What Is the GRE Test (2024's Student Guide)

William Cohen
Published by William Cohen
Last Updated On: January 6, 2023

The GRE, administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), is the most widely accepted graduate-level entrance exam in the United States.

It is used in the admissions process of quite a few law programs, many business schools, as well as most graduate schools.

The test is designed to assess skills learned during undergraduate education and predict success in graduate school.

Summary of the Key Findings

  • The GRE is a standardized examination used in the admissions process for graduate programs in North America.
  • Most programs require the GRE General Test, which covers verbal and quantitative reasoning and analytical writing.
  • Some programs also make the applicant take a GRE Subject Test that aligns with their specific program.

GRE Tests

The Graduate Record Examination consists of two types of exams: the general test and subject tests.

These tests help schools determine if your academic background matches what it takes to do well in their program. They use your GRE scores in their graduate admissions decisions.

What is the GRE General Test?

The GRE General Test measures the test-taker's abstract verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing abilities.

Each GRE section focuses on a unique area of study.

1. Verbal Reasoning Sections

hand view of a student answering a test paper

This section consists of three types of questions:

  1. Text Completions are fill-in-the-blank questions where you supply the appropriate word or words for the sentence.
  2. Sentence Equivalent questions have test-takers choose two words that would complete a sentence and provide similar meanings.
  3. The Reading Comprehension questions ask you about brief paragraphs or passages of text. You're asked to answer questions on the material presented in each passage.

2. Quantitative Reasoning Section

paper with graphs and a magnifying glass on it

There are three types of quantitative reasoning questions:

  1. Quantitative Comparison problems ask you to determine if two mathematical expressions are equivalent.
  2. Problem Solving questions have test-takers choose the correct answer for a math problem out of a multiple-choice list.
  3. Data Interpretation questions are also multiple-choice questions. However, instead of solving a mathematical problem, they are questions based on charts and graphs.

3. Analytical Writing Assessment

student sitting on his desk with a paper and pen

In this section, GRE test-takers will be required to write two essays - an issue essay and an argument essay:

  1. The issue essay is a classic essay where you are asked to analyze an issue and then use a logical argument to support your position. This essay requires you to take a stance on the issue and defend it.
  2. The argument essay asks you to criticize the unproven assumptions and flaws in a presented argument. You should also describe how the argument could be improved, but that the current conclusion is not reasonable.

Both sections want you to evaluate written material and articulate complex ideas that address and solve real-world problems.

What are the GRE Subject Tests?

books on top of each other

The GRE Subject Tests are content-based exams in specific areas of study.

They are used to measure your knowledge of a particular subject and ask you to show the applications of that knowledge.

Not every graduate program will require a subject test.

However, if you are interested in a program related to one of the specific subjects, you may be required to submit a score from the appropriate subject test.

The Subject Tests cover topics within four different categories [1]:

  • Chemistry
  • Mathematics
  • Physics
  • Psychology

The GRE Biology test, Literature in English test, and Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology test were discontinued and are no longer available for administration.

What is Considered a Good Score on the GRE?

paper with smiley and emotions printed on it

The GRE results in three scores - a writing, math, and verbal score - all of which are reported to the grad or business school.

The verbal reasoning and math sections of the GRE General Test are graded on a scale of 130-170 in 1-point increments, and the average GRE score is around 150 [2].

The GRE analytical writing section is scored on a scale of 0-6 in half-point increments with an average GRE score of about 3.6.

The GRE Subject Tests are scored on a scale of 200-990 in 10-point increments.

The mean GRE score varies based on the test being taken. Specifically, the mean GRE test scores for the subject tests are:

  • Chemistry - 692
  • Mathematics - 669
  • Physics - 717
  • Psychology - 622

Good test scores for any of these subjects depend strongly on the average GRE scores of the program you are applying to.

For example, top MBA programs have average verbal and quantitative GRE scores in the low 160s.

However, to be competitive for those graduate programs, the test taker's final score should be well above their average.

Of course, less competitive programs will have lower average GRE scores. So a good GRE score is relative to the graduate or business school programs you are applying to.

How Long is the GRE Exam?

man with a red clock beside him

As described before, the GRE General Test is broken into three subject areas.

Each of those areas has two sections in the exam.

First, you have 30 minutes to do each of the two analytical writing tasks.

Then, for the verbal sections, you will have 30 minutes apiece. Finally, for the quantitative sections, you have 35 minutes per section.

You will get a 10-minute break following the third section, and you will spend about 3 hours and 45 minutes for the entire exam [3].

Each GRE subject test will have only a single section, and each exam lasts 2 hours and 50 minutes without a break. Thus, these tests require more stamina and mental focus than the General Test.

Also Read: How Long Does the GRE Exam Last?

When Should You Take the GRE?

hand view of a person using a laptop

If you want to take the exam at the GRE testing center, you can register up to 48 hours before the test day.

If you choose the GRE test at-home option, you can register only 24 hours before the exam.

However, these are the latest deadlines to register for the test. It is better to register early instead of waiting until the last moment.

Unlike the GRE General Test, which is offered year-round, the GRE Subject Tests are only offered three times per year. The test cycles are in September, October, and April.

To determine the best date for taking the GRE, you need to know when the earliest application deadlines are for your desired graduate schools.

Then, work backward to find an exam date that meets all admission requirements.

You need to ensure you leave your school enough time to receive your GRE score - which occurs 10-15 days after taking the exam.

You should also give yourself adequate time to study. The GRE is not easy, and reviewing mathematical concepts, reading, learning vocabulary, and writing practice essays are essential to doing well.

"So in my uncertainty, I went to graduate school, and there it all happened." - Ted Nelson, author

Take a practice test to determine how much you know and how much you should improve before taking the actual test. That way, you can establish a baseline.

Finally, many test-takers give themselves enough time to retake the test if they are not satisfied with the initial score.

Keep in mind that you can only take the GRE every 21 days. If you are planning to retake it, make sure you don’t register for the test date too close to your application deadlines.

On average, students should schedule their GRE date to cover 2-3 months of study, plus a month for every potential retake opportunity they intend to build in.

Is Taking the GRE Expensive?

student holding books

The cost of the GRE General Test is $205 for all test-takers, except those who live in China and India. GRE Subject Tests are $150 across the world.

If you need to cancel, reschedule, change a test center, or change a test, you will pay additional fees.

Additionally, remember that you will get four free score reports.

If you need five or more, you will pay for each additional report. Reviewing or reinstating your scores also carries additional fees.

ETS provides some study material and sample tests for free on its website.

However, there are other study materials available for purchase.

You can buy study guides, practice tests, and similar materials that will help you ace the exam or purchase a GRE prep course from one of the reputable test prep firms.

Keep in mind that all these additional costs can add up and make the GRE more expensive than you initially thought.

Who Needs to Take the GRE?

woman in a graduation gown and holding up her diploma

The Graduate Record Examination is most often required for students applying to master's programs, MBA programs, or law programs leading to a JD.

For the latter two, make sure you carefully read the admissions requirements of your particular school.

Some business programs require the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) instead of the GRE, and a law school may want the LSAT in place of GRE tests.

However, thousands of law schools, graduate, and business schools accept GRE scores.

Remember, registering for the correct test is the responsibility of the applicant.

The results from the GRE provide schools with a common way to compare applicants who may have diverse qualifications, recommendations, and undergraduate transcripts.

Is the GRE Test Hard?

students looking at their test scores

The GRE is considered more difficult than the SAT or ACT standardized tests. This is due to several factors.

First, the writing prompts on the test require you to write a substantial essay in response within 30 minutes. And you must do this two times in a row.

Next, the verbal and math sections are timed and relatively short. If you run into a stumper of a question, you do not have much time to work on it.

Spending too much time on one question may negatively affect your ability to complete the section.

The wording of the questions is challenging and meant to require the test-taker to use critical thinking before answering.

Finally, the college-level vocabulary is advanced in the verbal reasoning section and throughout the entire test.

Even the essay prompts will use sophisticated language.

The Graduate Record Examination: Final Thoughts

The GRE standardized exam will play a prominent role in determining your success in the graduate school admissions process.

It's a challenging test that requires you to think on your feet, and it can be confusing.

There are many different types of questions, and some words are difficult to understand if you're not familiar with them.

Understanding the test and its structure will allow GRE test-takers to do their GRE prep better and feel more confident when the test day comes.

And, of course, diligent study and critical thinking will yield the best chance to be successful and get a high GRE score.


1) https://www.ets.org/gre/subject/about

2) https://www.ets.org/s/gre/pdf/gre_interpreting_scores.pdf

3) https://www.ets.org/gre/revised_general/about/structure/

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