GRE Test Overview: Get The Facts

GRE Test Overview

The GRE test overview made simple includes information on the GRE itself, plus test prep resources, dates, retake information and more.

What is the GRE? The GRE stands for Graduate Record Examination. It is a standardized test administered by Educational Testing Services (ETS) of New Jersey, a nonprofit organization dedicated to education. The test measures your verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing skills.

Graduate and doctoral programs around the world require the GRE for entrance. Most MBA and business programs require the GRE, while arts and humanities programs may accept the GRE, GMAT, or both as part of your entrance application. Check with the prospective school you wish to apply to in order to find out which exam is preferred.

As with many other standardized tests, the GRE came into existence when universities found they needed a common yardstick to measure potential applicants’ qualifications. Because undergraduate experiences can vary widely not just from school to school but from country to country, the GRE was established to assess foundational thinking abilities rather than rote knowledge. It doesn’t do you any good to merely memorize information to succeed at the GRE; the test measures how you think, not what you know.

How Important Is the GRE?

Each school has its own evaluation system for graduate applications, but most schools do factor the GRE heavily into their review of potential candidates. Because the GRE is the only factor that applies equally to all applicants, institutions tend to give it more weight than college transcripts, personal recommendation letters, and other factors.

Why Do Schools Require the GRE?

Students entering MBA programs and other Masters programs may come from a wide range of backgrounds. They may have attended a prestigious undergraduate university or a less prestigious yet equally fine college. Some may have majored in their future graduate discipline, while others are transitioning into new career paths. All of these factors make it difficult to evaluate a large group of applicants fairly without a common metric among them.

Enter the GRE. The GRE is the only commonality among hundreds of graduate applicants each year. While each student took a unique set of courses, the GRE alone stands as the single common factor among them. As such, graduate schools require it so that they have a solid, dependable and common denominator among their applicants.

Does your whole graduate career depend on your GRE score? Of course not, but a poor GRE score can indeed hurt your chances of admission into the institution of your choice. Your chances of admittance into a competitive program are enhanced by a good GRE score combined with a strong overall application package.

GRE Test Overview

The GRE General Test is a test of your analytical (thinking) skills. You can’t memorize information like dates of facts to get a good score on the GRE. Rather, you must enhance and refine your thinking skills overall.

The test is divided into three sections:

  1. Verbal reasoning: Verbal reasoning measures your ability to read and analyze written materials. It also tests your ability to recognize patterns and connections between words and phrases, as well as derive meaning from texts. There are 20 questions per section. Time: 30 minutes per section.
  2. Quantitative reasoning:  Quantitative reasoning measures your ability to solve problems using arithmetic, algebra, geometry and data analysis. The test isn’t looking to see if you’re a math genius, but rather to see if you can analyze data thoughtfully and competently. There are 20 questions per section. Time: 35 minutes per section.
  3. Analytical writing: Analytical writing tests your ability to write cogently, clearly and concisely in support of a position, argument or complex reasoning process. Again, the concept undergirding the analytical writing section of the GRE is your ability to write in support of your future career, not necessarily in a creative manner. There are two tasks: Analyze an Issue and Analyze an Argument. Time: You will have 30 minutes to write each response, for a total of 60 minutes for this section.

There are two additional sections of the test. The first is an unscored section, which helps the computer set the level of questions. The second is a research section. This section helps ETS test new questions for validity for future exams.

Neither the unscored or research sections count towards your final GRE score. The unscored section is not identified and may appear at any point during the test. Research questions are identified, and are always at the end of the test.

The total time allowed for the GRE is 3 hours and 45 minutes. You will have breaks between the sections to stretch, use the restroom, or get a drink of water.

The GRE is given at testing centers nationwide, and in the United States, is a computer adaptive test. This means that you take the entire test on a computer, rather than with paper and pencil. It is available as a paper and pencil test only in parts of the world where computer resources are scarce.

Because the GRE is a computer adaptive test, no two students in the same test center have the exact same questions on the screen at the same time. As you begin to take the test, unscored questions help the computer set the level at which future questions appear. For example, if you seem to tackle the first quantitative analysis questions with ease, the computer may up the ante a bit and give you harder questions. These are factored into your final score.

Unlike the GMAT, which doesn’t let you return to a question on the computer, the GRE does let you skip a question and go back to it later. This mimics the format of an old-fashioned paper and pencil test a lot more closely than the average computer adaptive test.

The GRE has a “Mark” and “Review” feature that lets you flag questions you want to return to. It also lets you go back and change an answer if you want to within the section you are working on. Once the section time is over, you cannot return to that section to change an answer.  An on-screen calculator is provided to help you with the quantitative review section.

In addition to the GRE General Test, there are also GRE subject matter tests. These tests assess your specific subject-matter knowledge in Biology, Chemistry, Literature and a range of other disciplines. You will only need to take these tests if the schools you are applying to require them. Most applicants take the GRE General Test.

Preparing for the GRE

There are several ways in which you can prepare for the GRE. ETS provides free test prep materials on their website, including released (retired) exams of actual GRE tests so that anyone can see the format, style and level of the questions.

Instructional videos, both available through links on the ETS website and from other unrelated test prep companies, also demystify the test and help you prepare.

Many companies also produce test prep materials ranging from books of sample tests to online software that mimics the computer adaptive test. Students are encouraged by ETS to practice for the test by taking sample tests, becoming familiar with the test-taking format, and rehearsing test procedures.

Other companies say that doing that isn’t enough. If your test-taking habits aren’t developed, or you have some bad test-taking habits, then practice alone will simply solidify bad habits without replacing them with more productive ones. For those who know they aren’t good test-takers, a test prep course may be a good use of time to help you improve your testing skills.

How Is the GRE Scored?

The Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning sections are scored on a scale of 130 to 170, in 1 point increments. If you fail to complete these sections, your score report simply says NS or “No Score.” The Writing section is scored on a scale of 0 to 6 points, in half-point increments.

Older GRE exams taken prior to 2011 were scored on a scale of 200 to 800 for the reasoning sections and 0 to 6 in the Writing section. Schools receiving scores know how to evaluate the different testing scales or can contact ETS for assistance if necessary.

When Can You Expect Your Results?

If you take the computer adaptive GRE, your scores are available on a secure website 10 to 15 days after the test date. Your official scores are sent to the schools you request to receive the results within 6 weeks of the testing date. You’ll see your unofficial score for the Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning sections on the screen at the test center when you complete the test, but the Writing section is scored later.

Your GRE scores are valid for five years after your testing date. If you took the test longer than five years ago, you will have to take it again if you are applying to a new institutions.

One of the unique features of the GRE is the ability to select scores, called Score Selection. With Score Select, you can choose from among a set of your GRE scores which you’d like sent to the institution of your choice.

You can also cancel your scores immediately after taking the test, but ETS doesn’t recommend that. Cancelling your scores basically wipes out all your hard work and requires that you register and take the test all over again.

Where and When Can You Take the GRE?

The GRE is given at over 160 testing centers nationwide almost every week of the year. To find the testing center near you and available test dates, please see the ETS website.

To register for the GRE, you will need a credit card or, in some countries, a PayPal account. Test takers requiring special accommodations, fee reductions or who need a Monday testing date must contact ETS for assistance.

Can You Retake the GRE?

Yes, you can retake the GRE. You can take it every 21 days, for up to 5 consecutive tests in a 365 day period. These restrictions apply even if you cancelled your scores.

Some people do take the test several times to try to increase their scores. The average GRE score that people needed to be accepted into a program depends on the school itself. NYU’s average score is around 156, and Harvard’s is 158, which gives you an idea of the range desired by competitive schools.

Final Thoughts on the GRE

Like the GMAT, the GRE is a rite of passage for students seeking entrance into graduate schools nationwide. Widely accepted and considered to be a reliable indicator of student skills, the GRE offers you the opportunity to demonstrate your analytical and reasoning skills. Combined with a good undergraduate transcript, personal letters of recommendation and other application materials, you’re well on your way to entering the graduate school of your choice.

Official Sources of Test Information