GRE Tips: Acing The GRE As A Middle Aged Person Long After College

When I took the GMAT for business school at 27, I was frustrated by the archaic equations that have nothing to do with real life problems. You know, things such as fixing the budget deficit, getting a promotion, saving more money for retirement, and making sure your spouse doesn’t yell at you for forgetting her birthday.

So here I am, eight years later at the age of 35 going through The Princeton’s Review Cracking the GRE (Graduate Record Examination) guide as I contemplate applying to a Communications PhD program. I must be crazy because the test has grown from 2.5 hours long to now 3 hours 40 minutes long and still has nothing to do with the real world! Sure, I know what peregrination, prestidigitation, and peroration now mean, but I sure as hell won’t be trying to pronounce those words in normal conversations!

The GRE is hard. There are five sections, an issue essay, and an argument essay to write. Your score is between 130-170 and where you rank as a percentile is of highest importance. Thankfully your grade is based on a curve. But, the problem is there are a lot more educated and hungrier people out there willing to study like crazy and/or pay $1,500 for GRE prep courses! As a result, your odds of doing well are stacked against you if you don’t PRACTICE!

This post is dedicated to those of us who’ve been out of school for a while and don’t remember our Algebra, Geometry, and Quantitative Reasoning. Hopefully our vocabulary has at least gotten better, and we have a better grasp of the English language, but who knows for sure! When business, work, marriage, kids, setbacks, and big breaks get in the way, the last thing you’re doing is focusing on how to do well on an exam which has no bearing to your future. That is of course, you decide you want to alter your future by going back to graduate school!


The first thing I suggest everyone to do is get in a good mindset by thinking of the following:

1) Your GRE does not define you. Your family, friends, community, and work define you. The GRE is just a test which most graduate schools in America require as a way to compare one applicant from another. The ETS, the company which administers the GRE makes its money off the $160 test taking fee and a mailing list it provides to graduate schools to figure out who you are. Remember, graduate schools want to make money too, and solicit bright students, or students who help fill their needs.

2) The GRE is a necessary evil. In order to win, you’ve got to play the game. It doesn’t matter if you are a billionaire, a school will most likely require you to take the GRE, that is, if you don’t donate several million dollars to a new school wing! Get it out of your mind that the test is stupid and useless. If you want to go to graduate school, you’ve got to take the GRE, written by homogeneous people who deploy their way of thinking, their culture, and their vernacular on you!

3) You can do better if you try. Because the GRE is written in a way to trick, anger, and assuage you to one way of thinking, you know that the test is rigged. When things are rigged, you can at least learn how to develop better test taking skills and think like the test taker. The question you have to ask yourself is how badly do you want to get into graduate school at your age.


1) Set aside one hour a day two months beforehand. As a middle aged person, you’re probably busy with way more things to do than figuring out which nightclubs to go to. It’s pointless to start studying for the GRE more than two months in advance, because you are going to forget 80% of what you learned. Remember, you are older now and have more important responsibilities! The Princeton Review guide is 486 pages long. If you can study 25 pages for one hour a day, you can get through the entire damn book in 19 days. You are now left with 41 days to practice, practice, and practice!

2) Take as many sample tests as you can. The more sample tests you take, the better you will do. Taking tests is far more effective than reading about the why and how. Of course you need to do this first, but test taking puts you in the mindset. I recommend you take at least three sample tests before taking the real thing. If you can, go for ten! It’s like swinging three bats before getting up to the plate. With three sample tests under your belt, you’re reading to rock!

3) Think like the test creator. I’m not saying this to be racist, just keep in mind the GRE test creator is unlikely to be an immigrant from Kazakstan or a first generation African American. The GRE test creators are likely Caucasian who have grown up in America for the majority of their lives. It is what it is. Here’s a video of Kurt Lundgraf, ETS President and his fellow leaders trying to convince you otherwise. Don’t believe it! If you do not speak a second language fluently, have never lived in another country for more than a couple years, you cannot help but impose your culture in your tests. As test takers, we must accept this scenario and think like Kurt.


Nobody is forcing you to go to graduate school. I got my MBA because my employer paid for it and the world was entering a recession back in 2003. Now I’m considering getting a PhD as a lifelong dream now that I’ve retired. I dislike spending all this time and money taking a test, but I’ve got to do it in order to achieve my education goals.

We must accept the GRE for what it is and realize that scores do matter. Accomplishing a great deal in your career and building personal relationships with your professors/advisers definitely helps in getting in. Do not discount your accomplishments and the power of being liked. Visit the campus and e-mail your professors if you can spend just 10 minutes of their time learning from them and introducing yourself. When your application is up for decision making, its best to be the one they remember from your enthusiasm and your visits.

Good luck in your graduate school endeavors! Now someone tell me where I put my keys………

For those of you thinking about getting a PhD please read: Should I Get A PhD? I highlight all the pros and cons as I consider the situation right now.

Here’s one of the top selling GRE prep guides by Kaplan: GRE® Premier 2016 with 6 Practice Tests: Book + Online + DVD + Mobile (Kaplan Test Prep)

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Updated for 2016 and beyond

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Sam is the founder of Financial Samurai, America's fastest growing personal finance site. We believe in reaching financial independence sooner, rather than later. Slice through money's mysteries!


  1. Sydney says

    I loved this post Sam! Your writing is so funny and I like your tips. I suck at standarized tests and I know it must be painful having to study being away from academic mode for a while. There are some free vocab word of the day emails you can subscribe to that may help too. I get one now from just for fun. Good luck with your studying!

  2. Edward Antrobus says

    Thanks for the tips. I’ve been talking about grad school for a couple years now but I’ll admit that the GRE has been scaring the bejezus out of me. I’ve taken a couple of sample tests, and I seem to score pretty consistently about a level below where I want to be.

    • says

      It’s not so much scary, but I real big PITA!! The words they test for and the equations they ask are completely useless to the real world.

      Pick up a Princeton REview or Kaplan Review guide at the library at least to check it out.

  3. says

    While preparing for any test, doing sample tests in my opinion is the most effective way to ace it! Excellent tips and I’m sure will come in handy for those preparing for GRE.

  4. says

    I took GRE years ago, Sam! It was few years after completing my undergraduate degree in Mechanical Engineering in India. I did do well, so I got full scholarship(graduate assistantship) at Penn State for my graduate degree in Mechanical/Manufacturing Engineering.

    I agree that it gets harder as you get older, but if you are passionate about getting back to school, GRE is a good way to refresh your mind with some of the fundamentals.

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