by Brian Burnsed

Need help mastering the GRE? These tips will help you tackle the test and earn the score you want

Every year, more than 600,000 people take the Graduate Record Exam, commonly known as the GRE. While the test is similar in many ways to its college-entrance cousin, the SAT, there are some important differences. Unlike the SAT, the GRE is a computer-adaptive test, meaning there's no need for a No. 2 pencil and those all-too-familiar bubble sheets. The test is taken on a computer and the questions are generated based on your answers to previous questions. The better you perform, the harder the questions get.

The GRE is broken down into three primary components: quantitative reasoning, verbal reasoning, and analytical writing. The analytical writing section comes first and is composed of two separate essays for which test takers have 30 and 45 minutes, respectively. Test takers are then allotted 45 minutes to answer the 28-question quantitative-reasoning section and 30 minutes for the 30-question verbal-reasoning section. Each section is graded on a 200-to-800 scale.

A good SAT score and a healthy college GPA don't ensure that tackling the GRE will be a simple task. Testing experts almost universally agree that graduates should engage in at least two months of GRE preparation. Use these eight tips to help you master the test:

1. The first 10 questions matter the most.

According to Neill Seltzer, national GRE content director for the Princeton Review, students should pay special attention to the first 10 questions of a given section. The computer begins by asking a question of average difficulty. If the question is answered correctly, it asks a tougher question, which puts the test taker into a higher scoring bracket. Answer that one correctly and an even tougher question comes, again bumping the student into a higher scoring range and raising the lowest possible score. Seltzer says that every time a question is answered -- correctly or incorrectly -- the scoring range narrows. "If you keep getting the early questions right, eventually you'll put yourself in such a high scoring bracket that no matter how well you do on the remainder of the test, your score can only go so low," says Seltzer. "If you get those first 10 questions right, you'll be happy with your score no matter what happens on the rest of the test. If you don't get those first 10 questions right, it doesn't matter what happens on the rest of the test -- you're already in a hole that you won't get out of."

2. Don't fear the clock.

Part of mastering the early questions on the test means taking your time. Rather than trying to rush through the early questions to be sure you can answer every question in the allotted time, be patient with the first 10. The questions on the tail end of a given section carry much less weight than the early ones, so don't panic if you have to scramble at the end of a section. It's far better to concentrate early in a section, which is something many students don't do because of the tense testing environment and the clock that seems to melt away in front of them. "When you sit down to take the test, you're nervous," says Seltzer. "You want to do well. There's a clock in front of you that is ticking away, and the first thing that everyone does is go too fast. People are worried that they're not going to have time to get to the end of the test and answer every single question. What they don't realize is that it doesn't matter what happens on the tail end of the test."

3. Go back to high school.

Having trouble differentiating your X-axis from your Y? Have too many late nights in college wiped away the important teachings of Pythagoras? You're not alone. Many GRE test takers are many years removed from the basic tenants of high school math, which play an important part in the quantitative section of the test. If you're rusty, it's important to revisit the important concepts of algebra and geometry that you learned in high school. "Algebra and geometry are assumed background knowledge in college courses, and you will be hard-pressed to find a class to take at that level [that] will prepare you directly for questions of this type," says Eric Reiman, a GRE tutor with Creative Tutors. "If you're preparing for the GRE alone, a text like Algebra for Dummies or Geometry for Dummies could be a great help, and both come with example problems to work."

4. Sleep with your dictionary.

While the GRE's quantitative section is not much more advanced than the math found in the SAT -- and familiarity with concepts learned in high school should be enough to post a decent score -- the verbal section went to college and graduated with honors in English. Test takers who slept through their English classes or turned to SparkNotes may be in trouble. During your time in school, be sure to read as much as possible to expand your vocabulary and keep a dictionary by your side at all times as you read, so that you can decipher unfamiliar words, testing experts say. You can assimilate far more diverse vocabulary over four years of college than you could ever hope to by cramming for a few weeks or months prior to the GRE. "As a successor to the SAT, the GRE uses adult words that aren't found on the SAT," says Reiman. "It is extremely important for success on the qualitative sections of the GRE to be well read."

5. Take a GRE prep course (if you can afford it).

According to Andrew Mitchell, director of graduate programs at Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions, the GRE is designed specifically to differ from areas of study in college and is supposed to be a measure of a college graduates' critical thinking skills, not necessarily what they learned in school. No matter how much cramming you might've done in college or how stellar your grades were, thinking critically might not come naturally. The tutoring classes tend to pay off, but are a sizable investment. Kaplan's instructor-led classes cost more than $1,000 for about nine sessions over one or two months. Twenty-five hours of private GRE tutoring with Kaplan can cost roughly $3,000. "It's worth investing some time and money in preparing for the GRE," says Mitchell. "Critical thinking is something that's hard to change overnight because it's such a lifelong skill. We try to help people unlock their critical thinking skills by getting more familiar with the test and more familiar with proven methods."

While Kaplan employees like Mitchell have obvious reason to tout their firm's services, students who have reaped the rewards of test tutoring agree. Amy Trongnetrpunya took a Kaplan course last September and received a perfect score on the quantitative section after scoring poorly her first time taking the test. Soon after, she was accepted into the University of Florida's biomedical engineering graduate program. "It was pricey," she says. "But with the economy now, it's so competitive to get into any type of grad school, [so] having [a good score] is awesome. For me, it was worth the money."

6. Take a practice test!

While your vocabulary may be impeccable, your writing skills polished, and your quantitative abilities sharpened to a razor's edge, none of that matters if you're unaccustomed to the test's unconventional format. "To walk into this test unprepared, to sit down [and take it] having never done it before is suicide," notes Seltzer. Getting used to the format of a computer-adaptive test is important. For instance, during a reading comprehension section, the words appear on the computer screen, and they can't be highlighted or underlined like on a paper-based test. Educational Testing Service, the Princeton Review, and Kaplan all have free computer adaptive tests online that help simulate what is a foreign experience to many. "It's different from the SAT and that really threw me off the first time," says Trongnetrpunya. "The computer-adaptive practice exam really helped."

7. Don't like your score? Take it again.

Schools have access to any GRE scores for tests you've taken in the last five years, but experts claim that many universities only care about the best one. While this isn't true for all schools and all programs, many universities pull the highest scores from the GRE ticket they receive from ETS. The admissions officials (and sometimes work-study students) who receive the tickets are the first line of defense, and oftentimes, they record only the top score when they're compiling your file before sending it up the admissions food chain. "Even though ETS will report every score, the person reading that file and making the admissions decision may only see the highest math and highest verbal," says Seltzer.

8. Take a tough English course.

Even if you aren't an English major and don't plan on writing the next great American novel, honing your writing skills is integral to overall success on the GRE. The two essays in the analytical section are the first portion of the test and take up more than one third of the time test takers are allotted. Some testing experts argue that near the end of college you should take a high-level English or writing course. While enduring a high-level writing course might put a small dent in the GPA (and ego) of non-English majors, it is an immense help when it's time to crank out two timed essays on the pressure-packed GRE. "I would emphasize taking a few rigorous English and writing college courses, in addition to test prep, to best prepare yourself for the caliber of questions you'll find on the GRE," says Alexis Avila, founder and president of Prepped & Polished, a Boston area-based college counseling and tutoring firm.

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8 Tips for GRE Test Score Success