A Guide To The GRE: What It Is & What Your Scores Tell You

Person sitting in a chair with a book in hands studying for the GRE

The Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) is a standardized test widely required for admission to graduate programs in the United States and many other countries. It assesses your preparedness for graduate-level study by evaluating your skills in key areas. While it may seem daunting, understanding its structure and purpose can empower you to approach the test with confidence and strategic preparation.

Who Takes The GRE

The GRE is a common test for students pursuing graduate degrees, particularly those aiming for:

  • Master’s degrees: This includes a wide range of fields, from humanities and social sciences to STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math).
  • MBA programs: The GRE is commonly a requirement for business school admissions, though some schools do allow GMAT scores as well.
  • Law school: While the LSAT is the main test for law school admissions, some programs might accept or even prefer GRE scores, especially for students with non-legal undergraduate backgrounds.
  • Ph.D. programs: While less common for Ph.D. programs compared to the others, certain disciplines or universities might still require or consider GRE scores as part of the application process.

While the demographics of GRE test-takers can vary, here are some common trends:

  • Age: Typically, test-takers are in their 20s, with the average age around 23.
  • Gender: Women currently make up the majority of GRE test-takers.
  • Country: Though taken worldwide, the GRE is most popular in the United States, followed by China and India.
  • Field of study: While it varies, STEM fields tend to attract more GRE-takers than others.

Ultimately, whether or not you need to take the GRE depends on the specific programs you’re applying to. It’s crucial to check the admission requirements of each school and program you’re interested in to see if they require the GRE and what minimum score they expect.

What Is The Format Of The GRE

The GRE is a computer-based test, administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS). It’s a computer-adaptive test (CAT), meaning the difficulty of the questions adjusts based on your performance. Total testing time is 2 hours with a 10-minute break.

Here’s a breakdown of the GRE format:

There Are 3 Main Sections

  • Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA): Measures your critical thinking and writing skills through 2 essay prompts (Issue and Argument). (30 minutes each)
  • Quantitative Reasoning (QR): Assesses your math skills through word problems, data analysis, and algebra. (35 minutes each, 2 sections)
  • Verbal Reasoning (VR): Evaluates your reading comprehension, vocabulary, and critical reasoning skills through various question types like Reading Comprehension, Sentence Equivalence, and Critical Reasoning. (35 minutes each, 2 sections)

How Is The GRE Scored

The GRE test uses a complex system to generate your final scores, involving both raw scores and scaled scores with different scales for different sections. The GRE is scored on a scale of 260 to 340 for each of the three sections. The average score for each section is around 150.

Here’s the breakdown:

1. Raw Scores:

  • Verbal Reasoning (VR) and Quantitative Reasoning (QR): These sections are scored based on the number of questions you answer correctly. Each correct answer gets you 1 point.
  • Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA): Two trained graders independently score your two essays (Issue and Argument) on a scale of 0-6 using specific rubrics. Their scores are then averaged to give you a final AWA score.

2. Scaled Scores:

  • VR and QR: Your raw scores are converted into scaled scores ranging from 130 to 170 in 1-point increments. This process is called equating. It ensures fair comparisons across different test administrations, even if the difficulty levels might vary slightly.
  • AWA: Your raw score, which is the average of the two individual essay scores, is not reported directly. Instead, you receive a final scaled score ranging from 0 to 6.

Adaptive Nature:

  • Both VR and QR sections are adaptive, meaning the difficulty of the questions you encounter adjusts based on your performance. If you consistently answer questions correctly, you’ll get harder questions to gauge your upper limits. Conversely, if you struggle, you’ll get easier questions to ensure you have a chance to show your abilities.
  • This adaptive nature makes it difficult to predict how many raw score questions you need to answer correctly to achieve a specific scaled score. However, generally, the higher your raw score, the higher your scaled score will be.

What Does It Cost To Take The GRE

In most cases, the basic cost of taking the GRE is approximately $220. Additional fees may apply depending on your circumstances. The price can change slightly depending on a couple of factors.

Testing Location:

  • Most locations: $220
  • Australia: $228
  • China: $231.30

The Number of Attempts:

  • You can take the test up to five times in a 12-month period, but each attempt needs to be 21 days after the prior attempt. There are no additional fees for retaking the test within this timeframe.

Additional Costs:

  • Late registration fee: $40 if you register within 5 days of your test date.
  • Rescheduling fee: $60 if you reschedule your test date more than 5 days before your original date.
  • Score recipient fees: $40 per additional recipient beyond the four free reports you get with your first score.

Fee Reduction Program:

  • If you qualify for financial aid, you may be eligible for a GRE Fee Reduction Voucher that reduces the cost of the test to $100.
Close up of hands holding a GRE testing book

How To Prepare For The GRE

Here are some effective strategies and resources you can utilize to achieve success.

Figure Out Your Baseline:

  • Take a practice test like the free PowerPrep practice test from ETS to gauge your current strengths and weaknesses. This will help you set realistic goals and tailor your prep strategy.

Create A Study Plan:

  • Determine how much time you can dedicate to studying each week and set consistent study schedules.
  • Use a calendar or planner to break down your goals into manageable chunks and track your progress.

Choose Your Resources:

  • Official ETS materials: Official GRE guidebooks, PowerPrep practice tests, and online materials are the gold standard for accurate prep.
  • Prep courses and tutors: These options offer personalized guidance and structured learning plans, but can be costly.
  • Online resources: Free and paid online resources like Khan Academy videos, practice questions, and forums can be valuable supplements.

Focus On These 3 Key Areas:

  • Verbal Reasoning: Build vocabulary, strengthen reading comprehension, and practice critical reasoning skills.
  • Quantitative Reasoning: Brush up on basic math concepts, learn test-taking strategies, and practice word problems and data analysis.
  • Analytical Writing Assessment: Improve your argumentative and persuasive writing skills, learn essay structures, and practice writing within time constraints.

Practice, Practice, Practice:

  • Take lots of practice tests under timed conditions to simulate the actual test experience and build stamina.
  • Analyze your mistakes on practice questions and work on your weaknesses.
  • Actively learn from your errors and refine your approaches to different question types.

Additional Tips:

  • Stay organized and motivated: Set achievable goals, celebrate progress, and reward yourself for reaching milestones.
  • Manage your stress: Take breaks, exercise regularly, and get enough sleep.
  • Seek support: Join online communities, connect with other test-takers, and rely on friends and family for encouragement.

How To Register For The GRE

Registration is very easy all you have to do is go to the ETS website. You can either head to a Prometric testing center for a supervised experience or opt for the comfort of home, given your equipment meets ETS’s requirements. Your GRE scores are valid for 5 years after your test date.

In September 2023, the GRE underwent a time-saving makeover, trimming its duration from 3 hours and 45 minutes to a more manageable 2 hours. So, relax, take a deep breath, and conquer this crucial step on your path to graduate school success!