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Ph.D. Application Update

How to Study for the GRE

The GRE is a standarized test like the SAT or ACT you took in high school.  You take it on a computer.  You can basically take it anytime you want as long as there are spots at the test center near you (universities, etc.).  It is wise to sign up a month ahead of time to make sure you don't have a problem getting in.    

You have to take it to get in to most Ph.D. programs in the United States.  It is usually not required in the UK.  You may also take it to get into competitive masters programs.  (Seminaries don't require it for Master degrees or DMin programs).  Of course, anyone may read this but I am specifically writing for those like me and my friends who went to seminary and then decided to apply to Ph.D. programs in Religion (like Systematic Theology, Old Testament, New Testament, Church History, Practical Theology and Philosophy).   See my category Ph.D. for my full Ph.D. journey.

Here is my advice regarding studying for the GRE.  You should read the official info about the test at the ETS website.   

I took it last December and am taking it again December 15. 

My friends who got into Ph.D. programs in Religion (at Harvard University, Baylor University and University of Chicago) had both Math and Verbal scores over 700.  (Perfect is 800 and 800).  They had writing scores of 5.5 (out of a perfect 6.0).  

There are also a few other statistics about the GRE:

This test is not all about intelligence.  It is a lot about how much you study. 

If you are not trying to get into some prestigious program, don't stress about this test. 

If you are, do pay attention.  If you do well, you get paid to do your graduate work.  If you don't, you may not get in to that prestigious program that awards fellowships (grants, scholarships, $).  You don't have to believe me.  But ask other students, professors you are interested in studying with, Ph.D. studies offices, and see how your prospective school weighs your GRE score.  Sadly, many weigh it highly.  They also seriously take into account your grades, references, personal essay, personal visit, writing sample and foreign languages.      

It is not unreasonable to start studying for the GRE 9 months in advance.  But if you have two weeks, you will only have time to familiarize yourself with the test and take a couple practice tests.  Definitely do that. 

There are computer practice tests that you can take from ETS for free with your GRE registration.  The Kaplan and Barron's books also provide them.   

1. Vocabulary. 

Get Barron's How to Prepare for the GRE.

From my experience, it is the best prep book.  Kaplan's GRE Premier Program is good too and perhaps more accessible.  But Barron's is more comprehensive. 

Study the words for as many months as you can.  Figure out a system of going through them. 

Make flashcards of the ones you don't know.  I don't think you can buy flashcards of the whole Barron's list right now.  The Kaplan GRE Exam Vocabulary Flashcards Flip-o-matic is a Flipbook not flashcards and is not as helpful as real flashcards.  There are many online free vocab games.  There are also some you can download for free to do on your computer.  But I like to walk around and study words and not be tied to my computer. 

I used It was ok.  There is no way to rate how good the lists are which is a huge problem.  At flashcardexchange, I recommend the 20 part Barron's list from 2004 that someone took the trouble to type in.  You can use flashcardexchange for free if you just want to do online quizzing (but that is a waste because there are better sites).  It costs $20 for a lifetime membership of printing and using the site to its fullest. 

Believe it or not, I printed off the Barron's list.  Lots of flashcards.  I used 24 point font for words ("questions") and 18 point font for definitions ("answers").  It worked ok.  It was a place to start and better than doing it myself.  It took some serious paper and ink cartridges though.   

The Barron's list has about 3,500 words.  You will know 75% of them probably already.  I did 90 words a day six days a week.  I should have done 100 words a day 5 days a week and then reviewed on Saturdays.  Take Sunday off.   

Use Google News to search for the ways a word is used today in news.  (I just searched news in the United States by picking that in Advanced New Search).  This will help you remember it.  I also searched at how words were used. 

I also liked looking up words at At, my favorite dictionary was WordNet and Word of the Day.

I wrote hints from this info on the back of cards I had printed out (by the definitions). 

Whew.  We'll see how I do.  I have a lot of reviewing to do in the next two weeks.   

You also need to learn to read fast.  But this is tough to teach I think.  I have been listening to Nature and Scientific American podcasts to help get me thinking like a scientist.  (Some of the readings are from science journals that I never typically read).

You need to practice the specific kind of questions on the test.   

2. Math

Get a tutor.  I hired a sophomore secondary education Math major and met three times a week.  I paid her $10 an hour. 

Use the Barron's book. 

Do lots of problems.

Use a pencil and blank paper in practice.  No automatic pencils.  Before last year's test day, I hadn't held a #2 pencil in five years.   

Princeton Theological Seminary has told me they don't care about your math score.  But all the other schools apologize that it matters to them but they still admit that it does.

You will have to learn to do questions quickly or skip them. 

A lot of engineers take this test and get perfect 800. 

3. Writing


You can see all the possible topics. "View the entire pool of Issue topics and Argument topics."  But I didn't read through all of them.  I didn't have time. 

You can pay $10 to get your essays graded to see how you are doing. "ScoreItNow! Online Writing Practice"   

I was only able to get 5.0 on these ScoreItNow! tests in three tries but it was excellent practice. 

I hope this has been helpful.


I did my GRE December 15th.   

690 Verbal, 96% scored below
700 Quantitative, 70% scored below
5.5 on writing, 87% scored below

I knew every single vocabulary word which was great but many of the analogies were still difficult and I took too much time on them.  What killed me was one particularly brutal reading comprehension section with like 5 questions on something scientific.  Therefore, I barely improved after all of my efforts studying for the verbal.  I was bummed to miss 700 by 1 notch but 96% below is still pretty good.

The quantitative is a bit humorous.  I tried to work out as many questions as possible (about the first 20) and the last 8 I guessed in the last 30 seconds.

No regrets on the writing.      

Postscript: March 2009

I did get into Duke Divinity School's Th.D. program and have written all about the Ph.D. / Th.D. application process at

Advice about Duke Th.D. and Ph.D programs in theology