Some GRE-taking strategies

Perhaps I have written too many posts about the GRE and different aspects of preparing for the test. I kept talking about preparation all this time, but I gave little to no indication about test-taking strategies. Now, if you followed either the roadmap or the list of general GRE study plans, you should be familiar with the content and the format. But some of these tips are subject test-specific and others are applicable both to the general and subject GREs. Let’s begin with the tips applicable to both the general and subject GREs.


  1. Answer the questions you’re confident about first. Remember, the GRE is a test where time management is crucial. If you answer the questions you’re confident about first, you would then save precious time that could be better spent on trying to solve the more difficult problems. Which leads to the next tip…
  2. Pace yourself. That doesn’t mean that you should spend as close to 2 minutes as possible on each math question, or close to 1 minute as possible on each verbal question. 2 minutes seems a little long to answer a math question but, when you start doing the calculations, you could realize that it is at a premium.
  3. Use the scratch paper. You will not be allowed to bring paper to the testing center with you, but you will be provided with scratch paper (on subject tests, the reverse of each page with the items contains scratch space). Use it to help solve math problems, outline your essay for the writing portion or write down formulas or vocabulary words you’ve memorized before the test.
  4. Use the elimination techniques at your disposal before guessing. If you can eliminate even one wrong answer (e.g. through dimensional analysis, limiting behaviors, unit consistency on the subject GRE, an answer choice whose meaning is opposite to another answer on the verbal part of the general GRE) you’ll be in a much better position to guess if it came to that. What form the penalties from guessing incorrectly on the GRE take depends on whether you are talking about the general or the subject GRE. On the general GRE, you might not be penalized on your raw score for bad answers, but the raw score of the first section determines the difficulty of the second one.
  5. Don’t second-guess yourself too often. Statistics suggest that your first answer choice is usually correct as long as you’ve prepared well for the exam and have a solid knowledge base. Do not go back through the test and change your answers on the paper exam unless you’ve discovered information that leads you to a new conclusion or you realize that you didn’t give yourself enough time to thoughtfully consider the question on the first try.


You may realize that there are tips that apply only to one section or one test. Here are the personal tips I used…


  1. (Verbal section), look at the answers before looking at the question. Instead of plunging ahead into the text, read what you need to be looking out for. You’ll save time and score more points by reading the answer choices before you read the text.
  2. (Analytical writing section), outline. It may seem like old hat, but you can’t disregard the GRE writing section. Before you start writing, make sure you take five minutes to outline what you’re going to say first. Your organization and thought process will be much higher if you do.
  3. (Subject tests), do not wait until the end to mark the answers on the sheet. It could cost you precious time if you did so, precious time that you could use for reviewing troublesome questions.


You may have also realized that general GRE tests and subject tests are quite different, not only in content but also in scoring. Whereas there are questions on the general GRE where multiple answers are acceptable, or even required, on the subject GRE multiple answers are not scored. Subject tests penalize you for any wrong answer to the tune of 1/4 of a raw point apiece. Hence the need to be able to eliminate at least one incorrect answer before guessing on a subject test which, scaled, is, in theory, scored from 200 to 990. In practice, on some tests, the actual ceiling is lower than 990, and the actual floor is higher than 200; for this reason, subject test scores are often reported as percentiles. And the general GRE is scored from 130-170 for verbal and quantitative, and 0-6 for writing. Which leads me to what constitutes a good score. Of course, this is very program-dependent, so what is good for one program is not necessarily good for another; however, not many programs will post the average scores of admitted students.

For informational purposes, here are the averages for UPenn’s physics PhD program (my first choice, now that Harvard and Princeton are removed from my list, replaced by Brown, itself replaced by UChicago and UNC-Chapel Hill): V626/162 (86th percentile; however, non-native English speakers are removed from the equation), Q780/163 (88th percentile) with no AW average posted.

2 thoughts on “Some GRE-taking strategies

  1. Wow, great tips and nice blog! I wish I had read this when I was applying last May. It’s nice to see someone else in the application process for grad school, even though I am applying to a different program. Good luck to you!

    • I am going to need some luck, especially given that I have multiple Ivies on my list (remember: a school that is highly selective for undergrad is not necessarily equally hard to get into for a PhD) and, in this respect, UPenn and Brown are quite hard to get into but Dartmouth is actually one of the safer schools on my list.

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