GRE Guide

Most graduate school applications require submission of scores from the Graduate Record Examination, also known as the GRE, a standardized test that evaluates a student's reasoning and analytical skills. Other application materials may include an undergraduate transcript, letters of recommendation, and other entrance documents.

The Educational Testing Service (ETS) administers the GRE test monthly. Students pay a flat fee for the exam and have up to five chances each year to take the test. Not every graduate program requires students to take the GRE. Degree candidates can register for the general test or take a specialized subject test.

The GRE General Exam consists of three sections: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing. The verbal and quantitative sections feature multiple choice questions, while the writing section requires essay responses.

GRE Subject Tests include major disciplines such as psychology, chemistry, and physics. Taking a GRE psychology subject test may improve your chances of admittance into a graduate psychology program. High GRE scores also make it easier for students to receive merit-based scholarships and assistantships.

GRE Subject Tests

The ETS offers six GRE Subject Tests, including biology, chemistry, literature in english, mathematics, physics, and psychology. Unlike the traditional GRE which is administered monthly, the ETS offers subject tests three times per year in September, October, and April.

To register for the test, students must contact a testing location electronically or by mail. The ETS delivers subject tests by paper. For students with disabilities, special accomodations can be made if they reach out to the testing center before the exam date. Students pay a separate fee of $150 to take the subject test. The ETS gives test takers a general score and subscores based on several test sections.

Although many schools encourage applicants to take the GRE, it is not always a requirement. Graduate psychology programs often list their admission requirements on their website. If students need to take the general GRE or the GRE psychology subject test, the university may provide an address and deadline for students to submit test scores. Students with questions regarding the GRE should contact the program advisor or the admissions office.

The Structure of the GRE

The ETS breaks down the test into three sections. Each section gauges the student's ability to perform certain functions based on their undergraduate knowledge and prepares them for rigorous graduate-level coursework. The general test evaluates cognitive thinking and writing skills with two reasoning sections and one section dedicated to analytical writing. The verbal and quantitative reasoning portions contain 40 multiple choice questions each. For the analytical section, students write two essays based on a complex idea.

With a total testing time of four hours, students get 60 minutes for the verbal section, 70 minutes for the quantitative portion, and 30 minutes per essay. The ETS scores the verbal and quantitative reasoning sections on a scale of 130-170, while the essays are graded on a scale of 0-6.

Testing begins with the verbal section, followed by the quantitative portion, and concluding with the essays. Students do not have to answer every question on the test, as unanswered or incorrect questions do not subtract from the overall score. The computerized version of the test offers a mark and review option that allows students to revisit questions they previously skipped over.

Delivery Format

As mentioned earlier, the ETS offers subject tests exclusively on paper, but degree candidates can take the general test electronically or on paper. The test format depends on the testing location; test takers cannot choose which exam format to take based on personal preference. Certain testing locations do not offer the electronic GRE, while others only offer an electronic GRE. The computerized GRE also features an experimental or research section. Students pay the same fee for either the paper or electronic exam.

Skill Areas

The verbal reasoning section of the GRE focuses on reading and understanding complex written passages. Students answer multiple choice questions based on these passages. In this portion of the test, evaluators look for students skilled in reasoning, vocabulary, reading comprehension.

Question Types

In the verbal reasoning section, test takers answer questions related to sentence equivalence, reading comprehension, and text completion. Reading comprehension questions actively engage students with the text by drawing conclusions, understanding the author's perspective, and inferring information. Text completion and sentence equivalence questions require students to fill in the blank for written passages. For sentence equivalence questions, students fill in the blank using one or two of the six answer choices provided.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

The GRE General Test asks problem-solving and critical-thinking questions, with the verbal reasoning section assessing the student's reading comprehension abilities. Students read a passage and then answer questions about the excerpt. Subtleties within multiple choice answers may trip up some students. Pay special attention to the grammar and the context of a question before selecting an answer. Students should read each question and answer carefully to see how it applies to the passage.

Helpful Tips

  • Take notes
    The reading comprehension portion may include up to 10 passages. It is hard to remember key points for that many passages, so take notes to highlight significant information and ideas.
  • Read the entire passage
    Skimming the passage may seem tempting, but it does more harm than good for test takers. Reading the passage in its entirety helps students gain a better understanding of the material.
  • Review books on the social sciences and business
    The ETS pulls most of its reading passages from books and periodicals. Reading a few books on the sciences or arts refreshes the brain and may help you grasp complex concepts introduced in the GRE.
  • Underline important words
    Reading comprehension also tests a student's vocabulary, so take time to identify key words in a passage. Key words may be used in a testing question, therefore knowing their definitions is useful.

Skill Areas

The analytical writing section tests the ability to develop an argument based on a provided opinion or viewpoint. In order to develop a coherent statement, students must understand the issue as well as supporting and opposing arguments. Test takers receive 30 minutes to write an essay.

Question Types

In this portion of the exam, test takers either analyze an issue or an argument. An issue refers to a broad, generalized problem that plagues modern society. Students have to address the issue through an essay agreeing or disagreeing with the issue and supporting their stance with direct quotes from provided texts. While analyzing an argument task, students dissect an author's opinion using logical reasoning.

Word Processing Software

While taking the electronic version of the analytical writing test, you use a word processor created by the ETS, which includes basic functions such as insertion and deletion of text and ability to copy and paste. To promote fairness between the electronic and paper versions of the GRE, the ETS omitted spell and grammar checking functions on the word processor.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

In the analytical writing section, test takers showcase their debate and logical reasoning capabilities. Students need to make a clear argument in their essay and support statements with facts in just 30 minutes. Review GRE essay test prep questions and answers to better understand how to format your essays. Test prep questions also provide examples of the professional vocabulary and tone you should use in your essays.

Helpful Tips

  • Review Test Prep Questions
    As the most abstract portion of the exam, the best way to understand the test format is by studying prep questions.
  • Practice Writing a Thesis Statement
    In graduate school, students often write thesis statements and dissertations. The analytical writing portion of the GRE mirrors that process. Practicing writing concise, clear thesis statements prepares you for the GRE and graduate school.
  • Proofread
    Proofread the essay before turning it in to fix any grammatical errors. Make sure the essay is written clearly and in a professional tone.
  • Review Topics
    Pay attention to current events and what's happening in the news. Essay questions may address current hot-button issues.

Skill Areas

The quantitative reasoning section tests a student's grasp of mathematical concepts. Students answer questions based on arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and data analysis. To take the test, students should be familiar with high school level math, geometric shapes, graphs, and algebraic expressions. Testing centers provide a basic calculator for students.

Question Types

In this section, students answer four types of questions: quantitative comparison, multiple choice with one answer, multiple choice with more than one answer, and numeric entry. Data interpretation sets refer to the same table or graph for multiple questions. For quantitative comparison questions, students compare two different numerical amounts.Test takers complete numeric entry questions by providing an integer, decimal, or fraction.

Can You Use a Calculator on the GRE?

Test proctors allow individuals to use basic calculators to help with computations. Computer delivered tests have calculators built into the ETS-provided word processor. For paper GRE testing, testing centers give each test taker a basic calculator to use during the exam. Students do not need to bring their own calculator.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

The quantitative reasoning portion explores the world of mathematics. One of the most common pitfalls test takers fall victim to within this section is misunderstanding the level of math skills required. In this section, students explore basic math such as algebra and geometry at the high school level or lower. Advanced mathematics, such as calculus or statistics, are not required to successfully complete the GRE.

Helpful Tips

  • Study Basic Math
    Review geometry, algebra, multiplication, and division to prepare for this portion of the test. Most questions require these concepts so test takers need to be familiar with them.
  • Get Enough Scratch Paper
    Scratch paper for computing mathematical questions is helpful for simple equations not requiring a calculator. Test takers should get enough scratch paper to last them for an hour.
  • Learn Equations
    Mathematical disciplines like geometry feature numerical equations. Test takers should memorize certain equations to help them calculate answers.
  • Use the Calculator
    When in doubt, use the calculator to verify work or calculate the correct answer. Calculators are not prone to human error, and can catch mistakes you may have missed.

The ETS uses the system of equating to generate test scores for both electronic and paper format tests. First, the system calculates the student's raw score by computing the amount of questions answered correctly. The equating process helps raters evaluate scores based on the difficulty of each section. For the computer-delivered test, the ETS employs a section-level adaptive system, which adapts to the student's performance on each section of the test. Once the computer evaluates each section, it calculates a raw score using the 130-170 GRE scale.

Two trained raters grade the essay portion with the 0-6 scoring scale. Both raters review one of the test taker's essays and assign scores. If the scores differ by more than one point, a third rater analyzes the essay. The system calculates the final score by averaging the scores for both essays.

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?

The ETS breaks GRE scores down into two groups: the scaled score and the percentile rank. Percentile rank measures how well a test taker does in comparison to other students. Schools value the percentile ranking over the scaled score. Currently, the average scaled score for the verbal and quantitative reasoning sections is approximately 150 on a scale of 130-170; therefore, approximately 50% of students score lower or higher on these sections.

Both scaled score and percentile rank appear on the student's score report.

What's an Average Score on the GRE?

Average Scores on the GRE General Test, 2013-16
GRE Section Average Score
Verbal Reasoning 149.97
Analytical Writing 3.48
Quantitative Reasoning 152.57

Source: ETS

To register for the GRE, students need to create an ETS account. The name test takers use for the account must match a government-approved ID because the ETS uses this name on the actual test. ETS provides students a list of the acceptable forms of ID for testing day. An ETS account also allows test takers to register for subject tests, view test scores, and cancel or reschedule exams. Students can also order score reports through the account.

When Should You Take the GRE?

Typically, students take the GRE during their third year of undergraduate study. Experts recommend students take the test a year before they start applying to graduate programs. When taking the test electronically, it takes approximately 10-15 days for scores to be sent to your ETS account.

How Much Does the GRE Cost?

The GRE costs $205 dollars in the U.S., U.S. territories, and Puerto Rico. Internationally, the test costs up to $255. Students pay separate fees for late registration, rescheduling, changing the testing center, standby testing, or changing the subject test.

How Many Times Can You Take the GRE?

Students may take the GRE up to five times within a 12 month period. The ETS administers the GRE every 21 days, so students can register for a new test within that time frame.

At-Home Study Methods

To save time and money, individuals use a variety of home study methods:

Printed Study Guides: Printed study guides for GRE tests can be found at your local library or on the internet. GRE psychology subject test study guides break down each section and its components.

Flashcards: Students can purchase flashcards at a local book store or make the cards themselves. Flashcards for vocabulary and mathematical equations may help with studying efforts.

Private Tutoring: Private tutors range from individuals that have already taken the test, course/school instructors, or experts in a certain field. They provide tutoring in one-on-one or group sessions and some may walk you through the entire process from application to testing day.

Studying Apps: Individuals with smartphones can download GRE prep apps that help them with basic test prep on the go. An official GRE guide created by the ETS is also available in the app store.

Online Practice Tests: Sites like Kaplan and ManhattanPrep offer GRE practice tests for a fee.

GRE Prep Courses

To prepare for the exam, many individuals opt to take a GRE practice course or use practice books. Companies like Princeton Review and Kaplan Test Prep offer GRE courses and books that teach students techniques and tricks to use on the exam. Kaplan offers a wide variety of courses delivered in person and online. Other companies such as Manhattan Prep also offer these options along with self-paced courses and one-on-one tutoring sessions. Prep courses can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars depending on the organization or course format.

Studying Tips for the GRE

Develop a Study Plan: Students already know which areas they excel in and which ones they struggle with. Creating a study plan helps concentrate on the areas they need to improve, rather than the material they feel comfortable with.

Take a Practice Test: Practice tests teach individuals time management and test format. Students should take several practice tests before the actual exam to get a better feel of how the actual GRE works.

Create a Study Schedule: Students can struggle to find the motivation to study before the exam. Setting a study schedule that takes a work/life balance into account may motivate test takers into finding time to study.

Find a Study Partner: Study partners also motivate test takers, as they can bounce ideas off of one another and also help identify strengths and weaknesses.

Take an English Course: The verbal reasoning and analytical writing portions rely heavily on a student's English skills. Consider taking an English course to brush up on skills and learn new ones.

Helpful Resources

Students should look no further than the internet to find free GRE resources.

ETS POWERPREP Practice Tests: Delivered by the ETS, this test helps learners prepare for the computerized version of the exam. They familiarize themselves with the word processor and its tools as well as the scoring system.

Quizlet: Quizlet provides over 500 GRE flashcards. Users have access to study sets and diagrams that help them organize flash cards for easy review.

Magoosh GRE Vocabulary Flashcards: Users can download the Magoosh flashcards app on their smartphone. The app features four levels of common words and tracks the user's progress.

LEAP: LEAP has received numerous awards for its free online test prep. They developed social and adaptive learning tools to reach test takers of all ages and abilities.

Testers must arrive at least 30 minutes early to testing time to guarantee a seat. A testing proctor assigns seats and allows people to enter or leave the room. Testing centers do not allow students to bring food or drink into the testing room. Students will be able to access personal items during a break. The testing center provides scratch paper for the exam, especially for students taking the computer-delivered format.

What Should You Bring with You?

  • Valid Photo ID
    The testing center needs a valid photo ID, such as a driver's license, to verify the test taker's identity and ensure that the registered person takes the exam themselves.
  • Confirmation Email/Voucher
    The confirmation email from ETS features vital information such as the testing center, date, and time of testing. The testing center asks for a copy of the email when test takers arrive to the location.

What Should You Leave at Home?

  • Study Notes/Books
    The testing center does not allow individuals to bring notebooks or guides into the testing room as a precautionary measure against cheating.
  • Your Own Scratch Paper
    Testing centers provides scratch paper to test takers to eliminate another potential source of cheating.
  • Your Own Calculator
    The testing center provides calculators to individuals taking the test electronically or on paper. Test takers do not need advanced calculators, so centers provide basic calculators for them.

Test takers with special needs or disabilities must submit a request to the ETS. Students may use their ETS account to submit a request or mail a form to ETS Disability Services in Princeton, NJ. The ETS provides a bulletin outlining the types of special accommodation they provide and common disabilities. To receive any accomodation, test takers must submit medical documentation stating their disability or health-related need. It may take up to six weeks for the ETS to review the request and determine if the test taker can receive accommodation.

When Will You Get Your Scores?

Test takers that complete the GRE electronically receive their scores up to two weeks after finishing the test. The ETS sends scores directly to the user's ETS account for review. For paper-delivered tests, students wait up to five weeks after the exam date to receive scores.

How Do You Submit Your Scores to Schools?

The ETS sends GRE scores to four different schools free of charge. To send scores, students give the names of the institutions to the testing center. Applicants taking the paper-delivered test list the schools they want to send scores to during the registration process. Students can also request additional score reports or choose not to send any scores out to schools.

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

The GRE implemented a new option called ScoreSelect that allows students to choose the scores they want to send to their desired institutions. With ScoreSelect, students make the decision to only send their most recent test results or all GRE scores acquired within five years of taking said GRE tests. The ScoreSelect option gives students greater flexibility when applying to graduate programs with entrance requirements regarding GRE scoring on one or multiple sections of the test.

How Long Will Your Scores Be Valid?

The ETS keeps test results for up to five years. The option allows students to take the test multiple times or keep score results while they take a break from school. The reportable history dates back to July 2013. Any tests taken prior to that date are no longer reportable.