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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 2014
GRE Test Day:
A Student's Odyssey
Matthew Sather, Boise State University (ID)


The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is widely regarded as the gatekeeper for entrance into the graduate study of psychology (Sternberg & Williams, 1997). Setting aside the current debate as to whether the GRE is predictive of future performance in graduate education, the exam continues to be the main tool available to admission committees to sort applicants (Sternberg & Williams, 1997). U.S. News and World Report (2012) stated that an estimated 700,000 people take the GRE annually worldwide. In a survey conducted by the American Psychological Association Center for Workforce Studies (2010), 96% of the responding 338 doctoral programs required GRE scores for admission. Similarly, 81% of the 176 master’s programs that responded also required GRE scores (Pagano, Wicherski, & Kohout, 2010). What types of scores and tasks comprise the current version of the GRE? See the four categories of tasks in
Table 1.

Preparing for Battle
Given the importance that the exam carries for a prospective graduate student, it is worthwhile to gain every possible insight into test preparation and what to expect on test day. There are numerous materials available for GRE content preparation ranging from one-on-one tutoring, classroom instruction, and self-guided online courses. I have personal experience with two of the self-directed courses, The Princeton Review and Kaplan. Features of these two methods, along with PowerPrep II, published by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), are presented in Table 2.

Many of the features of the Kaplan course and the Princeton Review course are very similar (Kaplan Test Prep, 2013; The Princeton Review, 2013). The main differences that I found are that Kaplan provides a math workbook that covers foundational concepts where Princeton Review focuses less on foundational concepts and more on test-taking strategy on the Quantitative Comparison. Kaplan also provides smart reports in which they show you exactly what concepts need to be practiced and then provide tutorials in those subjects (Kaplan Test Prep, 2013). The costs of both courses are roughly the same. The self-directed online courses cost $500 and both have a score improvement guarantee (Kaplan Test Prep, 2013; The Princeton Review, 2013). Both offer private tutoring for a per hour fee. The PowerPrep II software from ETS is free and available for download from (ETS, 2013).

A Twofold Strategy of Action
Approaching the GRE from a student’s perspective, I feel that it is valuable to dissect the preparation process into two categories: preparation for the test, and preparation for the test day. Having taken the GRE for two consecutive years (and particularly after completing the GRE for the first time), I now believe that preparation for the test day is as important as preparing for the test.

Having returned to academia from time in the workforce, I was not aware of the GRE requirement as one component for entrance into graduate school. Fortunately, one of my psychology instructors made a statement in class that caught my attention rather quickly. He stated that we could think of the GRE as "the SAT on steroids.” I decided at that point to immerse myself into a 3-month study program. The types of materials available for content preparation are slightly different and therefore require personal investigation as to which one will tailor toward individual learning needs and styles. What was conspicuously absent from the material I selected was what to expect in regard to everything but the test.

Day of Reckoning: Test Day
On test day, the testing center advised that I arrive half an hour early to ensure my seat. I arrived 30 minutes early and found that the exterior doors to the facility were locked. I have a high level of test anxiety under normal circumstances, so I became worried that I would lose my seat due to circumstances outside of my control. Fortunately, an employee in another department arrived, and I was at the testing center 15 minutes prior to the start time—crisis averted. I was then given a form to fill out requiring a paragraph handwritten in cursive and asked for my identification. The test administrator explained that the cursive would be used as a writing sample if there were ever any question about my identification.


Maximum Security Lockdown
After turning in this form, I was escorted into the testing office and asked to empty my pockets and turn them inside out. I was required to raise my pant legs to midcalf and my sleeves to show my forearms. The administrator then told me to stand on a mat with footprints and pulled out a magnetic, metal detection wand similar to those used at the airport and scanned my person. The scanner read my belt, and I was asked to lift my shirt and show him that it was my belt buckle that triggered the scanner. I was then given my scratch paper and a pencil, and admitted to the exam room.

Reflecting on that process, I recognize the fact that the testing center is required to maintain security. The ETS (2013) stated in their manual for test administration that selected sites will use technologies such as mobile phone scrambling, wanding, and other techniques to ensure test security. Although ETS does not publish cheating statistics, New York Times columnist Ted Plafker (2002) reported that ETS suspended administration of the computer-based GRE in China and India due to inappropriate online publishing of test questions. I have no doubts that, as technology becomes available for personal identification, it will be utilized to minimize cheating.


The Aftermath: Valuable Insights
It is difficult to determine if the difference between the scores I received from the first test session and the second are due to the study program I utilized prior to the second exam or if they are due to my awareness of the security process. Indeed, the area of largest gain for me was in the quantitative section, indicating that the verbal and analytical writing sections were unaffected by the testing procedures the first time. I also know that parasympathetic activation has a definite impact on cognitive process. My advice to fellow students is to be mindful of your own levels of test anxiety on test day. Being aware of test day procedures greatly reduced my test anxiety and allowed me to walk into the testing room with a level of confidence that I did not have the first time. If allowed, try to visit the testing center before you take the GRE to figure out the directions and where to park. Talk to other classmates who have recently completed the GRE and seek out their advice. After your experience, offer to share your GRE insights with others.

Educational Testing Service. (2013). The Graduate Record Examination. Retrieved from

Kaplan Test Prep. (2013). Kaplan Test Prep. Retrieved from

Pagano, V., Wicherski, M., & Kohout, J. (2010). 2010 graduate study in psychology: Test scores and requirements for master’s and doctoral students in U.S. and Canadian departments of psychology: 2008–2009. APA Center for Workforce Studies. Retrieved from

Plafker, T. (2002, October 15). Cheating on international exams also said to be widespread: In China, flood of fake diplomas. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Sternberg, R. J., & Williams, W. M. (1997). Does the graduate record examination predict meaningful success in the graduate training of psychologists? American Psychologist, 52, 630–641.

The Princeton Review. (2013). The Princeton Review. Retrieved from

U. S News & World Report. (2012). Test Prep: 6 Tips for GRE Success. Retrieved from

Table 1: GRE Breakdown

 Category Task  Content Time Allotment
 Analytic writing  Issue essay Free writing  30 min
 Analytical writing  Answer questions Free writing  30 min
 Quantitative comparison  Answer questions
20 questions
2 sections
 35 min each
 Verbal  Answer questions
20 questions,
2 sections
 35 min each

Table 2: Test Preparation Materials

  Material Features   Kaplan
 PowerPrep II
  Classroom sessions, in person  Yes  Yes  
  Private tutoring  Yes  Yes  
  Self-directed online study  Yes  Yes  Yes
  Math fundamentals online  Yes  Yes  
  Online classrooms  Yes  Yes  
  Special topics seminars-regional    Yes  
  Practice exams  Yes  Yes  Yes
  Smart report tracking  Yes    
  Customized lesson plans  Yes    
  Test day advice  Yes    
  Cost  $500  $500  Free download

Table 3: Conversion Scores Followed by a Table of Categories


 Verbal    Quantitative


 800  170  99  800  166  94
 750  169  99  750  159  77
 700  166  96  700  155  64
 650  163  91  650  151  48
 600  160  83  600  148  35
 550  156  69  550  146  27
 500  153  57  500  144  20
 450  120  44  450  141  11


Matthew Sather came back to school after a first career in the construction management industry. He graduated from Boise State University in December of 2013. He has taken the GRE twice, once in October of 2012 and again in October of 2013, in preparation to enter graduate school. He participated in a positive psychology laboratory for four semesters and presented his work at two local research conventions. His initial goal was to enter into graduate study in clinical psychology, but has since changed his mind and was accepted into a clinical counseling graduate program. He begins graduate study in the fall of 2014. He strongly encourages all who plan on taking the GRE to begin preparation early and to consider the preparation to be an additional course during the entire semester.


Copyright 2014 (Volume 18, Issue 2) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology



Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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