Standing for Graduate Record Examination, the GRE is a highly competitive entrance exam for graduate and business schools across the United States. It's administered by the non-profit ETS, a group that offers a number of other standardized tests for aspiring college students. Students who take the GRE General Test are typically applying to a program to earn one of the following:

ETS notes the GRE is accepted by thousands of graduate schools, business schools and fellowship programs around the world. Just as SAT and ACT scores are used to determine admittance at the undergraduate level, GRE scores are considered by graduate schools when reviewing student applications.

Why Take the GRE?

Put simply, the GRE is an assessment test. It is a way to measure a student's aptitude, and it helps a school determine whether a person will be able to complete the work required in a graduate degree program.

Rather than check for book knowledge, the GRE is largely concerned with assessing a student's critical thinking and reasoning skills. It wants to know if a student can draw accurate conclusions from text, whether they can apply basic math skills to solve problems and how well they express themselves in writing.

Not every school requires the GRE, so students should confirm with their school whether or not it is required for admittance. For those who do need to take the GRE, keep reading to learn more about what's on the exam, how to prepare and what to expect on test day.

What's on the GRE? 

The GRE General Test includes three sections: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing. There are also six GRE Subject Tests. These cover the following areas:

To assess all these areas, the GRE General Test is broken down into the following three sections:

Verbal Reasoning

The verbal reasoning section is concerned with a student's reading comprehension and analytical skills. The exam tests those skills in two ways. Half the section presents paragraphs of text and asks questions based on those passages. The second half presents texts that must be interpreted.

There are three types of questions in the verbal reasoning section:

Quantitative Reasoning

The quantitative reasoning section is the math portion of the GRE. It is testing whether students understand basic mathematical concepts and can solve problems. Some of the questions are pure math, but many are word problems that require test takers to analyze a situation and model the solution. Within the quantitative reasoning section, four contest areas are tested:

The GRE uses four types of questions to measure quantitative reasoning:

Analytical Writing

The third and final section of the GRE tests a student's critical thinking and writing skills. It isn't concerned with content knowledge but instead is designed to see how well someone can articulate and support a complex concept.

The analytical writing section is broken down into two parts:

Scoring for the GRE

Both the verbal reasoning and the quantitative reasoning sections are scored on a scale of 130-170 with one-point increments. Scores for the analytical writing section range from 0-6 with ½ point increments.

How to Prepare for the GRE

GRE scores can play a significant role in the admissions decisions at some graduate schools, so you'll want to be adequately prepared to take the test. Since everyone learns differently, there is no one way to prepare for the GRE. However, the following process is a good place to start:

  1. Take a GRE practice test: ETS offers free, practice tests for students, as do other groups such as Kaplan Test Prep.
  2. Identify strengths and areas for improvement: Once you have completed a practice test, you should have a good idea of where to focus your study time.
  3. Create a study plan: Carve out specific times in your day to devote to GRE preparation. Kaplan Test Prep recommends those who will be taking the test in less than two months schedule three 30-minute study sessions per day. If you have a longer prep time, you may not have to study so intensively.
  4. Try various study methods: Some students prefer to work out of books while others like to use flashcards or online resources. Try a couple study methods to find the right option for you.
  5. Continue to take practice tests at intervals to monitor progress: Retake the practice test multiple times during your studies and compare your scores to your previous attempts. If your scores are increasing, you'll know your study habits are effective and you should continue them. If your scores are staying about the same, you may want to devote more time to studying or try a new study method.

Additionally, keep the following details in mind for some extra GRE test prep:

Where and When to Take the GRE

The GRE is administered at more than 1,000 test centers across 160 countries. At most locations, the test is offered as a computer-based assessment. Up to three times a year, it is offered as a paper-based test in areas where computer testing is not possible.

In some states, you can find the GRE General Test offered practically every day of the week. Seats are reserved on a first-come, first-serve basis, and registration can be completed through the ETS website.

Students can take a computer-delivered test once every 21 days, up to 5 times within a 365 day period. You can take the paper-delivered test as often as it's offered. Plan to be at the testing center for 4.5 hours on test day if you are taking the General Test. Those taking a Subject Test should plan on 3.5 hours at the center.

In the United States, it currently costs $205 to take the GRE General Test. Fees vary for Australia and China, and there may be additional costs for late registrations, rescheduling or changing your testing center. Subject Tests cost $150 worldwide.

What to Expect on GRE Test Day

When your scheduled test day rolls around, be sure to get plenty of rest the night before. You want to feel awake and fresh for the exam. What's more, plan to arrive at the test center at least 30 minutes prior to your test time. If you're late, you may not be admitted, and you won't get a refund of the test fee either.

Bring your printed authorization voucher if ETS provided one, as well as a valid form of identification. Other personal items are not allowed and must be stored during the test. This includes your phone, which can't be used or accessed at any time, including during breaks.

Leave your food, drinks, tobacco and firearms at home or in your car. These items, as well as any other weapon, are not allowed in testing centers. If you have a medical need and require accommodations of any kind, be sure to submit a request well in advance.

Dress in layers so you'll be prepared for a testing room that is warm or cold. The only jewelry permitted is wedding and engagement rings. Staff may inspect glasses or any clothing item or accessory, so it's best to keep your outfit simple.

Remember: failure to abide by staff instructions could have you removed from the testing center. If that happens, your test fee will be forfeited.

What Happens After the GRE?

Taking the test is the scariest and most memorable part of the GRE, but the process doesn't end when you mark your last answer. For tests taken after July 1, 2016, you have five years to have your scores reported to the institutions of your choice. However, the cheapest way to report your scores is to have it done on testing day.

ETS offers a ScoreSelect option that allows four free score reports to institutions of your choice. You can choose to either send your most recent score or send all your GRE scores from the past five years.

If you wait until after the test day to send scores, you can choose to send: your most recent score; all your scores from the past five years; or scores from specific testing days. However, it costs $27 per recipient school to send scores after your test day.

Of course, not everyone aces the GRE on the first attempt, and that's ok. You can retake the GRE up to five times a year if needed. In fact, it may be a good idea to plan to take the test again at least once. ETS says nearly a quarter of GRE test takers repeat the test, and most people who take it a second time improve their score. So don't despair if you need to retest.

Practice Resources for the GRE

Your local library can be a good source for books and other resources related to the GRE. In addition, you may want to use these online practice resources:

In addition to these General Test resources, ETS offers free practice books for each of its Subject Tests.

Now that you have all the details, it's time to make those education and career dreams a reality. Graduate school, here you come! Be sure to explore how you might pay for grad school by checking out our financial aid section