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Laura Buffardi, Ph.D.
Laura E. Buffardi Ph.D.

Birth, Death, Taxes, and Standardized Testing

Words of wisdom about the GRE

GRE cat

The majority of graduate programs in Psychology require GRE scores to be submitted with admissions applications. Because this blog is about insider information on applying to graduate school in Psychology, I will not take the time or space to describe the format of the test, the deadlines, the fees, etc. You can find all of that information and more on ETS's website (ETS, or Educational Testing Services, is the organization that administers the GRE and other standardized tests):

What I will cover in this post about the GRE is not what is written on the ETS site or in a book of practice problems. First, let's talk about the GRE's impact on your application. As fair or unfair as it may be, GRE scores can make or break an application to a Psychology graduate program (and this is particularly true for those applying to Ph.D. programs). Having perfect or near perfect scores could be your ticket to acceptance, even if your research experience and grades are mediocre. Having "low" GRE scores (or even statistically average scores in the case of Ph.D. programs) could prevent you from being accepted, even if you have a stellar GPA and loads of research experience. The majority of graduate school applicants have scores that are in between - above average, but not perfect. Scores in this range are high enough scores to avoid being "thrown out," but candidates must compete for admission with many others with comparable scores. This is where having other particularly strong aspects of applications, including research and/or relevant work experience, GPA, and letters of recommendation, pays off.

Second, let's consider timing. If you will be applying to graduate school within the next 6 months, now is the time to prepare for and take the GRE. Why? Well, first, tis' the season. At ETS, this is the busiest time of the year and, due to high volume of test takers, it takes longer to get official score reports sent out to schools. Reports will be sent out around November 8, 2011 for those who take the GRE between August 1 and September 8, 2011. (For the full fall score reporting schedule check here: During less busy times of the year, reports are sent 10-15 days after the test is taken.

If you're currently in an undergraduate program, my advice to you is to focus on the GRE now, before the semester is in full swing. It won't be pretty if mid-terms roll around and you're juggling 4 or 5 courses, plus GRE preparations. Get it done -- before deadlines sneak up on you. If you've already completed your Bachelor's degree and have been out of school for a while, it's also best to think about the GRE now. Don't let the holiday season sneak up on you. For both under- and post-graduates, taking the GRE sooner, rather than later, will also give you the time to re-take the test if you are not satisfied with your first round scores.

Third, let's talk about preparation. You do have to study for the GRE. I would not recommend waltzing in and taking the test without having done, at the very least, a few practice tests. Furthermore, I recommend brushing up on math problems that you may not have seen since high school and vocabulary. Think through some possible essay topics and time how long it takes you to pull together a five classic five paragraph essay. Many students I know bought a GRE prep book or two, put the time in to study and practice using the books, and did well on the GRE. This is one viable approach test takers can choose for how to prepare.

Many applicants ask me if expensive GRE prep courses are worth it the cost. My response is it depends. You know yourself and your own study habits best. If left to prepare on your own, will you put in the time and effort? Signing up for a prep course places external pressure on you to prepare well for the test. Courses provide practice tests, homework assignments, convenient lists of vocabulary words, and an instructor who is available to answer your questions. In short, if you can foot the bill, I think GRE courses are a good way to prepare. For those who need some flexibility (i.e., meeting at a specific time once or twice per week is difficult), look into online GRE prep courses. If cost is a concern, check your local colleges and universities. Some offer courses for a rate that is considerably lower than private, test-preparation companies.

Another word of advice is to make an appointment to take the GRE early. This is a good idea because it gives you a date to structure your study goals around. It's also a good idea because some testing center locations book up fast, especially during this busy time of year. I remember when I took the GRE, I had to drive to a testing location that was over an hour away to find an available appointment. I waited too long and all of the closer centers were fully booked.

I will conclude with a few final words of wisdom about the day before and the day you take the GRE:

The Day Before

If you've been studying and preparing right along, don't cram or work on practice problems the all day before the test. Rather, do a practice essay and one of each type of practice section. In addition, think in advance about things that could unduly stress you our before you go in to take the test. For example, if you are going to a testing center that you are unfamiliar with, remember to print out driving directions in advance and think about where you will park. If you get lost, you are running late, and can't find a place to park, you will not be in the best mindset to do well on the exam once you are seated in the testing center.

The Day of the Test

Do things as you normally would. Stick to your routine. If you usually drink coffee in the morning, have a cup. If you usually go for a run, go for it. If you don't usually do these things, don't! Remember to leave plenty of time to arrive on or before your scheduled appointment. Running late will just make you more nervous than you already will be. Remember to pack a snack and bring a bottle of water. (Some research shows eating different flavored hard candies while taking a test helps to retrieve information stored in memory so you might want to bring some of those ;).

Perhaps the best advice I heard before I took the GRE was, on the day of the test, do a few "warm up" problems. Before you leave for the testing center, do a few math and verbal sample items (maybe 5 of each). On the way to the testing center, choose one or two practice essay prompts. Think about what you would write about if you received one of them. This will accustom your mind thinking in GRE-mode and make the pre-test to test-time transition easier. Good luck!

For more info and strategies, check out these resources:

Discount if you take the Revised General Test in September 2011:

Free Practice materials:,,,

Laura E. Buffardi, Ph.D. is a graduate school admission consultant in Psychology and related fields. Visit her website: to learn more about improving your graduate school application. Follow Laura on Twitter for links to current grad school admissions news.

About the Author
Laura Buffardi, Ph.D.

Laura E. Buffardi, Ph.D., is a post-doctoral researcher in the iScience Group at Universidad de Deusto in Bilbao, Spain.