The Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) is the test most people are required to take to apply to graduate and business schools.
It tests people on three primary areas – Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, and Analytical Writing – and is three hours and 45 minutes long.
Like many standardized exams, studying for the GRE requires foresight, intentional scheduling, and planning.
In this guide, we provide you with pointers for how to create a study plan that works well for you, how long to study for the GRE, and other factors you should pay attention to.
Scheduling the GRE: When to Take the Test
Your study timeline will be largely influenced by when your GRE date is. It is a useful strategy to set this date at the beginning so that you will have a real, tangible date to help you focus on studying.
We strongly urge you to not dive into GRE prep without a test date set and a plan to follow.
- This includes when you are starting much earlier in advance, perhaps six or seven months before the vague date you have in mind.
- Unplanned studying tends to quickly become inefficient and feel purposeless.
- Even worse, it can give you a sense that you are much more prepared than you actually are and result in hurried, haphazard studying during the final months before the test.
So, when should you schedule your test?
First, figure out how much time you will require to study for the GRE.
- Then, sign up for a test date that comes after your projected study time frame (with sufficient time to retake the GRE if that becomes necessary).
- You may make test date arrangements through the Educational Testing Service (ETS), the agency that creates and proctors the GRE.
Below, we go through an example of how you may go about setting your test date.
- Determine an average study time frame for yourself, i.e. how long to study for the GRE.
There are many estimates out there for the suggested length of time one should spend preparing for the GRE.
They range from one to three months.
With this being said, every single person is a different type of test taker.
Some people are readily capable of demonstrating their intelligence through standardized tests.
Other people excel at different forms of demonstrating their academic strength. Think about which of these two categories you fall into.
In addition, think about these questions:
- How comfortable are you with standardized tests and school exams?
- In general, how have you performed on these tests in the past?
- Do you become excessively anxious or nervous during these tests?
- On average, did you require less, standard, or more hours of studying for the ACTs and SATs compared to your peers?
- On average, how many times did you have to take these tests in the past? For example, how many times did you take the ACT or SAT before you achieved the test score you wanted?
While we cannot offer concrete numbers that are specifically individualized to you, read through these questions and be honest with your answers.
They can help you decide how long you think you will need for GRE preparation.
- If you know that you are great test taker who doesn’t become very nervous during them, then perhaps plan for 1 – 2 months of studying.
- If you know that you do not like tests or generally study in a different, comprehensive manner that may require more time, then plan for 3 – 4 months of studying.
- Take a practice GRE exam.
Once you determine a general time frame, take a practice exam.
- Yes, take a practice exam even before creating a formal plan for study.
This will help you further fine-tune your time frame and make a finalized plan.
These are things you should take note of when analyzing your scored practice exam:
- What percentile did you score in for Verbal, Quantitative, and Analytical Writing? You can use your raw practice-exam score to find out your percentile ranges using this chart from our article about GRE percentiles.
- What percentile do you want to score in for each section? Your personal percentile goals or targets can be set by looking at the GRE data published by the graduate schools or programs you are applying to. Generally, you should try to score close to their ranges in order to maximize your chances for admission.
- What section(s) are most important for the graduate programs you are applying to?
- Are there section(s) you did really well on and may only need to perform basic upkeep for?
- What section(s) do you need to improve upon?
Use these questions to adjust the projected, general time frame that you determined in step one.
- If you did pretty well on your practice exam and are a good test taker, perhaps give yourself about 1 – 1.5 months of study.
If you did not do as well as you had hoped but are confident you can pick up the concepts and improve quickly, then perhaps give yourself about two months of study – and so on.
- Set a test date that comes after your finalized study time frame.
- One last thing to note for GRE scheduling is the application deadline for the programs you are applying to.
We advise that you take the GRE as early as possible to ensure that you have time to work on other parts of your applications and so you will have it ready for your application.
If that is not possible (and you need to take the test just before your application deadlines), consider these factors and use the following example to help you gauge when to schedule a later exam:
- ETS allows test takers to take the GRE once every 21 one days.
- Test takers should give themselves time to reschedule and retake the GRE a second time in case they do not meet their goals the first time.
- Test takers receive their Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning scores the day they take the GRE, but they will not receive their Analytical Writing scores until 10 – 15 days after the test date.
For this example, we will use January 15th as an application deadline.
- A safe GRE cut-off date for this deadline is November 15 – meaning test takers should not schedule a GRE exam after November 15 date.
- Taking the GRE on or before November 15 provides ample time (as well as a little buffer time in case of system errors) for a person to take the GRE once, to retake it again 21 days later (Dec 7 – December 31) and still receive scores to submit by January 15.
Please note that taking the GRE a second time in late December does cut it close to the deadline.
Studying for the GRE: Study-Strategy FAQs
- What does a good study plan look like?
Once you have your study timeline or time frame down, it is time to create a holistic study plan. There are some qualities every effective study plan should have.
A good study plan is tailored to you.
Like with test taking, we understand that every person thrives under different studying conditions.
Think about what conditions allow you to focus and learn best, and apply them to your study plan.
- For example, if you study best in short, 45-minute increments, then schedule three to five intense GRE study sessions a day. If you do better with longer chunks of time, then plan for 1 – 2 straight hours of daily GRE twice a day or 2 – 3 hours straight once a day.
A good study plan maintains at least some consistencies and is disciplined.
This means that if you make Monday – Saturday study days and Sunday a rest day, then you must do you best to stick to your routine.
- It also means that, barring emergencies, your study plan should have nonnegotiable study times scheduled into it.
You have to show up and study as your plan prescribes. Consistency – not motivation or cramming – is what will steadily build you toward your target scores.
A good study plan has purpose and is tailored to your goals.
This is where your initial GRE practice exam and its percentiles really come into play.
Remember, we advised you to take note of your strengths and weaknesses while analyzing your practice score.
For your study plan, you will need to delve even deeper into this analysis.
For sections you achieved a desirable percentile in, allocate less time and resources to it in your study plan.
- For example, if you scored way above your target percentile in Verbal Reasoning, then perhaps you will not need to purchase a Verbal Reasoning-specific preparation book and just can do some review each day.
For sections in the GRE where there is a gap between your practice exam percentile and your target percentile, figure out what types of questions you struggled the most with.
- For example, if you scored in the 75th percentile for Quantitative Reasoning and want to raise it to the 80th percentile, analyze the questions you missed on your practice exams and make a list.
- Determine if there are commonalities between the questions you got wrong. Is it geometry? Functions? Algebra?
- When you create your study plan, make sure you prorate your time and focus so that they emphasize practice questions addressing concepts you did most poorly on.
A good study plan builds up stamina for the actual testing conditions.
Regardless of your best mode of study (short increments versus longer increments versus something completely different), your study plan should steadily build up your endurance for extended periods of focus and for the real testing conditions, which are often quiet and pressured.
This can be achieved through many ways. We will give a few examples of how you may do so, but, first, it will be helpful to review the GRE’s components.
As we mentioned before, the whole test is three hours and 45 minutes long. There are 6 sections total and there is a 10-minute break after the third section. These are all of its components:
- Analytical Writing (1 section, 2 essays, 30 minutes each essay, 1 hour total)
- Verbal Reasoning (2 sections, 20 questions each, 30 minutes per section)
- Quantitative Reasoning (2 sections, 20 questions per section, 35 minutes per section)
- Unidentified unscored OR identified research section (Number of questions and time varies)
The Analytical Writing section will always come first in the GRE.
- All the other sections will come at random after the Analytical Writing.
Therefore, one example of a GRE exam format you may receive at the testing center is as follows:
|Analytical Writing||1-hour total|
|Unidentified Unscored Section|
(This will be either a Verbal or Quantitative one, so you will not know that it is the experimental section)
Identified Research Section
|Quantitative Reasoning #1||35 minutes|
|Verbal Reasoning #1||30 minutes|
|Quantitative Reasoning #2||35 minutes|
|Verbal Reasoning #2||30 minutes|
Note that it is possible to get two Verbal Reasoning sections in a row, as well as two Quantitative sections in a row; they do not necessarily alternate.
You can see from this format that there are two chunks of time (three GRE sections are completed within each) where the test taker will be working continuously for about an hour and half (or more) – one chunk comes before the 10-minute break and one comes after it.
For your study plan, you will want to build your stamina for these 1.5+ hour intervals, as well as your overall stamina for the whole test.
Here are just a few examples of how you can do that:
Build up your uninterrupted study minutes every couple of days.
Let’s say, for example, that your plan is to study 2 – 3 hours straight during the day, using 30-minute long intervals, with a 5- or 10-minute break between each interval.
- To build your stamina, increase the lengths of your study intervals as you become comfortable with the previous time.
- Go from 30 minutes to 33 to 35 and so on.
Make sure that you are able to remain efficient and productive for the whole interval.
If you go from 35 minutes to 40 minutes and find that you begin to be distracted, then scale back down.
Incorporate some quiet study periods in a quiet environment.
Your ideal study environment may involve listening to music while parked in a busy coffee shop.
- This is okay, but you should still try to sprinkle in times when you are unplugged and at home with no distractions, because that is how it will be at testing center.
Using the same study format as the above example, this could mean studying for two hours straight at your favorite coffee shop and 1 hour in a quiet library.
Take a lot of practice exams under similar testing conditions.
This is more of a must-do rather than a suggestion.
No matter how good you get at solving individual practice problems, you will not receive your best possible score if you lose focus halfway through the GRE.
- Nothing will prepare you better for sustaining three hours and 45 minutes of focus than the practice exams.
It is helpful to pepper practice exams throughout your study plan (perhaps one every week if you have a longer study timeline and more than that if you have a shorter timeline), but we also suggest completing more practice exams during the final few weeks before your test date (but not so many you will feel burnt out).
Doing so will provide your mind with good practice and get it accustomed to the length of time just before you take the actual GRE.
- How often should I take practice tests?
As we mentioned above, practice tests are a very useful tool for building stamina.
- Another thing they are good for is gauging your progress and learning goals.
- There is no hard and fast rule, but, for this purpose, we recommend that you take a practice test at least once every one or two weeks, depending on your study timeline.
- Pay attention to how you are doing with your practice questions.
Once you feel like you have gained better skills at a set of concepts, then maybe take a practice exam to see if 1) you have improved and 2) what you should focus on next.
- What are good study materials?
When it comes to GRE prep, ETS has you covered – and what better materials than ones that come from the source?
ETS provides two free online practice tests and offers many other options for you to choose according to your goals.
- Two additional practice tests that you may purchase
- The Official Guide to the GRE General Test, Third Edition (this is good for anyone since it provides four more practice tests and a general review of all GRE components; it is also ideal for those who are relatively strong in all areas and do not need specific verbal, quantitative, or analytical writing practice problems.
- Official GRE Verbal Reasoning Practice Questions
- Official GRE Quantitative Reasoning Practice Questions
- ScoreNow! Online Writing Practice Service
Other big GRE prep names out there include Magoosh and Manhattan Prep.
They could be a good resource if you find that you need more practice problems or practice exams than ETS provides.
Lastly, if you feel that you need more direction or motivation, then also consider hiring a GRE tutor or enrolling in prep courses.
Additional Tips for Studying for the GRE
How do I be more productive?
If you ever feel like you’re stuck or not making enough progress, re-evaluate your study routines and goals, then adapt for your changing learning needs.
This is why maintaining consistency is important – if you are consistent, you will be able to make subtle changes and shifts to your study plan and quickly see if something will work better for you.
What kind of music should I listen to when studying?
You should listen to whatever works for you!
Hopefully, you have studied enough up to this point to know whether or not music truly helps with your concentration and productivity and what types of music work best for you.
- For many test takers, classical or ambient music with no lyrics to sing along too tend to help.
Whatever you choose, remember to also have study periods where you are not listening to music so that you can simulate test conditions.
What should I do in terms of sleep?
If you are having trouble sleeping because of test anxiety or stress, consider establishing a consistent before bedtime routine that involves screen-off times before sleep.
This helps signal to your body every night when it is time to shut down.
- Try putting in activities like reading or engaging in a hobby for a short period of time in your bedtime routine.
There are simple guides to mindfulness, relaxation, and breathing techniques that you could also try.
Conclusion: How Long to Study for GRE & Other GRE Tips
Studying for the GRE can be stressful. You’ll be inundated with questions like:
- How long do I study for the GRE?
- What are the best study resources?
- How should I form my study plan?
- What’s the best type of study plan to get a high GRE score?
This guide addressed each of those questions, and more. Re-read this guide when you have questions, or send us an email if studying gets tough.
Best of luck!