Many grad schools around the world require you to take the GRE—but what is the GRE? And what do you absolutely
have to know about it?
The GRE, officially known as The Graduate Record Examination General Test, is supposed to test your verbal, mathematical and analytical thinking skills. (Whether it actually does this very well is a matter of debate.)
Thousands of graduate programs around the world want to see your GRE scores before they will consider your application.
I first took it back in 1991(!) when it was still paper-based. It’s changed a lot since then. Now, it’s a fully computer-based test (at least in the US).
I’ve been teaching GRE prep
since 2000. I’ve taught thousands of students one-on-one, in my private classes, and through Texas A&M University.
Key GRE Facts
- The GRE is given as a Computer Adaptive Test (CAT). In some countries, the GRE may be paper-based if the country lacks sufficient computer infrastructure.
- You can register for the GRE at ets.org/gre
- Take the test at one of many testing centers located throughout the US and around the world.
- You can sign up for a day and time that is convenient for you.
- As I write this, the cost for the GRE is $205, but you can see the latest fee structure here.
- Most graduate schools use the GRE score in their admissions process, much like undergrad programs use the SAT or ACT.
- The scores are available from ETS (the company that makes the GRE and SAT) for 5 years.
- It usually takes ETS fifteen days to get your official scores ready after you take the test, BUT you’ll know your scores on the Verbal and Quantitative sections before you walk out the door on test day. Some schools will accept your unofficial scores you report to them.
- The GRE has seven different sections divided between Written Analytical essays, Quantitative (math) questions, and Verbal questions.
- The sections get harder or easier based on how well you do. For example, if you get most of the first math section right, then the next math section will be harder.
The GRE is scored on a scale of 130 to 170 for the verbal and quantitative sections. 150 is an average score.
The writing section is scored on a 0 to 6 point scale in half-point increments.
Some grad schools will lump your verbal and quantitative scores together. For example, “Our students should get at least a 306 on the GRE.” Other schools may just look at percentile scores.
You’ll have the three sections I mentioned above. The whole thing will take you about 3.5 hours. You can find more details and examples of all the question types here, but here’s the quick overview. . .
- The essays always come first, followed by either a math or a verbal section.
- Next is a ten-minute break
- Verbal and Quantitative sections come in random order, with a one-minute break between sections
- You will have either three verbal OR three quantitative sections. The extra section is an experimental section used to test out new questions. You will not know which section is experimental (don’t waste time trying to identify it), and it won’t count towards your score.
2 GRE Verbal Sections
- Each GRE Verbal section has around 20 questions and is 30 minutes long.
- There are six text completion questions in each section. These will have a sentence or two with one, two, or three blanks. You will have from three to five words or phrases to choose from for each blank. Gotta get’em all right to get any credit.
- There are four sentence equivalence questions in each GRE verbal section. These have a sentence with a blank and six possible words that might go in the blank. You pick the two words that would give the sentence a basically equivalent meaning.
- Finally, you’ll have around ten reading comprehension passages with questions. The reading passages are from three to 15 sentences long with one to six questions over each passage.
- 150 is an average score for the GRE Verbal
Two Quantitative (Math) Sections
- Each section has around 20 questions and is 35 minutes long
- Quantitative Comparison questions will give you two different quantities and ask you to compare them to determine if one is larger than the other, the two quantities are equal, or it cannot be determined.
- Multiple-choice questions are the same as the ones you are familiar with. In this case, the questions will have five possible answer choices to choose from.
- Multiple-answer questions. These look like multiple-choice questions but will have from 3 to ten different possible answers to choose from. Any or all of the answers may be correct, so you can choose more than one.
- Numeric entry questions. On these, you will fill in a box with your answer.
- 152 is an approximate 50th percentile score
- ETS gives you an on-screen calculator, but it isn’t very good. It’s the sort of calculator you might buy for $3 in the check-out line at Walmart. There are no higher-level keys, such as an exponent key, for example.
Two Written Analytical Essays
- These always come first on the GRE
- In the Analyze an Argument essay, they will give you an argument—someone’s letter to the editor, a paragraph out of a newspaper article, that sort of thing—and you will have 30 minutes to discuss where the author should have given more evidence or where they made unwarranted assumptions. You can see all the Argument essay prompts here.
- The Analysis of an Issue essay is also 30 minutes long. They will give you a topic such as, “Censorship is rarely if ever justified,” and you will have to build a logical, well thought out argument about why you agree or disagree. See all the Issue essay prompts here.
- 4.0 is an average score for this section
- For the latest information and news and to sign up for the actual GRE test go to the ETS website.
- To sign up for a weekend GRE prep class near Texas A&M University in College Station OR to sign up for a live class, taught online anywhere in the world, go here.
Cody Blair has spent over 18 years researching how students learn and remember most effectively. He helps students apply that knowledge in and out of the classroom. He is the author, instructor, and owner of StudyProf GRE Prep based in College Station, Texas, and has been teaching GRE prep since 2000.
- Start studying for your GRE early. How early? You can improve on your GRE math (quantitative) scores quickly since most of it is basic, and most people just need a refresher. Building an adequate GRE vocabulary, however, takes a long time. Several months is best.
- Be strategic with what you study for the GRE. For example, it’s not worthwhile for most people to practice the GRE reading comprehension much. You just won’t improve your score that much for the amount of time it will cost you. Better; knowing the techniques and ways to identify the best answers on the GRE quantitative and GRE verbal sections will give big score increases in a hurry.
- Know how your grad school handles your GRE scores. Call up your grad school adviser and find out which sections of the GRE they are most concerned with. Do they even look at your GRE written analytical scores? Many schools don’t. Do they use your scores as a way to weed out which students they will consider? Is your score something they collect but don’t actually use in the admissions process? Is it a way to differentiate applicants who are otherwise similarly qualified? Find out more here.
- Get good GRE help. A good GRE prep course can really make a big difference in your scores in a hurry. You can find out exactly what’s on the test as well as getting guided practice. The best courses have experienced instructors and high quality practice questions. You can check out my GRE prep course options here. OR see my online video course.
- Know the Single Best Way to Boost Your GRE Score!
© Cody Blair, All Rights Reserved.
When building a house, smart people get with an architect long before the first thumb is hammered. Fail to get expert advice and you’re asking for train-track-through-your-balcony headaches!
Taking a GRE prep course is like talking to an architect. They may cost you some bucks, but Continue reading Are you really GRE ready?
© Cody Blair, All Rights Reserved.
U.S. News and World Report magazine has put out their annual listing of America’s best colleges. Every year they rank over 1,400 U.S. colleges and universities. Take a look to find out how your program stacks up, or to identify schools you might like to attend.
Can you apply? Yes. Definitely. There are many factors that go into a school accepting you and your GRE score is only one of them.
Every graduate school is different. Some may weigh your GRE score very heavily in their admissions process, while others may pay it little or no attention. The only way to know for sure is to ask the schools to which you’re applying.
Tip: call and talk to an admissions counselor one-on-one (better: schedule an appointment and go see them). Spend time making a good impression; don’t just blurt out your question. Ask them about your GRE scores after you’ve established some rapport.
Why? Admissions personnel are supposed to give you the “official answer,” for example, “We won’t even consider you if your GRE score is below a 1260.” But, after you’ve talked to them a bit and they see you as a person and not just a part of their job, they might give you the real answer; “We tell people 1260 minimum, but truthfully, with your GPA and background, you can probably get in with anything above 1150.
However! The higher your GRE score is, the easier it will be to get into most programs. Even if your GRE score is sufficient many fellowships and TA positions depend directly on your score. “We’ll give the TA spot to the highest GRE score that applies,” or “You must have a 1250 to be eligible for this fellowship.” It really pays to get your GRE score as high as possible.
Trying to decide where to go to grad school or college?
It is commonly accepted that it is generally better for a student who is going on to an academic career to get their PhD at a different institution from where they got their MS. For an academic, the place where you got your PhD is generally more important than where you got your bachelor’s degree and that it is important to have a PhD from the very best program that you can get into. Studies have shown that PhDs from the top programs are much more successful than PhDs from lower ranked programs for the best schools in the Country, for example there are many opportunities for the best vet schools in us and for medicine studies or art school.
There are lots of middle tier universities with good undergraduate programs that adequately prepare students for graduate study but that don’t have very strong graduate programs. If you’re at one of those institutions, then you’d be well advised to “move up” to a better institution for your PhD.
Take a look at the U.S. News and World Reports rankings!