GRE test prep is the key to acing this tough standardized test. Many graduate school programs require the GRE, or Graduate Record Examination, as part of the admissions process. Submitting solid GRE scores can also help you get into , so it’s worth knowing how to prepare so you can achieve your desired score. In this blog, we’ll cover what the GRE is used for, what’s on the test, how to prep for it and the best test-taking strategies for the GRE.
The GRE, or Graduate Record Examination, is the standardized test created and administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS). Similar to the SAT or ACT, it is a common requirement for entrance to graduate school, particularly business schools, law schools and sometimes for PhD programs, special master’s programs and dual degree programs. The GRE is also used as the standardized test for applicants to some dental schools, vet schools, physician assistant programs, nursing programs and occupational therapy programs.
The GRE measures your overall readiness for graduate school and tests you on many of the same concepts as the SAT, just at the graduate level. The GRE is sometimes a substitute or alternative for the GMAT or LSAT, the entrance tests for business schools and law school, respectively.
The GRE includes both the GRE General Test and GRE Subject Tests, which evaluate your technical knowledge in specific academic disciplines, like math, physics or psychology.
GRE test prep starts with learning and what you need to do to prepare for it. It’s a good idea to visit the , where you can find everything from content guides to the latest . You can also learn and how the test is scored, plus and what to expect from the test day experience.
As you get to know the GRE, it’s important to note that you have the option of taking the GRE in a testing center or at home on your own computer. The GRE is a digital test, so becoming familiar with the testing software and its functions is a good start for your GRE prep. The more comfortable and familiar you are with the GRE, the better you’ll be able to manage any test day stress.
First, let’s look at an overview of the GRE’s content, structure and timing:
Note that the GRE’s content and timing is undergoing some changes. The total test time is being reduced to just under 2 hours, 46 fewer questions in the Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning sections and one less Analytical Writing essay! Scores will also be released faster to students, within 8-10 calendar days. Here's an overview of the new GRE General Test:
What does the GRE test you on?
Like other standardized tests for college and other professional schools, the GRE tests your academic readiness for the challenges of grad school. The three sections are designed to evaluate your reading comprehension and text analysis skills, your argumentative writing ability and your quantitative or mathematical skills.
- Verbal Reasoning – Tests you on your reading comprehension, critical analysis and reasoning ability.
- Quantitative Reasoning – Tests you on high school level mathematical concepts including arithmetic, algebra, geometry and data analysis. You are allowed to use the on-screen calculator throughout.
- Analytical Writing – Asks you to write 2 essays in response to a text prompt. One essay to “Analyze the Issue” and one essay to “Analyze an Argument”. This section evaluates your writing and rhetorical skills.
Note that the Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning sections of the GRE include adaptive sections. This means once you’ve completed the first section, the second section will adapt to be either more challenging or easier based on your scores in the first section. For example, if you perform well in the first Quantitative Reasoning section, the next section will be slightly harder to test your ability. Your GRE score will take into account the difficulty of the sections you completed, as well as the number of correct answers you chose.
GRE question types
The GRE includes a variety of question types in its Verbal and Quantitative Reasoning sections. Because you need to answer all these question types in a different way, it’s vital to read ALL section and question instructions very carefully. Here are the question types you can expect on the GRE:
- Single-answer multiple-choice questions
- Multiple-choice questions with multiple correct answers
- Select-in-passage (Where you choose a sentence in the text passage which matches the question description)
- Text completion (Where you must fill in the blank with the correct answer)
- Sentence equivalency (Where you must choose 2 correct words to complete a sentence)
- Quantitative comparison (Where A is greater than B, or B is greater than A)
- Numeric entry questions (Where you type your own answer into a text box on screen)
- Data interpretation using mathematical graphs or charts
GRE test features
The GRE General Test is a digital test, and it offers several important features that can help you. The “Mark and Review” feature is especially important, since it allows you to mark difficult questions and return to them later. It also gives you an overview of an entire section so you can see if you’ve missed any questions before moving onto the next section.
The testing software includes an on-screen calculator you are able to use throughout the Quantitative Reasoning sections, too.
First, we’ll look at some GRE test prep tips and then we’ll explore specific test strategies you can use for each of the GRE sections.
1. Learn the GRE top to bottom
As we mentioned earlier, learning the ins and outs of the test is the first step in your GRE test prep. The ETS official site has official resources for students, including a GRE bulletin outlining GRE procedures and important updates. You can also see detailed outlines of each test section and learn about how the GRE is scored.
2. Practice with the GRE test software
The GRE testing software will likely be complete new to you, but luckily, the ETS offers official practice tests so you can try it out yourself. There are free and paid practice tests available on the ETS site to give you a first look at the format and structure of the GRE.
We encourage you to try an initial practice test so you can gauge what your strengths and weaknesses are in the content. But it also gives you a chance to try out the test features and understand the different types of GRE questions. This can save you a lot of time on the actual test day and tone down some of that exam day stress!
3. Choose your GRE test date and location
Choosing a GRE test date that aligns with your is important. Fortunately, the GRE has very flexible test dates. If you choose to take the test at home, you can choose any day you want to take the test.
Having a test date booked means you can make a plan for the day of your test, ensuring you have all the materials you need, make travel arrangements or request testing accommodations in time. You should also use this time to gather all the study materials you’ll need, whether this be GRE prep books, videos or practice tests and GRE practice questions.
If you are required to or choose to take both the GRE and GMAT for an MBA program, you’ll need to factor in both test dates and study periods into your schedule.
4. Create your GRE study schedule
Once you’ve decided when to take your GRE, you’ll be able to create the ideal GRE study schedule for yourself and decide how long to study for the GRE. Depending on how many hours per week you can devote to studying for the GRE, you will want to give yourself between 6 weeks and 3 months of GRE test prep.
1. Verbal Reasoning Section
The Verbal Reasoning section of the GRE is, unlike the name would suggest, mostly reading. This section tests you on your reading comprehension ability and your skill in analyzing complex texts and ability to reason within those texts. To master this section, here are some study strategies you can use:
Grow your vocabulary
The GRE will contain a higher level of vocabulary, featuring various texts in the social sciences, humanities and natural sciences. It’s not necessary to have extensive outside knowledge of every topic in these areas, but having a solid vocabulary will help you understand the meaning of these texts better and can help you identify wrong answers based on word meaning.
Read and reason
Reading academic texts can improve your reading comprehension and ability to think critically about the different topics you’ll encounter on the GRE. Work some regular reading into your study schedule. Search for academic or scientific texts which present an argument or analyze an issue such as academic journal articles, periodicals, book reviews and trade books. Some good places to check for GRE-level reading materials would be the New York Times, the Economist, high-level book reviews or even by asking your professors for suggestions.
Read practice questions aloud
In reading these GRE-level practice materials or using GRE practice questions, try reading aloud. This can help you verbally reason out an author’s main and secondary arguments and deduce the key points of a text. For text completion or sentence equivalency questions, you can try out your answer to make sure it makes sense and is logically correct with the text.
Read instructions carefully
You’ll encounter a few different question types in this section, and the answers may not always be obvious at first glance. It’s worth reading the text, questions and each answer carefully to ensure you understand what is being asked of you on each question, why wrong answers are incorrect and why the right answer is correct.
2. Quantitative Reasoning Section
This is the mathematics portion of the GRE. The ETS has 14 official test strategies for the , but we cover a few of our own tips below. This section covers mostly high school level mathematical concepts including arithmetic, algebra, geometry and data analysis.
Since you may not have been tested on these math concepts in a while, a content review refresher is a good idea. Review all of the concepts you’ll be tested on in the GRE and try some practice GRE math questions.
Use your calculator wisely
You’ll have access to an on-screen calculator during the GRE, but for most questions it won’t be necessary to use it. Make use of your calculator sparingly and only use it when necessary so you can save yourself a bit of time in these sections.
Some of the questions in this section will rely on your ability to read graphs, charts and mathematical equation. It’s worth a little memory refresher here, too, since you may want to memorize common mathematical formulas and understand how to efficiently read visual representations of data. Time will be short in this section, so don’t use too much of it analyzing the data.
Instructions in this section are just as important. Read carefully and make sure you understand what you need to do for each question. For instance, you might be asked to round up your answer in a numerical entry type question or express your answer as a fraction.
3. Analytical Writing Section
The analytical writing section of the GRE is a little different than the previous two. You’ll be asked to write two short essays. Both essays need to be concise and discrete from one another, although they may address the same topic or prompt. This section includes two “tasks”, one for each essay.
The first task is to “Analyze an Issue”, where you’ll evaluate the main issue presented in the prompt, identify the different viewpoints and take a position on the issue. The second task is to “Analyze an Argument”, where you’ll either build an argument of your own or refute an argument being presented with your own ideas.
Understand your task
It’s critical to understand what is being asked of you in each task, since you’ll be scored on how well you express your ideas and how well you stay on topic. This is why it’s important to make each essay distinct and address ALL the tasks in the instructions.
Manage your time well
You’re given 30 minutes per essay, so time is of the essence. You’re being scored as though your essays are a first draft, but it’s still important to avoid errors when possible and present a polished work. Take a few minutes to read through the section instructions and essay prompts and questions carefully. Then, you can use some scratch paper if you like to create an outline to organize your ideas and arguments. Then, get straight to writing and make the most of the time you have.
Develop your ideas
The most important thing you’ll be scored on in this section is how well you develop your ideas and arguments. The quality of your essay matters the most, not what stance you take on an issue or what argument you present. As long as you can back up your ideas and show a logical, rhetorical progression of your points, you’re good to go.
Learn key argument concepts
If you’re not familiar with argumentative writing or rhetorical thinking, it can help to learn some of the key concepts of building or refuting an argument. Read some past GRE essay topics, available through the ETS, and practice writing essay responses of your own to get an understanding of how to build a written argument.
What are some good GRE study resources that can help you with your GRE test prep? There are many resources out there, both free and paid. Aside from the official study help offered by the ETS, you can check out these resources:
1. What is the best way to prepare for the GRE?
The best way to prepare for the GRE is to first understand what is on the test and how it works. While the content itself will be similar to other standardized tests, it’s crucial to understand what the different types of GRE questions are, how to use the testing software and what the section instructions are asking of you.
2. How long does it take to prep for the GRE?
Most people take 2-3 months to study for the GRE, although some students might need less time or more time. With GRE test prep time included, you’re looking at between 3-4 months to prepare for the test.
3. How hard is the GRE?
? The GRE is a graduate level standardized test, so it is significantly harder than the SAT or ACT. While it is considered a little easier than the GMAT or LSAT, it is still a challenging test and requires good test prep.
4. What is a good score on the GRE?
The GRE is scored on a scale of 130-170 in the Verbal and Quantitative Reasoning sections. The Analytical Writing section is scored on a scale of 1-6, with half points awarded. A good score on the GRE on the first two sections would be anything above 150-155, while a good score on the writing section would be a 4.0 and above.
5. How much does the GRE cost?
The cost to take the GRE is $220 USD. There are additional fees to reschedule your test or change your testing centre, as well as additional fees to send your GRE scores to extra programs.
6. How many times can you take the GRE?
You can take the GRE General Test up to 5 times in any given 12-month period. Retakes must be scheduled at least 21 days after the last test date. The number of tries you are given includes any cancelled test dates.
7. Is the GRE required?
Some graduate programs or professional schools, like business schools and law schools, do require a standardized test like the GRE to be admitted. Some business schools and law schools allow you to submit GRE scores in lieu of the GMAT or LSAT. Graduate programs that might require you to take the GRE are special master’s programs, dual degree programs or PhD programs. You can find if you want to avoid taking it.
8. When should I start studying for GRE?
Most students need between 6 weeks and 3 months to study for the GRE. With pre-studying GRE test prep to factor in, you should give yourself at least 2-3 months of studying. You should choose a GRE test date that is a few months ahead of your graduate school application deadline, so you have time for any retakes.