Graduate Record Examination (GRE) Tests: The Basics

Get the facts and test-taking strategies on these graduate school tests.

Colleges and universities with graduate degree programs use the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) tests as part of their admission requirements for students. If you have completed your bachelors degree program and plan to pursue a masters degree or doctorate degree, you can take the GRE test and have your scores sent to scores for their review as part of your graduate school application.

If you went to college right after high school and plan to start your masters degree or doctorate degree right after you complete the bachelors degree, you may have vivid memories of the standardized tests you took to get into college. However, people who are going back to college after taking time off for a career, the military or family obligations may find these tests to be different from what they remember.

In recent years, the GRE has become a computerized test, not the paper and pencil test some students remember. Unlike paper tests, these computer exams require that you answer questions in order and will not allow you to go back to change your answer to an earlier question. Find out more about this standardized graduate school test below.

What Is the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) Test?

The GRE measures your verbal and quantitative reasoning, critical thinking skills and analytical writing skills. This is a generalized test that is broad reaching in its focus and not geared toward a specific area of study.

Interested in a business degree? Some schools require the GMAT or the GRE when assessing business degree candidates. Contact the schools where you’re applying for your business degree to find out which test you should take.

How strongly a school values your GRE scores depends on the college or university. At some colleges, it’s a minor factor, while at others schools, your score could determine your acceptance. Students in over 200 countries take this test, which is accepted at over 3,2000 graduate schools and departments.

What Does the GRE Test Measure?

This standardized test focuses on your abstract thinking and reasoning skills in three areas: math, vocabulary and analytical writing. While the GRE only tests three areas, there are four sections, with one section randomly chosen to be repeated as an experimental section in order to test out new exam questions.

In the math section, you are evaluated on your ability to solve problems in the areas of arithmetic, algebra, geometry and data analysis. The quantitative questions are multiple-choice and include problem-solving questions and comparisons. Scores are graded on a scale of 200-800; the average score in this section is 586.

The vocabulary section focuses on verbal reasoning skills, measuring a student’s reading comprehension and ability to understand written material. Like the math section, this portion is multiple-choice and features analogies, antonyms, reading comprehension questions and sentence completions. This section is also scored on a scale of 200-800, and the average is 457.

The writing section evaluates a student’s analytical writing and critical thinking skills in two essays. Unlike the other two sections, the essays are scored on a scale of 0 to 6, with 3.9 being the average score.

According to the Educational Testing Service (ETS), the average scores broken down by graduate school major field are as follows:

  • Life Sciences: 454 verbal, 573 math, 4.1 writing
  • Physical Sciences: 481 verbal, 690 math, 4.1 writing
  • Engineering: 464 verbal, 715 math, 3.9 writing
  • Social Sciences: 487 verbal, 560 math, 4.3 writing
  • Humanities: 545 verbal, 560 math, 4.6 writing
  • Education: 448 verbal, 529 math, 4.1 writing
  • Business: 444 verbal, 601 math, 4.0 writing

After five years, the ETS erases students’ test scores; however, some schools may still consider older scores as part of their graduate school admissions process. Schools also consider GRE scores when determining eligibility for financial aid.

What Does the GRE Cost?

The current fee for taking the GRE test is $150 (costs outside the US will vary), but this can be reduced for students with a financial hardship who can prove they need this financial aid.

When and Where Do People Take the GRE Test?

There are computer-based testing centers in the United States and around the world where students can take the GRE test nearly every day. There are also test centers that use the paper test if computers are not available.

You’ll want to take the GRE at least 6 weeks before your earliest graduate school deadline, as it can take up to 4 weeks for your schools to be sent your GRE scores. The earlier you take the test the better, so you have time to retake it if necessary. You can take the test once in each calendar month, up to five times per calendar year, so taking it early gives you the most opportunities to retake the test, if necessary.

What Is the GRE Subject Test?

In addition to the general GRE test, students can take subject tests in specific areas: biochemistry, cell and molecular biology, biology, chemistry, computer science, English literature, math, physics and psychology.

These paper-based tests have their own fees and are offered only in October, November and April. Contact the schools you’re applying to in order to find out if you’re required to take a subject test.

GRE College Tests Tips & Tactics

  • Register for the GRE test and get free test preparation materials on the Education Testing Service (ETS) website. Sign up at least 4 weeks before your desired test date to ensure you’ve able to take the test when you want to.
  • What can you do if you bomb? You can cancel your scores immediately after taking the GRE test, at the testing center, before you see what your scores would have been. Your GRE score report will then note that your scores were canceled, but the actual scores will not be recorded.
  • Contact the schools you’re applying to in order to find out how much value they place on the GRE test and what their minimum scores are for applicants.
  • Need additional help preparing to take the GRE test? These services can help:
    • Kaplan GRE test prep
    • The Princeton Review GRE test prep
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