• Your 7-step guide to becoming a Psychology Grad Student

Some graduate programs will require that you take one or more Graduate Record Exam (GRE) Tests. The GRE tests are standardized, which allows institutions to be able to readily interpret scores and make comparisons across students from different schools. GRE test scores have been shown to help predict academic success in graduate students, which is why they are used to aid in admission decisions.

About the GRE

Many graduate programs will require that you take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) General Test. The General GRE measures verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, critical thinking, and analytical writing skills. The writing section consists of two writing tasks, or essays: analyze an issue, and analyze an argument. The General GRE is administered at testing centers all over the world (in over 160 countries). In some locations, it is offered in computer-based form most days of the year. In other places, it is offered as little as once a month, and in more remote locations, it may only be available as a paper-based test a few times a year. The total test administration time is about 3-4 hours. Click here to download a guide with detailed information about the General GRE.

Some graduate programs will also require that you take the GRE Advanced Subject Test in Psychology, or the Psychology GRE. The Psychology GRE contains questions regarding core knowledge in psychology that are drawn from undergraduate courses commonly taken by psychology students. The Psychology GRE has about 200 questions. The content of the questions is made up of about 40% experimental psychology, 43% social psychology, and 17% from other topics such as history, assessment, and industrial/organizational psychology. The Psychology GRE is only offered as a paper-based test and is only available three times a year (September, October, and April). You can think of the Psychology GRE as a final exam for all of your psychology courses that you have taken as an undergraduate. Here is a breakdown of the content sections:

  • Experimental: Learning, Language/Memory, Cognitive, Sensation/Perception, and Biopsychology
  • Social: Clinical/Abnormal, Development, Personality, and Social Psychology
  • General: History, Applied, Psychometrics, Research, and Statistics

Studying for the GRE

You should spend a lot of time studying for these exams, as you are in competition with other highly intelligent and motivated students who are also applying for graduate school. In other words, you are up against many top performing college graduates. Schedule your preparation for a time when you are not very busy with other things (i.e. over a summer break from school, or a semester when your courseload is light). Also, make sure to register far in advance, and make sure to schedule it before your application deadlines so that the scores can be sent to the graduate programs on time. If you need to take the Psychology GRE, remember that it is only offered three times a year, and you will need to plan ahead accordingly.

Cutoff Scores for the GRE

The graduate programs you apply to will have different cutoff scores that you will need to reach in order to be considered for admission. You can find these scores out on the program websites, by asking the program staff directly, or in this book. You also might pay attention to the average scores of admitted students; finding this information out might help you in estimating your chances of being admitted to different programs. Some programs will be very strict about GRE cutoffs, while others will be more flexible.

Retaking the GRE

Some students ask whether they should take the GRE multiple times, either for practice, or for a chance to improve their scores. Each graduate program will have its own guidelines and preferences in regards to applicants who have retaken the GRE. It is possible that they will only look at or consider your highest scores. On the other hand, it is possible that they will notice that you took it multiple times in an attempt to raise your scores. ETS has created a new program called ScoreSelect where it may be possible to choose which scores you would like to send to particular schools. However, consider that it can be very expensive to retake the course, and you will not only spend money but time and effort in practice and preparation. It also costs money to send scores from a specific test administration after the test day has passed (while it is free to send scores to up to 4 institutions immediately after you complete the test). You should only retake the GRE if you are sure that you will be able to improve your scores significantly.  Do not just rely on the practice effect and assume your score will be higher just because you have taken the test once before.

Preparing for the General GRE

The General GRE has many free test preparation materials that can be downloaded online. You should definitely download the free software, PowerPrep II, from Educational Testing Services (ETS). You can take practice tests by using the PowerPrep II software. You can also download a paper-based practice booklet. Spend a lot of time familiarizing yourself with the format of the test, the content of the test, and most importantly, learn test-taking strategies.

Another advantageous option is to purchase a General GRE test preparation book. These are excellent resources because they spend a lot of time covering test-taking strategies that will specifically help you be successful on this exact test. For example, while it is impossible to memorize a dictionary, you can improve your chances on the verbal section of the GRE by studying how to generalize roots of words. These test preparation books will provide you with the particular skills that will help you to quickly and correctly complete the GRE test items. Here are the top 3 GRE test preparation guides sold on Amazon.com:

Apps for your phone or tablet are very convenient and inexpensive ways of studying for the GRE.  They will give you a lot of practice working through GRE test items and offer lots of study options that you can take on-the-go. Here are a few great ideas:

Some colleges and universities offer campus-based GRE test preparation courses; try asking a professor or searching the school’s website to find out if they are available at your school. It is possible that you do not have to be a regularly enrolled student to take these courses at a school. These are usually much less expensive than test preparation courses through for-profit companies. These courses will be taught by experts on the GRE test and will give you much practice in completing test items as well as teach you valuable test-taking strategies.

For more expensive yet comprehensive options, you can take a GRE test preparation course, either online or in person. Check out test preparation companies like Magoosh, Kaplan Test Prep, or Princeton Review. Many of these companies offer in-person teaching in a classroom setting, live online teaching, self-paced online studying, and/or mobile device applications. For example, Magoosh includes both web and mobile studying and a 7-day money back guarantee. Once you register with a company, you can take free practice tests to see where your current scores fall, and find out how they might compare to the score you would need to be a competitive applicant for the programs you plan to apply to. You should consider investing in a test preparation course if you know you are a poor test taker or if you need to improve your score significantly to be considered for admission.

Preparing for the Psychology GRE

The Psychology GRE also has a practice booklet that you can download from ETS. The practice booklet contains one full-length actual Psychology GRE test as well as information about test-taking strategies. Spend a lot of time practicing taking the test; this will get you very comfortable with the format and help you to know what to expect in regards to test content.

Another way to prepare is by reviewing your lecture notes from all of your psychology courses. Some students save their course notes if they are planning ahead for graduate school in psychology. You could also reread your Intro to Psychology textbook, or purchase an inexpensive used copy, even if it is not the most current edition. If you have time, it is a great idea to enroll in a History of Psychology course, if your university offers one. This course will provide a comprehensive overview of all of the important events and research that have taken place in the field of psychology, and will act as an integrative review of all psychology courses. Another option is to purchase a Psychology GRE test preparation book. Here are some great options:

You could also enroll in a Psychology GRE test preparation course. Again, check if your college or university offers one, or look into some of the popular test preparation companies. However, the Advanced Subject GRE test preparation courses are difficult to find or may not be available. It might be possible to find a private tutor to help you prepare.