Guide to the GRE

The Graduate Record Examination, or GRE, is a standardized test required by some graduate and business schools. The test is intended to be a predictor of a prospective student’s aptitude for graduate study. It’s difficult. You must study strategically.

Guide to the GRE
By Dr. Sara Austin

The General GRE broadly assesses a student’s skills in analytical writing, reading comprehension, and quantitative reasoning. Not every school requires them, so you will want to check the requirements for each school that interests you.

To sign up for the GRE, visit the ETS website.

GRE Subject Tests

Most schools that require GRE scores from applicants are asking for the General GRE Test, but some will require tests in more specific content areas such as physics or literature. You should inquire with the schools of your choice to determine which tests you should take for admission to specific degree programs.

ETS offers specialized tests in six subject areas:

  • Biology – 188 multiple-choice questions on cellular and molecular biology, organismal biology, and ecology and evolution.
  • Chemistry – 130 multiple-choice questions covering analytical chemistry, inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, and physical chemistry.
  • Literature in English – 230 questions in a variety of forms. The test assesses literary analysis, identification of literary theories, cultural and historical contexts, and the history and theory of literary criticism.
  • Mathematics – 66 multiple-choice questions on calculus, algebra, and other topics such as graph theory, functions, geometry, probability, and statistics.
  • Physics – 100 multiple-choice questions on classical mechanics, electromagnetism, optics and wave phenomena, thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, quantum mechanics, atomic physics, special relativity, and laboratory methods.
  • Psychology – 205 multiple-choice questions on aspects of psychology such as biological, cognitive, social, clinical, and developmental dimensions, as well as the methods used to evaluate them.

These specialized tests are given in written form and are available in September, October, and April of every year. Each of these tests has different requirements and has anywhere from 66-230 questions. Registration for the subject tests costs $150 whereas the general test costs $205.

Most students can complete the exam in 3-4 hours. Your test administrator will allow you to take a break if needed but remember to manage your time wisely. Unscheduled breaks do not stop the testing clock, so too many breaks can make it difficult to finish on time.

Is the GRE Required for Graduate School?

Not always. There is ongoing debate about the validity of tests such as the GRE. At the heart of the discussion is the question of whether or not standardized tests can truly be counted on to accurately measure a student’s potential.

In fact, some highly reputable graduate schools no longer require a GRE for admission to many of their programs. These schools, such as Johns Hopkins University and Boston University, have stipulated other criteria for evaluation in place of the GRE. For example, some schools waive the GRE if you have been working in a professional capacity in your field for at least five years.

Does that mean you shouldn’t take the GRE?

No. The GRE requirements are subject to change and have evolved over time. Some programs require the GRE conditionally, such as if your GPA is low. Alternately, your master’s program may not require a GRE score, but the doctoral program that follows may.

You don’t know where your journey will take you, or if you will apply for other programs in the future. If you can afford to take it, take it now. It is much easier for you to take the test now than it will be in 10, 15, or 20 years, when your college geometry classes have long faded from memory.

Structure of the GRE

GRE Subject Tests are available only in written form. You can take the General GRE test in two different forms: written or computer-based. Most students take the computer-based form because they are able to get their scores weeks earlier. Following completion of the exam, Your test scores will arrive within 10-15 days for the computer-based version, and within 5-6 weeks for the paper-based exams. Neither method offers an advantage over the other. Choose your test format based on availability and personal preference.

There are three sections of the General GRE. Each section is graded separately and tests for different skills.

Analytical Writing Section

The Analytical Writing Section of the GRE assesses your writing and critical thinking skills. This is the first section you will complete. You will receive two different writing prompts, each asking you to analyze an issue and make an argument.

Analytical Writing Study Tips:

You do not need to have prior knowledge or understanding of the topic in order to succeed. You can review the essay prompts on the ETS website. ETS provides all possible prompts for your reference. It may be helpful for you to see the types of questions they ask. This test isn’t designed to grade your writing skills or your impressive vocabulary. Ultimately, the test is evaluating your ability to follow directions and articulate complex information. Even so, you should always leave yourself enough time to proofread your essay.

Verbal Reasoning Section

There are two verbal reasoning sections in the GRE, both intended to evaluate your ability to comprehend, analyze and synthesize written information, and demonstrate your understanding of sentence structure, grammar, and vocabulary. There are three types of questions in this section: reading comprehension, text completion, and sentence equivalence.

Verbal Reasoning Study Tips:

Approach your reading comprehension passage with a sharp eye. Look closely for contextual clues that could fundamentally change the meaning of the excerpt. As you read, take note of words that signal such changes, such as “however”, “even though”, and “although”.

Quantitative Reasoning Section

The Quantitative Reasoning Section of the GRE assesses your math skills. Some of the areas covered in this section include: geometry, arithmetic, algebra, and data analysis. There are many different question types, including multiple-choice, single-answer, multiple-answer, quantitative comparisons and numeric entry questions.

Quantitative Reasoning Study Tips:

Focus your study on foundational math skills. Review the rules for fractions, decimals, order of operations, algebraic equations and geometric formulas. It may be your first instinct to try to learn everything you can about trigonometry in a month, but you will be far better served by mastering the fundamentals.

When taking the test, use every tool at your disposal to hone in on the right answer: eliminate any responses you know to be wrong first, round complex numbers to the nearest ten or hundred, estimate possible answers and check your answers by working the problem backwards.

You cannot bring your own calculator for the exam, but one will be provided to you at the test site. For the computer-based exam, the calculator is on the computer, and for the written test, a handheld calculator will be provided.

How is the GRE Scored?

The GRE is scored in two different ways, depending on how the test was taken. The computer-based test uses adaptive scoring, which means that your performance on one section of the test can influence questions you’ll receive on subsequent sections. This model enables the test to adapt to the user.

The adaptability of the testing also means that questions become increasingly difficult as you perform better. ETS scores questions on their level of difficulty, which means that 10 correct responses to easy questions will be worth less than 10 correct responses to difficult questions.

Adaptive scoring isn’t possible for the written version of the test. Instead, ETS has supplemented the written test with more questions than the computer-based version.

When you receive your scores, you will notice a scaled score and a percentile rank. Your scaled score will be between 130-170 on the verbal reasoning and quantitative sections, and between 0-6 on the analytical writing section.

Your percentile rank will be from 1-99 and represents the percentage of test-takers who received lower scores than you. This is useful for you to understand how well you did compared to other students. The schools that you apply to will look at both of these numbers, but the percentile rank carries a bit more weight when it comes to assessing your abilities compared to your peers.

It is important to note that these percentiles can change from year to year, as the average test scores are based on test results within the current year.

GRE SectionScore RangesAverage Score
Verbal Reasoning130-170150.05
Quantitative Reasoning130-170152.80
Analytical Writing0-63.50

Frequently Asked Questions about the GRE

How Do You Register for the GRE?

To register for the GRE, create an account with ETS. Once you have registered, you will be able to locate a testing center and select a schedule that works for you. You can then register, reschedule or cancel exams via this account.

The ETS website has a lot to offer test takers. Here, you can access more information about the testing process, subjects covered, sample questions, pre-tests, study guides, and much more.

When Should You Take the GRE?

It is recommended that you take the GRE in the late summer or early fall preceding your final year of undergraduate work. Some students take the GRE and worry that their scores are not high enough. Taking the test early allows you time to retest and improve your score.

How Much Does the GRE Cost?

The GRE General Test costs $205 for most students. Students in countries such as Australia and China may pay more. The fee for changing your reservation may vary depending on the testing center and other factors. GRE Subject Tests are $150 each.

How Many Times Can You Take the GRE?

If you are unhappy with your performance and wish to try for a higher score, you can take the test as many times as you’d like, with only a few stipulations. You are permitted to take the test once every 21 days and as many as five times in a year. Taking your test before you begin the final year of your undergraduate studies will give you time for a couple more tries if you need to improve your scores.

Are there Accommodations for Test Takers with Disabilities or Health-Associated Needs?

ETS will work to accommodate test takers with disabilities or health-related special needs. These accommodations could be extra time, screen magnification or more frequent breaks.

Important Note: You cannot request accommodations on the date of your test. You have the ability to make requests via your ETS account up until the date of your test, but the sooner the better. ETS officials may reach out to you with additional questions or to obtain appropriate documentation. If you are unable to obtain the appropriate documentation before your test date, your accommodation request will be denied. Don’t procrastinate.

When Will You Get Your Scores?

It will depend on how you take the test. With the written exam, your results can take up to five weeks. If you take the computer-delivered exam, you can see your preliminary results (not official) immediately, with the official results to follow in 10-15 days.

How Do You Submit Your Scores to Schools?

ETS will transmit your scores to as many institutions as you wish. The first four schools are free. You’ll be charged an additional $27 for each additional school beyond the first four.

What Scores Will Schools See If You Take the Test More Than Once?

You have the ability to choose which scores go out to the schools you have selected. Opt in to ScoreSelect on the ETS website, so you can ensure that only the best scores are reported to the institutions you have selected.

How Long Will Your Scores Be Valid?

GRE scores are valid for up to five years after your testing date.

How to Prepare for the GRE

Performing well on the GRE can have a substantial impact on your education. High scores can increase your chances of acceptance to top tier universities and help you to win scholarships and grants, reducing or eliminating your need for loans or months of ramen noodles.

There are many ways to increase your chances of success on the GRE. Some are quite expensive, and some are free. Here are some of the most common resources you can use to study for the exam:

Printed Study Guides/Books – Study guides for the GRE look closely at the different subject areas covered on the exam, and often include practice tests and study tips.

Flashcards – Flashcards are a great way to study vocabulary and mathematical formulas. You can find these online for free download or for purchase, or you can make them yourself.

Private Tutoring – Tutoring is one of the most expensive ways to prepare for the GRE, but it is also among the most effective. A private tutor can not only help you to sharpen your skills, but can also help you identify areas of weakness and ways you can improve.

Study Apps - Study apps can range from completely free to quite expensive. Many students do find them helpful, as they allow users to practice for the exam on a tablet or smartphone. Students can use these apps to study while sitting on the bus, in the waiting room for the dentist, or watching TV.

Online Practice Tests – It is recommended that you take at least one full-length practice test before sitting for the actual test. You’ll get a look at the types of questions on the test, and you’ll get a sense of how the timing works for you. You may find that, after finishing each section, you have plenty of time left to recheck your work, or you may find that you need to improve your pacing in order to complete the test on time.

GRE Prep Courses – Organizations such as Princeton Review offer GRE Prep Courses which can be quite expensive. You may also find that local adult education centers or community colleges offer free or low-cost options. There are also GRE Prep programs available online.

Study Tips for the GRE

As you study for the GRE, consider these proven strategies for success:

Know what’s on the test – ETS provides descriptions of every section of the test, along with sample questions and tips. Review the information provided on each section of the test. Taking practice tests will help you identify weaknesses and focus your efforts on the areas where you need the most work.

Review potential writing topics – ETS publishes all of their potential writing prompts on their website. Get to know these prompts, and perhaps even write practice responses to these topics. This will give you a much better handle on what to expect from the written portion of your GRE on test day.

Brush up on your high school math skills – Be sure that you are solid on the fundamentals. Take some time to brush up on the basics, such as fractions, decimals, percentages, geometric formulas and algebraic equations.

Vocabulary - Take some time to review vocabulary words that may be on the test. Practice tests for the GRE will help you assess and improve your current vocabulary level.

Practice makes perfect – You can find practice tests for the GRE in many places. Practice tests are available in GRE study guides, online study courses and mobile apps. Practice answering the types of questions you’ll see on your test. By eliminating surprises, you’ll signficantly improve your chances of success.

What to Expect on Test Day

When testing day arrives, you should be ready to go. You’ve made all of your preparations, you’ve studied diligently, and you know exactly how to get to the testing center. There are still, however, ways to improve your chances of success.

Arrive early – Make sure you arrive in time to register, use the restroom and get a drink of water. Test administrators often have a number of people taking the test at the same time. Arrive early to ensure that you aren’t the reason why testing begins late. Bathroom breaks are possible, but outside of a scheduled ten-minute break mid-way through the test, the clock will continue to run while you are gone.

Get plenty of rest – A good night’s sleep will make you sharper and better prepared for success. Hopefully you were able to choose a testing time that works best for you. If you tend to get a slow start in the morning, you would be better off scheduling your exam for the afternoon.

Eat a good breakfast – Avoid sugar or anything that is too rich.

Dress in layers – The testing center could be too warm, too cold or just right. Either way, you don’t want to be distracted by the temperature in the room.

Leave it at home – You can’t bring anything into the testing room other than non-mechanical pencils and erasers. No phones, calculators or notes are permitted. The center will ensure that you have a calculator or scratch paper if required.

Identification – Make sure that the identification you bring with you matches the name you used when you registered for the test. Your identification must be original, government-issued, current (not expired), have a recent photograph and include your signature. Identification that does not meet these requirements will not be permitted and you will not be able to take your test that day.

Unacceptable forms of identification include, but are not limited to:

  • Student ID card
  • Social Security card
  • Temporary ID
  • Expired ID
  • Credit or debit card
  • Employee ID

Don’t Stress!

Your GRE score is important, but it shouldn’t be a source of anxiety. If you don’t do as well as you’d like, you can retake the test. Remember that you can take the test up to five times per year, so one bad score won’t ruin you. Learn from it, study harder and try again.

And be sure that you take advantage of any resources that might help you improve your scores. Whether you plan to master the material with the help of a study app on your phone or you think you could benefit from personal coaching, find a strategy that works for you, and knock your GRE scores out of the park!