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What Students Should Know About GRE Tests

Graduate schools are where the brightest and most ambitious students go to learn the skills they need for a future career. In fact, grad school is one of the most surefire ways to increase your career options and earning potential. As such, getting into graduate school is competitive, which means you need to make every part of your application count. This includes standardized tests like the General Record Examination (GRE). To make sure you perform to the best of your ability on exam day, here’s what students need to know about the GRE grad school test.

Feb 9, 2021
  • Student Tips
What Students Should Know About GRE Tests

What is the GRE test?

The General Record Examination (GRE) test is a standardized test for students applying for graduate school. It's not a prerequisite for all graduate schools, and the test may vary depending on where you apply. For example, some schools ask students to take a standard GRE test. This assesses a variety of academic skills, including verbal reasoning, analytical writing, and quantitative reasoning. Other schools require students to compare a general GRE test, and a GRE Subject Test. The subject GRE test evaluates your technical knowledge relating to your chosen field of study. Subject GRE tests are more common for highly technical academic disciplines, such as physics, mathematics, or computer programming.

Taking the GRE test

The test lasts for around 3 hours and 45 mins, including short breaks between each section. Candidates receive a grade for each section, which is scored as follows:

  • Analytical writing: 0.0 to 6.0 (0.5 point increments),
  • Verbal reasoning: 130 to 170 (1 point increments),
  • Quantitative reasoning: 130 to 170 (1 point increments)

You can take the GRE computer test throughout the year, although the actual dates will depend on the availability at your nearest testing center. The paper-based test is held three times a year in October, November, and December.

The test is only administered in English, but is available at more than 1,000 testing centers in 160 countries worldwide. There is a $205 test fee. Candidates from low-income or underrepresented backgrounds can apply for a fee reduction grant. For more information on fee reduction, you can visit ETS. Your score is valid for five years after you receive your grade. Candidates who are unsatisfied with their score can retake the test. You can sit the computer test up to five times in one 12-month period. Candidates can sit the paper test as soon as it’s offered again.

How to revise

Dennis Yim, director of academics with Kaplan, has one piece of advice for anyone planning to take the GRE: don't cram your revision. "A lot of our students, especially our students who are still in undergrad, will say, 'Oh, typically I'll study a weekend for a test, and ... be all set,'" says Dennis. However, the GRE test is not like that; it's not just about content. It's not enough to have memorized hundreds of vocabulary words, and have gone through high school mathematics topics you haven't seen since high school. In the GRE, you need to be able to use all that information and become a problem-solver.

Dennis advises preparing weeks or maybe even months in advance. Start by doing as much research as possible on the GRE. There are lots of great videos on YouTube that explain the underlying logic of GRE test questions and Kaplan provides advice, free taster questions, and sample GRE tests. Taking a practice test is probably one of the best ways to prepare yourself for the real thing. They can build up your confidence, identify areas of improvement, and reduce your chances of getting caught out by any unfamiliar questions. "You have to be comfortable," adds Dennis. "Practice tests help students perform to their true ability when the pressure is on and when the time constraints are real."

More tips on taking the GRE

Whatever you do, don't forget to take your ID to the test center. You won't be able to sit the exam without it, and you may have to wait weeks or months for another chance. This is frustrating, but could also put your place at grad school at risk, or force you to defer until the next academic year.

Keep an eye on the clock, because how you allocate your test time is really important. For example, don't waste too much time on a difficult question. If you're stuck, move on, then come back to it when you've finished the section. Many of the GRE questions are multiple choice, which means you don't necessarily have to be 100% certain every time. There are no trick questions of the GRE. This means if an answer looks right, then there's a good chance it’s correct. Finally, if you're drawing a complete blank, make an educated guess. Even with no knowledge on a particular question, there's a 25% chance you'll strike lucky, and you won't lose any points for a wrong answer.

How much does the GRE matter?

The GRE is just one part of your graduate school application. A good score will boost your chances of getting a place, but it's by no means the deciding factor. Priyam Shah, a master's tutor at the IvyWise admissions consulting and test prep company, explains, "GRE scores are a key factor that grad school admissions officers consider, but other aspects of the application (like college grades, extracurricular activities, recommendations, etc.) carry a lot of weight."

What's more, some programs will largely ignore parts of the test, especially if the candidate overachieves or has previous experience in more relevant areas. Ian Curtis, co-founder and former director of academic development at H&C Education admissions consulting firm, worked with one candidate who secured a spot on a world-class history PhD program with a math score below 40th percentile. However, the candidate had previous teaching experience, and scored highly on the verbal reasoning and analytical writing sections. For aspiring historians, the ability to write convincingly and interpret source data is far more important than knowing how to work out quadratic equations.

What’s a good score?

The GRE score has two components: your scaled score (ie, 130-170) and your percentile score. Of the two, the percentile score is more important as it ranks how well you did compared to the other candidates. For example, ranking within the 50th percentile means you scored higher than half of all the other test-takers. Percentile scores are a way of identifying the most capable students within a group of high-achievers. In a sense, percentile scores can find the best of the best, which is what the top schools and programs demand. So if you want to secure one of these prestigious places, you should be aiming for the 90th percentile.

The average score for the verbal section is 150/170; the average score for the math part is 152/170. What constitutes a "good" score depends on your personal expectations, the school you apply for, and the program requirements. The best thing to do is contact the school or program leader in advance of the test. Get an idea of what scores they look for, and which sections are most relevant. Then you can set yourself a clear target, and plan your revision timetable accordingly.

GRE under COVID-19

With many test centers still closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the GRE can be taken at home on a personal computer or laptop. For many aspiring grad students, this has been a good thing. Home tests are more accessible, especially for people living in rural or developing communities. However, some academics are worried about the validity of home testing. They've raised concern about the online test's quality, the opportunity for cheating, and the fact that remote testing may negatively affect people from disadvantaged backgrounds. As such, many graduate schools, including some of the USA's best business schools, are waiving all standardized entry tests for the foreseeable future. So if you're not an exam person, you might want to think about applying sooner rather than later.

Nobody likes taking tests. However, with good preparation, lots of research, and a well-structured revision plan, you can the process as stress-free as possible. That’s one of the best ways to boost your chances of getting the score you need for grad school.

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Ashley Murphy


After graduating with a degree in English literature and creative writing, Ashley worked as a bartender, insurance broker, and teacher. He became a full-time freelance writer in 2016. He lives and writes in Manchester, England.

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