Written by: Leigh Perkins // Dec 17, 2019
Last updated: Dec 17, 2019
It’s beginning to look a lot like GRE test-prep season. With a long, luxurious holiday break of two weeks or more coming on quickly, you finally have time to get serious about studying for the Graduate Record Examination – your entrance exam for graduate school. In just a few hours a day, you can really get the GRE ball rolling: identifying your weak spots, familiarizing yourself with the question types, and registering for a quality test-prep course. So, if you’re thinking about taking on GRE test prep during winter break, take our useful advice first, and then get set to ace that exam.
Get Acquainted with the GRE
If this is your first time taking the GRE, you should get to know the test and its structure. The general test takes about three hours and 45 minutes and is most often taken on a computer at a testing site, although paper tests are still offered. On the computer exam, you can tag questions to return to them, or skip them, and you can edit any questions within the section. You will have use of an on-screen calculator for the math section.
Unlike standardized tests you took in high school with only a few test dates each year, the computer-delivered GRE is offered year-round. The paper-delivered test is offered up to three times a year in limited areas. You can take the general test once every 21 days, up to five times in any 12-month period. The cost of the exam is $205.
The GRE general test is divided into six sections, with a 10-minute break after the third section.
Structure of the Computer-Delivered GRE General Test
- Analytical writing: This section has two tasks, “analyze an issue” and “analyze an argument.” You have 60 minutes to complete both sections.
- Verbal reasoning: This two-section portion assesses your ability to analyze written material and the relationships between words and concepts. You have 60 minutes to complete both sections.
- Quantitative reasoning: This two-section portion evaluates your grasp of basic arithmetic, geometry, algebra, and data analysis. You have 70 minutes to complete both sections.
- Unscored and research sections: Unscored questions can appear anywhere after the analytical writing section, and research questions appear at the end of the test; both types are experimental questions for use by the test-makers and will not affect your score. You time allotment for these sections varies.
Create a Study Plan for Winter Break
Being strategic about prepping for the GRE will help you use your time more efficiently and keep you on schedule. Before you create a timeline and a plan, though, you should clarify two details.
- Priorities. Which section matters most to the graduate program you’re interested in? STEM programs weigh the quantitative over the writing section; an MFA program expects you to to be master of all the wordy parts; highly selective programs could want sky-high scores in all sections. Study accordingly.
- Practicalities. How much time can you devote to studying your weakest section? One test-prep service suggests students estimate 40 hours of study to increase their score by 5 points (240 hours for 30 points). Plan accordingly.
Cramming all your studying into a single holiday is not a recipe for success, but winter break offers a solid starting point. You can get into the rhythm of studying on your break and keep yourself in that groove when you go back to work and/or school.
Holiday Study Schedule
Most experts suggest allotting at least two to three months of regular study before taking the GRE. Here is an abbreviated routine to kick-start your test prep over winter break.
- Day 1: Set aside four hours to take a practice test as your benchmark. Study your results carefully. Worry about timed practice tests later.
- Day 2: Make a study schedule that concentrates on your weakest section (at least half of your study time should be devoted to your shakiest skills).
- Day 3-14 (or however long your break lasts): Master the fundamental skills of basic math and core vocabulary that will be evaluated on the test, but give some attention to effective test-taking, too. Know how to use the process of elimination and predictive answering. Learn to spot testing traps.
- Last day: Take a timed practice test and compare your results with your benchmark. Is your study plan effective? Do you need to tweak it?
You may want to be told specifically how many hours you should study, but there is no one-size-fits-all response. Only you know your schedule and your capacity, but shoot for a minimum of two hours a day, even if you can’t get it done in one big chunk. Math in the morning and reading/writing in the afternoon works just fine. Eliminate time-wasters (social media and Netflix will still be there after you get your acceptance letter), and use that time for the GRE.
So that you improve your odds of honoring your study schedule, be realistic about your other commitments over break. Plan for socializing, rest, and exercise. The goal is not for you to ace the quant section after just two weeks with a box of candy canes and a pink highlighter sprawled on your parents’ couch; it’s for you to dedicate yourself to a study path that can carry you all the way to your test date and give you the confidence and skills to achieve your dream score.
Create a Study Plan for ‘Real Life’
Before winter break ends, evaluate your holiday test prep experience (and those practice test results) and draft a Plan A and Plan B study schedule for your real life after vacation is over. Plan A should be the best-case scenario, with hard-core devotion to the GRE and no late nights, no conflicts, no laziness. Plan B should be a more realistic (maybe longer-term) approach that takes your school, work, and family commitments into consideration, allowing you to be a little more flexible in your daily test prep. Somewhere between the ideal and the rational plans, you should be able to construct a useable schedule that helps you elevate your skills and your score.
Make the Most of Your Resources
You can sneak test prep into your life in small, steady ways, or you can go all-in. For starters, consider a fun and skills-reinforcing mobile app, allowing you to scroll through vocab while you wait for class to start – the same amount of attention you would normally give to your Instagram feed. Maybe you prefer dogearing pages and scribbling math problems in the margins of a thick GRE prep book. That works, too, although the test is digital, so it makes sense to do a portion of your test prep on a screen. Best prep of all: You can register for a quality GRE test prep course, like the on-campus and online classes offered by USF. In 24 hours of intensive instruction, you will cover the three main sections of the GRE and the test-taking strategies you need to boost your score.
Schedule a Test Date
Nothing will commit you more fully to the test prep process than registering for a test date. Schedule it so that you will have a minimum of a month of serious study in the bag and leave yourself adequate time to retake the exam before grad school application deadlines close in on you (some have rolling admission, but many post February or March deadlines for fall enrollment).
Are you ready to sharpen your skills in preparation for the GRE test? The USF Office of Corporate Training and Professional Education offers on-campus and live online GRE Test Prep courses through USF Tampa and USF St. Petersburg. All required course materials are included in the program (for the online course, materials will be delivered to your home, so register at least four days in advance of the first class to ensure timely delivery).