The Poor Kid’s Guide to Surviving the GRE

I’ve gotten a few inquiries from friends asking me how I prepared for the GRE, or Graduate Records Examinations, the exam most people will have to take to apply for grad school. Not all schools need you to take the GRE, though, so do some research on the programs you’re interested in before you end up wasting a lot of time and money taking something that will be superfluous. I suspect that the people who have reached out to me to get my perspective have done so because they want to hear strategies from a working class graduate hopeful because they themselves are working class students. So, this blog post is tailored to working class grad hopefuls–the ones who can’t afford expensive and time consuming courses or who don’t have the legacy infrastructures of more affluent, usually whiter, students.

So you want to pass the GRE but you have limited resources–money, time, connections?

Where to start? Besides praying for your life, that is.



First of all, you may be asking what it mean to “pass the GRE.” There is no official threshold for the GRE, but generally a score of 300 (or 302 depending where you look) or above means you’re in good shape for most programs. It also depends on your department. For me, because I was applying primarily to humanities programs, a combined score of 300 on the Quantitative and Verbal Reasoning plus a very good score on the Analytic Writing meant that I felt I was in good shape. Sure, I could have taken it again to boost my Quantitative score which was below average, but that might have bothered me more if I was applying to programs that emphasized more math. The point is to do your research about the requirements for your specific program. This is as easy as looking on the graduate program website. Sometimes they will have the scores of students by department. You’ll want to get into the habit of browsing through a lot of schools’ websites to dig up information.

This chart, from ETS, the makers of the GRE, shows the average scores of test-takers by department.

Intended Major Math Verbal
Business 153 150
Education 149 151
Engineering 159 150
Humanities and Arts 150 157
Natural Sciences 151 151
Social Sciences 150 153
Source: Magoosh Blog

The test results, which you should receive about 2 weeks after taking the test, will also give you a percentage that it uses to compare your performance to other test-takers. Don’t fret if your scores are not where you want them to be the first time because you can always take the test again 21 days after your initial try but no more than 5 times a year. 


If you’re a working class student without a lot of money, you should seriously consider whether you are ready to take the exam because each one will cost you $160 a pop plus at least a half day of work because the exam itself lasts about five hours.

On the (kind of) bright side, there are fee waivers available through your university or former university. As with virtually everything going forward in the graduate application process, you have to be on top of things because your fee GRE waiver application could take 3 weeks of more to go through. Count on it taking longer, too, because people forget to process your things or you may have trouble getting through. My best advice is to make friends with at least one of the workers at the financial aid office. Seriously. If you can get an email of someone who you can personally follow up with, that’s your best bet.

Don’t make the same mistake I did of signing up in a rush. You may end up paying money out of pocket that you don’t have to. The same goes for having your GRE scores sent if you go beyond their four free score reports, college transcripts (from UC and Community college if this applies to you and your official UC transcripts don’t have your CC information), applications. It pays to be on top of this because, for six schools, I spent about $1,000 after all was said and done. As a working class student myself, this meant I spent money I could have spent on things like rent and food. I also had to borrow money from several friends who I am very blessed to have! I have seen other friends of mine do Go Fund Me campaigns as well. It’s important to reach out to your broad networks at this time to start laying out the groundwork for the arduous application process. Plan ahead.


People have asked me, is the test hard? The short answer is yes, very. STUDY.

What materials did I use to study? The first thing you should know is that I used different materials to study for different sections. I used a combination of books and apps. And, if I could go back in time knowing what I know now, I would have done some extra drills from online resources or dug up some of my high school geometry notebooks (more on this below). All in all, I think it was a good strategy to diversify my resources because one source will not be enough. Plus, trying out the app once in a while can be fun when you make it a game (more on this below, too).

Quantitative Reasoning

This section is graded on a scale from 130-170 where each question is worth one point.

Like I said, the quantitative was my worst score by far. I am not ashamed to say that I scored in the 25 percentile AND I studied. I used a GRE prep book from The Princeton Review and a friend’s GRE prep book from another company which might have been Kaplan or Barron’s. I got mine donated from a friend who handed it down to me, so it was a year old but I suggest doing your research before purchasing one as they can get pricey. What’s worse is that in my case, the books were not super helpful in this section! I should add that I have been a math tutor for close to a decade and it was still hard for me. Don’t think you can slack off and pass this even if you were a math whiz in high school or college. It is hard and you are competing against all of the engineering and business folks who are also taking it so this will reflect on your percentile score. Don’t freak out, but do buckle down and study habitually.

My biggest peeve about this section of the exam was that I studied the books and brushed up on multi-step algebraic problems but on the day of the exam, I was shocked to see that more than half of my problems were geometry questions. Seriously, several questions were about triangles and congruent angles–things that I rarely tutor and that I haven’t studied in a systematic way since 9th grade! Not to mention, geometry was never my favorite math. These were basic concepts, though, that if I had known, I would have brushed up on. The point is, study the algebra (PEMDAS, inverse operations, word problems), but don’t slack on the geometry formulas as well! If the book or app you are using to study does not do this, do yourself a favor and do some research online about geometry worksheets you can use to study. In terms of the algebra, the books were okay. I also used an app that I couldn’t find in the app store anymore! There are several good apps that should be free or low cost, though. These are worth it.

Get into a routine and study once or twice a week for several hours of intensive studying for a few months and you will be fine. I took mine in the fall while I was still an undergrad, so I took advantage of my summer break. But if you work a lot, carve out space on your weekends. If you can, get a study buddy even if it’s just for this portion. If you don’t have friends who are in the same boat, reach out to your extended networks or even put up an ad on Craigslist. I guarantee if it’s the right fit, it can make the process a lot less daunting because you have someone to workshop problems with. Plus, it can help keep you accountable. On the other hand, if it becomes more of a hassle, don’t let that drag you down and study alone. But study. You can set a modest goal for yourself of 149-150. Honestly, for most programs, this should be enough. If you want to set a higher goal, go ahead and do that too. That’s great!

Verbal Reasoning

This section is graded on a scale from 130-170 where each question is worth one point.

The verbal portion of the test was probably the most fun and most tedious to study because it takes regular, repetitive, daily cranial exercises. I downloaded the app, Magoosh Vocabulary Flashcards and tried to study those daily. Try to incorporate them into your daily vocabulary, even if it feels uncomfortable or snobby. They will stick that way. If you’re a native speaker of another language, try to look for root words that will help you remember words. Or come up with rhyme schemes. Get creative because, depending on where you look, there are about 1500 GRE words you should know. I also recommend, if you don’t already do this, get in the habit of reading fiction and nonfiction and making a word list based on the readings. For me, the Magoosh app was seriously enough. You can easily make it a game with friends who are interested in expanding their vocabulary or studying for the GRE, too.

Another reason I say it’s important to commit these new words to memory is because they will come in handy in the last section–the Analytic Writing!

Analytic Writing

This section is scored out of 6 points with the possibility of scoring half points e.g. 4.5/6.

There’s no reason you should not pass the Analytic Writing section with an above average score if you follow these steps. I scored in the 90+ percentile so I know what I’m talking about in this section. Read along.

There are two types of prompts in this section. One is called “Analyze an Argument” and the other is “Analyze an Issue.” Each one is 30 minutes, so I suggest don’t waste any time. Come in with a game plan as much as you possibly can without knowing the actual prompt. This means 1) know what each kind of essay is asking you and how to respond 2) which kind of outline works best for you (I personally love bubble maps, but you can also make a table or something else). Whatever it is, make sure you are comfortable using it and that you will read the prompt and start building your outline right away. 3) have several GRE words on hand that you will sprinkle in there–ONLY use ones that you are very confident using. Don’t use any that you are not comfortable using or this may backfire. Pro tip: diversify your language. If you can, avoid using the same word more than once. For example, if I wanted to give several examples, I could say “for example” and in another case write “another instance where this is illustrated is….” Again, don’t write anything you are uncomfortable writing or it will come off as awkward, but try to push yourself out of your comfort zone tastefully and you will be rewarded.

  1. For “Analyze an Argument,” the first thing you have to know is that you should never write your opinion about whether you agree or disagree with the argument. This may be counterintuitive for many humanities students and grads who are used to writing papers with clearly articulated point of view. Read the directions carefully!

Write a response in which you discuss what questions would need to be answered in order to decide whether the recommendation and the argument on which it is based are reasonable. Be sure to explain how the answers to these questions would help to evaluate the recommendation.

You should be in good shape if your essay summarizes the argument clearly using evidence from the text, its assumptions or logical basis, identify weaknesses in the argument and articulate what *specific* evidence would be needed to strengthen the argument.

2. “Analyze an Issue” gives you the opportunity to agree or disagree with a topic. Again, read the prompt very carefully and answer exactly what it is asking.

Write a response in which you discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the claim. In developing and supporting your position, be sure to address the most compelling reasons or examples that could be used to challenge your position.

This is a far more traditional essay than the other one. You will have to take a position on an issue and support it with evidence. Make your reasons compelling and, most importantly, relevant. Remember that you can always agree with conditions as long as they are clearly stated with logical reasoning behind your reservations. You can also present a counter-argument if it is sharp and you feel you can do a good job of addressing it.

Best of luck!


The following are some general test-taking strategies. Take it or leave it. Like everything else in this post, use what works best for you.

You’ve heard all the things about getting enough rest, eating a balanced breakfast, drink water and relaxing during a test. This is all especially important with the GRE because it does last up to 5 hours with very few breaks.

Try not to be intimidated by the high security, but, fair warning, if you are someone who has trouble with authority or a history of getting in trouble with authorities, heads up the process may be triggering. They take your ID AND finger prints whenever you enter and leave the room for a break. Practice breathing exercises to relax yourself and you can make it through.

Practice some general test taking strategies like process of elimination. This SERIOUSLY does help.

Take at least two practice tests before the big day to practice pacing yourself. I had plenty of time, but then again everyone is different.

Proactive work books are generally really good at guiding you step by step through this in the beginning and come with some practice tests.

So, I’ve written all I can think of now, but if you have additional questions, leave me a comment below! And, when all is said and done and your test has been completed, don’t forget to take a breather and celebrate the small victories!


Actual photo of the cake that bae got me after I finished the GRE. Tasted like success.





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