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How to Study for the GRE: The CWRU Guide

How to Study for the GRE: The CWRU Guide

Man by a computer looking down at his notes

For many, the first day of graduate school might sound less formidable than the test that precedes it: the Graduate Record Examination, or GRE. With six sections taken over nearly four hours, it’s easy to understand why many face it with some trepidation. There are countless guides on how to study for the GRE out there, but just knowing where to start can be a challenge unto itself.

At Case Western Reserve University, we know that the best ways to prepare don’t just come from cramming for each GRE section the night before. It helps to first understand what the test is and why some graduate students are asked to take it. Below, learn more about how to build a strong—and achievable—study plan and how to make sure you’re confident in your abilities to succeed on test day.

What Are the GRE Sections?

Today, almost all test-takers take the GRE in a computerized format. A paper version is administered up to two times a year only when a digital version is not an option.1 The GRE General Test is divided up into six sections: one Analytical Writing section, two Verbal Reasoning sections, two Quantitative Reasoning sections and a final one we’ll get to in a minute.

The first section, Analytical Writing, is made up of two 30-minute assignments, one to “Analyze an Issue” and the other to “ Analyze an Argument” (Be prepared to go without grammar or spell check for this).2 The other five remaining sections consist of multiple-choice questions and can be in any order. The Verbal Reasoning sections test your ability to draw conclusions and relationships from text and written passages. The Quantitative Reasoning sections focus on understanding and applying algebra, geometry, data analysis and other math disciplines.

With this computerized format, these four sections use something called adaptive scoring. How is that different than a basic scantron? The difficulty of the second multiple-choice section depends on how you perform on the one before. If you perform well on the first, the second will include more challenging questions, which are weighted more and give you a higher score. If you struggle with that first section, the second won’t be any more difficult, but that does mean your score for Verbal or Quantitative Reasoning will be capped at a lower tally.

That only adds up to five total sections: The sixth is one used by the organization that administers the test, the Educational Testing Service or ETS, to test future questions and to conduct their own internal research. This additional section—either Quantitative or Verbal Reasoning—can come at any point during the test. Because test-takers won’t be told which section is unscored, you’ll need to treat each section as though it is as important as all the others.

How Do I Start Studying?

One of the best ways to start studying for the test is to get a better sense of a college’s admissions requirements and application deadlines. Some master’s degree programs, like Case Western Reserve’s online graduate engineering programs, admit students on a rolling basis, so due dates may not be as crucial as for other degree programs. It’s also important to double check if taking the GRE is necessary for you or not. While our online Master of Engineering does not require the test, our three online Master of Science programs do. However, prospective students may be able to have the test requirement waived based on past education, licensure or professional experience.

Also check to see if an institution provides any insight into how their admissions department makes decisions or lists GRE scores they expect to see. The Case School of Engineering makes these decisions with members of its faculty as well as the program’s department chair. Due to the importance of quantitative skills to thrive in their programs, they suggest that a successful test score will be close to the 80th percentile, or around a score of 160 or better.

At 3 hours and 45 minutes—with a 10-minute break at the midpoint—the GRE can feel formidable. Setting up a study plan can be even more so. From the start, it’s important not to overestimate the time you can actually dedicate. Unlike when you were studying for the SAT or ACT in high school, today you probably have more pressing personal responsibilities, if not a full-time job, so understanding your capacity and availability is key.

This is where developing a system can help. For those considering the Case School of Engineering, it could be easy to accidentally over-study for the Quantitative Reasoning section, but having a structured plan can help make sure you’re just as prepared for the other GRE sections. Try designating certain days of the week for certain sections: Mondays are for practicing math formulas, Wednesday are for vocabulary, Saturday mornings are for essay writing. Building in time to take practice exams is another piece to weave into your study strategy. If you have enough time, designate one weekend day every two weeks to taking one. It’ll help you get familiar with the test itself and benchmark the sections you are still struggling with.

Is More GRE Prep Necessary?

While registering for a test date, make sure to look through the free prep materials available on the ETS website. Some test-takers might find that they need more advice, sample questions and practice tests than what’s available for free. Fortunately, there are many companies, such as Kaplan, Magoosh and The Princeton Review, that offer more extensive study materials both online and in-person.

These services also offer tips on navigating the test’s digital platform as well as additional full-length practice tests. While many prospective graduate students can achieve high scores without the extra cost of these outside companies, it’s not unusual to find their one-on-one help or the expansive resources helpful.

Be Ready for the Big Day

When test day finally arrives, it’s time to take a step back from cramming and start preparing for everything else. It might be tempting to stay up late for a final study session, but now is the time to focus on your more basic and logistical needs.

Use the evening before to plan the route you’ll take to the testing center, making sure to arrive at least 30 minutes early. Bring along two forms of valid identification, just in case you’re asked to provide a supplemental ID.3 Also, make sure to choose an outfit with layers, so you’ll be comfortable no matter what temperature the testing room is. There’s no need to find a calculator for the Quantitative Reasoning section, and consider leaving your smart watch at home as well.4 And above all, make sure to get a good night of sleep.
With the right planning, you should be able to arrive at the testing center relaxed, rested and ready for any minor hiccups that arise, such as unexpected traffic or a frigid classroom. You’ve studied and planned for this day, so it’s all a matter of trusting yourself and the skills you know you have.

Bring Your Hard-Earned GRE Score to CWRU

A GRE score is required to enroll in the online Master of Science programs at Case Western Reserve University to ensure students have the quantitative skills necessary to thrive. Thanks to a history of research and innovation, our graduate engineering programs are ranked among the top in the country by U.S. News & World Report.5 This guide can help set you on the right track to ace the GRE and on your way to becoming a leader in engineering.

Even if you’re still weighing your options, learn how our career-focused, online MS programs in Biomedical Engineering, Mechanical Engineering and Systems and Control Engineering can you set you apart after graduation.


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