Preparing for the GRE: Tips and Tools

Many graduate degree programs, including the Master of Public Administration (MPA) at the UNC School of Government, require standardized test results from a graduate examination taken within five years prior to application. The most common and accepted graduate examination is the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), although some programs, such as MPA@UNC, will also accept LSAT or GMAT scores. If you have never taken the GRE—or it has been some time since your last standardized test—below is helpful information on what the exam entails and how you can best prepare for it.

What Is the GRE?

The GRE is a standardized test that measures skills of verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, analytical writing, and critical thinking. The exam is given in six parts: two analytical writing sections (“Analyze an Issue” and “Analyze an Argument”), two verbal reasoning sections (20 questions for each section), and two quantitative reasoning sections (20 questions for each section).

With so many sections, the test takes quite some time—approximately three-and-a-half hours. Potential graduate students do have some flexibility in where and when they choose to take the exam; the test is offered by appointment or on a regular schedule at about 700 test centers in more than 160 countries. Test centers can be found on the GRE website.

Many graduate schools require that prospective students include their GRE score on their applications. While you should receive your full test score within a few weeks of taking the test, try to take the exam well in advance of your admissions deadline. You can retake the GRE if you are not satisfied with your score, but you must wait 30 days to retake it. You will receive your unofficial scores when you complete the computer-based test, so you will know right away if you need to retake the test. Ideally, you should plan to take the GRE at least one year before you intend to begin graduate school so that you have ample time to study and retake the test if necessary.

Preparing for the Big Test

It is easy to get overwhelmed before a big test, especially one as important as the GRE. But if you study regularly and establish a game plan, you will feel far more at ease. Here are some test preparation resources and tips:

Practice, practice, practice. Huffington Post recommends taking practice tests. The ETS GRE site offers test books, timed electronic sample tests, and math review sections. Many of these resources are free, and the site also offers low-cost test-taking guides. The Princeton Review and Kaplan both offer inexpensive test preparation and practice guides as well as in-person classes.

Brush up your vocabulary. Make sure that you spend time focusing on your vocabulary. Most study guides will include lists of vocabulary words that you should familiarize yourself with before taking the test. Make flash cards and practice with them often. The key to scoring well on GRE verbal sections is understanding the test’s word usage.

Focus on your weaker areas. You probably already know whether you should focus more on your verbal or math skills, but your practice tests will also be good indicators of where you should focus your studies. Devote entire study sessions to sharpening those skills, and study regularly.

Facebook can wait. Ideally, you should study five days a week for one hour a day. Try studying at the same time every day and at a time when you feel alert. Choose a location that is quiet, comfortable, and free from distractions. That means leaving your phone or tablet in another room if emails, texts, or Facebook threaten to distract you.

If you want additional assistance, you can always register for a GRE preparation class or work with a tutor. The Princeton Review offers both live and online classes and tutors. As with any additional preparation, these options can give you an extra edge when test time comes.

Further MPA Admissions Information

If you have any questions about GRE resources or about applying for the UNC School of Government’s MPA program, an admissions counselor will be happy to assist you. It is never too early to start preparing for a successful future in public service.