Scheduling and Prepping for Your Entrance Exams

By Dr. Elizabeth Bowman, Assistant Director, Graduate Programs in Biomedical Sciences, Vanderbilt University

The GRE is a near-ubiquitous component of the graduate school application process. This article explains the GRE, when to take it, how to prepare for it, and other topics relevant to it.

Overview: The GRE is the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). For better or worse, most STEM PhD programs still require the GRE for admission. There has been a large national debate about the relevance of the GRE in evaluating prospective students. Some schools have eliminated this requirement, but most programs still require it. Before discussing your GRE preparation, you should know that the GRE is only one component of your application. Therefore, you should try to set aside your test anxiety, knowing that other parts of your application are more important than your GRE scores.

When to take the GRE: Plan on taking the GRE at least three months before your first applications are due. That will give you enough time to reschedule the exam in the event of an unforeseen emergency and still be able to send off your official scores.While most graduate applications are happy to accept your unofficial scores for consideration (which you can view and forward to five schools for free as soon as you finish the test) some programs may require you to send in official reports, which can take 4-6 weeks to process after your test date.

That said, the concepts tested in the GRE are based on fundamentals that you likely covered in high school or college. Thus, you can take the GRE at any point as an undergraduate and do about as well as you likely would do at a later point. You might want to consider taking the GRE at a time that you can focus on studying for the test. Consider studying during the summer when you may be doing research but likely are not taking any other classes.

While you may want to consider taking the test early to give you enough time to retake it, I would like to strongly urge you against planning on taking the GRE multiple times. Instead, prepare well to take the test once and do your best. If you prepared well the first time, it is unlikely that you will do significantly better after multiple attempts. That said, do leave yourself enough time to be able to reschedule the test in case of an unforeseen issue on the day of your test, such as the flu or a family emergency, that may adversely affect your performance on the test.

Cost of the GRE: The GRE costs $205. For more information on budgeting for the exam and your application fees, see “Budgeting for the Application Process” on page 18 of this resource.

How to Prepare for the GRE: Test preparation courses can be expensive. The great news is that there are many excellent, free resources to help you prepare for the GRE, so you should not feel obligated to pay for an expensive prep course. ETS, the company that makes the GRE, has many free resources and the test sites Magooshand Kaplan have some excellent free resources in addition to premium services for which they charge. There is no “right way” to prepare for the GRE. My best suggestion would be to set aside time where you are strongly focused on preparing, commit to it, and dive in. Create a schedule and follow it seriously. Buy one prep book to expose you to the content (there really is little difference content-wise between all of the big test prep companies, including ETS), making sure your prep book includes a lot of practice questions. Get used to approaching the questions with the right mentality by seeing questions over and over again through practice tests. You can do anywhere from two weeks of intensive studying to two months of spaced out studying. Either way, if you are using free test prep trials, make sure you only start those when you are intensely preparing.

Some final notes: It should be noted that most MD-PhD programs do not require the GRE as part of the admissions process. Rather, they typically evaluate your MCAT scores alone. Your MCAT score can be one of the most important factors considered in your application, and top programs have fairly stringent score cutoffs. Thus, much of the advice in this article may not be relevant to you, and you should put significantly more effort and preparation into the MCAT.

Action Items:

  1. Create a plan for studying and stick to it.
  2. Identify GRE resources and start studying.
  3. Schedule the GRE well in advance of your application deadline.

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