The first step to improving your GRE score is to become familiar with the GRE CAT. By knowing how the test is administered, you can begin to take simple steps to improve your score immediately.

About the GRE CAT

The GRE is offered as a Computer Adaptive Test (“CAT” for short). Unlike a paper and pencil test, during a CAT the questions are presented one at a time and examinees will not all see the same questions. Instead, the difficulty level of later questions is determined by correct answers to previous questions.

For example, if you answer the first question on the computer test incorrectly, the second question will be slightly easier. Likewise, if you answer the first question correctly, the second question will be slightly harder.

However, this doesn’t mean that you should answer incorrectly in order to receive easier questions. Your final score will be determined both by the number of questions you answer correctly as well as by the difficulty level of the questions you answer.

The adaptive format of the test requires a slightly different strategy than a paper-based test. On the CAT, questions must be answered in the order in which they appear. You are not allowed to skip a question and come back to it later. You also must select an answer for each question; you cannot leave a question blank or otherwise skip a question.

Begin Preparing Immediately

Don’t wait until a week before the test! To significantly improve your GRE score, you will need to build a strong vocabulary, polish your critical reading skills, and refresh and hone your math skills. The sooner you begin to prepare, the higher your scores will be. For more advice on how to prepare, visit the links on the left on the various sections of the exam.


Set aside adequate time to practice for your test. You will want to take at least one mock exam in the computer adaptive format, preferably the exam that can be downloaded from Take this exam under real conditions (no extended breaks or interruptions). The best questions to study from are real GRE questions, published by ETS. You can find a sample of them on the ETS website link above and in our book review section.

Use Extra Caution on the First Few Questions

Because of the adaptive nature of the test, the first few questions do the most to determine the level of difficulty of subsequent questions. You should not spend an exorbitant amount of time on them (the test does assess a penalty for not finishing the exam), but you should take a few extra seconds to double-check that you are answering the question that is asked and to double-check your work.

Be Sure to Finish the Test

The test will assess a penalty if you don’t finish, so choose an answer for every question, even if it is only a quick guess at the end. As you practice, learn to pace yourself to finish the exam. If you find yourself spending too much time on one question, force yourself to make an educated guess and move on. With practice, you will learn to manage your time wisely and eliminate frantic guessing on test day.

However, if something does go awry on test day and you find yourself running out of time at the end of the test, pick your favorite guess letter for all of the final questions. Be sure to allow yourself at least one minute at the end of the test for guessing if you find yourself running out of time. This is important, since there is a very large penalty for not finishing.

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