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).More recently, it’s available for you to take at home on your own computer because of COVID-19. Find more about that here.
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 and the University of Houston.
Look here for my list of GRE resources, including recommended GRE prep books, free practice tests, wordlists, and more.
Key GRE Facts
- The GRE is given as a Computer Adaptive Test (CAT). In a few countries, the GRE may still be paper-based.
- You can register for the GRE at ets.org/gre and 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.
- Many 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. That’s known as your ‘unofficial score’.
- Your ‘official score’ will not be available until your essays have been graded in about three weeks.
- Some schools will accept your unofficial scores.
- 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.
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
Cody Blair has spent over two decades 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.