The 3 Biggest Mistakes People Make Preparing for the GRE

Read to find out the three most common mistakes people make on the GRE, from an expert GMAT/GRE tutor with a Wharton MBA and years of experience helping clients land their target scores.

Bruce H.

By Bruce H.

Posted March 13, 2024

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While it’s worth noting that everyone is different and goes through the GRE prep process in their own way, there are 3 mistakes that I see people make over and over again. I want to share those with you and hopefully save you some time and frustration and make your GRE prep journey as smooth as possible.

Mistake #1 – Not Giving Yourself Enough Time to Prepare

Generally, folks who are targeting 320+ scores tend to study for about 12-16 weeks for around 10-15 hours a week. It kinda becomes a part-time job for a few months.

There are two things that drive that timeline. The first is just the breadth of the material covered on the test. Most people need to learn about 500 to 750 vocabulary words. And then there’s all that math you’ve forgotten since freshman year in high school. And you probably haven’t done reading comp since you took the ACT or SAT. There’s just a lot of ground to cover.

The second thing is the competition. The folks you’re competing with to get an elite score are all pretty smart, they went to great schools and they’re pretty driven to score well on the GRE. Generally, they’re putting in those 10-15 hours a week and keeping at it until they can score really well.

It’s possible that it won’t take you as long to come up the learning curve. There are definitely people who are just wired in a way that allows them to sit down and ace the test with minimal prep. If that’s you – that’s great (and we’ll all pretend we’re not jealous). But for most people, the probability of posting an elite score tends to go down if they are spending significantly less time studying than everyone else.

Mistake #2 – Studying Too Much English and Math

Wait, what? Are you telling me I shouldn’t be studying English and math!? No, of course not. You have to know your vocab and your exponent rules, etc. There’s no way around that.

But the big secret about the GRE is that nearly everything on it (except for the vocab), is all stuff you learned by freshman year in high school. Nobody is going to ask you to solve differential equations, and nobody is going to ask you to analyze Moby Dick. So while you absolutely should do a rigorous review of English and math, the material itself is all pretty basic stuff. And, there comes a point at which studying more English and math simply won’t move the needle on your score.

The truth is the test isn’t hard because of WHAT it asks you. The test is hard because of HOW it asks the questions. At some point, focusing your attention on the questions rather than on the material becomes essential to breaking through the 160 barrier.

Two suggestions: First, keep a log of the questions you missed (on both quant and verbal). As you accumulate a database of missed questions – compare them. What are the similarities in the setups? What bit did you find confusing and does that same confusing bit show up in other questions you missed? A log allows you a deeper analysis and understanding of the questions you missed.

Second, redo any questions you missed three times. The first time you do a question the data you get is: Can I do that question? That’s great info to get, but if the answer is ‘no’ then you haven’t done anything to get yourself up the learning curve.

The second time you go through a question, you don’t have to focus on the entire question. You can just focus on the parts where you felt unsure. It allows you to dig in and really understand how that tricky bit works and see if you can spot a pattern that you can carry through to other questions (and there will definitely be other questions that use that same logic).

The third time through, you can confidently devour the question. You’re no longer just answering one question; you’ll be able to step back and look for the pattern and then spot that same pattern on other questions as well. Getting good at spotting the patterns is THE key to unlocking the test.

Mistake #3 - Memorizing Vocabulary Inefficiently

There’s no way around it – you’re going to have to memorize a lot of vocabulary words. Most people end up memorizing somewhere around 500-750 words. And because sentence completion and sentence equivalency account for over half the questions in the verbal section, learning a lot of words is actually really important.

After ten years of teaching the GRE, I’ve observed that one single technique improves both the number of words a student can memorize and the speed at which they can memorize. The technique is simple: Write it down!

Writing out your own flashcards (word on one side, definition AND synonym on the other side), will increase your efficiency by up to 40%. I promise the writing cramps will be totally worth it after you memorize 500 words faster than you ever thought you could and ace the GRE.

So in the beginning, ditch the app and ditch the pre-printed flash cards and do the work of writing out your own flash cards.

It is not just me saying this. This is science.

***WARNING: SCIENCE AND LEARNING AHEAD***

With my apologies to any neuroscientist who might be reading this – I’ll provide a very simplified explanation of why writing things down is so effective in memorizing vocab. The brain is divided into several different regions that handle different types of information: visual, auditory, emotions, verbal communication, symbols and math, etc. These regions only do an okay job of communicating with each other, so information gets lost between, say, looking at a vocabulary word’s definition and processing that definition into verbal communication.

As we write, we create spatial relationships between the various bits of information we are recording. Spatial tasks are handled by another part of the brain - and the act of linking the verbal information with the spatial relationship seems to help share it with all the other parts of the brain.

Essentially, we’re building a link between the spatial part of our brain that we use in order to make marks on paper that make sense (i.e. to write) and the verbal part of our brain that we use to compose meaningful utterances to supply to our writing hand. It’s that process that strengthens the way important information is stored in our memory.

What all that means for you is this: you’ll learn a lot more vocabulary words a lot faster and remember them a lot better if you write them down by hand!


Bruce H. is a Wharton MBA and professional test prep coach. He is a former Curriculum Development and Test Prep Instructor at UCLA and has more than ten years of experience helping hundreds of students reach their target scores. Book a FREE intro call with Bruce, and get one step closer to your target score today!

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