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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 2004

Eye on Psi Chi

Winter 2004 | Volume 8 | Issue 2


An Eye-Opening Experience: Taking an Online Practice Graduate Record Examination

Steven Walfish
Kennesaw State University

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is required as part of the application package to most graduate schools in psychology. Keith-Spiegel and Wiederman (2000) indicate these test scores, in addition to influencing admission decisions, are sometimes used as criterion for financial aid awards.

Despite the importance of the examination, the GRE remains a mystery to most students. Norcross, Sayette, and Mayne (2002) suggest that students typically spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about this test. They further indicate that even the best students will need some sort of study aid in order to achieve maximum scores. Several authors have discussed strategies for students increasing their GRE scores (Keith-Spiegel and Wiederman, 2000; Kinder and Walfish, 2001, Norcross et al., 2002) including taking practice examinations, obtaining commercially available software packages and books on the test, taking a commercially available course in the community, taking specific courses at the university level to strengthen vocabulary and mathematical skills, and finding a way to reduce test anxiety.

Keith-Spiegel and Wiederman (2000) warn that serious study for the GRE involves a considerable amount of time and effort. However, it is unclear as to how long a student must spend preparing for this potentially decisive examination. These authors advise:

  • One has to keep at it, regularly for quite a while rather than leaving it for later, for when the feeling hits, or for a fleeting session here and there. . . . If spread out over small chunks of time, it is not as burdensome (p. 110).

Kinder and Walfish (2001) advocate students taking a practice GRE as a "diagnostic tool to assess their abilities, their competitiveness for admission to graduate school, and to identify areas that need further improvement. The purpose of this paper is to present the results of a class exercise and a framework for helping students considering a career in psychology to prepare for the GRE early, rather than later, in their undergraduate studies. This project was a requirement in a course titled Careers in Psychology, which is a course that all students considering majoring in psychology take at this state university. It is similar in scope to courses described by Landrum, Shoemaker and Davis (2003) titled An Introduction to the Psychology Major that is offered by one-third of psychology departments in the United States.


Participants in this study were in two sections of Careers in Psychology taught by the author (N = 52) at a 16,000-student state university in the southeast. Most students were freshman or sophomores; some were in their junior year and had switched their major to psychology or had transferred from a junior college. The syllabus for this project read:

  • "In this exercise you will be required to take an online practice examination of the GRE at There is no cost for this exercise. The student will be asked to report the scores that they received, an analysis of their relative strengths and weaknesses on the test, and a specific plan for improving their test scores. This plan should include specific courses taken, why they would be taken, and any costs involved with this plan."

Students were not graded on the scores they received on the examination but rather on the their performance on the variables noted above. This exercise was also accompanied by an informational presentation on the GRE by a representative from Kaplan Test Reviews. While students were given brochures about services available through this company, it was not "a sales pitch" nor was it an attempt to "scare" students into believing that the only way that they would obtain high scores on the GRE would be to take a course from them. The message that was directed to the students was clearly, that in order to perform maximally on this test, some preparation would be necessary. This is consistent with the message presented by Norcross et al. (2002).


The results of this exercise are presented from three related perspectives. First, the scores on the verbal and quantitative sections from the practice GRE are presented. This is followed by student-generated ideas for future improvement of scores. Finally, student evaluation of the exercise is presented from both a statistical and anecdotal perspective.

The vast majority of students scored poorly on the examination. The average combined Total Score was 752, with a Verbal Subtest average score of 428 and a Quantitative Subtest average score of 324. Only two students achieved a combined Total Score greater than 1,000.

Students generated ideas for improving their GRE scores in the future. A list of these is presented in Table 1. These included using commercially available study materials in terms of books and software, taking commercially available study courses, improving test taking strategies (e.g., "slowing down and focusing on the questions"), taking courses to control personal anxiety, and enrolling in specific college courses to improve verbal and quantitative abilities.

Table 1

Student Generated Strategies for Improving GRE Scores

  • Look up words in a thesaurus rather than in a dictionary.
  • Reading more in my off-time.
  • Take as many practice tests as possible.
  • Take a course to overcome test anxiety.
  • Take a course to overcome math anxiety.
  • Slow down when I am taking the test and focus on the questions.
  • Study vocabulary words on index cards.
  • Concentrate on the questions that come first and work more quickly toward the end.
  • Buy a GRE workbook or CD-ROM.
  • Read Algebra The Easy Way and Geometry The Easy Way, published by Barrons.
  • Take a GRE prep course from a private company such as Kaplan or Princeton Review.
  • Take:
    Math 0097 Elementary Algebra
    Math 3260 Linear Algebra with Applications
    Math 3395 Geometry
    Math 4361 Modern Algebra
  • Take: English 2270 Language and Usage
    English 3170 Technical Writing
    English 3260 Grammar in the Context of Writing

Students were asked to evaluate the effectiveness of the exercise on five dimensions utilizing a 5-point Likert-type scale. These data are presented in Table 2.

Table 2

Student Ratings of the Exercise

Item - Mean Score

  • I was disappointed with my GRE scores on this practice exam - 4.20
  • I now know much more about the GRE since taking the practice exam. - 4.45
  • I am less intimidated by the GRE since taking the practice exam. - 3.12
  • I now have a plan for improving my GRE scores. - 4.31
  • I am confident that I will score adequately on the GRE when it comes time to take the real examination. - 3.92
  • 1 = Strongly disagree; 5 = Strongly agree

The results suggest that students were disappointed in their scores, were more knowledgeable about the GRE as a result of taking the practice exam, and now have a plan for improving their scores. While still receiving a relatively high rating, students were less sure that they would receive an adequate score when it came time to take the real examination relative to the above findings. Their fear of intimidation of the exam was in the mid-range.

Finally, selected anecdotal comments to the exercise are presented in Table 3.

Table 3

Selected Student Comments Regarding Their Experience With the GRE Practice Exam

  • I found the GRE to be more difficult than I had imagined. It was sort of like "The SAT with an attitude."
  • Are you sure you want me to say out loud how bad my scores were?
  • My GRE scores did not turn out as well as I had hoped.
  • It is obvious that I have to plan in advance for the GRE.
  • After taking the GRE I have a better vision of where I have to start in my preparation to improve my test score. I have to improve in all areas.
  • The scores I received were horrible.
  • I had no idea what I was doing.
  • The test was quite different from most tests I have taken and the questions were critical thinking questions that I was not prepared for.
  • Taking the mock GRE was an eye-opening experience.
  • My scores were disappointing to say the least.
  • My scores reflected that I was nowhere ready to take the actual GRE.
  • There seems to be a long road ahead of me.
  • Taking the practice GRE was an experience. I wish I could say it was a good experience.
  • I hated this GRE test so much that I decided to declare war on it because I really want to go to graduate school.


In terms of priorities of learning experiences for students enrolled in courses such as Introduction to the Psychology Major, Landrum et al. (2003) found faculty to place a high value on the learning objective, "Our students know the information required to apply to graduate programs." The exercise described in this paper, including students taking a practice examination online, writing an analysis of the results obtained, and developing a plan for future improvement, is consistent with this value.

It is not surprising that students did not score well on this examination. In general they were early in their college career (mostly sophomores) and they completed no advance preparation to study for the examination. However, as one student stated, "Taking the mock GRE online was an eye-opening experience."

As Norcross et al. (2002) suggest, students typically spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about this test. By completing this exercise early on in their college careers those students who are confident in their vocational choice of pursuing graduate school in psychology can combat some of this worrying by following the plans that were suggested to improve test scores. While generated on an individual student basis, the plans developed and presented in Table 1 were shared by the instructor with all students in both sections of the class.

Keith-Spiegel and Wiederman (2000) suggest that sophomores and certainly juniors should take advantage of opportunities to learn about the GRE early in their academic career. In this way, they could become familiar with the process and perhaps take advantage of learning and preparation opportunities. This view was clearly shared by students who completed this exercise, especially as it related to the taking of specific university classes (e.g., algebra, geometry, language and usage). If students can assess their strengths and weaknesses earlier in their academic careers then they can plan to take specific courses to either meet elective credit or complete university requirements that will serve to enhance their scores on areas where they need the most improvement.

While they reported a moderate amount of intimidation about the exam after the exercise and a moderate confidence level in being able to do well on the actual exam, perhaps after putting their plans into effect this perspective would also have a greater change toward the positive. Indeed, students indicated strongly that they now had a plan for improving their GRE scores. As one student whose dream is to become a forensic psychologist commented, "I hated this GRE test so much that I decided to declare war on it." Due to this exercise she now has a reasonable and logical battle plan to follow to help achieve this dream.

The author would like to thank Allen K. Hess for his comments on an earlier version of this manuscript. Address all correspondence to Steven Walfish, Department of Psychology, Kennesaw State University, Kennesaw, GA 30144 or via e-mail at


Keith-Spiegel, P. & Wiederman, M. (2000). The complete guide to graduate school admission: Psychology, counseling, and related professions. (2nd ed.) Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates.

Landrum, R. E., Shoemaker, C., & Davis, S. F. (2003) Important topics in an introduction to the psychology major course. Teaching of Psychology, 30, 48–51.

Kinder, B. & Walfish, S. (2001). Perspectives on applying to graduate school. In S. Walfish & A. K. Hess (Eds.) Succeeding in graduate school: The career guide for the psychology student. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum and Associates.

Norcross, J., Sayette, M., & Mayne, T. (2002). An insider's guide to graduate programs in clinical and counseling psychology. New York: Guilford Press.

Steven Walfish received his PhD in Clinical/Community Psychology from the University of South Florida in 1981. He is a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Kennesaw State University and in clinical practice at the Atlanta Center for Cognitive Therapy.

Copyright 2004 (Vol. 8, Iss. 2) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology

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