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The GRE: Everything You Need to Know

By Gabriel Jimenez-Ekman

Gabriel Jimenez-Ekman is a content editor and writer at Scholarships360. He has managed communications and written content for a diverse array of organizations, including a farmer’s market, a concert venue, a student farm, an environmental NGO, and a PR agency. Gabriel graduated from Kenyon College with a degree in sociology.

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Updated: March 29th, 2022
The GRE: Everything You Need to Know

The GRE, or Graduate Record Examination, is the most common standardized test required for graduate school admissions. It is administered by the Educational Testing Service, or ETS. Taking the GRE requires a lot of preparation, so it’s important to decide when to start studying and when to take the GRE far in advance. You’ll want to make a thorough study plan and commit to a strong study routine. 

In this article, we’ll explain all you need to know about the GRE. That includes information about the General Test, the Subject Tests, and how your test is scored. We’ll also discuss the new at-home testing option, tell you how much it costs, and tell you when to take the GRE relative to your grad school applications. Let’s get into it!

Related: Grad school financing options

GRE General Test overview

The GRE General Test is the most popular part of the GRE. It is meant to serve as an overall survey of your academic skills for any grad school program. You could compare it to the SAT or ACT in that it is a standardized test meant to test a very wide variety of academic skills. However, there are some key differences in both the material and the testing approach. Read on to learn more about the GRE General Test.

Related: Scholarships360’s free scholarship search tool

What it covers

There are three section types on the GRE: Analytical writing, verbal reasoning, and quantitative reasoning. Here’s a quick description of what each of these sections entail:

Analytical writing

The analytical writing section tests your writing and argument skills with two essay prompts. You’ll have to write responses to two questions, one in the “Analyze an Issue” category and one in the “Analyze an Argument” category. These prompts are posted on their website, so although you won’t know which one will be present on your test, you can prepare for them ahead of time.

ETS will grade your essays based on a standardized rubric, so it’s a good idea to write in a n effective and formulaic style. This includes adding an introduction, a thesis, supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion. 

During the “Analyze an Issue” segment, you will make an argument about an issue in the world. ETS will not grade you based on the stance you take, but rather the effectiveness of your argument. So, don’t get too caught up on making an argument that is true to your beliefs. If you find that you would have an easier time making the case for the other side of the issue, you should play devil’s advocate.

During the “Analyze an Argument” section, you will not be making your own argument, but rather critiquing an argument made by another writer. You’ll be scrutinizing the evidence they use, the assumptions they make, and the overall soundness of their argument. You should not base your critique on whether you agree with the author or not, but rather how sound you find their argument to be.

Verbal reasoning

The verbal reasoning section tests your ability to gather information from a passage of writing. There are two main types of verbal reasoning questions. The first asks that you read passages and respond to questions based on the information you picked up. The second asks that you evaluate, interpret, and complete passages of writing. The passages in the second section can be as long as paragraphs and as short as sentences.

Quantitative reasoning

The quantitative reasoning section measures three main abilities:

  • Mathematics skills
  • Knowledge of mathematical concepts
  • Data analysis

The test evaluates these abilities through questions based on:

  • Arithmetic
  • Algebra
  • Geometry
  • Data analysis

Experimental section

On the GRE, you will find one section of analytical writing, comprised of two questions. You’ll also find two sections of verbal reasoning, and two sections of quantitative reasoning. But wait! Just to make things more mysterious, ETS includes one “experimental section” on each test. This will either be a verbal reasoning section or a quantitative reasoning section. You won’t know which section is the experimental section, but this part will remain unscored. These questions are meant to help inform the design of future tests.

So, what does this mean for you? Since you won’t know which section is ungraded, you will still have to give each section your 100%. However, you’ll know that if your test has three verbal reasoning sections, one of them will remain unscored. And if you have three quantitative reasoning sections, one will remain unscored. 

How long it lasts

The GRE is a timed test which lasts for about three hours and 45 minutes. The analytical writing section takes one hour, or 30 minutes per question. The verbal reasoning sections take 30 minutes each, and the quantitative reasoning sections take 35 minutes each. If your test’s experimental section is in quantitative reasoning, your test will most likely last five minutes longer than if it is in verbal reasoning.

GRE General Test scoring

You will end up with four scores for your general GRE. These are your general score, your quantitative reasoning score, your verbal reasoning score, and your analytical writing score. Your scores for quantitative reasoning and verbal reasoning will be between 130-170. Your analytical writing score will be between 0 and 6, with half-point divisions. 

ETS calculates your total score by summing your quantitative reasoning and verbal reasoning scores; your analytical writing score is not factored in. So, the maximum total score you can earn is 340 and the lowest is 260.

Also see: How to pick the best test prep tutor

GRE Subject Test overview

Many graduate school programs require that you take a GRE Subject Test in addition to the general GRE. These are more specialized tests that test your knowledge of one subject. 

What GRE Subject Tests are available?

Here is a list of each GRE Subject Test available as of 2021:

  • Biochemistry, cell, and molecular biology
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Literature in English
  • Mathematics
  • Physics
  • Psychology

GRE Subject Test structure

Each GRE Subject Test lasts for two hours and 50 minutes. They only contain one section, and each question is multiple-choice with five possible answers per question. This is dramatically different from the general GRE in that it is more specialized and uses only one type of question.

GRE Subject Test scoring

Unlike the general GRE, Subject Tests only yield one score. This will be a value between 200 and 990, graded in ten-point increments. Your score will not be divided into individual sections.

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Cost of the GRE general and Subject Tests

The general GRE costs $205.00 to take. If you live in China, it costs $231.30, and if you live in India it costs $213.00. The Subject Tests are slightly cheaper, with each one costing $150 for any student worldwide. Students with financial need can apply for a fee waiver through ETS for the general and Subject Tests.

At-home testing option

During the pandemic, ETS began offering the GRE General Test online through an at-home option. The test, scoring, and price are all identical to that in a testing facility. They have indicated that this at-home option will remain available in the future. Students should note that this is only available for the General Test at the moment. ETS offers a checklist to help students decide whether they can accommodate the test at home.

Pros of taking the GRE at home

Taking the GRE at home can have significant advantages. Here are a few for you to consider:

  • You will not need to commute to a testing center. This could help reduce stress on test day and cause you to perform better
  • Taking the test in a familiar environment may help reduce test-taking anxiety
  • If you find being in a room with other test-takers distracting, taking it at home gives you solitude to help focus

Cons of taking the GRE at home

Taking the GRE at home can also come with disadvantages for some students. Here are a few that you should consider before making your choice:

  • Some students might have a noisy home atmosphere. If your house is busy or loud, that could distract from the task at hand
  • You’ll need to have the room to yourself for the entire duration of the test. If your home cannot accommodate this and your proctor sees someone walk in, your test may be disqualified.
  • Some students find their home distracting
  • Test centers can provide a boost of adrenaline that can help test performance. You’ll miss out on this advantage if you take the test at home
  • If your equipment at home does not meet the ETS requirements, you might be disqualified.

To help make your decision, you can think back to your experience taking the SAT or ACT. Did you enjoy the test center environment? Did you prefer taking practice exams at home or taking the real thing on test day? This is perhaps the best way to determine which option is a better fit for you.

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GRE test dates

GRE General Test dates are offered year-round. With the addition of at-home testing, these dates and times have become even more flexible. You can even make an appointment and typically take the test 24 hours after registration. Test center dates vary by region, and you can find your local dates on the ECT site.

GRE Subject Tests, however, have less flexible schedules. You can only take a GRE Subject Test in September, October, or April. There is no online option for these tests, so you’ll have to look into your local availability on the ETS site.

Also see: What is a high GRE score?

Free study resources

There are a wealth of study resources available online for the GRE. For the quantitative reasoning section, be sure to check out Khan Academy’s resources. ETS also has a thorough rundown of each test section, which is a great place to start. You can take up to two free practice tests through Powerprep and use their test preview tool to familiarize yourself with the exam. Manhattan Review has an extensive collection of free sample questions too.

Related: Top scholarships for graduate students

When to take the GRE

Now that you know what the GRE entails and how to study for it, you may wonder when you should take it. This question can depend on a lot of factors. Current college students who want to take the GRE might opt to take it during their junior or senior year. You could spend one of your summers studying for it and take it just before you return to school. It could also be wise to spend your summer after graduation studying for the GRE and take it at the beginning of the fall.

It’s a good idea to try to take your GRE during or soon out of college. This is because a lot of relevant information for the test will be fresh in your mind from your college education. Your score will remain valid for five years after graduation, so even if you don’t plan on going to grad school immediately, it’s worth taking the test.

That being said, if you didn’t take the GRE during college, all is not lost! Any time is a good time to begin studying for the GRE. If you’ve been out of college for a while, you might want to devote a bit more time to studying. Most students study for one to three months before taking the test. Because it’s so expensive, it’s a good idea to take many practice tests before you take the real thing.

Also see: How to make the most of your senior year of college

Summary of the GRE

  • The GRE is one of the most popular tests for admissions into grad school. ECT offers the GRE General Test, and Subject Tests for specific academic fields
  • The GRE General Test measures your writing, quantitative reasoning, and verbal reasoning skills
  • The General Tests consists of a variety of question types, including essay writing and multiple choice
  • Subject tests contain exclusively multiple choice questions
  • You can take the General Test at-home or at testing centers
  • It’s a good idea to budget between one and three months to study for the GRE
  • If you can take the GRE while you are in college or soon after graduating, you will have the advantage of your undergraduate education being fresh in your mind

Good luck in your preparations for the GRE! Remember, one of the most important parts of studying for standardized tests is creating a thorough study plan and sticking to it. Budget a certain amount of time each day and ensure that you work through the material that you find the most difficult. Take practice tests and get used to the feel of the exam. Happy studying!

Also see: GMAT vs GRE: Key differences to consider

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