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10 Steps to Tackle a Low GRE Score

Ilana Kowarski

Overcome a disappointing exam.

Prospective graduate school students who are trying to raise their GRE score should take comfort in the knowledge that others have done it before, experts say. "This is the one part of your application that can drastically change between now and the time when you need to apply," says Dennis Yim, director of academics at Kaplan Test Prep, where he tutors GRE and GMAT test-takers. Here are 10 ways to either improve or compensate for a low GRE score.

Don't let one bad test day define you.

Experts say sometimes graduate school applicants are convinced that they are incapable of doing well on the GRE simply because their first attempt didn't go well. But these applicants are often selling themselves short. Jennifer Winward, founder of the Winward Academy e-learning platform, told U.S. News in 2019 that GRE test-takers who are unsatisfied with their scores should figure out what errors they made on the test in the past and come up with strategies to avoid making the same mistakes.

Commit to serious test prep.

Sometimes the key to raising your test score is studying harder and devoting a significant amount of time to test prep. Achieving a top GRE score will most likely require extra effort, experts say, but the good news is that time invested in studying for the GRE can pay off. "If you work hard, if you follow the game plan, you can get where you need to be, if you're able to put the effort in," Yim says.

Restore your high school math skills.

Experts say a frequent reason for poor performance on the GRE is that tester-takers forget their high school math lessons, including the basics of geometry, which is heavily emphasized on the GRE. "The questions may seem tricky, but you have learned the math in high school," Christopher K. Lee, founder of Purpose Redeemed, a career consulting firm, told U.S. News in 2019. "You just need a refresher. In contrast, it's difficult to raise the verbal score, as grammar is not something you can quickly adopt."

Do more reading.

The reason for a low GRE score could be a language barrier or limited English vocabulary. "As an international student, I found that the best way to enhance your reading skills as part of preparing to take the GRE was by reading in English extensively," U.S. News contributor Yao Lu wrote in 2014. "That means reading not only academic papers and your course textbooks, but also the daily news, pieces in magazines and even celebrity gossip websites."

Take multiple practice exams.

It's important to complete multiple GRE practice tests before taking the real exam, experts suggest. "You're doing all this practice so that when you get to the actual test, you will have no surprises," Yim told U.S. News in 2019. Experts caution that the GRE's computer-adaptive format can be intimidating for test-takers who are unaccustomed to it, which is one more reason they should practice in advance.

Use free test prep resources.

Experts say it's foolish not to use the free GRE test prep materials available online from ETS, or Educational Testing Service, the nonprofit organization that creates the GRE exam. The organization's website includes practice exams, sample test questions and a 100-page overview of math concepts that are tested on the GRE. Khan Academy also offers various free lessons on math skills that are tested in the quantitative portions of the GRE exam.

Consider a GRE class or tutor.

Graduate school applicants who are not disciplined enough to self-study for the GRE may find additional motivation if they sign up for a test prep course or tutor, experts say. In general, it's wise to tailor your test prep strategy to your learning style. "People learn over time what kind of learners they are," Dave Killoran, CEO of PowerScore Test Preparation, told U.S. News in 2014.

Capitalize on the ScoreSelect Option.

Graduate school applicants who take advantage of the GRE's ScoreSelect Option have the ability to choose which GRE test scores they report to target institutions. "That allows you and gives you the option to really shoot for the highest score possible," Yim says. Applicants used to worry about low GRE scores becoming a permanent ding on their academic record, he says, but having the ScoreSelect Option eliminates that source of test anxiety.

Choose your target schools wisely.

Experts say applicants who are struggling with the GRE should probably focus on graduate schools that don't automatically weed out applicants based on GRE scores. "It is my experience that most graduate school admissions committees operate in the same way I did," U.S News contributor Don Martin, a former graduate admissions dean who has a doctorate in higher education administration, wrote in 2013. "They will be evaluating the entirety of an application, trying to determine if a student possesses both the academic and interpersonal skills it will take to succeed in graduate school."

Polish other parts of your application.

Graduate school applicants should remember that the GRE is only one component of their application, experts say. So applicants with lackluster GRE scores may want to devote extra time to their admissions essays, which is also what they should do if they need to compensate for a low GPA. Another way to impress admissions officers is to take a graduate-level course and earn an A, experts suggest. Character strengths such as resilience, people skills and diligence are relevant to the graduate admissions process, so applicants should play up those strengths, Martin says.

More about GRE test prep

Discover tips and tricks that will help you excel on the GRE exam, and find advice on applying to grad school. Access our complete rankings of the Best Graduate Schools and consider following U.S. News Education on Twitter and Facebook.

How to handle a low GRE score

-- Don't let one bad test day define you.

-- Commit to serious test prep.

-- Restore your high school math skills.

-- Do more reading.

-- Take multiple practice exams.

-- Use free test prep resources.

-- Consider a GRE class or tutor.

-- Capitalize on the ScoreSelect option.

-- Choose your target schools wisely.

-- Polish other parts of your application.



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