Tag Archives: test preparation

What is the GRE?

The GRE; What is it?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 in 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.

GRE Structure

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. . .

General Structure

  • 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

Key Contacts

  • 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 BlairCody 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.


Does Race Affect Academic Performance?


It does. And so does gender. Exactly how it effects your test scores totally depends on the thoughts floating around in your head, no matter what color it is. In fact, race and gender aren’t really the culprit; for that we have to look to stereotypes.

In the classic study on stereotype threat researchers Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson looked at the performance of African American and White college students. The African American students’ performance on the GRE test varied markedly when they were primed to think of the test in two different ways. When the GRE was presented as a measure of intelligence African American students performed Continue reading Does Race Affect Academic Performance?

© Cody Blair, All Rights Reserved.

McCafferty on Cramming

Memorize and purge - cramming is stupid
“All subjects are the same. I memorize notes for a test, spew it, ace it, then forget it. What makes this scary for the future of our country is that I’m in the tip-top percentile on every standardized test. I’m a model student with a very crappy attitude about learning.”
Cramming is just dumb. There are much more effective (and easy) ways to study!
© Cody Blair, All Rights Reserved.

GRE, SAT, and GMAT Practice Nirvana


More scrumptious FREE practice tests than you can shake a stick at for the GRE, SAT, and GMAT. Regular readers will know that sometimes third-party tests can be sub-par, but a quick perusal of some of the GRE tests shows only very minor errors. Let me know in the comments if you find big problems on any of the other sections. Still, gobs of great practice for the low low price of zero dollars. Thank you, Mathurs! Click the logo to check it out…

majortests logo

Which SAT and GRE Prep Books Are Best?


Updated from May 2008 post…

book-storeGod bless book stores.  For the low low price of zero dollars an SAT/GRE junkie like me can go take a look at purty much every test prep book out there.  I go through the various books on a semi-yearly basis to see if there is any new test fu I can bring to my students.

There usually isn’t.  All the test prep books use very similar tactics and techniques but rename them and package them to sound different from the competition.  This is pretty much what you would expect, isn’t it?  After all, there are big bucks to be made, and I’m not the only one with access to a book store.

Which SAT or GRE prep book should you buy? The one you’ll use. One recent study compared different methods of test prep to see Continue reading Which SAT and GRE Prep Books Are Best?

6 Things You Must Know Before Taking a GRE or SAT Prep Course!


First–full-disclosure–I teach a GRE prep course and an SAT prep course for Texas A&M University.

Expensive courses can be worth it if you actually get the increases they claim. They could easily make you ten times as much as they cost, in the form of scholarships, fellowships, or better jobs!

What little independent research there is on the effectiveness of such courses shows little or no increase in score for those who buy the prep books (although buying the books is not the same as reading the books). Those who take prep classes show some improvement, and the greatest increases are among those who get personal tutoring. This research was specifically on the SAT, but the two tests are very similar. On the other hand, GRE students tend to be more self-motivated students than SAT students, so they might get better results from the books.

Pricier doesn’t mean better. Most courses teach pretty much the same stuff, because they all read each others books and integrate any new techniques they find. For the price of a classroom course from Kaplan or Princeton you can get live, one-on-one, GRE tutoring via the internet. That link is for my tutoring, but I’m sure there are lots more tutors out there. Continue reading 6 Things You Must Know Before Taking a GRE or SAT Prep Course!

© Cody Blair, All Rights Reserved.

Free SAT and GRE Help and Practice


I often post links to free online practice for the GRE and SAT, but there is much more available at your local library. Check out the prep books and work through them. Even if they are a few years out of date, chances are the majority of the information–especially the actual practice problems and tests–are exactly the same this year as they have been for the last two or three.

I go through many of the new SAT and GRE books every year just to make sure my SAT and GRE prep courses are staying on top of the latest techniques. Guess what? There are almost never any new techniques! The prep companies tend to just fix errors (and introduce new errors they’ll be fixing next year) and rearrange the basic layout a bit.

CAUTION: Make sure you visit the GRE and SAT official websites to look over their latest news and updates, when things do change significantly, that’s a great place to find out about it. I will also send out an email update to my list to keep them on top of things. You can sign up for my list here.

Here’s a link to a previous post that will help you make the most of those prep books. Although some of the post is for premium members only, there is plenty of useful stuff freely available (especially the link at the bottom about “my personal picks” for which GRE and SAT prep books to use).

Another CAUTION: One study found that buying a prep book had no effect on SAT scores–zero. Of course, “buying” a prep book is not the same as diligently working through the prep book. The highest increases in scores came from taking a prep course; the more personalized, the better (ie. high school sponsored prep courses were somewhat helpful, private SAT prep classes were more effective, and one-on-one tutoring was most effective).

If working through a difficult prep book by yourself is not best for you (and it’s not for most students), feel free to contact me about live, one-on-one tutoring via internet (blair [at] studyprof [dot] com). If you are in the Bryan/College Station, Texas, area, check out my live classes at http://studentsuccess.tamu.edu.

The SAT: An Overview


The SAT Reasoning Test (note: NOT the subject specific SAT tests) is used widely by colleges and universities as one of their admissions criteria.  It is also often used as a criterion in awarding scholarships. It is claimed to test students’ abilities in subjects such as reading, writing, and mathematics; subjects that are supposed to predict those students’ college success. It does not, however, do a very good job at this task, even by the admission of the College Board, the company that makes the SAT.

Normally taken by high school juniors and seniors, it’s become a dreaded rite of passage for many high school students around the world.  Let’s take a look at the basic layout of the test.

Given seven times a year in the U.S., and six times a year overseas. the SAT tests three different areas; reading, writing, and math.  Each of these are scored on a 200 to 800 point scale, and people usually talk about a combined score, adding the scores from each section together.  A mid-level score might be 1500, while a perfect score would be 2400.

SAT Sections

The SAT has several different question types including a short essay, five-choice multiple-choice questions, and grid-ins, where the student enters their answer on a number grid.

The Writing Section

The SAT Writing section takes a total of sixty minutes; thirty-five minutes test grammar and word usage in the form of multiple-choice questions.  Students will also be asked to spend twenty-five minutes writing an essay.

More details about this section, including exact question types and examples can be found here.  The writing section is relatively new and many colleges and universities do not even consider it in their admissions.  To find out how your schools of choice handle it, you will have to ask their admission’s counselors directly.

The Reading Section

The critical reading sections of the SAT include two twenty-five minute sections and one twenty minute section.  Question types include sentences with a blank or two blanks in which you must pick the best word or words to go in the blanks.  This mainly tests vocabulary.  There are also short reading passages over which students must answer a series of questions about passage details, structure, main idea, author’s intentions, etc.  These questions mainly test reading comprehension and are the single, hardest section in which to increase your score, mainly because reading comprehension takes months or years to improve significantly.

See more details and examples of these question types here.

The Math Section

The math section of the SAT is also divided between two twenty-five minute sections and one twenty minute section.  While the majority of the questions are five-choice multiple choice questions, there are also grid-in questions (the College Board calls these “student-produced response” questions), where students must fill in their answers.  The math section tests algebra, geometry, graphing, functions, basic statistics, and data-analysis.  American students can expect to have learned everything they might see on the SAT by tenth grade.

Students are allowed to use a calculator, although every question can be answered without one.  To see the specific question types and examples as well as more details on calculator usage look here.

The Unscored Section

Students will also have an additional twenty-five minute section in either critical reading, mathematics, or writing multiple-choice.  This section is used by College Board to try out new questions, and it does not count towards your score.  However, it will not be identified as an experimental section, and you shouldn’t try and guess which section is the unscored section.  Just do your best on all the sections.

College Board claims that this section is used to make sure tests and question types are comparable from test to test and to “insure fairness.”  It also enables them to do some research at your expense.

Test Format

The SAT has a total of 10 sections. The 25-minute essay always comes first, and the final section will always be a 10-minute long, multiple-choice, writing section. Sections two through seven are always 25-minutes each and will alternate between reading, math, and writing in relatively random order. Sections eight and nine are 20-minutes each. In a single SAT administration you and the test-takers next to you may all have different versions of the test with section types (math, reading, writing) in different orders.  There are also two, ten-minute breaks; one after the third test section, and one following the sixth section.


It is very important to prepare for the SAT, not only to make it easier for you to get into the college of your choice, but also to put yourself in the best position to get scholarships and fellowships.  Plan on taking it two or even three times.  You can take a free SAT test here.  I’ve also written about my preferred test prep books here, and I’ve written about the advisability of taking a prep course here (although the article is specifically about the GRE test–similar to the SAT but used for graduate school admissions–the principles are much the same.  I’ve also written on the best schedule to prepare for a test such as this (again, it’s written specifically for the GRE, but the principles are identical.)