Last Minute GRE Study Tips

GRE“I really want to apply to the MPS program,” a student recently told me. “But I haven’t taken the GRE, and I don’t have enough time to prepare for it. I might have to wait until next year to apply.”

I hear this story often — and it always surprises me. Delaying your education for a year means delaying the benefits of a graduate degree. It can mean missing out on a year’s earnings. In a sense, it involves putting your life on hold, just because you don’t feel ready to take a test.

For the most part, applying to the MPS in Dairy Products Technology program is a painless process. Applicants complete an online application, prepare a short personal statement, and submit transcripts and a couple of letters of recommendation. Applicants tell me they can complete the majority of the application in an afternoon.

But taking the GRE is the one step in the application process that strikes fear into the hearts of many would-be applicants. As the MPS application deadline draws near, the prospect of taking the test without sufficient time to prepare can be a deterrent.

To be clear, time for applying to the MPS program is running short. The application period closes April 1, although applicants have until May 1 to submit supplemental materials, including GRE scores.

The good news is that there’s still plenty of time to prepare for the exam. With a structured plan, the right resources, and some hard work, students should be able to bolster their skills and put up the scores they need to gain admission into the program.

I asked some MPS applicants to share their test prep strategies, especially if they are attempting to tackle the exam with little lead time. I’ll share some of these strategies, but first, let’s review what the GRE actually is.

study 2The GRE, or Graduation Record Examination, is a standardized test that is used as an admissions requirement for most graduate schools in the United States. Every year, more than 700,000 people take the exam. All students seeking admission to graduate programs at Cal Poly are required to submit GRE scores.

The exam measures verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing skills that are not related to any particular field of study. The GRE General Test (required for admission to the MPS program) is offered as a computer-based exam administered at Prometric testing centers. Many locations offer year-round testing, contingent on available seats. The cost to take the test is $205.00. To explore testing options, visit

A good SAT or ACT score and a solid college GPA are good predictors of of how one might fare on the GRE – but they don’t guarantee success. A while back, U.S. News & World Report published its “Six Tips for GRE Success.” The author states that “While the GRE’s quantitative section is not much more advanced than the math found in the SAT—and familiarity with concepts learned in high school should be enough to post a decent score—the verbal section went to college and graduated with honors in English.”

Many applicants to the MPS program concur. “If you you majored in a ‘quantitative’ subject,” one applicant told me, “you won’t need to study too hard for the quantitative reasoning section. But the verbal reasoning section took me by surprise.”

The one piece of advice I hear most often from applicants is to take a practice test. Not only will this help you assess where you stand in the various subjects; it will familiarize you with the test’s structure. Even if your vocabulary is strong and your quantitative skills are sharp, none of that matters if you’re unaccustomed to the test’s unconventional format. Many experts agree.

“To walk into this test unprepared, to sit down [and take it] having never done it before, is suicide,” says Neill Seltzer, national GRE content director for the Princeton Review.

“The first step in preparing yourself is to learn what to expect from the exam’s format and structure,” say Laurie Dove and Patrick Murray in their useful 10-step online GRE study guide (

The GRE is broken down into three primary components: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing. The verbal and quantitative reasoning sections are graded on a 130- to 170-point scale in 1-point increments, and the analytical writing section is scored on a 0-6 scale in half-point increments.

Unlike the SAT or ACT, the GRE is usually taken as a computer-adaptive test. On the computer-based test, the difficulty of the questions is based on the accuracy of your answers to previous questions. The better you perform on the first set of 20 verbal and quantitative reasoning questions, the harder the next set of 20 questions will be.

It’s important to understand that gaining admission into the MPS program doesn’t require setting a record on the GRE. Our applicant review committee looks for students to score at or above the 50th percentile in each of the test subjects. This equates to scores of around 151 Verbal, 151 Quantitative, and 3.5 Writing. If applicants are unhappy with their scores, they can retake the exam and submit a second set of scores for consideration.

It’s also important to remember that the GRE is only one component of the MPS application review process. Students who submit strong academic records and ample evidence of leadership abilities will receive consideration even if their GRE scores are below average. Conversely, high GRE scores may offset apparent weaknesses in other areas.

studyingNumerous online study programs are available to help students prepare for the GRE. Educational Testing Service (ETS), Barron’s, the Princeton Review, and Kaplan all offer online study platforms and free computer adaptive tests that simulate the exam’s unusual format. Books are also available for those who wish to study the old fashioned way.

A common strategy is to purchase a set of GRE prep flashcards, particularly for the vocabulary section. Over the last few months, I have encountered more than one applicant carrying a set of flashcards in her book bag. A quick Google search reveals numerous vendors offering affordable flashcard sets. Many bookstores stock these products as well.

An MPS applicant from Chico State University speaks highly of a series of test prep podcasts offered by VictorPrep. The podcasts can be found on itunes and can also also be heard through the Stitcher radio app for smart phones. The applicant says he found it helpful to have the podcasts playing in the background while driving or doing housework.

One test prep site that comes up frequently among applicants is Magoosh ( Magoosh is an online test prep company that teaches students through video explanations and lessons. The company was formed by two former Haas School of Business students at University of California, Berkeley. Magoosh claims their students score an average of six points higher in each test section than all other GRE takers. They even offer a money-back guarantee. Perhaps most importantly, Magoosh has specific plans for test takers who have as little as a month – or even a week – to prepare.

GRE experts and test takers agree that a great deal can be achieved in a month. If students are willing and able to devote a few hours each day, they can easily boost their vocabularies and relearn fuzzy math concepts. The key, they say, is to move GRE prep to the top of your to-do list. “If you have a month, you can definitely get a great score, but only if you prioritize GRE preparation over everything else,”says Jamboree, an online education site (

Grockit offers a one-week study plan at The site, organized by Kaplan GRE expert Ethan Sterling, serves as a sort of clearinghouse of useful lessons, videos, vocabulary lists, homework, and exam strategies to help test takers make the most of their time. Sterling confides that “trying to study for the GRE in a week is never easy.”

Magoosh also cautions students that there’s only so much that can be accomplished in a week. “If you [only] have one week to prepare for the GRE revised General Test, you will need to have realistic expectations of what you can achieve in your studying,” says Magoosh author Chris Lele. “While one week is not enough time to learn new vocabulary words, it is enough time to review some of the math concepts that you might encounter when taking the exam.”

All of these last-minute test prep programs share common features and recommendations, including rigorous study schedules with detailed instructions for how to best utilize limited time. They emphasize that students will benefit from sticking to a daily study plan, and that longer hours of focused work will lead to better results. And they all finish with the same advice: get a good night’s sleep before the exam.

“Make sure you are calm and as collected as possible,” says Magoosh’s Lele. “If you still need to go through formulas or strategies, do so, but make sure the experience isn’t making you feel stressed. If it is, stop. Remember, going in with a clear head is far better than shaking in trepidation as you walk into the test center.”

In conclusion: if worries about the GRE are keeping you from applying to the MPS program, try to keep things in perspective. Your GRE scores represent only a portion of your application file. Grades, letters of recommendation, leadership experience, and your personal statement are equally important. Your first step should be to take a GRE practice test and see where you stand. If you score at or above the 50th percentile, you might not need much preparation at all. If you identify an area of weakness, you know where to focus your energies in the weeks leading up to the exam. Then utilize the ample resources available to prepare for the exam as efficiently as possible.

Good luck – I hope to see your application soon!

Questions? Call, text, or email me anytime. I look forward to hearing from you!

Tom Photo 2015Tom Johnson. Program Manager
MPS in Dairy Products Technology
(970) 215-3459 cell