You can spend thousands studying for the GRE, but you probably shouldn't. Here are some inexpensive---and some are even free!---GRE prep options that will help you study without draining your bank account.

Finally decided you’re ready to go to grad school?

By this point, you’ve probably figured out a way to pay for it, or have resigned yourself to taking out student loans. (In 2012, the typical student borrower had $57,600 in combined undergraduate and graduate debt.)

But you may have overlooked another big cost besides tuition — the GRE.

The test itself costs $150. You can probably swing that.

It’s studying for the GRE that can really cost you money.

Kaplan, a test preparation company, charges between $499 and $2,099 for inperson or online GRE prep. Princeton Review, another leader in GRE preparation, will run you between $799 and $1,299.

That’s more than a single graduate course costs at some universities.

Do you really need to take the GRE?

Much like the SAT and ACT you took in high school, the GRE (Graduate Record Exam) allegedly tests your critical thinking, writing, verbal reasoning, and quantitative reasoning skills.

Not all graduate program require GRE scores as part of the application. (A blogger has compiled a nice list of programs that don’t require the dreaded exam). Others will waive the GRE requirement if you had a high undergraduate GPA.

I oversee a master’s degree program in digital media and storytelling at Loyola University Chicago. I’m proud of the fact that we don’t require applicants to take the GRE.

I agree with researchers who have found that there’s little, if any, correlation between one’s GRE score and scholastic achievement in graduate school.

But the system is the system. If you’ve got your heart set on a program that requires the GRE, here are some cheap—and even free—ways to prepare for it:

Buying GRE prep books (or checking them out for free from the library) might be enough

All of the grad schools I applied to required the GRE, even though they were writing programs. (Years later, I still don’t see why they cared about my math skills.)

I didn’t have the money to spare for Kaplan, and there were no online classes at the time. (I know, I know—I’m old.)

It occurred to me I probably wasn’t learning as much as I would through a traditional Kaplan class, so I called the programs I was interested in and asked them just how much the GRE factored into their admission decisions.

They all had the same response — not much.

I wondered why it was part of the application, but thought maybe it had something to do with weeding out applicants who aren’t really serious about going to school. After all, who takes a four-hour test unless you truly plan on going through with a few years of education?

So I read my books, took the practice tests, and made do.

Disclaimer: I didn’t do so great on the test, especially the math portion.

But who cares what my score was? I got into a program that offered me a teaching assistantship based on the strength of my writing sample.

To find out how much your GRE score matters, ask the program directors at your chosen universities.

Don’t worry about seeming pushy or whiny. It’s a fair question that program directors expect. Potential grad students are always emailing me to ask what part of the application matters the most. I’m never too specific, but I do stress the big things.

If you ask the program directors just how much the GRE matters, and they don’t seem too concerned about the score, you probably shouldn’t be either. Consider buying — or renting — some books.

Of course, you have hundreds of options.

Manhattan Prep’s 5 lb. Book of GRE Practice Problems is the top-ranked book on Amazon. The Kindle version of the latest edition will only run you $9.99.

Take an online course

If you aren’t the type of student who needs a lot of hand-holding (and you shouldn’t be if you’re going to graduate school), an online GRE prep class will cost you considerably less money than a traditional one in a classroom.

Kaplan and Princeton Review charge less for online classes than they do for live courses (though even online prices can vary by region), but the real pioneer in this field is Magoosh.

“We offer study tools on web and mobile so that students can learn at their own pace, wherever they are, for a fraction of the cost of traditional test prep,” says Maizie Simpson of Magoosh.

Among the benefits of Magoosh:

  • It’s more affordable than traditional classes — Magoosh costs $99 for a 6-month premium session.
  • The course is mobile and self-paced, meaning you can study anywhere at any time through their website and apps.
  • It has a tracking feature so students know exactly what areas they’re excelling in and which ones they need to work on.
  • Each of the 1000 practice questions has its own video explanation that walks you through each step of the problem solving.

“Many of our students say they study on their morning commutes, or in between their college classes,” Maizie says.

Magoosh seems to work for motivated students — 20 percent of their students earned a top 10 percent score in GRE.

Or do nothing at all

Some argue you shouldn’t prep for the GRE—or any standardized test. After all, even the GRE exam developers say it’s designed to test for the general skills you already have, meaning you shouldn’t have to study at all.

But there is one thing you must do: get a good night’s sleep the night before the test. Studies have shown that getting a solid eight hours of sleep the night before an exam is the single biggest factor in how well people do.

Summary

  • Traditional, brick-and-mortar GRE prep classes run between $499–$2,099.
  • Magoosh, an online GRE prep center, costs $99 for a six-month premium membership.
  • Studying through GRE prep books could cost less than $20 per book.
  • The number of hours you sleep before taking the GRE is likely the biggest factor in doing well.

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About the author

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Patty Lamberti is a freelance writer and Professional-in-Residence at Loyola University Chicago, where she teaches journalism and oversees the graduate program in digital media storytelling. If she doesn't know something about money, you can trust she'll track down the right people to find out. You can learn more about her at www.pattylamberti.com. And if you have any story ideas, or questions about money etiquette that you'd like her or an expert to answer, email her at [email protected]