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.


Library Tips #9 and #10

Library Tip #9

When you are putting together those references for your paper’s bibliography/works cited page and you get confused, tied up, or just want them checked for accuracy, the library could have all of the answers for you. Not only are they up to date with the latest MLA, APA, and other style guides, there are English enthusiasts who work in the library! Ask the reference librarian for directions to the writing tutors or a style guide, and they will get you to a writing tutor or fir you with the correct reference material you will need to put together your assignment.

Bonus Tip: When you are reading books that you are thinking about using as references, write down all of the information you will need before returning it or placing quotations. Check out Purdue Owl for the information you need if you are working from home. They also have up to date style guides for in text citations, works cited pages, and document formatting. I would suggest picking up a hard copy for yourself, but they are updated every few years. It is easier to see what recent materials are available at your library or on Purdue Owl.

“The only thing you absolutely have to know, is the location of the library.”

Albert Einstein

Library Tip #10

When you have gotten the hang of how to use the databases, catalog, and stacks, spend some time with all of them on your own time (especially during upperclass years). Look for things you are interested in that relate to your scholastic interests in some way. I’m a poet who checked out books about related fields like graphic design, art history, and language theory to boost my understanding of language as a medium and as an aspect of a myriad creative history.

I also checked out books on topics that interested me like culture, science, and religion, sometimes reading them for only 10 minutes before taking out school books. That extra time I took to explore my curiosity during collegiate work gave me a fulfilling exploration of ideas that inevitably added to what I learned about my field and my self.   

Use the library for all it is worth!  

GRE Done: What’s Next

I took the GRE yesterday! As a result, I haven’t been working on a lengthy post for Student Portal. Two more library tips to round it off to a metrical group coming up and I am going to offer advice about taking the GRE followed by a series about writing an essay.

As you might have understood with mention of the GRE, I will be applying to graduate programs in the coming month(s). Trouble is, I need an essay.

In my creative writing masters program, my essays looked more like muggle renditions of a magical newspaper, with text boxes turned upside down, sideways and in reverse, so I am in need of an example essay that shows my academic side.

With about 14 pages of rough notes, paragraph drafts, and a couple useful quotes, a bunch of resources, and the GRE out of the way, today I will set out to write a complete draft. The first real draft is going to involve a lot of reading and rereading PDFs I printed during my masters along with library books, taking notes, making lengthy observations and writing out ideas, and managing to build a working thesis from what I can get running under its own power. That is a lot of -ings, so I’m goi… so I am on my way to complete the collegiate tasks set before me!

Before any of that, I had to rearrange my desk. Keeping an effective study/work space takes time to figure out. As a creative thinker (and writer), it is only natural to rearrange as much as possible before beginning a new curiosity voyage.

During graduate school I used an old drafting table to work, and I was able to stand at it for hours at a time by the end. Lately, my back has been hurting after sitting at my desk for long periods of time. I can’t help but slouch before lunch and dinner, especially. Standing keeps my posture in line, though.

I am lucky enough to have picked up this desk that has a chest level shelf that a keyboard fits right into. It is a bit thrown together, as it was not intended to be a desk one stands at (such behavior was not advertised, anyway), but it works for me. As I write this I am doing a sort tree pose slash leaning onto the desk top posture. It is pretty comfortable, to be honest. 🙂

New Desk Arrangement
It feels good to stand and work. Plus, my cat can nap next to me while I do (hence the blanket).


Library Tips #7 and #8: Quiet Space

Library Tip #7

Find your library’s quiet space. Maybe it is a particular floor in the main building, or a less populated library (on larger campuses). Maybe it is a single desk in a certain corner of a quiet floor. Where ever it is, find it. Having that space to use (so long as no one else finds it) can make all the work of finding sources, taking notes, and writing an assignment seem like a breeze.


Library Tip #8

University and Public libraries are really not the same at all. If you are looking for academic publications for an assignment, the University will be always be the best place to look. Public libraries typically have more lifestyle, general interest, and area archival information than they do the latest research in molecular physics.

While you will find more DVDs of your favorite movies and tv series in a public library, don’t count on it for much more than a place to do your homework or some light reading.

Public libraries, depending on the size of their cities, can be very quiet places to work during the day. Typically, the only people in a public library on the weekdays are retirees, people who work from home, parents of young children, or the occasional college student. In my opinion, there are a lot less distractions in a public, rather than collegiate, space. Maybe your local public library will become your quiet space!

Library Tip #6

If you are reading these because you are preparing for your final essay or project, then this piece of advice is very important (even though it is more passive advice on my part).

A lot of University libraries have Writing Centers. I worked for one as a graduate assistant, tutoring undergraduates and graduate students and giving lessons about grammar and formatting essays.

Find your University’s Writing/Tutoring Center

Look around your school’s website for a Writing Center, or tutoring service, and make an appointment. University sponsored centers will be free, but your school might give you a link to a paid service.

This is one of those things that every student should do, really. Even great papers have a comma or two that could be corrected, and if you are totally lost, don’t even know where to begin, then tutors are happy to help brainstorm and get the ball rolling. This is also a great place for ESL students to get some help.

If you are unfamiliar with workshopping a piece of writing, it is a bit like going to the dentist: it kind of hurts but in the end you feel much better about your situation. Really, though, you will get some compliments and some constructive criticism that can help you do your best. 

Be sure to make an appointment

Especially at busy points in the semester (around midterms and finals), there are limited tutors and there is limited time.

Library Tip #5

Spend some time with the books you want to check out before taking them home. Titles that seem appealing or that have an abstract/summary with keywords for your topic sometimes will not have what you want at all. They could be written in the field but cover a completely different aspect than what you’re looking for.

Sit down with more than enough books.

If you need five sources, then pick upwards of ten books. This way, you won’t feel the need to make any one of them work when the information you have is kinda sorta pretty much what would work.

Whether it is to support your position or to offer a counter argument, there should be a conversation between what you write and what you quote and paraphrase. It is obvious when a paper is just mushing together source information. Take the time.


When you have your potential resources, start with checking over the table of contents. Look for keywords related to your topic and chapter headings that have potential. Make note of which you want to look at and then spend some time with each.

Scan over a few introductory and concluding paragraphs in the chapters of interest to figure out if you really want to use them. I’ve known this to be called pre reading. Not so much reading every sentence as it is scouring for important words, phrases, names, visuals, tone, reliability, etc.

Are they are writing about your topic directly or indirectly?

Could this answer my question, or is it going to get me off track?

Which of the books could you read for your assignment with full attention? 

If you don’t find anything worth looking into further, try the books that were next to your first grab—they will have similar subject matter and a quick glance at the table of contents will show your options, or go over my earlier tip about Research Databases to find digital resources. 

Also, librarians are really nice, especially if you smile. Don’t hesitate to ask how to find what you’re looking for.

Library Tip #4

Many of the sources I have found through University databases were set up to be printed, which helped me a lot with taking notes, highlighting, and all of that jazz. Of course, I did avoid microfilm and other less than interactive sources. During my MFA I printed A LOT of articles, journals, and academic publications because the only place I could find them was through the library’s online databases.

While you can sometimes access your University’s library databases from home or where ever you are, sometimes you need to be on site to access them. You will find out very quickly if you can access and download library documents online from home, if you need to be on campus, or if you can download a VPN, a Virtual Private Network, application. A VPN would allow you to login to the department’s restricted online spaces without being there to directly access it. It might be as simple as logging into your student account. Again, check with your librarian about accessing your sources.

If you are not the printing type, which might be the best way to be with printing costs, storage problems, and our current environmental trouble, then downloading documents into a PDF reader might be the best route for you. I’ve used PDF Reader Pro and iBooks to read, markup, and take notes on PDFs, epub documents, and other formats which has gone really well.

My main point here is that when you are doing research for a class, you do not have to restrict yourself to books. Primary sources come in different shapes and sizes, and you do not have to feel overwhelmed by looking through the library stacks if you do better work on a computer. Be careful to never neglect a really great source just because it isn’t your preferred media, though.

Whether it is online, between the pages of a book, or talking directly with an expert, don’t study hard, study smart!