Neerja Thakkar graduated from Dartmouth in 2019 with a BA in Computer Science and Mathematics. For the past year, she was doing computational photography research in Spain on a Fulbright research scholarship, and in Fall 2020 she will be starting her PhD in EECS at UC Berkeley.

Before I delve into how I studied for the GRE, I want to point out that it’s crucial to understand the importance of the GRE for your application process before you plan how much time you want to allocate to studying and which sections you want to study the hardest for. Some graduate programs might potentially require certain scores or stress that a specific section is important. Other programs, however, see the GRE as relatively unimportant and just more of a sanity check that everyone has decent scores.

From what I had understood, CS PhD programs were definitely in the latter category - I heard that I should not give the GRE a lot of importance, and that my course selection/grades, letters of recommendation, and research experience carried far more weight. Therefore, I didn’t take the GRE too seriously or sacrifice time spent on research to study, and I would strongly recommend you do the same if the GRE is relatively unimportant to your program.

Also, this post is far from comprehensive, and there are many other wonderful resources on how to study for the GRE that I would recommend you consult. A lot of people have asked me how I studied for the GRE, so I simply wanted to provide my two cents. I was incredibly busy around the time I was taking the GRE, so I ended up only having 4 days to study for it. Thankfully, I ended up with scores that were more than sufficient. Here’s my recollection of how I went from having no idea what the GRE was to sitting for it in under a week.

Resources used

I ended up studying completely independently (using no prep courses of any kind), with the help of three resources. I used the two free official GRE practice tests available online through ETS, the free Magoosh vocabulary app, and the Manhattan Prep 5 Lb. Book of GRE Practice Problems.

My approach

I started with one of the two free practice GRE tests online. While taking it, I was reminded of the SAT, but I was incredibly confused by the GRE format. Thankfully, upon opening my prep book, I was able to start diving into the different sections (see below for a breakdown of each section).

The remainder of my 4 days consisted of 6-8 hours a day spent alternating between focusing in on the different sections of the test. Then, the 5th day was the day before the test. I reviewed some more vocab, took the second free practice test online (which felt a lot more comfortable this time), and gave myself the rest of the day off.

Math (Quantitative Reasoning)

I majored in math in college, so math tests were a very familiar feeling for me. The GRE math topics, however, were basically all ones I hadn’t explicitly been tested on since middle school, so I did have to spend some time reviewing formulas such as the calculation of standard deviation. Then, it was just a matter of becoming familiar with the unusual format of how math questions are asked in the GRE and looking out for certain tricks - I did this by going through every problem that was a multiple of 5 in the book. Doing a few more than 20% of the practice problems would have been ideal, but since I had very limited time, I focused more of my efforts on other sections.

Essays (Analytical Writing)

There are two different essays you have to write, both with different kinds of prompts, and I wanted to become aware of and familiar with what the graders look for in both of these essays.

To get familiar with the essays, I read a few prompts and example essays with grader comments explaining what was good and bad about them. Then, I fully wrote out 1-2 practice essays for each category, and also outlined essays for 2-3 more prompts. I focused my energy on critically assessing my drafts/outlines and making sure that each practice trial was closer to what the GRE readers were looking for.

Reading/Vocab (Verbal Reasoning)

I definitely studied the most for this section, since I was the least well versed in this form of thinking.

One major concern was the vocabulary, so I used my flashcard app to learn 3-5 words at a time. I wrote sentences that used those words and wrote them down, and then moved on to another chunk of 3-5 words. I can’t say I remember many of those words today, but thankfully I did remember many of them when I took the test.

The verbal section itself reminded me a lot of the much-dreaded critical reading section of the SAT, which I had studied for a lot 6 years prior, so I tried to harness that part of my brain again. The format of the verbal GRE was different from the SAT, so I did a lot of questions to feel comfortable with the format and find a thought process that worked for me.

In conclusion

I hope the study methods that worked for me are helpful for you in navigating your study process. But again, I want to reiterate that the GRE to grad school applications is not necessarily the same as the SAT/ACT was to college applications. Therefore, make sure you understand its role in your application as you plan out your studying!

Neerja Thakkar
Neerja Thakkar
EECS PhD Student @ Berkeley
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