Every year, nearly half a million people take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) as a requirement for entry into graduate or business school. Administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), the GRE exam is designed to test for aptitude for study at the graduate level. It was completely revised in 2011, and is broken into three sections: Analytical Writing, Quantitative Research, and Verbal Reasoning. In the US, the GRE is administered almost exclusively via computer, but in other parts of the world, it’s still taken with paper and pencil.
If you’re pursuing entrance into a graduate program, scoring well on the GRE is vital. According to a 2010 Kaplan survey of graduate school admissions officers, the GRE surpassed college GPA, personal statement, letters of recommendation, and work experience as the single-most important factor in the admissions process.
How Do I Register for the GRE?
The GRE exam is offered at more than 1,000 test centers, and is available throughout the year. To register, you must create an account with ETS. Be careful filling out the account information – it must perfectly match the personal identification you bring to the test. It’s a good idea to sign up for email alerts; these will provide you with handy updates and submission dates.
Are there any special accommodations available?
Accommodations like extended testing time, breaks, ergonomic seating, alternate testing formats, and interpreters can be made for students with disabilities or health-related issues. ETS provides more information on their site.
How Much Does It Cost?
Standard GRE: $205
Late Registration Fee: $25
Standby Testing, Rescheduling, Changing Test Center: $50 each
Additional Score Reports: $27
Financial Aid: Available for eligible students.
All Fees: Find them listed here.
How Long is the GRE?
- Length: 82 Questions
- Verbal Reasoning: Two 30 minute sections, 20 questions each
- Quantitative Reasoning: Two 35 minute sections, 20 questions each
- Analytical Writing: Two 45 minute sections – “Analyze an Issue” and “Analyze an Argument”
- Total Time: The computer-delivered GRE takes 3 hours and 45 minutes for the average student
When and Where Do I Take the GRE?
- Experts recommend sitting for the GRE exam one year prior to entering graduate school. This allows for ample study time and the option to retake it if desired.
- GRE scores are good for five years; some take the exam their first year of undergrad when the SAT is fresh in their minds.
- Students can take the GRE up to five times in one year, with gaps of at least three weeks between each test.
The nearest testing locations can be found at the ETS site.
When Can I See my GRE Scores?
Unofficial scores for the Quantitative Reasoning and Verbal Reasoning sections are immediately available after finishing the test. Students can choose to send these scores to four schools of their choice for free. After that, it costs $27 to send to an additional two schools. Official scores take about two weeks — generally 10-15 days — to become available. You can find them at your GRE account.
You don’t have to submit scores to any schools. But if you elect not to send them to your four choices on the day of your test, you’ll have to pay for additional score reports ($27 each) at a later date.
How Is the GRE Test Administered?
The GRE is commonly taken at a computer, but there are occasions where that is not possible and paper testing is administered instead. Testing is typically done at ETS-sponsored sites or at colleges.
What is a GRE Subject Test?
GRE Subject Tests are examinations in specific disciplines, and they help schools judge readiness for graduate programs in those fields. These paper-delivered tests are offered three times a year. There are currently seven subject areas:
- Biochemistry, Cell, and Molecular Biology
- Literature in English
Preparatory materials for each subject exam are available at the ETS site.
More information about all facets of the exam can be found on the ETS frequently asked questions page.
Online Colleges and the GRE
Do most online colleges require the GRE?
Many online schools are foregoing the GRE, placing more emphasis on undergraduate performance and work experience. Online programs taking this approach include some of the nation’s finest institutions of higher learning, such as the University of North Carolina School of Government, American University’s School of Public Affairs, and UCLA’s Masters of Engineering program.
This makes sense; online schools appeal to working people and those with inflexible schedules. Busy people often have difficulty finding time for the weeks of study required to do well on the GRE. Some schools that do require the GRE for their on-campus programs will waive them for online students.
Where can I find out if the schools I’m applying to require the GRE?
Search the admissions requirements of the schools that interest you; most schools make them very easy to find.
Should I take the GRE if it is “optional?”
Ask yourself these questions when deciding to take the GRE (if it’s only optional):
- Are your undergraduate grades impressive?
- Do you have a wealth of real-world experience in the field you want to study?
- Have you earned high degrees in other fields?
If you answered no to all of these, you should consider taking the GRE. If strongly considering not taking it, however, be sure to thoroughly analyze the strength of the rest of your application. Admissions counselors will offer the most valuable advice, so seek them out if you’re unsure how to proceed. In general, it’s in your best interest to add another example of your academic strength to your application by taking the GRE.
Sections of the GRE
The GRE is divided into three major components: Verbal Reasoning, Analytical Writing, and Quantitative Reasoning. While it is very rigorous, the exam was designed to be a basic test of overall knowledge. As ETS itself says, the GRE measures, “skills that have been developed over a long period of time and are not related to a specific field of study but are important for all.”
This section tests your reading comprehension, vocabulary, and word usage skills. It forces you to analyze written passages. Questions are multiple choice, and there’s often more than one correct answer. The Verbal Reasoning section is split into two, 30-minute sections of 20 questions each.
Reading is the single most important thing anyone can do to improve their English and writing skills. And it doesn’t have to be the classics; newspapers, magazines, thrillers, mysteries, romances, histories – they’ll all help broaden your vocabulary and give you a better sense of sentence structure.
In addition to reading, other study tactics include:
Flashcards: Many people find vocabulary flashcards helpful when studying for the Verbal section of the GRE. Flashcards can help you expand your lexicon; GRE prep companies sell them by the box, and you can practice them online at Magoosh.
Using Vocabulary Words: Make sure that when you’re studying vocabulary words, you actually understand each of them–their meaning and proper usage. Put them into context by using them in a sentence.
This section tests your ability to understand the provided written passages on multiple levels. You need to be able to discern not just the literal meaning of the text, but the themes and the author’s’ intentions.
Tips & Tricks
One of the best ways to improve your reading comprehension skills is to simply read a lot of sample questions. The more you read, the more you’ll understand the test’s phraseology. Read enough sample questions, and you’ll start to see patterns. Check out ETS’ sample questions here.
- Recheck your work. Oftentimes something will click on a second reading.
- Never skim and assume. Sometimes people have a tendency to skim a passage and make assumptions on what it’s about, picking the answer that comes readily.
- Translate the question into your own words. Read it a couple of times, and then think of how you would say the same thing.
- Look for answers designed to trick you. Question writers will try to mislead you with extreme answers, answers that don’t really have relevance to the passage, or answers that are true statements but don’t answer the question being asked.
In the text completion section, you’re given a passage in which there are one to three key words missing, and your job is to pick the right answer(s) from the multiple choices to finish the sentence.
Tips & Tricks
- Eliminate wrong answers. Look for the words that make no sense first to narrow down your options.
- Fill in the blank. Use your own word first, then look for a similar word among the answers.
- Use contextual clues. Read carefully and look for hints.
- Check the grammar. Sometimes you can cross off possible answers because the tense is wrong or because it’s a verb and you’re looking for an adjective.
- Read the entire passage. If the passage is longer, make sure you read it in its entirety before you go hunting for the right word.
- Don’t always start with the first blank. Sometimes the others are easier, and filling them in can help narrow down the options for rest of the question.
The Sentence Equivalence section of the test is much the same as text completion, only you’re filling in a single word in a single sentence. But there’s a twist; you have to come up with two answers that both bring the sentence to the same conclusion. In other words, both answers have to read correctly and have largely the same meaning in the context of the sentence.
Tips & Tricks
- Eliminate the illogical. You should notice several nonsensical answers right away.
- Try to find synonyms. But don’t assume that just because there are a pair of synonymous words that they’re necessarily correct; they have to make sense in context.
- Fill in the blank. See if one of options is similar to the word you come up with.
- Make sure it makes sense. Read the sentence with the new word in place to ensure that it makes logical and grammatical sense.
Quantitative Reasoning Section
According to test creators ETS, the Quantitative Reasoning section contains only high-school level mathematics. The exam assesses your “basic mathematical skills, understanding of elementary mathematical concepts. . . and your ability to solve problems with quantitative reasoning.” This means you’ll encounter algebra, geometry, integers, factorization, prime numbers, square roots, and statistics, including word problems.
The Quantitative Reasoning section is broken into two parts and each takes about 35 minutes, with 20 questions each. There are several specific subjects to expect, including:
The arithmetic section of the GRE is pretty straightforward, covering basic math concepts like division, ratios, roots and exponents, remainders, estimation, percentages, decimals, and number patterns.
Start with a practice test. ETS has several available on its site. Kahn Academy has free videos on how to prepare for the Quantitative Reasoning portion of the exam as well, which can also be found on the ETS site.
The algebra section measures your ability to solve equations where variables are present. The test covers the factoring of algebraic equations, inequalities, quadratic and linear problems, exponents, and turning word problems into numerical equations.
The geometry section covers typical spatial-relations material, which includes volume, area, perimeters, parallel and perpendicular lines, triangles, circles, angle measurements, and degrees. You can find tips and practice tests at ETS, and Magoosh has a Geometry Blog that is very helpful.
The Data Analysis section delves deep into statistics and what can be gleaned from number sets. This involves means, medians, bar graphs, tables, Venn diagrams, and percentiles. You’ll be asked to interpret data to determine probabilities, distributions and permutations. There’s typically about six of these questions on the GRE.
When studying for this section, keep these tips in mind:
- Don’t Rely on Your Calculator: Though you are able to use a calculator on the test, you need to understand the concepts behind the problems – and your calculator can’t do that for you. Calculators are provided by the GRE on screen; it’s difficult to use them quickly, so over-reliance on them will slow you down.
- Time Yourself: The GRE requires that you progress steadily while taking it, so it’s a good idea to clock your speed as you take practice tests. This will give you a good idea of how long you can afford to spend on individual questions.
These questions show you two quantities (A and B) and ask you to judge which is greater, which is lesser, whether they are equal, or whether the relationship between the two can be determined at all, given the information you have.
Sample questions are always the best place to begin to get a feel for these types of comparisons. Many questions are based in algebra and geometry.
Multiple Choice (one answer)
These are the basic multiple-choice questions; you have five possible options and must pick the correct one. These are generally basic mathematical equations. Try doing a number of sample questions. Read the answers first and keep them in mind while reading the question. Often, the right answer will jump out at you.
Multiple Choice (one or more answers)
These questions are different; you still have five choices, but more than one of them will provide the correct answer. Again, this tests you on basic math skills, but with a trickier format.
Spend some time doing sample questions to get a feel for these. Some questions will ask for the number of answers required, others will hint at it. See if you can determine that first, and eliminate what you can. Don’t overcomplicate things; these are usually fairly basic equations. Consider each answer on its own merit, ignoring the other answers. If you absolutely can’t figure out the answer, pick your best guess – percentage-wise, it’s always better to select answers in a multiple-choice exam than it is to leave any blank.
Numeric entry questions require you to enter your answer as a digit in a box. These can be more difficult than the multiple choice questions because the answers are not provided. They’re also often delivered as word problems, so your first job is to set up the equation.
Get started practicing with sample questions. With numeric entry questions, you want to make sure you understand what’s being asked and how to format your solution. Because the answers are not provided, it’s up to you to determine whether you’re trying to come up with a percentage, a decimal, a fraction, etc.
Formulas to Know for the GRE
Formulas are not provided on the GRE, and there are several dozen you should have down before sitting for the exam. Keep in mind, it’s always best if you actually understand the concepts behind them rather than just having them memorized.
Formulas include how to calculate distance, rate and time, probability, work rate, divisibility, prime numbers, interest, percentages, factoring, ratios, how to find the area of geometric shapes – there are too many to list here. Magoosh has an excellent resource in its Complete Guide to GRE Math Formulas ebook. It’s free.
Analytical Writing Section
The Analytical Writing segment is the dreaded essay portion of the exam, and it measures your ability to think critically and express yourself in writing. It’s divided into two parts: Analyze an Issue and Analyze an Argument. Each takes about 45 minutes to complete. Generally speaking, these prompts examine how you parse an issue, take a stand, support your case, and articulate it to your audience.
When studying for this section, remember to:
- Study the Answers: Reading the answers to essay questions on practice tests, like those provided on the ETS site, will give you a good idea of how to successfully compose your own. Notice how other writers structured their arguments and what kind of language they used. Take this information into consideration when practicing writing essays of your own.
- Read it Aloud: Read your work aloud. It’s easier to spot awkward phrasing when listening to your essay rather than reading it silently.
- Outline: When you sit down to write your essay, start by making an outline. This will prevent you from going off on tangents or losing too much time arguing a certain point. If you have a pre-planned structure, you’re more likely to stay focused and on theme – which is what the GRE is looking for.
The issue-based question presents a topic of general interest and requires you to articulate your stance on it with a well-reasoned argument. The issue is given along with a prompt and very specific directions.
Example prompts include:
- Consider ways in which the statement might or might not hold true
- Describe specific circumstances in which adopting the recommendation would or would not be advantageous
- Address the most compelling reasons and/or examples that could be used to challenge your position
There are no right answers to these questions. The best essays rely on compelling arguments presented coherently and concisely.
ETS is happy to show you actual questions. Notice how the arguments are made and defended. Study the writing style and structure. Then practice on your own with a stopwatch; give yourself a half hour to make your point. Scratch out a quick outline to focus your writing. Be aware of your grammar and spelling, since spell-check won’t be available on test day.
Think about which side of an issue offers arguments to make the strongest case ; your real opinion doesn’t matter if you can’t back it up.
These questions require dissecting a given argument. The essay should be an expression of what’s good and bad about it, in your own words. Did the writer back up their opinion with evidence? Can you spot any holes in their argument? This portion of the exam tests your critical thinking skills, reasoning, and ability to make a persuasive case. You can find an example prompt here.
Check the ETS site for its pool of actual questions. Take note of how they’re typically structured and the kinds of arguments used. ETS posts sample responses of both high- and low-scoring answers; spend some time with them. You should be able to discern what makes a successful essay.
Practice writing timed responses. Make sure you thoroughly understand the main points of an argument and come up with a list of evidence you can present in response to them. The clarity of your reasoning is key; stay away from any tangents and focus on following your outline.
Once you’ve completed your essays, they’re sent to a computer and a reader at ETS to be evaluated. The computer makes its assessment using an algorithm, with results on a scale of 1 to 6, with 6 being the highest. The person scores your essays on the same scale. Both are looking for an essay that:
- Addresses the specific prompt given
- Presents the writer’s argument in a logical, thorough, and organized manner
- Provides compelling support for its case
- Flows well and has varied sentence structure
- Shows good command of language and grammar
- Has few errors
The computer and the reader scores are averaged to determine your final results. If there is a sizable discrepancy between the two, the essay goes to another reader for input, and the final score is an average of both readers’ scores.
Study Tips & Resources
How long do I need to study?
Everyone is different, and there is no correct answer as to how long you should spend preparing for the GRE. Ask yourself the following:
- How long have you been out of school? If it’s been a long time since you’ve written essays and done math equations, you may need more time to study.
- How good is your vocabulary? If you are a wordsmith, you may not need to spend long studying for the Verbal Reasoning component.
- How competitive are the schools you’re trying to get into?
- How good is your undergraduate GPA?
- How much time can you possibly commit?
- Are you comfortable with standardized testing?
Answering these questions will give you an idea of how much time you should spend studying for the GRE. The best way to gauge your readiness is to take some online practice tests and see how well you do. Your scores will give you insight into your strengths and weaknesses.
Studying is a lot like working out; if you set hugely ambitious goals and push yourself too hard, you’ll eventually find excuses to avoid it. Don’t set yourself up to fail. Find a time of day that works for you. Minimize distractions and take one section at a time.
Many people study for the GRE as if the test itself is the end goal; they memorize information rather than learn it. Focus on understanding the concepts and build a foundation that will help you long past exam day.
Below you’ll find an overview of study resources available for those preparing to take the GRE:
Tutors tend to know the exam, and they can quickly assess your strengths and weaknesses to come up with targeted solutions. They know the best learning tools, and they can motivate you if you tend to procrastinate.
Targeted learning with teachers who know the GRE inside and out, a structured approach on a regular schedule, classmates who can give advice and support, prepared materials that you don’t have to go out and find yourself – these are some of the many benefits of GRE classes.
Make sure the test is based on the revised GRE, and better yet, find one written by ETS.
- The Official Guide to the GRE Revised General Test: This GRE guide contains four practice tests. It comes with a CD-Rom filled with strategies for taking the test prepared by ETS, the same company that writes the exams.
- ETS’ Official GRE Practice Questions: This series of practice-question books were put together by the test writers themselves. You can choose from Verbal Reasoning or Quantitative Reasoning.
- GRE Analytical Writing: Solutions to the Real Essay Topics: This GRE guide contains sample essays, which are not that easy to come by. The guide analyzes each writing sample and explains why they’re successful.
- Kaplan GRE Premier: This guide is filled with six sample tests, a DVD on stress management and the grad school application process, and strategies for success on exam day. It also gives you one-year access to online resources from Kaplan, including more samples, quiz banks, and videos.
- Magoosh Online GRE Resources: The site features everything from study planners and links to ETS’ Powerprep software to flashcards and ebooks.
- ETS site: Download the company’s Powerprep software, use their Analytic Reasoning “tasks,” read test-taking strategies, download sample questions and tips, get free practice-book pdfs, and more.
- Manhattan Prep You’ll find a free practice test “under realistic conditions” at the Manhattan Prep site. It’s designed to feel just like sitting for the GRE.
- PrepGame: a free app that turns studying for standardized tests into a math-based game.
- Magoosh GRE Prep App: a free app that has more than 200 video lessons covering each section of the test.
- IntelliVocab for GRE: Designed by students at MIT, this app studies you; through interactive questions and problems, it figures out your vocabulary level, and then it helps you expand it.
- Pocket GRE Math: Another free app that tests you with 550 quantitative aptitude questions and word problems. The solutions to each problem are thoroughly described, so if you get something wrong, you can see the proper way to solve it.
Online courses can be quick refreshers or semester-long classes. Check out Princeton Review, which has 24-hour, live, online, eight-week courses for $799. Or Powerscore, which hosts everything from comprehensive, 10-lesson classes for $995 to intensive 16-hour weekend lessons for $395. There’s also Kaplan and Manhattan Prep.
Online tutoring options range from groups to private instruction. Princeton Review for example has 18-hour online packages available from $2,600 up to $5,850 for “premier-level teaching.” At Wyzant.com you can select from hundreds of personal tutors offering one-on-one, online consultation for about $50-$90 an hour, each one rated by previous students. Tutor Universe, University Tutor, and Varsity Tutors all have similar arrangements. Most of these use Skype-like interfaces.
Taking The GRE
What To Bring
- Identification. It must be original and valid (not expired) and include both a photo and a signature. It must also bear your full name and match the name you registered under.
- The confirmation email you received when you signed up
- The admission ticket you received when you registered
- Natural foods high in calories like nuts, bananas, or dates which can help maintain energy levels
- Water; don’t bring caffeinated drinks
- Comfortable clothes for sitting for four hours
- The ID information of each graduate school you plan to send scores to
- Scrap paper
When the day of your exam finally comes, keep a few of these tips in mind:
- Use your breaks wisely. Visit the restroom, stretch, breathe, and grab a snack and a drink. You’ll feel more refreshed for the next sections.
- Don’t leave questions blank – make your best guess instead, since there’s no penalty for incorrect answers.
- Skip difficult questions – come back to them when you’ve finished the rest in the section to ensure you’ve used your time wisely.
- Use all the time allotted. This is an important. Use it to check your work.
The GRE Test
The test typically takes 3 hours and 45 minutes. The GRE allows one ten-minute break after the third section of the test and one-minute breaks between all other sections. You are allowed to get up at other times, but the test will not be paused.
Keep these factors in mind:
- If you’re late, you may not be admitted.
- Testing centers are often video-taped.
- ETS may use scanners to see if you’re bringing anything into the testing area.
- You can raise your hand for assistance if experiencing computer problems.
- You may have to give up your watch, so consider not wearing one.
- You’ll be asked to designate what schools you want to receive your scores at the end of the exam.
Staying focused and on-task throughout the test can be difficult if a question stumps you. Keep in mind the following when trying to manage your time wisely:
- The Verbal section is divided into two blocks of 30 minutes each, both of which consist of twenty questions. That gives you 1.5 minutes per question. Keep that in mind as you’re moving through.
- The Quantitative section gives you about one minute and 45 seconds per question, and many students have difficulty completing all 20 questions in the 35 minutes allotted.
- Do skip ahead when you need to. It’s foolish to waste time on difficult sections only to run out of time for questions you could answer easily.
- Reading passages will take time, so it’s a good idea to complete text completion and sentence equivalence questions quickly.
- The GRE computer increases the difficulty of later sections based on how you perform on the initial sections (and the more difficult questions earn you a higher score). Focus more on the first part of the math and verbal sections, which will prompt the computer to issue you more difficult questions.
Viewing and Reporting Scores
When you’re done taking the test, the computer will display your unofficial scores for the Quantitative and Verbal sections. These can be close to your actual scores.
You then have the option to report these scores to the schools of your choice – or simply not send them if you feel you can do better – using the GRE’s ScoreSelect program. You can send scores to four schools; after that it costs $27 to send them to two additional schools. On test day you’ll have the option of sending your most recent scores or, if you’ve done better in the past, your past scores from previous exams. GRE scores are valid for for five years.
Official scores will be delivered between 10-15 days after taking the test, and you can view them through your GRE account.
GRE Scores – FAQ
What is the GRE scoring scale?
Both the Verbal and Quantitative sections have a scoring range of 130-170, in 1 point increments. The Analytical Writing section is graded on a scale of 1-6.
When can I view my GRE score?
Official scores will be delivered between 10-15 days after taking the test, and you can view them through your GRE account.
What is considered a good GRE score?
- Top 25% scores on the Verbal and Quantitative sections are in the 158-164 range.
- Top 50% scores on the Verbal and Quantitative sections are in the 152-158 range.
- A competitive score on the Analytical Writing section is 4.5.
Can I retake the GRE if I’m not happy with my score?
You can retake the GRE as many as five times in a year, but only once every 21 days.
What is an adaptive section?
The GRE uses adaptive sections, which means the computer assesses how you’re scoring throughout early sections and then supplies you with more difficult questions in later sections if you’ve performed well. Harder questions are highly desirable; the more demanding the questions, the higher you score.
How is the Verbal section scored?
The Verbal section is scored on a range between 130-170, in 1 point increments. Each question in the two sections counts equally, and the raw score measures the number of questions answered correctly. Incorrect answers and non-answers are not counted.
The final score is the raw score processed through an algorithm that factors in the difficulty of the questions answered. The average score is 150-152. ETS provides a thorough explanation of its scoring process.
How is the Writing section scored?
Once you’ve completed your essays, they are sent to a computer and a human reader at ETS to be graded. The computer makes its assessment using an algorithm and scores essays on a scale of 1 to 6, with 6 being the highest. The computer and the reader scores are averaged to come up with a final score. If there is a sizable discrepancy between the two, the essay goes to another reader for input and the final score is an average of the readers’ scores.
Most people typically score somewhere around 3.5.
How is the Quantitative section scored?
Your Quantitative score is generated the same way as your Verbal score. The max score is 170, and most people average around 150-152.
What GRE score do I need?
The score you want depends on what you’d like to do with it. To get into the highest tier graduate programs, like Harvard or MIT, you probably want to score 160 or better on the Verbal section and no lower than 152 in Quantitative. The 50th percentile (average score) for the GRE is 302, which is 150.8 for Verbal and 151.4 for Quantitative.
Obviously if you’re going for an advanced degree in physics, your Quantitative scores matter more than your Verbal scores, and the reverse is true if you plan to study the humanities. ETS published a breakdown of test-takers in 2012-2013 that provides fascinating insights into how people generally perform on the exam. It shows the mean score for various fields of study, how well people did with years of work experience, and how people did in regard to their intended career path.
What if I didn’t score well?
The good news is that no matter how you do on the GRE, you always have the opportunity to better your score. And nobody has to know how well you did; if you don’t like your scores, simply don’t send them.
Taking the exam gives you invaluable insight into the test-taking process. You’ll know what areas need work, how to prepare better, and what to expect on test day. Retaking the exam is an easy process. You’re already in the GRE system, so simply log-in to your account and sign-up for another test date.
Consider taking the test relatively soon after your first exam because the information will be fresh. You have to wait 21 days and pay the fee again, but that gives you time to study. If you’ve done the best you can and still fear your scores are too low for your desired program, there are other ways to pad your application. Letters of recommendation and undergraduate GPA count a lot to admissions officers. Additionally, you could do an internship, work in a research lab, or get an entry-level job in your field; real world experience always makes you a more attractive candidate.