The GRE General Test


The first step for me was to sign up! Setting a date helped me focus on preparing for the test rather than daydreaming and lamenting about it.

Once I had the date of my test set, I went to the library for study guides. I am not a big fan of taking tests, so I knew it would be important to learn about the types of question formats I would be approaching.

As an MFA graduate, the most important thing about taking the GRE was just not sucking. Fine arts and creative project based programs, fingers crossed, do not account so much for requisite exams as much as they do personal (artist) statements and writing samples. So as long as I scored somewhere above average, I was going to be happy.

BUT, you have to respect that you are expected to produce quality work and original creations within a field and that some of the abilities assumed to precede that quality work are exhibited in the GRE. From a pragmatic standpoint, a standardized test platform for language abilities and mathematic reasoning skills offers ancillary indications of academic skills (or is that just wishful thinking?).

I took the test about as seriously as I imagine any serious writer or artist would—I gave dedicated study time, I read more books to pump up my brain activity, and I even practiced math (improbably my best math test prep ever). While I did review math formulas, I kept most of my attention on vocabulary, essay sample questions, and spending time reading prose in the lead up to test day.

As much as I prepared for the GRE, I did not let myself think that the test would define the rest of my life or be a block on my way to further study. If I did poorly, I thought, a retake would not be the worst thing and I could double my efforts. No matter what, it would be okay. I approached the test intending to give all of my effort and to never go back, so there was no reason to stress over it.

I worry that there are ESL students out there who plan from the outset to take the test multiple times. Be careful about breaking your confidence. You have come a long way just to take this step toward graduate school. Study smart and give it everything you can. Next time is next time, keep working on the present.



To prepare for the exam I checked out a few different study guides from my local public library.

Another guide was a digital version, which made it easy to look at a page or two in between other computer work during the day. The others were paperbacks from Princeton Review and Kaplan. 

The print versions had more information and more practice examples than the digital book I checked out. In addition to a lot of example questions, it felt natural turning book pages while going over math problems (call it nostalgia), making the paperback guides my heavy duty work books. The guides were very helpful in offering question formats, example questions, and test taking tips.

Be sure to get an up to date guide when you are planning to use one. The GRE has changed over the years, and it has changed a lot since your parents took it, so be sure you have a recent edition with the right information about what to expect.

After familiarizing myself with the kinds of questions in the verbal sections and outlining/writing a few practice essays, I took to reading examples of essays and prose to freshen up my verbal acuity. For me, English translations of Marcel Proust, whose prose is charged with highly detailed, even indulgently long voice kept my mind intent on absorbing and making declarative statements and using descriptive sentences. Even in working on my practice questions, I found that trying to write like Proust lengthened my sentences, improved my sentence variation, and helped me piece together large expressions of information without much trouble.

Find an author whose writing exemplifies how you want your essays to read. Learn from their writing and emulate them to produce the best essay answers you can.

Because I am in a by year, I was unable to check GRE guides out of a University library, but I was in luck. My local public library had access to a number of recent guide books which I promptly checked out. *Be careful about planning study time at a University library. Sometimes guide books like those for the GRE are not allowed to leave the building. With a public library, however, you can probably take it home.

I was sure to practice and think about the test every day, except for a day or two of mental rest, leading up to the exam. Even as I was cracking eggs for breakfast, I prompted myself to do a little math or to argue a position about consuming them, just to keep my mind working and improving.



The most difficult part of the test taking process, was the back to back sections. When they say you will be taking a four hour test, this is not like test days or exam weeks in college, it is an action packed four(ish) hours.

Be prepared to sit straight forward in a desk for the four hours. 

After feeling the strain of the length of the test and of its sections, I definitely recommend making up your own timed mock tests in the weeks before—spend well over an hour (when you can spare the time, more would be better) to answer essay and multiple choice questions. A GRE guide is essential for this practice. They ask difficult questions that are a lot like the ones you find on the GRE and they offer solutions and reasons for questions.

GRE test guides give excellent test taking tips to help you get through the arduous examination.

Again, and I should stress this, I am a Fine Arts post graduate, one hoping to study my butt off in the service of  creative, not necessarily academic, writing. More so, I am not a TEST TAKER. To be more candid than usual, I don’t care about tests as much as I do creative projects. I say it to my friends, I’ll say it here. I have respect for what institutions of higher learning have to go through to provide educational opportunities and how tests help accommodate processes of administering those opportunities, but I’ve just got too much soul for multiple choice and short answers exams.

Creative type that I am, I could see that if I was unfamiliar with the question formats on the test I would have bombed (which is all I wanted to avoid), if not out of confusion, then out of too little time to comprehend what was going on. Check a guide or two, so that you can compare insights, tips, and practice questions, from your library or purchase one here.


I also made an effort to stay calm about the whole thing. Test taking can be stressful, especially when it seems like a good score means the difference between having the future you want and figuring out what to do in a new field. The thing is, this test for graduate school is only a portion of what goes into acceptance.

Earlier, I mentioned that I am not too worried about some (the math) sections because my potential programs will not hold it against me as much as other application documents: my applications require GRE scores, multiple writing samples, letters of reference, and transcripts. Now, if they are horrible scores, that’s one thing. I told myself that if I do what I am capable of, knowing that I have studied and have always been a good learner, that as long as I am still the person who has gotten me through college and a masters program, then it should be fine and there should be no reason to worry.

For me, it is one of those things that needs to be respected for what it is worth. If my writing samples are lackluster and drab, then great scores are not going to help me at all. In contrast, if my writing samples are amazing but my scores are stupendously bad, I may need to take the test again to satisfy my potential college.

The test taking fairy said this to me in my dreams the night before test day:

Shoot for the middle ground, where you express your intelligence without becoming a machine.


You can find GRE study guides here


Bonus Library Tip

University libraries, often enough, keep use of books like GRE Guides, course textbooks and other college related materials that large numbers of students want restricted to use behind closed doors. You would be able to use the book, but likely only in the library…where it is not guaranteed to be available. Check around for other copies at a public library or purchase one here.


Author: poeticallyatlarge

I am a writer, a bookworm, and a poet at large.

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