When Should You Start Studying for the GRE?

So, you need to take the GRE to get into grad school—but when should you begin studying? It depends on two factors: 1) your score gain goals and 2) how much time you have available.

#1 Score Gain Goals

Determine your baseline score (i.e., how you would score if you tested today). Take a practice test, either by downloading the free PowerPrep software from the ETS website or by checking out a recent GRE prep book from the library. Make sure you test under realistic conditions (complete all sections in order and time yourself) to gauge a realistic base score.

Then, determine your target score. Research score averages for your prospective programs, and pay special attention to scores for the section most relevant to your program. The highest score(s) for your school list should be your target score(s). Calculate the difference between your current score(s) and your target score(s). For verbal and quantitative reasoning sections, you should typically dedicate at least 2 hours of studying to each point increase you want to see. For the notoriously difficult analytical writing section, commit a minimum of 4 hours to each desired score increase of .5. Treat these numbers as guidelines, though; your time commitment may vary drastically depending on your focus, natural ability, and learning speed.

#2 Time Available Until Test Day

If you must take the test next week to meet deadlines, you should begin ASAP, of course—but cramming isn’t ideal. Information won’t “stick” and you won’t feel well prepared. If possible, begin well in advance. If you give yourself six months, you can plan more liberally and balance studying with other priorities. Consider how much time you have available (both until test day and daily) and create a schedule that accommodates your studying regime in addition to your other commitments.

Our Example Student, Bob

Say Bob takes a practice test and scores 156 on verbal, 160 on quantitative, and 3 on analytical writing. Let’s say he wants to enroll in UC Berkeley’s competitive Cognition Ph.D. program. Upon searching the program website, he finds that average scores for the 2016 cohort were 170 for verbal, 168 for quantitative reasoning, and 5.0 for analytical writing. He would need a 15-point increase on verbal, an 8-point increase on quantitative, and a 2-point increase on the writing section to become a strong contender for admission, and accordingly, he would commit at least 28, 16, and 16 hours of studying for each section, respectively—about 60 hours total. Now, if he begins studying 6 months before the test date, he can study for 10 hours a month, or about 2.5 hours/week—or, specifically, 30 minutes every weekday if he prefers his weekends to be free. If he began studying a month beforehand, he’d study for 15 hours a week, or 3 hours each weekday.

When portioning studying time, account for time blocks already dedicated to other obligations such as school and work. If you can only study on weekends because of your work schedule, for example, you may even need more than 6 months, but if your days are almost completely free, you may need fewer.

As you can already see, the more time you have, the better you can split up that time to prepare effectively. With 30 minutes of studying a day, you still have plenty of time for school, work, socializing, and other priorities—as well as much-needed sleep. The closer to test day you begin studying, the more these other priorities may be compromised or even suffer. The moral: If you need to see drastic score increases and/or have several other time commitments, begin studying well ahead of test day; if your desired increases are minor and/or you have more time available, you can afford to begin studying later.

Generally speaking, beginning preparation early is the safest bet. If you have time to spare at the end of your studying regime, you can (and should) take more practice tests, complete more exercises, and practice more GRE vocabulary until test day. Spare time will also give you a buffer in case your studying hasn’t led to the desired score increases or you need to retake the test. Because computer-delivered GRE score reports can take 15 business days to reach your schools and you can only retest once every 21 days, you should allow plenty of time before your application deadline to retest in case of a poor test day or unexpected results.

GRE scores can be a crucial element of school applications—even as an initial cutoff tool for certain admission committees. By investing time and effort into outstanding scores, you can stand out among the competition and get one step closer to your dream program!
Pro-tip: We recommend you start studying with Ready4 GRE today!