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The Graduate Record Examination (GRE), created and administered by Educational Testing Services (ETS), is used by thousands of graduate and business schools to make admission and fellowship decisions. Many graduate programs require scores from the GRE General Test as part of a complete application, and some also require or recommend scores from one or more GRE Subject Tests.
The GRE General Test is a graduate-level admissions exam that provides graduate and business schools with one common criterion that can be used to compare a wide variety of applicants from all over the world and range in academic and professional experiences.
Your GRE score is a big part of your graduate school application, but it certainly isn’t the only—or even the most crucial—part. Because graduate schools and programs are highly specialized, applicant pools are often a fraction of the size of undergraduate admissions pools. That leaves more room for your personality and achievements to shine, and your GRE score may not be a make or break-it deal for some programs. However, don’t get too excited; this doesn’t mean that grad school admissions are any easier or even less competitive. In fact, admissions are often more competitive at the graduate level than at the undergraduate level. Beyond your GRE score, graduate admissions officers will consider many other factors, including your undergraduate GPA, work and research experience, personal statement, letters of recommendation, and interviews.
Some graduate programs also require or consider GRE Subject Test scores, which are similar to the SAT Subject Tests in that they test your knowledge of a particular subject like chemistry or literature. Not every school requires a GRE Subject Test, but many of the most competitive programs do. ETS offers the Subject Tests three times a year: in September, October, and April. There are six GRE Subject Tests: biology, chemistry, English literature, math, physics, and psychology.
For some programs, the GRE may provide a minimum screening threshold for admission even as it is not otherwise used or heavily weighted for admission by your intended program. It’s also possible your GRE score could come in handy if you are interested in law school, as some schools are accepting (or are considering accepting) GRE scores in lieu of LSAT scores.
Overall, it’s best to do your research into the admissions requirements and benchmarks for entry for the specific graduate programs, fellowships, and funding opportunities you plan to pursue, as they can all have different admissions criteria and requirements.
Logistics: Registering, Format, and Scoring
The GRE is a computer-based exam that tests students in three topics: Analytical Writing (AW), Quantitative Reasoning (QR), and Verbal Reasoning (VR). The AW is one section and is composed of two writing tasks, and the QR and VR topics each have two sections. The AW section is scored out of 6, whereas the QR and VR sections’ scores range from 130 - 170. Your score report (see here for an example) will indicate your scaled score for every section as well as your percentile ranking in every section. Your percentile rank is what many schools use to assess how well you did on the test. For example, if you scored in the 88th percentile, that means you did better than 88% of test-takers who took a similar test. Once you take a test, your scores are valid for up to 5 years for consideration to graduate programs.
The GRE is offered year-round in over 1000 locations in 160 countries around the world. You have to register and pay to take the test ahead of time online. You can enter your information here to determine your nearest center and its availability. The registration fee is $205 in most locations, and testing centers operate on a first-come-first-serve basis. Check out the ETS registration checklist to make sure you have all the information you need to register successfully. Note that you can only take the GRE 5 times in a 12-month period, and have to wait at least 21 days between tests.
The GRE takes approximately 3 hours and 45 minutes, with a 10-minute break after the first three sections (~2 hours) of the test and a one minute break between each other section. The test may take longer if you were randomly chosen to test out an un-scored "experimental" section, which is more common than not, so plan accordingly throughout your prep. This extra section (either QR or VR) is how the ETS tries out new testing material, and although the extra section is un-scored and doesn't count toward your score, it is not marked, so there is no way to determine which section you take is the experimental one. So treat every section like it’s the real deal!
Analytical Writing (AW)
The first section you will encounter on the GRE is Analytical Writing, which consists of two essay tasks, each with a 30-minute time limit. Each of the two essay types, “Issue” and “Argument”, is graded in half-point (0.5) increments along a range from 0 to 6. The essays achieving the best scores (5.5/6) demonstrate insightful analysis, idea complexity, logical reasoning, and fluent language use.
Your essays will be graded by a human grader and an e-rater®, a computerized grading program developed by ETS, and then averaged for a final essay score. If the human grader and e-rater® scores differ by more than one point, a second human grader will be called in to score your essay, and their score will be used to calculate your final average. The average score from both essays will be combined for a single AW section score.
“Issue” and “Argument” Essay Prompts
The “Issue” prompt asks you to analyze and construct an argument for or against a presented issue. This essay prompt tends to be shorter and more declarative, and you are instructed to articulate a stance on the matter at hand. The following is an example “Issue” essay prompt:
'As people rely more and more on technology to solve problems, the ability of humans to think for themselves will surely deteriorate.’ Discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the statement and explain your reasoning for the position you take.
Ultimately, although you have creative agency, your argument should clearly articulate your point of view and present specific, logical examples to back up your claims. It’s strongly recommended to look at sample “Issue” essays for successful and unsuccessful submission examples for this type of prompt.
On the other hand, the “Argument” prompt asks you to instead deconstruct a presented argument. This tends to be a longer, paragraph-style prompt, and it will instruct you to identify logical errors and assumptions in the presented argument. ETS has also posted examples of “Argument” essay prompts, as well as sample essays.
Like the “Issue” prompt, you have the ultimate say in the organization and delivery of your essay; however, you must emphasize clarity and specificity as you make use of your limited time. Remember to always leave time at the beginning (~5 minutes) to quickly outline your essay, and at the end (~2-3 minutes), to give them a quick read-through and fix typos, grammatical issues, and unclear phrasings.
The remaining two topics tested on the GRE - Quantitative and Verbal Reasoning - are made up of two (possibly three) sections each, (four “regular” sections + one unscored research section) and are administered through a “section-adaptive” examination style. What this means is that the first section you see for each topic of the exam will have a medium difficulty rating. The second section for each topic will be more or less challenging depending on how you did in the first section. In other words, a computer algorithm will analyze your performance on the first section and will then choose one of three possible options for your second section on that topic. It is impossible to figure out how you are doing on an exam based on the results of this algorithm—instead, focus your (very) limited time on answering as many questions as you can. Note that you can skip questions and return to them before your time is up for that section. Also note that the GRE does not subtract points for wrong or missed questions, so it’s strongly encouraged to guess instead of leaving questions unanswered. Each question contributes equally to your final raw score; however, you will also be given a scaled score that controls for difficulty. These scaled scores range from 130 to 170 for each of the Reasoning topics.
Quantitative Reasoning (QR)
This topic tests your math skills. But don’t worry, the math covered on the test does not go beyond the level of high school Algebra 2 or statistics, and include mostly arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and data analysis. You will have two 35-minute QR sections, each with 20 questions.
It is crucial that you not get hung up on any single question for too long. Questions are designed to take an average of 90 seconds, with some taking more or less time than others. Don’t get too comfy: even if you were a math major in college, this section is more about testing your logic and your ability to think quickly on your toes than your ability to channel your inner math whiz.
There are four question types in each QR section: quantitative comparison, multiple choice-select one answer, multiple choice-select multiple answers, and free (numeric) response. Quantitative comparison questions make up about one third (approximately 6-7) of the questions in each QR section. These questions present two quantities and ask you to determine which of the four answer choices best describes the relationship between those quantities. The remaining two-thirds of QR questions tend to be problem-solving questions in which you solve an equation or interpret data. There is an on-screen calculator provided through the testing portal on your computer screen, but it is very basic, and you are not allowed to bring your own calculator into the testing room. If you do bring a calculator to the testing site, you will be required to leave it outside of the testing facility in your car, outside the testing room in a locker, or with the testing administrator.
Verbal Reasoning (VR)
This section of the GRE assesses your ability to analyze and understand written text as well as your ability to discern the meaning of in-context vocabulary. As with QR, you will have two sections each with 20 questions; however, each section will only be 30 minutes long. There are three different types of VR questions: reading comprehension, text completion (fill in the blank), and sentence equivalence (choose two answers with similar meaning). Question response formats will be in multiple choice (choose one answer), multiple choice (choose multiple answers), or select in-passage text formats. While you have an average of 90 seconds to answer questions, expect to spend more time on reading comprehension questions, as you will have to read a passage and answer subsequent questions based on your reading. In any given VR section, there are approximately 10 reading comprehension questions, 6 text-completion questions, and 4 sentence equivalence questions.
The GRE seems daunting and complex when you start this journey. We’ve done our best to synthesize as much of the information out there into one place so that you can make an informed decision about how to best prepare for this test. While the GRE is an important aspect of your graduate admissions packet, it’s not the end-all-be-all, and may not be emphasized depending on your intended program and school.
In today's changing test landscape, many programs that formerly required either the LSAT or GMAT are beginning to accept the GRE. That's great news for some test takers, but we strongly advise researching all you can about the programs you intend to apply to and reaching out to schools’ admissions officers for more specific information.
The ETS GRE website is a great place to start your research on this test, and it can point you in the direction of some free test prep materials. But that is rarely enough: the most comprehensive and effective method of prep for the GRE is individualized test prep.
We strongly believe that a mentor changes everything™. Please reach out to us to discuss your needs and set up an initial consultation.
Analytical Writing Verbal Reasoning
2019 - 2020 Dates
The computer-delivered GRE Test is given year round in most locations around the world. To schedule your GRE test date, which are assigned on a first-come, first-served basis, click here.
How does the computer-adaptive GRE work?
The GRE is a computer-adaptive test, or CAT for short. Every test taker will see a least two Math sections and two Verbal sections. The difficulty level of the second section (easy, medium or hard) in each subject is determined by your performance on the first section. If you get lots of questions right on the first section, you will get a harder second section, but access to higher scores. If you don’t get as many questions right on the first section, you will get an easier second section and your scoring potential is capped at a lower range.
The computer-delivered GRE is the standard format for test takers. The paper-based GRE is far more rare and only offered up to three times a year. But if you want to learn more about the paper-and-pencil test, visit ETS.org .
What are GRE Subject Tests?
The GRE Subject Tests are similar to the SAT Subject Tests in that they test your knowledge of a particular subject like chemistry or literature. Not every school requires a GRE Subject Test, but many of the most competitive programs do. ETS offers the Subject Tests three times a year; they are not part of the standard GRE. There are six GRE Subjects: biology, chemistry, English literature, math, physics, and psychology.
GRE or GMAT?
More than 1,200 MBA programs now accept scores from the GMAT or GRE for business school admissions, and that means more options for you. Before you decide which test to take, research the business schools you're interested in and find out if they will accept GRE scores instead of GMAT scores. Compare the differences between the GMAT and the GRE exam content and structure below.