Tactical GRE
8 years, 11 months ago Posted in: Guide 3

Many ask me about how to prepare for GRE, the tricks and hacks, and advice. This is written to answer them.

Graduate Record Examination abbreviated to GRE is a standardized test that is required by  many grad schools in USA, Singapore, Canada, etc. Let’s put aside the debates on its accuracy, relevance, and resilience,  and keep in mind the final objective – getting into a renowned graduate program.

However, I would like to mention few resentments shared by many GRE takers. First of all, it is commercially driven, and hence by all means expected to maximise profits. They are more interested in seeing you taking GRE next time in vain, rather than letting you enter the Grad school, where their accuracy and abidance by ethical codes may be called into question. I learn that many second time takers score fairly better than first timers, perhaps not always due to the experience they gained nor extra work they put. Secondly, the scores are now sent electronically and therefore does not cost a peny more in sending it to another instituition. However, they require you to pay 20USD, and also send you a copy of the results sheet everytime you ask them to send a score to an instituition. Thirdly, albeit the introduction of computerized they are still in the 21st centuary, and results are available only through snail-mail (20 USD for each extra request and takes ages to arrive) and through an automated phone call (also charged). A web based implementation, at least a rudimentary setup like what is used in few British Councils (BC in SL has this) for IELTS would be highly beneficial.

Two types of tests are available in two modes.

  • General Test
  • Subject Tests
  • Paper Based
  • Computerized

General Test is required by almost all grad schools (AFAIK except and Purdue for CS) in the USA. Subject tests are recommended espcially if you are applying to a field different from your undergraduate,  and when you do not have enough academic credentials to support your ability.

In Sri Lanka, at the time of writing only paper based tests are available and they are highly recommended  mainly because

  • it lets you answer sanely
  • it lets you re-check / re-do / correct your answers
  • it lets you skip questions and answer them later
  • but it is quite inconvenient for analytical writing especially for those who are used to press backspace more than enter key.

Therefore, if it is available, I suggest that you take paper based test.

Plan, or Plan to Fail

One aspect where GRE is preparing one for grad school, is where it necessitates the independent work and proactiveness. A plan is indispensable and you would have come with the following when you are ready.

  • Why Take?
  • Should I take?
  • When to take?
  • How to Prepare?
  • Long term plan
  • Short term plan

After short listing the potential countries to pursue the graduate studies in, make sure that you have to take GRE. For instance,  for those who are planning to do in Australia and Canada, GRE is not advisable provided the expenses, pain and time invested. However if your first and/or only choice is the USA it is better that you do.

In any case, unless it is required, taking GRE does not necessarily need to boost your application, and I suggest you spend your invaluble time in a research project. We must understand that  the Universities are not expecting you to master your skills in taking exams. They use GRE only as a standardized way to evaluate your application on a common scale, when other convincing points are absent. Therefore sound research work, recognized publications, international awards and grants, and a recommendation from a renowned personal from academia are more compelling and recommended. In this regard, I chose not to do any subject tests.

For , non-native speakers, it will require some extra effort in tackling verbal section, and requires longer preparation.  I suggest you start at least an year earlier. As paper tests are conducted in October and February / March, it should not be later than January if you plan on taking the exam in  October; I started in December.

Long term plans – “inch by inch everything’s a cinch”

The objective of this to make sure that a month before exam you remember all the words, meanings and similar words by heart. It is said that, one is expected to learn or come across around 10000 new words in their undergraduate career and therefore can be tested for any of those. Barrons extensive list comes with 3000+ words, and big book with tad more. I suggest that you first memorize the Barrons extensive list, and make sure that you master Barrons most frequent words (about 300) so that you know A-Z on those 300 words. This can be supplemented by Bigbook, Kaplans list, etc.

I found it effective to memorize a list in the morning, and listen to the audio for 2 or 3 times in that day (you can use the commuting time) followed by a recap in the night. It would only take 50 days to complete the extensive list, however I am quite sure when you receach C you would have forgotten A. Therefore it requires perseverance and determination.

The last month requires a totally different approach.

Short term plans

It is essential that you stick with your long term plan and follow it daily. For instance, an outing or a project might discourage or make it impossible for you to stick with your plans. However, it is more important that you don’t give up. I have seen many people start with a great plan one day to waste time next day, to repent the day after and to give up the following day. Therefore missing your schedule one day should not lead to total abandonment. In this regard it is not foolish to make new plans every week or even every day and I call them short term plans.

Month before the test


Just before the test

You will have to mark (shade) the choices with a 2B pencil (I opted for 4B). So take 2 pencils, both side sharpened (so that you would have decreased the frequency of sharpening by 4 times) and a good eraser. The advantage of using 4B is that minimal pressure is required to leave a thick layer of lead; but you will have to sharpen more often than with 2B.

Take at least 2 sharpeners, 2 erasers, 2/3 – 2B/4Bpencils, water bottle, sweater (even in a tropical country like SL as they keep AC at maximum level – perhaps they wanted to standardize the environmental conditions too) and 2 photographic IDs (Passport and NIC).

Exam Hacks

  • Verbal section (2 papers – 38 questions in each – 30 minutes – each with 2 reading comprehension sections)
    • It should be the toughest for a non-native speaker, and the presence of two reading comprehension sections exacerbates this. I suggest that you attempt antonym, analogy and sentence completion parts first and try to finish them within 15 minutes. Try to spend 3 minutes on reading a paragraph and 3 minutes for answering. For the larger paragraph it might take longer, and in my case it took 10 minutes.
    • This requires you to have words and meanings on fingertips, and know the roots, prefixes and suffixes; you should be able to guess an unfamiliar word’s meaning.
  • Math section (2 papers – 30 questions in each – 30 minutes – look for tricky questions)
    • It must the be easiest for Sri Lankan exam takers as it is just above the standard of a typical GCE O/L maths paper. Be careful in attending the questions that look very obvious or simple as there might be a trick behind. You could easily score 800 / 800.
  • Analytical Writing (2 sections – 30 and 45 minutes – prepare your structure, style and use of words earlier)
    • I prepared my structure following Barrons and I suggest that you do not. A hackneyed structure and style of expression will badly affect your score and I strongnly advise that you come up with your own style first, then compare it with Barrons, Kaplan and other sources. It is very imperative that you go to the test with all these prepared beforehand as you would not have enough time to even think through the topic.
    • Suggested time spending for issue presentation section (45 mins)
      • 5 minutes – brainstorming – come up with points for and against
      • 3 minutes – filtering points and structuring
      • 5 minutes – write the part of the  introduction – following the style and format you had already planned
      • 20 minutes – write the body – again according to your plan
      • 5 minutes – write the conclusion – do not forget to prepare a generic style for this too
      • 2 minutes – complete the introduction – you would have come up with extra lines that need to be appended to your introduction while writing the body
      • 5 minutes – check for errors in spelling, flow and grammar
    • Suggested time spending for argument analysis section (30 mins)
      • 5 minutes – brainstorming – according to the plan come up with points – do not waste time in thinking on extraneous points
      • 2 minutes – filtering points and structuring
      • 5 minutes – write the part of the  introduction – following the style and format you had already planned
      • 10 minutes – write the body – again according to your plan
      • 5 minutes – write the conclusion – do not forget to prepare a generic style for this too
  • 3 minutes – check for errors in spelling, flow and grammar

After the test

You must make sure the test scores are sent to the institutions on time.

Although it is said that the scores would be out in 6 weeks from the day of the test, it might take more than 2 months for the mail to arrive. Therefore if you are near the deadline of the application you had better call them and check the scores (which will be available in exactly 6 weeks from the test date – which was Nov 29th in my case).

If you are planning on taking IELTS or TOEFL, I suggest that you take IELTS; with the vocabulary and writing skills that you would have mastered for GRE it will be a cinch.


  • Barrons Extensive word list (attached) (also part of Barrons GRE book)
  • Kaplan lists on grouped words (attached)
  • Sample Questions (attached)
  • Flash cards (attached)
  • Audio recordings on wordlists (available in eSnips)
    • I have a volume boosted, edited and organized set of recordings, and if you are from SL I might be able to provide you (of course over a dinner that you will have to host:) )
  • I have a collection of analytical writing typical answer book (in PDF) which is quite large to attach here (first 10 pages attached)


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3 Responses

  1. Molly says:

    this data over the past year. Maybe you know something about the exam this year?

  2. Ranga says:

    Thanx Garthee…

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