What I Learned from Failing the GRE


Okay. Technically, you can't "fail" the GRE. The overall scores range from 130 to 170, not F to A. But if you could fail, then I would've failed! My score was that bad. That said, there are some things that I could've done differently to position myself for success. This is what I should've done.


Start with the end goal in mind

My first mistake was that I decided to apply to PhD programs at the last minute. I already started my senior year of college, which meant that I had to study for the GRE and work on my application essays while developing final papers. I took the GRE after the semester, during my winter break.

This wasn't ideal at all. But since I was rushed, I decided to spend more time developing my personal statement and writing sample instead of studying for the GRE. Failing the test taught me that you gotta' give yourself time to put together a strong grad school application.

Had I known that I was going to apply to PhD programs earlier, I would've worked backward. By this, I mean starting with the GRE test date in mind. Decide when you want to take the test, and then count back 8-10 weeks. Ideally, that day is when you should begin preparing for GRE (or at least when I should've began). *Kanye shrug*


Practice, practice, practice

The GRE General Test consists of three sections: Analytical Writing (two different essay prompts), Verbal Reasoning (which is kinda' like SAT Reading), and Quantitative Reasoning (which is kinda' like SAT Math). Before you begin your GRE prep, you should start with a timed practice test.

After you score it, you'll have a better understanding of where you stand and which areas need more work. Starting with a practice test is also good for allowing you to keep track of your progress over time.


Design a plan

Now that you've taken, and scored, your first practice test. You should create a study schedule. Like I said, I wish that I had given myself 8-10 weeks to study. But some people may need more time, while some may need less. If you're not in a rush though, then I'd recommend taking your time.

Either way, you'll need to determine how many days you'll study each week, how long you'll study each day, and how many practice tests you'll take before the actual test date. It also may be a good idea to study in an environment that's similar to testing conditions.

I studied in my room, which made it easier for me to give in to distractions when I got tired. So if you're anything like me, don't do that.


Set your target

What score do you want? I should've started with a number in mind rather than relying on "I'm just going to do the best I can." Yes, you should do your best, BUT you should also have a target. If you don't already have a number in mind, check out the websites for all of the schools you intend on applying to. Many graduate programs post the average GRE scores of their incoming students online. Keep in mind that these scores are averages though, which means that some students scored higher and some lower. Have your target score in mind, but do your best. (See what I did there?)

FYI: It's also important to note that some graduate school programs don't require GRE scores. Review all of the application requirements and call or email the programs to make sure that they even require the test.


Be consistent

Be consistent. Be consistent. Be consistent. One of the main reasons why I think I did poorly on the GRE was because I wasn't committed to the study grind. And when you start making excuses for not studying, it becomes so easy to find more reasons why you should put it off until tomorrow or......next week. Trust me. I failed, remember?

I started off all excited, and I saw my scores began to rise as a result. But by the time that fourth week came around, I was "muhfuckin tired" of those GRE books! It got to the point where I purposely created "homework," so that I could avoid studying. I don't want you to be like me, though. Be better than me.

After you design your study schedule, stick to it!


Get help from others

One way to maintain consistency is to have an accountability partner. If you intend on taking the GRE, share your plan with a mentor, family member, and/or friend. Then ask them to check in on you from time to time. It could be a daily thing, or a weekly thing. It's up to you.

If you can find someone who's also studying for the GRE (or another test), even better.


Go digital

When I studied for the GRE, I only used the practice tests in the back of my prep book. But those were paper. On test day, I was taking it on a COMPUTER.

"Dang. I wish that I would've studied like this," I murmured to myself, WHILE taking my exam.

Photo of me taking the GRE.

Photo of me taking the GRE.

So when you register for the GRE, write down whether your particular test will be paper-based or administered through a computer. Most testing sites offer computer testing. But paper-based tests are given three times each year. Either way, it's important that you practice how you'll play. If you're taking the actual test on a computer, take practice tests on a computer. If you're taking the actual test on paper, take paper practice tests.


Take a visit (If you can)

Instead of taking the GRE somewhere near my school, I decided to take it when I was back home in Florida. The testing site was only 30 minutes away from my house, and because of that, I felt pretty confident about being able to find it the day of my test. But I really wish that I would've visited beforehand.

My test was scheduled for 8:00am. I made it to the school's campus around 7:00am. But around 7:47am, I was on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

My GPS kept sending me to the wrong parts of the school, even though I typed the location correctly. [Insert: another crying Jordan face]

Sweaty and tired from running (more like sprinting) from place to place, I ended up asking random students for directions. But NO ONE knew where the place was. I was on the verge of tears. Time was running out. It was November. My applications were due in December and January. But the next GRE wasn't offered until February. (Yeah, I messed myself up.)

I eventually found it. But I said all of that to say, please visit your testing site before your actual test, if you can.


Keep moving forward

One major benefit of the computer GRE Test is that you find out your results instantly. So rather than having to wait a few weeks, I learned that I failed the test as soon as I finished. But it was funny. I walked out of the exam room all sad, unsure about my future, and then I went outside.

Birds were chirping. The sun was shining. People were smiling, all happy. I remember saying, "How is it so beautiful outside after I just bombed this test?"

It felt like a cruel joke. But what that moment made me quickly realize is that life goes on. If you don't do as well as you would've liked on the GRE, take some time to regroup. Decide if you should take it again. Figure out your next move. But either way, keep moving forward.

Besides, if you fail, it'll make for a great story to tell down the road, after you're successfully admitted to grad school. 


About the Author

Bennie is a third-year PhD student at Northwestern University, where he is studying African American Studies. He created Just Tryna' Graduate to help Black students get to & through graduate school. You can find him on Linkedin and Twitter.

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