How International Students Can Prepare for the GRE

International students should see if there’s a way to prepare for the exam once in the U.S.

It may be better for prospective international graduate students to seek conditional acceptance and wait to take the GRE.
It may be better for prospective international graduate students to seek conditional acceptance and wait to take the GRE.

An advanced degree and an international destination are the perfect combination. Traveling internationally for school helps students gain the necessary experience to thrive in a competitive world, and a master's degree or doctorate is inarguable evidence of the dedication, drive and academic ability it takes to succeed.

This understanding prompted me to explore educational opportunities outside the borders of my home country. I decided on Michigan not because of a lack of Canadian opportunities, but because I could experience living somewhere new while obtaining a valued and recognized degree.

One challenge for many prospective international graduate students is that the U.S. is a cultural center for business, and English is arguably the lingua franca of the professional world. The country is also home to the Educational Testing Service, creator of the standardized Graduate Record Exam, which most graduate programs require.

[Create an American-style resume for grad school applications.]

The exam is not exclusively required by schools in the U.S. Hundreds of institutions in countries from Argentina to Zimbabwe are approved to receive GRE scores. Whether your program requires the test or not, it is an effective way to measure and represent specific skills.

These skills include the ability to deconstruct the meaning of a complicated question and provide a well-written argument, as well as incorporate an interdisciplinary understanding of numbers and words. Each of these areas is represented in the different sections of the general standardized exam: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing.

While there are subject-specific GRE exams, many graduate students take the general test, which has questions that reflect the skills students need to succeed in graduate-level instruction rather than their specific knowledge.

[Find ways to use international roots in admissions essays.]

The computer-based exam includes six sections, including a 60-minute writing portion and four 20-question multiple choice sections, which test either verbal or quantitative skills. The remaining section is an experimental or research section and doesn't count toward the final score – but the test-taker has no way to determine which section it is.

Most graduate schools require GRE scores to be sent in as part of the admissions process. But some institutions, like the one I attend, may offer conditional admission to students before they take the exam. In fact, some of the programs at my university allow students to complete up to half of the program before taking the GRE.

But Andrews University, like many other graduate institutions, takes test scores into consideration for financial aid, scholarships and fellowships. I sent in my scores along with my application and I wish I had waited.

I wrote the test back in Canada, where GRE preparation courses are not as prevalent as they are in the U.S. I borrowed a review book from a friend and worked through it in conjunction with the free downloadable testing software available from ETS. Each helped to simulate the types of questions I would be asked in each section.

I was able to complete at least four sample tests before the real day came, but I didn't feel the sample questions adequately prepared me to deal with the content of the actual test questions. Joining a review class would have better prepared me for the math concepts and the causal relationships between words for the quantitative and verbal sections – as well as given me greater exposure to different questions.

My score was high enough for acceptance and for a scholarship, but I hope to strive for the best during my long educational journey.

[Understand how grad schools see international applications.]

Many U.S. universities have some option for GRE preparation, varying from private tutoring to an enrolled course. As an international student considering your academic future, it is crucial to find the best possible tools to succeed.

Holding a bachelor's degree does not necessarily prepare you for the excruciating gauntlet that is the GRE. I graduated with honors and a dual major in English and education, and there were words on the vocabulary list that I had never heard.

Following through with the preparation tools listed on the ETS website is key, as the sample questions are useful to practice with. There are many excellent guidebooks available now, and I would almost certainly pick up the same one again – but I'd also grab a supplementary text to review math equations and processes.

Depending on your financial situation, I'd recommend students consider retaking the test for a better score after the first grueling attempt.

To successfully attempt the GRE, proficiency in English is the bare minimum. Preparation for this exam while fully immersed in the U.S. through international education is the smartest option for a good score.

The GRE is the official stamp on your educational passport. Completing the preparation while in the U.S. can give international graduate hopefuls a head start.

Katelyn Ruiz, from Canada, is pursuing an interdisciplinary master's degree in communication and English from Andrews University.