GRE Post

GRE Action Plan

Posted by Brian R. McElroy at 2017-04-11 10:07:05

1) Go to the ETS website and download the free PowerPrep software.  This software contains the only two real CATs (computer adaptive tests) that are made available to the public.  After familiarizing yourself with the software using the Test Preview tool, take the first of the two practice tests (make sure to select the timed option--the untimed test will not give you a score and is exactly the same as Timed Practice Test #1, with easy second sections).

If the PowerPrep software instructs you to install Java, then go to this page.  If PowerPrep instructs you to install a "JDK," then go to this page and search for the link that corresponds to your computer's operating system.  

UPDATE 6/21/16:  Check out my detailed guide to navigating the GRE Powerprep II Software.

UPDATE 7/28/16:  Check out these free explanations to the first 40 multiple-choice questions of the PowerPrep software

Your score on Timed Practice Test #1 is your baseline score.  If your initial score is low, don’t worry—you haven’t started preparing yet.  If for some reason you’re not yet comfortable taking the first practice test, then switch steps #2 and #1.  Save the other PowerPrep test and take it as your final practice test shortly before your test date.

Quick tip:  If you choose to write the essay, then please be warned that the GRE Prep software has a bad reputation for swallowing up test-takers' essays--the software is a bit clunky, and for some reason, after you write them they have a tendency to disappear.  So I strongly recommend that you write your essays on an outside word processor where your work can be saved as a backup, or at least make sure to cut-and-paste the text of your essay into a text document when you are done.

If you are considering taking the paper-based test, then you don't need to worry about the PowerPrep software.  Instead, you should download and print the current paper-based GRE as well as the old one.  (These questions overlap with the PowerPrep II questions.)

Yes, you can still feel free to print out and use these PDFs, even if you are planning to take the computer test, like 98% of GRE test-takers.  However, I recommend that you don't try any of the questions from the PDFs before taking the PowerPrep CATs, or else some of the PowerPrep questions will be familiar, thus making the test's score prediction unreliable.

Curious to find out how you can get the most out of your 2 free GRE PowerPrep Tests by re-taking them in order to access the "hidden sections"?  Did you know, for example, that there are twice as many questions on the PowerPrep software as there are on any given test?  For more information, check out this blog by me: Brian's GRE Powerprep Score Simulations and Analyses

2) Purchase one, preferably two (the second copy should be left blank) of the Official Guide to the GRE, or (even better!) the Official GRE Super Power Pack.   These books contain invaluable practice problems, information, and two additional paper tests (in addition to a CD-ROM containing the exact same PowerPrep software mentioned in step 1.  Start working through these books from front to back.  If you get stuck on something, just mark the page and move on.  The idea is to get yourself familiarized with the test as much as you can before you start taking a class or working with a tutor.  I would also strongly recommend the Manhattan Prep 5-lb book of GRE Practice Questions, which does not include real GRE questions but is an excellent resource for practicing specific types of GRE skills, and GRE Prep by Magoosh as an all-in-one strategy guide for the GRE.

3) Set a score goal.  GRE student improvements are usually around 10 points per section (20 points total), given time for sufficient preparation.

4) Take advantage of free and/or paid online GRE resources from companies such as Magoosh and GRE Quantum - Free Math Explanation Videos.  Of course, as when doing any research online, always consider the source.  If you’re serious about getting the highest score possible, then you should consider purchasing the following additional books (and buying 2 copies of each, one to mark up and one to keep blank):

GRE Vocab Capacity (full disclosure: I am one of the book’s co-authors):  An extensive vocabulary is a must for the GRE Verbal Section. 

Official GRE Quantitative Reasoning Practice Questions - Additional Math Practice

Official GRE Verbal Reasoning Practice Questions - Additional Verbal Practice

Cliff's Notes Math Review for Standardized Tests - Excellent Math Review, especially for those who haven't taken a math class in a while.

5) Explore the free online resources from ETS, which are quite extensive.  They even include a list of all possible issue essay topics and argument essay topics that could show up on the test, for example.  Below is a selection of some of the most useful links.

Analytical Writing Section:  


Issue Essay

Argument Essay

Quantitative Section:

Math Conventions for the GRE

Quantitative Comparison Sample Questions

Using the Calculator

Khan Academy Free Math Videos

Verbal Section:

Reading Comprehension Sample Questions

Text Completion Sample Questions

Sentence Equivalence Sample Questions

Materials in Accessible Formats

6) Since there are only two official CATs, You’re going to want to find another source of CATs, since you need to take around 8 tests before you are fully prepared.  My preferred company for this purpose is Manhattan GRE.  

You can either buy the entire series of books, which is helpful but pricey, or you can simply buy the books individually, based upon your needs.   You will also need to purchase Manhattan’s 6 online GRE CATs, which are a bit harder than the real thing, and slightly different from the real GRE, but worthy imitations nonetheless.

7) If you need lots of remedial help, or if you haven’t taken a college class in a long time, then it might make sense to take a GRE classroom course, such as the ones at UCSD, where I am currently an instructor.  But don’t overpay for an “elite” course — most of these courses are the same, and focus on content as well as basic strategies.   Save your money for a qualified private tutor instead.   

8) If you can afford it, then find a GRE tutor and schedule some lessons.  If you are willing to be tutored via Skype or another online tool, then you may choose from among any tutor nationwide.  Before purchasing time with your tutor, we suggest that you first schedule a phone consultation to discuss strategies and scheduling.

Working with a private tutor--either in-person or online via Skype--is the very best way to maximize your score, for a variety of reasons:

1) You are given personalized attention, lessons tailored to fit your schedule, and the opportunity to discuss each question in-depth until you are fully satisfied. 
2) Private tutors are usually the best instructors. 
3) A skilled private tutor will serve as a friend and confidant, hold you accountable, give you specific assignments and work on any problem areas so that all you have to do is put in the effort. Simply talking about the questions with your tutor helps aid your understanding of each question and your test-taking strategies.

9) Study, Study, Study.  Practice, Repeat, Forget, Practice, Repeat, Forget, Practice, Repeat…Remember.   

10)  When you’re ready, decide on a test date and register for the test.

11)  Take periodic practice CATs in the lead-up to the actual GRE.  I recommend that you take at least 8 CATs total.  So if you are preparing for 24 weeks, for example, then you should take a full practice test every 3 weeks.  

12)  You’re ready.  Good luck!  Get detailed directions to the test center and get there ahead of time.  Be prepared and remember that you will get your verbal and quant scores (although not your essay score) immediately after the test, unless you decide to cancel your scores.

I do NOT recommend canceling your score under any circumstances—if you cancel your score you will have no way to know how you did, and you may have done better than you thought.  Remember that most students do better the second time they take the GRE.

Besides, thanks to the new ScoreSelect option, you may now take the GRE as many times as you want (up to five times a year), without your lower scores being seen by anyone but you.  In a nutshell, ScoreSelect allows you to choose which scores you want to send to graduate programs, and which scores you want to hide from view, which takes away some of the pressure on test day, and gives you the option of taking the GRE multiple times to achieve your optimum score.

Homework and Practice Tests - Rules, Tips and Suggestions (and the art of Blind Repetition)

The best way to prep for the GRE is simple on its face, yet complex in its execution.

On the face, it’s simple: work through the Official Guide and the Math/Verbal Guides from front to back. Take all 6 Manhattan CATs.   Study lots of vocabulary.  Practice whenever you get a chance, and vary between timed and untimed exercises.

However, the question is *how* to work your way through the books and other materials.  

The problem is that we often fool ourselves into thinking that we’ve resolved our issues with a question, because we have read the explanation and now understand why the correct answer is correct.  In other words, because I now know that the answer is A, and can put together the reasons why after the fact, I can move on to other questions, in the belief that I’ve learned my lesson and will not make that mistake again.  It’s often a mistaken belief, however.  

The issue here is that *understanding* the correct answer is not the same as being able to execute the question from scratch and find the correct answer.  The same applies to vocab.  Just because you’re looking at the definition of a word, and you know its meaning in the moment, doesn’t mean that you’ll be able to access its definition under real test conditions.  As the saying goes, “everything is obvious once you know the answer.”  Of course you think you know the meaning to a word in the moment that you’re reading the definition.  It’s only when the answer is taken away, and we are given time to reset our short-term memory, that we can truly determine our level of understanding.  

Another problem is that once we remember the answer to a question, it loses much of its utility.  If I know that the answer is B before I start a question, then I am going to be biased toward that answer, which affects my response and makes it much different from the process of taking a test where the answers are undetermined.  

Thus, we need to do 2 things:

1) Blind Repetition.  This means that when we repeat a question, we do not look at our previous work, or check the correct answer beforehand.  This is much easier with a blank copy of the book at your disposal.  

2) Wait until you’ve forgotten it.  Don’t repeat questions whose answers you still remember.  Complete enough new questions in the meantime so that when you return to a question, you can evaluate it impartially.  

This is where the second, blank copy of the book will prove its worth.  It prevents you from “spying on” your previous work, or the correct/incorrect answer, and serves as a way of truly telling whether you understand a question.  Your tutor will also help keep you honest, of course.  

 - 2:1 ratio:  You should spend at least two hours on homework for every one hour you spend with your tutor.  Ideally, the ratio is closer to 3:1.   That means, for example, that if you buy a 25-hour package with one of our tutors, that you will be spending at least 75 hours on self-study, which of course adds up to 100 hours of preparation.  We have found that GRE scores will continue to improve past 100 hours of prep, but you will likely see diminishing returns after that point.   

-Vary the length of time that you study and work on practice questions.  Sometimes you might study for 2 hours, sometimes for 1 hour, sometimes for 30 minutes and maybe even just for 15.    In addition, alternate between timed sections and untimed sections:  working on questions untimed is a crucial, yet often overlooked, element of test prep.  (However, even when the section is untimed, and you are not concentrating on the clock, you might want to passively monitor your pace by marking your start and end times.)

-Make sure to take a full CAT at least once a month to track your progress.

Good luck!  The GRE is a tricky test but it can be conquered with perseverance and the right guidance.  

(This page is updated frequently and I am always open to input or questions.) 


copyright 2015 Brian R. McElroy
Founder and President, McElroy Tutoring Inc.
Toll-Free: 1-866-584-TUTOR (8886), x 4
Direct (Call or Text): 619-889-2935


Back to Blog Home | View Brian R. McElroy Profile

Reader Comments


Posted on 2017

Small error on your home page:\r\nThe sentence before \"Blind Repetition\" has omitted the word \"two\". It should read:\r\nThus, we need to do two things


Posted on 2016

Hello Brian,\r\nI have a question concerning your book recommendations. I am from Germany and Cliff\'s Notes Math Review for Standardized Tests is currently not available here. There is another book called Cliffs Notes on GRE Math Review. Would you recommend that too ? Thanks in advance! Kristina


Posted on 2016

Thank you for all the guidance for the GRE. I trust your expertise as you are a tutor and you have scored well on this. I am curious though how you believe you should most effectively prepare for the writing section of the GRE. I see you provided links about the writing and to the ETS website, but I am uncertain how you prepared for this section. If you could email me back at that would be wonderful and appreciated.

Submit Your Comment

*Email (will not be displayed)


HTML tags are not allowed.
*Spam Protection

Secure Spam Blocker


  • sat-tutoring.jpg
    SAT Tutoring

  • ACT Tutoring

  • ISEE Tutoring

  • GRE Tutoring

  • GMAT Tutoring