Skip to main content
Questions? Let's Connect.
Apply Now Get More Info
13 Nov

Prep for Success: Your GRE Study Plan

Man-Studies-for-GRE

Since 1949, thousands of people interested in pursuing graduate-level education have annually faced a common challenge: the Graduate Record Examination, or GRE.1 Administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), the GRE assesses analytical writing ability and quantitative and verbal reasoning, and it is used by many master’s degree and doctoral programs to assess the readiness of applicants for the rigors of graduate study.

It’s entirely normal to approach the GRE with some trepidation. Many grad school applicants have not taken a test for a number of years, and even if you have only recently completed your undergraduate studies, a standardized testing environment can still be a stressful one. The good news is, you have an ally through this process in the William & Mary School of Education. We’re here to help you offset any concerns you may have about the GRE and your ability to succeed on it. Below, learn more about the format and content of the GRE, and follow our tips to develop a winning GRE study plan.

Get to Know the GRE Format

For all intents and purposes, the GRE can be considered an exclusively computer-based test; it is administered year-round in a computerized format at over 1,000 testing centers worldwide, while a paper-based version of the exam is only given three times per year in regions of the world in which computer-based testing is unavailable.2 And while there are subject-specific GREs offered in Biology, Chemistry, Literature in English, Mathematics, Physics and Psychology, here we are only discussing the General Test, the most widely administered and accepted version of the exam.

The computer-based GRE General Test is divided into six sections, which test-takers are allotted approximately 3 hours and 45 to complete with a 10 minute break at the exam’s midpoint. The exam will always begin with an Analytical Writing section, which is divided into two 30-minute tasks which ask test-takers to analyze an issue and an argument respectively. The remaining five sections will contain two Verbal Reasoning sections, two Quantitative Reasoning sections and one additional unscored section in either Verbal or Quantitative Reasoning, which is used by ETS for internal research or to test questions for use on future GREs. These five sections—all of which are multiple choice—may appear in any order and the unscored section is not identified as such, so all sections should be treated as equally important.3

The computerized nature of the GRE allows it to utilize what is known as adaptive scoring. This means that the computer will select the questions for your second Quantitative and Verbal Reasoning sections based on your performance on the first ones. Stronger performance on your first Quantitative and Verbal sections will result in more difficult questions later in the exam; these questions receive higher weighted point values when your exam is graded and your final score calculated.4

GRE Prep Strategies

Now that you know the basics about how the GRE works, it’s time to develop a strong study plan that can ensure your success on the exam. Start by selecting a testing date well in advance, one which will allow you to meet your desired graduate program’s application deadline. Note that this doesn’t necessarily mean you must receive your scores by your program’s application deadline—many programs, like William & Mary’s Online Master of Education (M.Ed.) in Counseling, will accept scores delivered after the application due date, provided the exam was taken prior to it. The sooner you know when you will be taking the exam, the more precisely you can plan out all of your preparation. You can view upcoming test dates and test center locations on the ETS website.

At this early stage, you will also want to familiarize yourself with your target graduate program’s required or recommended GRE scores. At William & Mary, the GRE General Test scores of prospective students are incorporated into a holistic application review process, but most successful applicants to the Online M.Ed. in Counseling program typically score in the 40th percentile or higher on the Verbal Reasoning section. In general, the higher your score on the exam, the stronger your candidacy for admission will be.

Next, gather some prep materials to help you study. ETS offers a variety of GRE prep resources for free on their website, including descriptions and examples of each type of question you can expect to encounter in every section of the GRE and several full-length practice exams. These can help you acclimate to the digital environment in which you will take the test so you are not surprised by anything you see when your test day arrives. Numerous third-party GRE prep materials are also available to consult and practice with.

Once you know what you are going to study to prepare for the GRE, you next need to determine how you will use it. The strongest GRE study plan is one that acknowledges the constraints of your existing schedule; it’s unrealistic to plan to spend several hours daily studying test prep materials if you have a full-time job and other personal responsibilities. Try to select at least two or three evenings a week in which you set aside GRE prep time, and be systematic about what material you are going to cover every time you sit down to study. Perhaps Tuesday nights are for Verbal vocabulary review, Thursdays are for Quantitative questions, and Sunday afternoons are for practice Analytical Writing exercises.

And if you leave yourself enough time in the lead-up to your exam date, consider choosing one weekend day every two weeks to take and score a full practice exam. This will allow you to regularly check in on your progress and see which areas of the test would benefit from more focused study in your next review sessions.

Should You Take a GRE Prep Course?

GRE prep courses are popular, albeit pricey, options for sharpening your test-taking skills in advance of the exam. Companies like The Princeton Review, Kaplan and Magoosh offer online and/or in-person courses which can provide access to expanded sets of prep materials, tips for navigating the exam’s digital interface, and in the best cases, one-on-one interaction with an expert instructor. If you have the time and financial resources to take on a course of this nature, you may see positive results on your exam day, but plenty of successful grad school applicants are able to perform at a very high level without this additional expenditure.

Test Day Tips

It’s finally here: the day you’ve been preparing for over weeks and months of study and practice test-taking. So how do you ensure your GRE experience is as smooth and successful as possible?

First, plan out your route to your testing center before the morning of, and account for traffic to be sure you leave yourself enough time to get there before your exam begins. Next, be sure to get a good night’s sleep the evening before your test day. This means no last-minute cramming for the exam; your mind is as ready as it’s going to be, so be sure to take care of your body as well by resting appropriately.

When you arrive at your testing center, only bring with you a valid and acceptable form of identification that meets the standards laid out by ETS. Do not bring a pen or pencil, scratch paper, or a calculator with you into the testing center; these will be provided to you. No food, beverages or tobacco products are allowed in the testing room, and this should go without saying, but neither are any written test aid materials.5

Finally, take a deep breath and relax. If you have prepared and practiced thoroughly and smartly for the GRE, the actual exam should feel quite familiar. Trust that your GRE study plan has adequately prepared you for this moment, and embrace the challenge.


Put Your Stellar GRE Scores to Use at William & Mary

The Online M.Ed. in Counseling at William & Mary requires the GRE for admission in order to ensure all applicants are prepared for the intellectual challenges they may face in this transformative program. If you’re interested in pursuing graduate counseling education and eventual professional licensure, the guide we’ve provided above should help give you the best chance of overcoming this admissions hurdle.

And whether you’ve already taken or scheduled the GRE or you’re still currently exploring your options, check out the Social Justice dashboard that sets the Online M.Ed. in Counseling program apart from its peers by creating a unique and intuitive online learning experience that promotes personal and professional growth.


1. Retrieved on November 5, 2019, from manhattanreview.com/gre-history/
2. Retrieved on November 5, 2019, from ets.org/gre/revised_general/register/
3. Retrieved on November 5, 2019, from ets.org/gre/revised_general/about/content/computer/
4. Retrieved on November 5, 2019, from ets.org/gre/revised_general/scores/how/
5. Retrieved on November 5, 2019, from ets.org/gre/revised_general/test_day/procedures/