Introduction to the GRE

Written by tutor Katherine F.

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) General Test is a test used by many graduate and business schools as one factor in the admissions process. According to the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which administers the test, “The GRE® revised General Test features question types that closely reflect the kind of thinking you’ll do – and the skills you need to succeed – in today’s demanding graduate and business school programs.”

Whether or not this standardized test actually measures the skills one needs for graduate school is a matter of opinion, but the test is part of the application process for many graduate programs. Before you tackle the GRE, you may want to contact your programs of interest to find out how heavily they weigh the test, whether they count every section (some schools don’t count the Writing section, for example), and what the average score is for students who gain admissions. Of course, you will want to get the highest score possible no matter where you are applying.

The test is computer-based, except residents of foreign countries who do not have access to a computer-based testing center will take a paper-based version. It is offered at Prometric Testing Centers throughout the country. You may find a testing center near you and register for the test at the ETS website. One benefit of computer-based testing is that you can choose the time and date of the test, which may be morning or afternoon, weekend or weekday. Appointments are scheduled on a first-come, first-serve basis, so you should plan ahead to get the date, time, and location of your choice. You may retake the test once every 21 days, up to five times during the year. Many graduate programs count the highest scores for multiple test sittings, but you should check with the program to verify their policy. Because you have to pay a registration fee, it’s best to get the score you want the first time!

The test is 3 hours and 40 minutes long. When you include the time to check in, enter biographical information, complete the tutorial, take breaks, etc. it will be a 4-5 hour experience. It consists of three sections:

  1. Analytical Writing (1 section with 2 essays, 1 hour)
    • One 30-minute Analysis of an Issue essay
    • One 30-minute Analysis of an Argument essay
  2. Verbal Reasoning (2 sections with 20 questions each, 30 minutes per section)
    • Text completion
    • Sentence equivalence
    • Reading comprehension
    • This section no longer includes analogies or antonyms.
  3. Quantitative Reasoning (2 sections with 20 questions each, 30 minutes per section)
    • Basic Math
    • Algebra
    • Geometry
    • Data Analysis

An on-screen calculator is provided, but you can’t bring your own.
There is a ten minute break after the third section, and a one minute break between the other sections, which means that test takers with small bladders should be strategic about drinking liquids before the test. The Writing section will always come first, but Verbal or Quantitative may appear in any order after that. Each test session may also include one experimental section that does not count towards your score. You can tell which subject this is (Verbal or Quantitative) because you will get three sections instead of two, but ETS will not tell you which of the three sections it is, so you need to do your best on each one. At the end of the test, ETS may ask you (and possibly offer an incentive) to complete a research section, which may accept or decline without any effect on your scores. The experience is exhausting for most test takers, which is all the more reason to do your best the first time around.

The revised computer-based test is adaptive between sections but not within them. For all test takers, the first section will consist of questions ranked as easy, medium, and difficult. You may answer questions in any order, skip questions, and mark questions to return to later within that one section. Test takers can use a Review Screen to navigate between questions and view which questions they have answered, marked, and/or skipped. Once the section is complete, however, you may not return to that section. The second Verbal and Quantitative sections, respectively, will be adjusted for difficulty based on how you did on the first section. If you got most of the questions correct, you will get more difficult questions in the second section. If you got several questions incorrect, you will get easier questions. If you get more difficult questions, your scaled score will be adjusted to be higher than someone who got easier questions. Within the second section, however, you may still skip questions and answer the questions in any order. Once the section is presented to you, each question counts equally towards your final score, so it is best to skip especially difficult or time-consuming questions and come back to them after answering the simpler questions. There is no guessing penalty, so you should answer every question.

While many of the questions are traditional multiple-choice questions, where only one answer is correct, the revised GRE also includes questions with non-traditional formats. These include multiple choice questions with more than one correct answer, fill-in-the-blanks, and questions that require you to select text from within a passage. The test was significantly revised in August 2011, so test preparation materials (and advice from friends) from before that will be out-of-date. Because the test in on the computer, you must write all of your work on scratch paper rather than on the test. It is a good idea to practice only writing on scratch paper throughout your preparations.

The Math and Verbal sections of the GRE are scored on a 130-170 point scale, divided into one point increments. This has changed from the pre-revised version, which was scored from 200-800. An average score for each section is 150, and scores are scaled by comparing your performance to that of all test takers from the past few years. The Analytical Writing section is scored from 0-6, divided into half-point increments. Along with your scaled score, you will get a percentile rank, which is arguably more important than your scaled score. A percentile rank of 50% means that you scored exactly average among test-takers. Scores are good for five years. One benefit of the computer-based test is that you will be able to see your “unofficial” scaled scores on the Math and Verbal sections immediately after completing the test. (You may also choose to cancel your scores, which means that neither you nor the schools to which you are applying will see them. You will not get a refund of your time or money, however, and you probably did better than you think you did, so this is not recommended.) Your Writing score, “official” scores, and your percentile rank will arrive in the mail about three weeks after testing.

Preparing for the GRE requires time and planning. You should give yourself at least a month, more if you know that you need significant improvement. The good news is that free preparation materials are available on the ETS website. You may download free Powerprep II software, which includes one full-length adaptive revised General Test. You don’t even have to register for the test to download this program, so you can use it to get a base score before you begin your preparations and to gain familiarity with the computer-based test. You may also download a PDF file with preparation materials for the paper-based test, which can have useful practice questions even if you are taking the computer version. Detailed information about each section of the test may be found in other Wyzant lessons.

While the GRE may seem overwhelming at first, it is possible to significantly improve your base score and boost your confidence with effective practice and preparation. Good luck!

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