimate breaks on the GRE. That said, I have discovered a kind of chink in the armor, as it were. There’s an opportunity for students to get longer, more substantive breaks over the course of the entire GRE by taking advantage of, I guess, a flaw in the construction of the test.

Davis: I’m guessing you’re talking about the park screen?

Orion: Well, yeah, yeah, I call it the park screen because where you can take this break in Park Forest, you can park yourself there for several minutes without being timed.

Davis: So the park screen is?

Orion: Let’s figure out how to recognize it. So most screens on the GRE have a timer in the upper right-hand corner. And when that timer, whether it’s a timed quantitative section or one of your breaks, reaches zero, the test will automatically present itself, regardless of whether you’re ready. Regardless if you’re sitting in front of the computer, that’s the moving train; it will just keep rolling along. However, for whatever reason, there is one screen that exists between sections that, for whatever reason, the ETS programmers forgot to put a timer on. And if you don’t manually advance the test, you can sit there for as long as you like. And that’s why I call it the park screen.

Davis: So how do we recognize what it looks like, and when does it come up?

Orion: So let’s say we’re finishing our first verbal section, the timer is counting down 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0, and at 0, the test will automatically progress itself to a screen that’s mostly blank. It’ll be mostly white, and it’ll have in black text, right in the center, something along the lines of “You have now finished a verbal section.” And people are like, “Yeah, no kidding. I mean, I just spent the last half an hour straining my brain. This is not news to me that I just finished the verbal section.” So, this page does not contain any interesting information. And so, a lot of students just hurry past, but that screen does not have a timer on it. That screen of boring, obvious information is the park screen. And unless a student manually hits the right arrow to advance the test, which then puts them into the one-minute official break with a timer on it, a student can sit there in front of the screen indefinitely.

Davis: If they’re in a testing center, will someone come over eventually if their test is not progressing?

Orion: Well, yeah, we don’t want to tempt fate here, right. So, this is not illegal in any way, because it’s just the nature of the test. But we also don’t want to, let’s say, abuse this privilege, as it were. So, I usually recommend that students park on each park screen for about three minutes, because they’ll also get the minute of the official break. And then they’ll also get the minute of the official instructions for the next section, which they shouldn’t be reading. So, a three-minute Park screen break, plus these other two, gives them a five-minute break between sections, which can be enough to mentally recharge. I have a whole kind of ritual that I do during this time to sort of let go of what I previously did and prepare myself for what is to come. But it’s not enough time to, for example, you’re not allowed to get up, and you’re allowed to get up. I mean, it’s not a prison; they can’t keep you in the room against your will.

Davis: So, is this a good time for like a bathroom break?

Orion: No, it’s not. Because if you leave the testing environment, there’s the potential for that to be flagged as a non-standard administration. And you also can’t just get up and leave, even if you’re in the testing center. You’re supposed to sit at your computer, raise your hand, and a proctor comes and escorts you personally out of the testing center. And that proctor is supposed to make note of the status of your test at that time.

Davis: So, I think that’s more of tempting fate. If you try to turn a park screen into a bathroom break, right?

Orion: Go to the bathroom right before you take the test. Plan to go to the bathroom during your 10-minute break. Those are real human considerations, right? But you might need to plan to go two hours in a chair.

Davis: Yep. Will the proctors notice?

Orion: Probably not. Because in the testing center, there are usually 30 to 40 desktop modules that are somewhat semi-private. I mean, it’s under the Panopticon of the proctor, so there are cameras and two-way mirrors and things like that. But they’re not tracking everyone. It’s not like somebody’s looking over your shoulder the entire time.

And again, we’re not doing anything wrong, because this is built into the administration of the test. It’s not like we’re cheating or doing some sort of secret code to turn the timer off. There’s no timer. And what I often say to folks is that if anybody brings that to your attention, you just say, “Oh, I didn’t realize that this screen didn’t have a timer on it. I was just waiting for the test to progress. I didn’t know I had to do anything,” because there are no explicit instructions. So, that’s the way to cover yourself if there is any kind of squirrelyness about this. And I’ve suggested that students make use of the park screen for now over a decade. So, I’ve worked with thousands and thousands of students personally, in my classes and in my tutoring, and I think that one student in about a couple of thousand, in over 10 years, had a non-standard administration. And it was investigated by ETS. And ETS said that there was, it was flagged by the proctor. He was subsequently investigated by ETS, and ETS found that the student did nothing wrong.

So, it’s a legal maneuver. It’s just not one that is very common. It’s not illegal, but you’re also, I guess, not supposed to draw so much attention to it.

Davis: Yeah, yeah.

Orion: So that’s why we don’t want to tempt fate by turning it into a 30-minute break. That’s going to vary. Obviously, we do a non-standard administration. We don’t want to be getting up and walking around. We should be sitting there and using that opportunity to breathe, to recalibrate, to let go of what we’ve done, and to prepare ourselves for what is to come, but to give ourselves a real rest, because otherwise, it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get that on the GRE. Always under the clock. You always question the clock, and this is a brief space where you can find some respite from that. It’s really important because, generally, students are good for the first two or three hours. They’re powering through on that momentum. But then they start to flag after hour three, and unfortunately, that’s when they’re hit with the hardest problems on the test. If they’ve done everything right, that’s when they’re going to get the hardest second quant and the hardest second verbal sections.

So, if they’re not pacing themselves and keeping some gas in the tank, as it were, they can do very well on the first several sections, and then just get hammered by those really tough problems in the final hour. And using the break screen helps to prevent that occurrence.

One final thing I’ll say about this is that it’s important to rest before you get tired. It’s like I had a gym teacher in high school who told me, “Orion, you need to drink water before you get thirsty.”

Davis: Absolutely, if you’re thirsty, you’re already showing signs of dehydration.

Orion: Exactly. And that’s a problem – dehydration is not going to be solved on the spot. Even if you’re chugging water, it’s going to take time for the water to disseminate through your systems, right. So, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure here; you want to be drinking water continuously so you never get thirsty, which is a sign of dehydration.

Davis: Good idea.

Orion: If you wait to rest until you get tired, it’s like with dehydration. Even taking a 10-minute break at that point is probably not going to be sufficient to sharpen your mind, to clarify your senses, and to give you that sense of freshness again. So, even though it may feel like you don’t need it at the moment, I tell students that it’s important to rest continuously before they get tired. That way, they should never get tired and can finish the test after nearly four and a half hours, about as fresh as when they began. And that’s really important again because, if everything goes according to plan, the hardest, most challenging questions come in the final hour.

Davis: That’s right.

Orion: And that’s what we have to prepare for if we want to achieve a top percentile score.

Davis: So, one last question for me on this episode is, you mentioned all of this in the context of a testing center. But is it possible to take the GRE not at an official testing center but at your home computer?

Orion: Yeah, a lot of people are doing that these days. The break screen still exists, and the same caution, I would say before, applies. It’s like the virtual proctor is probably proctoring your test and dozens of other tests simultaneously. That proctor is not watching you continuously. You don’t really know when they’re checking in. But if they check in and you’re like walking around the room and the test isn’t progressing, that’s going to be a problem. So, we don’t want to tempt fate. Don’t do anything that’s going to call attention to the fact that you’re taking advantage of this aspect of the test construction. Sit in your chair. Don’t go more than five minutes. Don’t do anything weird or suspicious. But take that mental break.

Davis: Absolutely.

Orion: Take that mental break because the test is hard enough as it is.

Davis: Awesome. These are tips that I’ve only ever found at StellarGRE.

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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