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Grad School: How Do I Prepare for the GRE for an I/O Psychology Master’s/Ph.D.?

2011 July 19

Grad School Series: Applying to Graduate School in Industrial/Organizational Psychology
Starting Sophomore Year: Should I get a Ph.D. or Master’s? | How to Get Research Experience
Starting Junior Year: Preparing for the GRE | Getting Recommendations
Starting Senior Year: Where to Apply | Traditional vs. Online Degrees | Personal Statements
Alternative Path: Managing a Career Change to I/O | Pursuing a PhD Post-Master’s
Interviews/Visits: Preparing for Interviews | Going to Interviews
In Graduate School: What to Expect First Year
Rankings/Listings: PhD Program Rankings | Online Programs Listing

So you want to go to graduate school in industrial/organizational (I/O) psychology? Lots of decisions, not much direction. I bet I can help!

While my undergraduate students are lucky to be at a school with I/O psychologists, many students interested in I/O psychology aren’t at schools with people they can talk to. I/O psychology is still fairly uncommon in the grand scheme of psychologists; there are around 7,000 members of SIOP, the dominant professional organization of I/O, compared to the 150,000 in the American Psychological Association. As a result, many schools simply don’t have faculty with expertise in this area, leading many promising graduate students to apply elsewhere. That’s great from the perspective of I/O psychologists – lots of jobs – but not so great for grad-students-to-be or the field as a whole.

As a faculty member at ODU with a small army of undergraduate research assistants, I often find myself answering the same questions over and over again about graduate school. So why not share this advice with everyone?

This week, I’d like to talk about an important step in preparation to enter grad school: How do I prepare for the GREs?

The GREs, although just a couple of numbers in your graduate school application, are absolutely critical.  Poor GREs can sink even a moderately strong application while exceptional GREs can lend strong support to a weak one.  The reason for this is that GRE is a standardized indicator of potential.

Standardization is important because it helps the faculty reading your application put all the other information in perspective.  If you have a strong GPA, it’s hard for us to tell if that’s because you worked really hard, because you took easy classes, or because you cheated your way through.  If you have strong recommendation letters, it’s difficult to know if you had a personal relationship with those faculty or if they send out the same letter for everyone.  If you have research experience, it’s tricky to know what you really learned from that experience.  So while all of this information is useful in putting together a complete picture of your potential as a graduate student, GRE scores are the only thing we can use to directly compare one applicant to another.

The GRE is what’s called a “high stakes” test.  You only have one shot at it, and the results are extremely important.  Because of this, it is absolutely critical that you prepare appropriately for the experience.

There are really two aspects to GRE prep.  The first is long-term preparation, which you’ve been doing since you were born – learning.  The more familiar you are with how the world works and why it works that way, the better you will do.  There are two character traits that will help you here: intelligence and motivation to learn.  The greater your intelligence, the easier you will find it to learn.  The greater your motivation to learn, the more likely you have sought information when you had a question about the world.  When you think to yourself, “I wonder…” do you run to check for the answer online?  That’s motivation to learn.

You can improve your long-term readiness for the GRE by taking challenging classes and taking every opportunity you can to learn about the world around you.

The second aspect to GRE prep is short-term preparation, which you should begin during your Junior year of college.  This involves taking some kind of preparatory course on the GRE.  You don’t necessarily take a GRE prep course to learn the content on the GRE, aside from brushing up on vocabulary and mathematics you’ve forgotten.  Instead, you take a GRE prep course to gain familiarity and comfort with the format and time pressure that you’ll experience during the actual testing.

One of the biggest threats to your GRE score is your own insecurity; if you get in that room and panic, your score will suffer and won’t reflect your true potential.  Completing a preparatory course will prepare you in the same way that drills prepare a soldier for combat.  While nothing is quite like real combat (test-taking), you want to go on autopilot when you get in that room.  You want to sit down, know exactly what kind of questions you’ll see, know exactly which techniques and strategies you will use to solve them, and just do it.  That will fight off panic better than anything else will.  Remember, if you’ve done so many practice tests that you’re bored taking them, you won’t be nearly so anxious during the real test.

In terms of the preparatory course itself, you probably don’t need to waste money on an in-person course – some of these run into the thousands of dollars.  All the material you get in person you can get from a book with CD or online course for less than $50.  If you find it hard to motivate yourself to study on your own time, you will likely struggle in graduate school anyway.

The GRE uses an approach to asking questions called computerized adaptive testing.  This means that your performance on early sections changes the difficulty of later sections; if you do well on the first section of quant questions, the second section of quant questions will be much harder (and vice versa).  You need a prep strategy that simulates this adaptive approach.   Testing yourself with banks of GRE questions is not quite the same; you need to experience practice tests exactly as you will experience the real test. The old GRE would adapt within sections. At least you don’t need to deal with that!

Create a schedule for your practice and stick to it.  Some CD programs (e.g. Kaplan’s and Princeton Review) will develop these for you, but in general, expect to spend at least 3 to 5 hours per week for the six months leading up to the GRE, with more intense prep closer to the actual testing date.  You might instead start preparing a full year in advance; think about your comfort with test taking, and give yourself more time if you know it will be a challenge.  You should take the GRE as early as possible during your Senior year (usually August), so this means starting GRE prep between August and February of your Junior year.  You want to take it early in case you decide you want to improve your score and take it a second time before applications are due.

You will probably want to take two GREs: the GRE General Test (quantitative, verbal, and analytic writing) along with the GRE Subject Test in Psychology.  Not all programs require the Psych GRE, but it is better to be safe and complete it anyway.  Even if both are required, your General Test score will likely be more important than the Psychology Subject Test in most programs.

At the actual testing date, take all the standard advice for doing well on tests:

  1. Don’t do anything test-related the day before the test.  This will help you relax the next day.
  2. Get a full night of sleep.  You may be nervous and have trouble sleeping, but try to be in bed for at least 8 or 9 hours to be at maximum strength.  Do NOT try to cram at the last minute.  You’ll be better off sleeping a full night without the last-minute cram session than you will be exhausted.
  3. Don’t use energy drinks unless you usually use energy drinks.  There’s nothing worse than sudden unexpected stomach pain in the middle of a test.  If you’ve used energy drinks before in high-pressure testing situations, then feel free – but don’t try anything new that morning.
  4. Eat a bland but high energy breakfast.  You need carbs to get your brain moving.  Toast, cereal, granola bars, cereal bars.  Your stomach may have more butterflies than usual; plan accordingly.
  5. Plan your route to the testing center the day before.  Even if you have a GPS in your vehicle, print out directions the day before.  No last minute surprises; you never know what might happen.  If your GPS doesn’t work, and you run inside to print directions really quickly, or have to hold your cellphone, etc, all of these things will increase your anxiety and will lower your score.  You might also want to do a dry-run drive (someone I know discovered her directions were to the wrong place after attempting to follow them and ended up at the testing center an hour late).  You want to do your dry-run the day before because you never know when construction will unexpected alter your path.
  6. Plan to arrive 45 minutes early to the testing center.  You want to get there early (so there’s time in case you hit traffic or other trouble) but not so early that you sit quietly in the lobby worrying about the test for an hour.
  7. Plan something fun for after the test.  Visit an amusement park, go biking, have a nice dinner with friends, something.  This will give you something to look forward to afterward, regrardless of how the test goes.  Ensure it’s something you’ll enjoy doing regardless of how things go.

With adequate prep and a calm attitude, you’ll ace that test for sure.

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6 Responses leave one →
  1. August 3, 2011

    The GRE just changed pretty radically, so students should be sure to check up on the new format. (No more analogies: joy as a reprieve from a death sentence: relief.) Most importantly, they’ve done away with adaptive questions, so it’s not *quite* as vital to get expensive tests. There’s a couple free example tests online, from Princeton Review and ETS, and I found those adequate. (But poor test takers will almost certainly benefit from extra practice.)

  2. Fabian Lohrmann permalink
    January 18, 2016

    Hello again,
    first off all thank you for answering all that question.
    Since I study in Maastricht (Netherlands) I wonder if taking a regular GRE wouldn’t be hindering for me. Because English is certainly not my mother tounge and I never lived in a English speaking country. I think I don’t have to do a TOEFL because my study is tought in English and Dutch.
    Since the Dutch Psychology program I’m taking considerably matches with a US Psychology Major but my language abilities are inferior to someone who is a native english speaker, wouldn’t it make more sense to do the GRE Psychology subject test, ?
    I think I still would have to catch up with topics not covered by my Dutch Program but better than trying to catch up with beeing native level at english.

    follow-up question:
    I have just finished the 3rd out of 6 semester
    In my 4th semester I could go to Canada for 6 month.
    This would make it possible for me to study for the GRE (Psychology) test
    I really don’t have much time except for this semester abroad because, I work for the University as a tutor for first year students and I am enrolled in an honors program. So I have at least 70 hours campus time a week.

    But if I would go to Canada and study for the GRE test, I wouldn’t be able to take a special research course where I would have a higher responsibility for a research study than a normal student research assistent and my bachelor thesis would be based on that research.

    What do you think is more important? A GRE test or a special research expierence which would also be the base for my bachelor thesis. (Of course, I could try to be a “normal” research assistent in my last semester and still try to connect that to my bachelor topic. So I would try to do both)

    Thank you in advance

    Best regards

    Fabian Lohrmann

    • January 19, 2016

      I don’t know where you’re thinking you’ll apply, but you’ll almost always be required to do TOEFL if you are categorized as an international applicant at a US university. If you don’t, and it is required, your application will never be seen by admissions faculty; it will be marked “incomplete” and discarded before anyone can see it. I would recommend you contact someone in the graduate school of each place you are planning to apply if you can’t find information about TOEFL requirements on their websites.

      Most schools require the GRE. If you don’t have GRE scores when you submit, no one will ever see your application. It will be incomplete and automatically discarded. Some schools additionally require the GRE Psychology test. If you apply to such a school and do not take the GRE Psychology, your application will be incomplete and discarded. If you apply to a school that does not ask for your GRE Psychology score at all and send it anyway, no one will ever see that score because it is not part of your formal application. You only need to take the GRE Psychology if a school you are applying to requires or asks for it. For schools that ask, which means the GRE Psychology test is “optional”, if your score is good, then you should send it there. It is isn’t, you shouldn’t. Once you have your GRE scores, you can choose which scores to send to which schools, so there is no harm in taking it (other than the monetary cost, anyway).

      You might find this site useful:

      I don’t understand what Canada has to do with anything. You should purchase a GRE review book (also on Dutch Amazon) and study it. You can do this on your own. If you want a one-on-one experience, there are GRE tutors in the Netherlands. So I am not sure why you would need to go anywhere else. So I would recommend you stay and complete your research experience while studying at home.

  3. john permalink
    January 20, 2016

    What’s the best way to study? I see that Kaplan has classes which you mention are not needed. What books and CDs are the ones you think are most helpful?

  4. john permalink
    January 20, 2016

    And will these books teach you? Or will they just be filled with problems that I might or might not know how to do. Thank you.

    • January 21, 2016

      Most of the research points to the books being all sort of the same in terms of effectiveness (and similar to the effectiveness of the courses, which cost a lot more) – you just want to look for specific features that you find useful. When I took the GRE , I used the Kaplan book and found it very useful, but that’s me.

      Different books are organized different ways, so you should read reviews and look at tables of contents to see which approach you like the best. So for example, some are organized like a class, with specific content for you to cover each week or day or whatever, whereas others are more like textbooks.

      In either case, prepping requires a lot of self-discipline – you really need to allocate time to it each day and work at it actively.

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