Ultimate Guide to the GRE

Feb 22, 2019 | By Maryalene LaPonsie
Article Sources


  1. GRE, ETS, Accessed November 2017, https://www.ets.org/gre
  2. How to Study for the GRE in Two Months, Kaplan Test Prep, Accessed November 2017, https://www.kaptest.com/study/gre/how-to-study-for-the-gre-in-two-months/
  3. Test Prep: 6 Tips for GRE Success, U.S. News & World Report, April 30, 2012, https://www.usnews.com/education/best-graduate-schools/articles/2012/04/30/test-prep-6-tips-for-gre-success
  4. Five mistakes to avoid during GRE prep, The Economist, Accessed November 2017, https://gre.economist.com/gre-advice/gre-study-strategies/general-study-advice/five-mistakes-avoid-during-gre-prep
  5. New Data: Nearly 1 out of 4 GRE Test Takers Retest, Most Improve Scores, ETS, June 11, 2015, http://news.ets.org/press-releases/new-data-nearly-out-of-gre-test-takers-retest-most-improve-scores/

ultimate guide to the gre

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:

  • Master of Business Administration (MBA)
  • Other master's degree
  • Doctoral degree

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:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Literature in English
  • Mathematics
  • Physics
  • Psychology

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:

  • Reading Comprehension: The test presents approximately 10 passages, ranging from one to multiple paragraphs, followed by reading comprehension questions. These questions may ask test takers to identify the meaning of words or sentences, or to assess evidence and select the best answer (or answers) from multiple choices.
  • Text Completion: For these problems, test takers will read a passage of up to five sentences. There may be as many as three blank spaces in the passage that must be filled. Students are typically given three answer choices per blank space.
  • Sentence Equivalence: Sentence equivalence is the final type of question asked as part of the verbal reasoning section. Test takers read a sentence with a blank space. Then, they select two out of six words presented. The goal is to select two words that will complete the sentence with a similar meaning.

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:

  • Arithmetic
  • Algebra
  • Geometry
  • Data analysis

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

  • Quantitative Comparison: In these problems, students will be given two quantities for comparison. They will need to determine whether one quantity is larger, whether the quantities have the same value or whether a comparison cannot be determined with the information provided. The quantities may be displayed as an equation or in another form.
  • Multiple Choice (One-Answer): For this section, students will be presented with a problem and must select one correct answer from five presented solutions.
  • Multiple Choice (Multiple Answers): A second multiple choice section will ask students to select one or more correct answers for each problem.
  • Numeric Entry: The final segment of the quantitative reasoning section requires students to complete math problems and fill in the solution. Answers may be integers, decimals or fractions.

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:

  • Analyze an Issue: Students are presented an issue and given 30 minutes to draft a written answer supporting their position on the matter. There is no right or wrong answer. GRE raters aren't looking for specific data points but want to gauge how well someone can make and support their argument.
  • Analyze an Argument: Also 30 minutes long, this part of the analytical writing section presents a passage in which an author presents a specific view. Students must then provide a written response analyzing the soundness of the argument as well as its structure. As with the "analyze an issue" question, the test taker's opinion is not important. Rather, scoring is based on how well the analysis is presented.

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:

  • Be consistent with studying: One of the best ways to prepare for the GRE is to be consistent in your studies. Don't think one marathon study session will make up for weeks without review. For the best results, find time to practice and review every day.
  • Sign up for a refresher course: If you've been out of school for a while, the easiest way to brush up on basic math and English skills may be to take a remedial class at a local community college or adult education program. Check for online classes if you don't think you can commit to a traditional program.
  • Challenge yourself when it comes to personal reading: Having a broad vocabulary can help a lot with the verbal reasoning section of the GRE. Studying and flashcards can certainly help teach you new words, but you can also learn a lot from reading dense novels, such as the classics. Don't feel ashamed to look up the definitions of words you don't know; each new word you learn makes you that much more prepared for the GRE.

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:

  • POWERPREP: ETS offers a POWERPREP test preview tool as well as two free online tests to help students prepare for the GRE. Two additional practice tests can be purchased separately.
  • Kaplan Test Prep Free GRE Practice TestAnother free test option comes from Kaplan Test Prep. Their test is timed and online. The company also offers a free GRE Question of the Day as well as other test preparation services that can be purchased.
  • Magoosh GRE Vocabulary FlashcardsMagoosh is another company that sells GRE test prep services. However, they also offer online vocabulary flashcards for free.
  • Khan AcademyETS recommends a number of free Khan Academy instructional videos for students who want to refresh their math skills.

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


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