Applying for the PhD - Acing the GRE

Applying for the PhD - Blog 3

Welcome back to the third blog in our Applying for the Ph.D series. So far in our series we've talked about deciding whether or not the PhD is the right path for you and how to find and apply to programs you're interested in.

Another key factor in the application process is preparing for and mastering the GRE. If you're not familiar with the test, it's essentially the graduate school version of the SAT. That's right, its a standardized test focused on three key areas -- English, Math, and Writing. And currently, although likely not for long, it is required by most graduate programs. Below I've included my GRE story as well as my favorite tips for doing your best on the test!

My story...

My story starts when it was hot and it was summer and... no actually. I'm not quoting Taylor Swift just for the fun of it. I'm taking a moment to stress one single point: I started early. I did not wait until the last second to start my GRE prep. I knew that I wanted to have my GRE completed in time to apply to programs my senior year of college so I started studying the summer between my junior and senior years.

As someone with ADHD, finding the drive to sit down and do test prep was difficult so I resorted to calendar blocking. I blocked out Friday's from 11-2 as my designated "GRE study time" and come Friday at 11am, I studied. I treated that time as seriously as I would a class or work commitment. After all, it was a commitment. I had committed to myself that I was going to go to graduate school so I committed to setting aside time to make that dream a reality. I made a 1,000 word vocabulary flashcard set on quilzlet, bought two test prep books and focused in on taking the practice tests I found inside.

I took my test in October of 2017. I received my scores immediately.

Analytical Writing: 5 Verbal: 158 Quantitative: 150

I went home that night and cried. My scores weren't THAT bad in retrospect, but I knew if I wanted a chance of getting into a good program I needed to score at least above the 50th percetile in my Quantitative score (currently I was at the 38th) percentile.

I booked another test for November of that year and doubled my study efforts. While Friday's remained my primary study day, I now completed at least 10 practice questions (5 verbal, 5 quantitative daily) and reviewed my vocab flashcards as much as possible. As I waited for class to start, as I sat on the bus, as I walked across campus, I ran through those flashcards at every chance I could.

I also caved and forked out a good bit of money on Magoosh test prep software. If you haven't heard of Magoosh, it's well known in the GRE-prep circles as being pricey but typically quite helpful. It comes with vocabulary cards, study plans, practice tests, thousands of practice questions and a predicted score that adapts based on the number of questions you answer.

I took my test again. I received my scores again.

Analytical Writing: 4.5 (80th percentile) Verbal: 166 (98th percentile) Quantitative: 154 (55th percentile)

I went home and cried once more, although for very different reasons. Holy cow! What a difference a month made! An 11 point difference to be exact. I was thrilled to have reached my goal quantitative score and shocked at how high my verbal was. Up until that point in life, this had been one of my proudest moments.

So now, after taking the test twice and getting, what I believe, are pretty good scores I'm sharing my tips with you:

  1. Create a study schedule and STICK TO IT.

  2. Even if you can't devote hours every day to studying, take at least 5-20 minutes every single day to review.

  3. Start early. It will give you the most time to master your vocabulary and skills and also give you a cushion in case you need to take the test again

  4. Don't be afraid to invest. I'm a baller on a budget as much as the next girl, but sometimes test prep classes, books, or programs are necessary. Consider what will work best for you to get the most bang for your bucks.

  5. On test day eat a good breakfast, wear comfortable and presentable clothes, and pump yourself up with a good playlist.

We can debate all day about whether or not standardized testing is a good predictor of graduate school success, but for now it is required. So I hope my story and these tips will set you up for success.

If you are applying to a Ph.D. stay tuned for Blog 4 of the Applying to the Ph.D. Series: Securing Letter's of Recommendation.

Until next time...


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