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how many gre practice tests should you takeTaking full-length GRE practice tests is an indispensable part of preparing for the GRE.

How many of them should you take, though? And how often?

Let’s use a sports analogy to shed some light on these important questions.

What Sports Teams Can Teach Us About GRE Practice

Consider an elite soccer team. What if all they ever did was practice but never played any games? They could spend weeks on end practicing the fundamentals, working on their conditioning, watching film, and scrimmaging against themselves, but they’d never know how much they were improving (if at all) if they never tested themselves against a live opponent. That’s what games are for, to show us where we stand and enable us to apply what we’ve been practicing in a real-time environment.

On the flip side, imagine that same soccer team playing three or four games every week! That seems like overkill, doesn’t it? I mean, they’d never get significantly better just playing games because they’d never be able to work on the mistakes they were making in those games or work on new plays and strategies — not to mention the mental and physical fatigue they would experience. So over-emphasizing games isn’t the right answer, either.

There’s a sweet spot for a soccer team, then, between practice and games. It’s a balancing act. They need ample time to practice, but then they need to occasionally test themselves with games. Sometimes they may play two games in the same week, but almost never more than that. More often they only play a game every couple weeks. They still get better from the game experience, but most of their improvement comes from practice.

The Practice vs. Practice Test Spectrum

The same balancing act applies to your GRE prep.

If you think about it as a continuum, on one end of the spectrum would be people who delay taking their first practice test for weeks or even months, thinking they’re “not ready” to take a test yet. I hear it often from my students: “But I haven’t learned everything yet, and I don’t feel ready to take a practice test.” That’s an error in thinking. Even if you haven’t reviewed all of the content and question types tested on the GRE yet, you still want to take periodic practice tests throughout your preparation so that you can get benchmark readings of your progress and practice applying the concepts and strategies you have learned so far. That’s really important. It’s not the kind of thing you want to leave until the end.

On the other end of the spectrum are students who only take practice tests. I sometimes have students buy a 5-pack of our GRE Simulator Exams and take all of them within a week or two! It’s like they’re using the practice tests as a source of practice problems rather than as a test of their current abilities, which is what the practice exams are really for. Practice is practice and tests are tests. Don’t make the mistake of blurring that line.

Thinking about that spectrum on the GRE, then, there’s a sweet spot somewhere in the middle. You need to spend ample time learning content and working practice problems before each practice test. But then every week or two, you should block out a few hours to test yourself with a full-length GRE simulator exam. Then review your results, figure out what types of questions you’re still getting wrong, and get back to practicing your weak areas. Then after another week or two, take another practice test. Continue that pattern until you’ve shorn up your weaknesses and your practice test scores are tracking toward the target score you want to hit on test day.

In terms of how many practice tests you should actually take, it will vary a little bit depending on how much time you have before your test date. Assuming you have ample time to fully prepare, let’s use our comprehensive GRE prep course as a guide. Our course is designed around a 7-week study plan, which we have found to be an ideal timeframe for preparing for the GRE. In the 7-week course syllabus, we assign five full-length practice tests. Sometimes that means taking a test every week, occasionally it’s every-other-week. But we’ve found that to be a pretty ideal balance between practice (watching instructional videos, learning the content, and working practice problems in an un-timed environment) and test-day simulations.

Tips for Maximizing Your GRE Practice Tests

One quick note about that last point. It’s very important that when you do set aside the time to take a practice test, that you re-create the testing environment as accurately as possible. As I said earlier, practice tests are designed to help you gauge your current abilities and to get an accurate approximation of what your score might be on the real thing. As such, you want to take them as seriously as possible.

Toward that end, here are a few tips to help you make the most of your GRE practice tests:

  1. Take your GRE practice tests on the same day of the week and at around the same time of day as you plan to take the real thing. If you’re going to take the real GRE on a Saturday morning, then take your practice tests on Saturday mornings. That will help you get a feel for your fatigue level, how often you need to use the bathroom, your state of focus, etc.
  2. Complete all sections. There’s a temptation to skip the essays and just focus on the more important quantitative and verbal sections. But you won’t be skipping the essays on test day, so don’t skip them during your practice tests. You need to get a feel for what it’s like to have already done an hour’s worth of work before getting to the quant and verbal sections. Prepare for that extra mental stress and how it impacts your ability to concentrate during the rest of the exam. Don’t short-change yourself.
  3. Don’t pause the exam. You won’t be able to press pause on the real GRE, so don’t pause your practice tests. If you get stuck on a question, use it as an opportunity to practice making an educated guess or marking it to come back to later. That’s how you hone your time management skills, a crucial part of scoring your best on test day.
  4. Honor the breaks. Hydrate and eat during the breaks. Use the bathroom within the allotted break time.
  5. Go to an external location, like a local library, to take your practice tests. Our own homes are usually too comfortable and too distracting to simulate a real test-day experience. A library, by contrast, has a little bit of ambient background noise like you’ll have at the test center, but it’s still quiet enough to focus and get in a good zone.
  6. Feel some butterflies! One of the hardest things about practice tests is recreating the nerves you may feel on test day. So how can you create a little bit of pressure around your practice experience? A risk/reward system is a good way to do that. Think about a risk and a reward you’ll honor depending on the outcome of the practice test. For example, “If I score at least a 300 on this practice test, I’m going to treat myself to a 30-minute massage. But if I don’t score at least a 300, then I’m going to clean the kitchen and all of the bathrooms in my house this weekend.” Talk about pressure! Now for your first few practice tests, I wouldn’t worry as much about the actual score. There are still likely some content areas or question types you haven’t even reviewed yet, after all. Instead, your risk/reward on those earlier tests could be around the number of questions you have to guess on, or how mentally engaged you feel like you were throughout the test, or how well you managed your frustration level, etc. That part is up to you, but get creative and have some fun with it.
  7. Decompress afterwards. Don’t immediately dive into more practice. It’s a mentally-draining exercise to take a full-length practice test, so take the rest of the day off. But then the next day, spend some time reviewing your results and going through all of the questions you got wrong. Use it as a learning opportunity. Reach out to a coach, like myself, for help with any questions you’re unsure of. Then dive back in to your studying!

The great American football coach Vince Lombardi is famous for saying that practice doesn’t make perfect; rather, it’s perfect practice that makes perfect. So take that mindset not only into your daily study sessions, but also into your practice tests.

I hope you’ve found the soccer analogy helpful and that you now have a better grasp of how to balance your GRE study sessions and practice tests. If you have any questions, post them below or reach out to us here.

Good luck and may you dominate the GRE!