GRE Guide

Pursuing a graduate degree can lead to new career opportunities in your current field, a chance to change industries, or a higher salary. Taking the GRE General Test is an important step toward acceptance to business school or graduate school. Created and administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), the GRE is often part of the application packet that schools require of most graduate students in business, the humanities, and various science disciplines.

The GRE is an important factor in a college or university's admission decisions, financial aid packages, and graduate assistantships.

The GRE covers three skill areas: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing. Verbal reasoning tests your ability to analyze written content, quantitative reasoning assesses your problem-solving skills, while analytical writing measures critical thinking and writing skills. The GRE includes multiple choice questions, quantitative comparison, text completion, sentence completion, numeric entry, and essays. Combined with undergraduate transcripts, recommendations, and personal essays, the GRE is an important factor in a college or university's admission decisions, financial aid packages, and graduate assistantships. While the value of the GRE varies from program to program, lower GRE scores nearly always hurt an applicant's chances of admission. Since graduate school applicants have varied cultural backgrounds, vocational experiences, and academic histories, the GRE serves as an objective way to measure applicants against each other.

GRE Subject Tests

Most graduate programs require prospective students to submit GRE General Test scores as part of their application packets. Some schools also require or recommend that applicants provide scores from GRE Subject Tests. There are six subject tests, which are offered in biology, chemistry, literature in English, mathematics, physics, and psychology. Each subject test costs $150 and is 2 hours 50 minutes in length, although the ETS does not require test takers to use all allotted time. Examinees can take GRE subject tests at centers around the world that deliver paper-based exams. These centers offer the subject tests three times a year, and they are typically reserved for people who hold an undergraduate major in the subject (i.e. not usually for students headed to seminary).

Some graduate theological schools require the GRE for ministry programs. Others permit prospective students to submit scores from the MAT or another standardized test. A few graduate ministry programs do not require any test scores as part of their admission packet, relying instead on grades, references, and essays to make their admissions decisions. Before taking the GRE for seminary, students should check with their prospective schools to determine which tests -- if any -- they need to complete.

The Structure of the GRE

The GRE tests your ability to engage in the kind of rigorous thinking expected in graduate school or business school. The test consists of three sections -- verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing -- and they are not always delivered in the same order. Most students take about 3 hours and 45 minutes to complete the GRE, although those taking the paper-based version may use an additional 10 minutes. Verbal reasoning and analytical writing each contain two sections, and test takers are allowed 30 minutes for each section. Quantitative reasoning sections, alternatively, are 35 minutes for each of its two sections.

The GRE's questions use various formats, including multiple choice, multiple choice with two answers, sentence completion, text completion, and essays.

Some test takers encounter unscored or research sections on the GRE. The unscored section is an experimental portion of the GRE designed to give testmakers helpful feedback on possible new questions for future exams. Examinees do not know which section is unscored. Research sections, however, appear at the end of the test and have an identifier. The GRE's questions use various formats, including multiple choice, multiple choice with two answers, sentence completion, text completion, and essays. As a test taker, you can return to a question you've already viewed within a single section, but you cannot go back to a question in a section you already completed.

Delivery Format

Test takers can either take the GRE delivered via a computer or paper. About 98% of examinees take the computer-based exam, but in areas where it is not available, the paper-delivered GRE offers the same exam. Students with approved accommodations may also request the paper-based exam, but otherwise, examinees must take the computer-based format. Both formats contain the same sections, but the quantitative and verbal sections of the paper-delivered format have five additional questions each and allow five extra minutes on each section. Both versions cost the same amount, but the computer-based version delivers results much faster than the paper-delivered alternative.

Skill Areas

The verbal reasoning section of the GRE tests examinees' skills in the analysis and evaluation of written material, and the ability to synthesize information obtained from reading. In this section, test takers also show they can analyze the relationships between words, concepts, and the parts of a sentence.

Question Types

The GRE's verbal reasoning section includes three types of questions -- reading comprehension, text completion, and sentence equivalence. Reading comprehension questions can be multiple choice or select-in-passage, and they draw from essays that range from one to five paragraphs in length covering an academic topic. These questions appear in sets, while text completion and sentence equivalence questions stand alone. Sentence equivalence questions require test takers to select two of six word-choice options to complete the sentence provided.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Some examinees try to answer questions by first reviewing the multiple choice options provided, rather than by reading and understanding the text of the question. This strategy can fail when the creators of the test use language designed to seem logical in an effort to trip test takers up on contextual nuances or grammar. A good tip is to read and understand the questions and the text before selecting an answer. Another common trap occurs when students read passively rather than interacting with the text through underlining, writing down questions, and mentally engaging with the information. To avoid this pitfall, many test takers use scratch paper to make notes during the reading.

Helpful Tips

Read the Whole Passage

Don't try to work backwards by answering questions first. Often, the passage gives context and clues that a single sentence does not.

Fill in the Blank First

If you can fill in the blank without looking at the options provided, do so. Then check the list for the word that most closely matches your choice.

Keep an Eye Out for Structurally Significant Words

Words like "however," "although," and "still" can help you understand the logical argument an author is constructing throughout the question.

Check Your Answers

Give yourself enough time to review the answers you chose, ensuring you selected the choices you intended to select.

Skill Areas

In this section of the exam, test takers demonstrate their critical thinking skills and their analytical writing skills. Students do not have to demonstrate content knowledge. Instead, they need to show the ability to express and support their ideas, analyze arguments, and sustain focus in their communication.

Question Types

The GRE's analytical writing section consists of two parts. The first asks students to analyze an issue, and the second has them analyze a specific argument. The former requires test takers to think about an assigned topic of general interest, analyze it, and express their thoughts. In the latter, however, examinees demonstrate the ability to understand, analyze, and evaluate an argument by looking at logic, reason, evidence, and assumptions within the text.

Word Processing Software

While those completing the paper-delivered exams handwrite their essays, the computer-delivered test uses an ETS-developed word processor designed specifically for the GRE. This software lets examinees insert text, cut-and-paste, delete text, and undo an action. It does not, however, contain spelling or grammar check functionalities to be fair to those taking the paper exam.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Examinees often don't completely understand the analytical writing section's grading system, especially as it relates to the issue and argument tasks. By taking GRE prep classes, students can learn more about how GRE graders assess writing, along with the kinds of responses they want to see. Some students also focus too heavily on including complex or obscure words in their response. To be successful, test takers should instead state their opinion clearly and provide a carefully reasoned explanation for it. Simple, well-reasoned sentences are more effective than complicated ones.

Helpful Tips

Write a Complete Response

Make sure your analytical writing completely answers the question posed, and does so in a logical and organized way. Help the reader know exactly what you mean.

Give a Complete Response

Your essay should fully answer the question and provide a logical, lucid account of your reasoning. Resist the temptation to address only part of the prompt.

Review the Scoring Guides

By knowing the ETS's criteria for scoring the essays in advance, you can develop a strategy for crafting a high-scoring composition.

Proofread

Don't let spelling errors, awkward sentence structure, or grammatical mishaps impact your score. Save yourself enough time to proofread everything before submitting your essay.

Skill Areas

The GRE's quantitative reasoning section tests basic mathematical skills, including arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and data analysis. Students also have to demonstrate that they understand elementary mathematical concepts and possess the ability to reason quantitatively. Finally, test takers must use quantitative methods to model and solve problems.

Question Types

The quantitative reasoning portion of the GRE includes four types of questions: quantitative comparison questions, multiple-choice questions (select one answer choice), multiple-choice questions (select one or more answer choices), and numeric entry questions. Comparison questions ask test takers to compare two quantities and choose which statement best describes the comparison, while numeric entry questions ask for a decimal, integer, or fraction to answer the question. Some questions act as part of a single data set, and quantitative comparison questions feature most prominently in this section.

Can You Use a Calculator on the GRE?

The ETS does not permit students to bring a calculator from home or to use their smartphones. The computer-based exam includes an on-screen calculator for students to use, while test proctors distribute calculators for those taking the paper-based exam.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Some test takers study for the GRE's quantitative reasoning section by trying to relearn the theorems and proofs of complicated mathematical branches, such as calculus or geometry. The quantitative section of the exam, however, focuses on math and arithmetic at the high school algebra level and below. This means test takers should spend their energy brushing up on the fundamental concepts of math. Some test takers also try to work through each calculation in order to compare the answers for every problem on the test. But an experienced test taker can effectively estimate the answer to a problem, eliminate the incorrect choices, and move on to the next question.

Helpful Tips

Check Your Answers

Save time to go through the test and review your answers to avoid careless errors in your work.

Replenish Your Scratch Paper

If you run out of scratch paper, ask your test proctor for more so you may have unencumbered space to work through problems.

Memorize Equations

Knowing basic geometry equations -- such as those for determining angles, lines, and circles -- will be helpful as you answer related questions.

Review Basic Concepts

Refresh your memory about arithmetic, basic algebra, and math vocabulary. The rudiments of math will be more beneficial than knowing complex formulas or calculus.

The GRE assesses skills and compiles scores in three areas: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing. Verbal and quantitative reasoning scores are granted between a 130 and a 170 in one-point increments, and the analytical writing section shows scores between 0 and 6 in half-point increments. Should a student answer no questions on a single section, the score will show NS for No Score. The computer-format test and the paper-format test formulate scores differently.

On the computer-format test, the verbal and quantitative reasoning sections are adaptive, meaning that the computer selects the second operational section of the test based on an examinee's performance on the first operational section. A strong performance on the first section results in more challenging and more valuable questions. On the paper-based test, the scaled score accounts for differences between different test editions. Human graders score the analytical writing section, which is then submitted to a computerized scoring system. The final score is an average of these two scores.

Score Ranges on the GRE General Test
GRE Section Score Range
Verbal Reasoning 130-170 (1-point increments)
Analytical Writing 0-6 (1-point increments)
Quantitative Reasoning 130-170 (1-point increments)
Source: ETS

What's the Difference Between Your Scaled Score and Your Percentile Rank?

When you finish your GRE exam, you'll receive both a scaled score and a percentile rank. Scaled scores for the verbal and quantitative sections fall between 130 and 170, while the analytical writing section falls between 0 and 6. Percentile rank shows what percentage of test takers scored below you, and it is usually more important than scaled scores. Scores at the extreme ends show smaller changes in percentile rank than scores near the median. Schools see both scaled scores and percentile rank on the report they receive.

Score Ranges on the GRE General Test
GRE Section Average Score
Verbal Reasoning 149.97
Analytical Writing 3.48
Quantitative Reasoning 152.57
Source: ETS

You can take the GRE at more than 1,000 testing sites in 160 countries around the world. To register, first create an account with the ETS, which lets you view testing centers, available dates, and requirements for the exam. Then, register for either the computer-delivered test or the paper-based exam. If you need to reschedule or cancel, do so at least four days before the scheduled exam to receive a refund. On test day, you can choose where to send your scores.

At-Home Study Methods

Test takers can use a variety of at-home study methods -- both digital and print -- to prepare themselves for the GRE.

GRE Prep Courses

Kaplan, Powerscore, and the Princeton Review offer study guides for sale, online courses, in-person classes, and one-on-one tutoring. Courses typically run on a set schedule, while tutoring and other study options may be self-paced. The average GRE prep course costs $1,000, and tutoring can extend upwards of $3,000. Some companies offer abbreviated resources for free, however, and other organizations provide extensive study aids without cost. The components of these courses vary, but they can include videos, lectures, customized quizzes, and personalized feedback.

Studying Tips for the GRE

Know the Exam Structure

By knowing what to expect on the test, you can avoid surprises, plan your study sessions, and determine which information you should focus on.

Take Practice Tests

Try to create the testing environment by taking practice exams available online or in paperback books. Use your scores to direct your studying.

Read Challenging Books

The only way to be prepare for the verbal reasoning section is to become a fast, fluid, and attentive reader, and that takes practice.

Review Prefixes and Suffixes

By recognizing and understanding the most common prefixes and suffixes, you can decode long, complex words on the verbal reasoning portion.

Review Possible Writing Topics Before the Test

The ETS publishes a list of all potential writing prompts. Read these and write sample responses for practice before test day.

Helpful Resources

Test takers can access a variety of free online resources, from digital flashcards to full practice tests, to help them succeed on the GRE.

  • ETS POWERPREP Practice Tests Sponsored by the organization that administers the GRE, POWERPREP is a series of GRE practice tests with scores available in online and print versions.
  • Quizlet You can search through study sets, games, and flash cards designed to help you improve your GRE score. You can even create your own study tools through Quizlet.
  • Magoosh GRE Vocabulary Flashcards Magoosh offers more than 1,000 free digital flashcards optimized for mobile. These feature the most important words to know for the GRE.
  • LEAP This free online test-prep platform holds more than 1,100 practice questions, 600-plus videos and blogs, and offers 30-minute tutoring sessions in verbal and quantitative skills.

On test day, report to the testing center 30 minutes ahead of your scheduled time. Your test administrator will assign you a seat and provide scratch paper at the beginning of the test. You may not bring food, beverages, or tobacco into the testing site, but you can take a short break when scheduled. During break -- or whenever necessary -- you may use the restroom, but you may not leave the testing center.

What Should You Bring with You?

What Should You Leave at Home?

Certain accommodations are available for test takers with health needs or disabilities that meet ETS requirements. To assist qualified test takers, the GRE is available in several accessible options, including JAWS and a refreshable braille device. Those who need accommodations must submit their requests to ETS Disability Services prior to scheduling their exams. Learn more about how to submit a request and read the ETS bulletin on disabilities and accommodations by going to their website.

When Will You Get Your Scores?

After completing the test, you can choose to report or cancel your scores. If you elect to report your scores, you will immediately see unofficial results for the verbal reasoning and quantitative reasoning sections. It takes 10-15 days to receive official scores -- including results for the analytical writing portion, which is graded by hand.

How Do You Submit Your Scores to Schools?

You may choose up to four fellowships or graduate schools to receive your scores. On test day, you simply select the four recipients from the list provided. For any recipient not listed, contact the ETS before the test date. You may send more than four copies of your scores for an additional fee.

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

Prospective students may choose to take the GRE more than once in order to improve their scores. In some cases, however, they may score worse the second time. The GRE supports the The ScoreSelect® option, which lets you decide which of your scores schools will see. When registering for the test, you can choose to submit the "most recent" score or "all" scores.

How Long Will Your Scores Be Valid?

If you take the GRE on or after July 1, 2016, your scores will be valid for five years from the date you took the exam. Exam scores earned prior to that date are valid for five years following your testing year, which runs from July 1 to June 30. Scores earned prior to July 2012 are no longer reportable.