If you’re working full-time and also applying to graduate programs, I’m impressed! But I also know that striking the right balance can be tricky. Sometimes, it can feel like you’re forced to make a choice: prioritize the present or the future? Working during your GRE prep doesn’t have to be an either/or scenario. There are a lot of things you can do to balance your GRE prep with your full-time job.

1. Start early.

Getting an early start is always important for GRE prep since the test format is new to pretty much everybody. However, if you’re working full-time, getting an early start is even more important. After evaluating the following tips, step back and look at your schedule. How long will it take you to fit in sufficient practice? (And be honest about how much time you’ll actually devote to studying!) Taking a GRE diagnostic early on is also important—where are you now, and how far do you have to go to reach your dream score?

2. Register early too.

Weekend GRE test dates can be like gold dust if you don’t hop online and lock down your test slot early enough. If you can avoid taking a day off work to take the test (and the accompanying stress), you’ll be more likely to show off your full potential.

3. Identify “dead” time.

Friend late for drinks? Waiting in the dentist chair? While it’s not officially blocked out in your calendar, these moments can provide the perfect opportunity to get extra studying in and can really add up. Make sure you have sufficient materials on you (or your phone) to prep for the GRE exam at all times.

4. Make flashcards.

Flashcards are indispensable! This is partly because they’re so useful for “dead” time, and partly because you’re going to have to learn a lot of complicated vocab before test day. Don’t worry, you won’t have to revert back to your high school days. There are a variety of great apps you can use now to help you prep—paper-free.

5. Carve out time for practice tests.

Lessons alone just won’t cut it. To make it through the almost-four-hour test, you’ll need to have taken and evaluated a significant number of practice tests. If you can do one a week, that’s great. If you can’t, evaluate how long it would take you to complete ten (yup…ten!) and schedule your exam date from there.

6. Time your vacations right.

I know it doesn’t compare to, say, a trip to St. Lucia, but using your vacation time to study intensively for the GRE can be a useful trade-off. If you have vacation days left, think about taking some four-day weeks or shorter days to prep for the exam.

7. Practice mental math.

At work, paying bills, and in everyday life, start working on your mental math skills. Estimation is key here, as is learning to rely on your own mental processes, rather than a calculator. Trust me—it’ll save you time on test day and often be more accurate, anyway.

8. Practice reading critically.

The same thing goes for reading: ask yourself questions as you read the newspaper, magazines, even work memos and reports. Think about tone, structure, vocabulary, and how the GRE might test similar material. Combined with Step 7, you can actually get a fair amount of GRE prep done in the office without reading a textbook under your desk.

9. Be honest.

Are you ready? If your practice test scores aren’t as high as you’d like them to be, be aware that you’re probably not going to see them make a huge jump on the actual exam. Most test-takers will get their best score by taking the GRE twice, so if you can afford it, it’s a good idea to register for two test dates (at least 21 days apart). This way, you’ll give yourself a cushion to bring up your score if it’s still not where you want it to be. However, even more importantly, you’ll take some of the pressure off for your first test.

At the end of the day, the work you’re doing in both areas of your life, your day job and the GRE, will pay off. By keeping your job, you’re not only contributing to your resume and thus your application, but you’re also keeping yourself financially sound. And by prepping for the GRE, you’re contributing to your future success. So keep going! You will get there.


Rachel Kapelke-Dale blogs about graduate school admissions for Magoosh. She has a BA from Brown University and did her own graduate work at the Université de Paris VII (Master Recherche) and University College London (Ph.D.). She has taught and written about test preparation and admissions practices for eight years.

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