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GRE 26 min read

Step-by-Step Guide to the GRE General Test

UniSearch
UniSearchAuthor
Jul 24, 2022Date Published
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Guide to the GRE
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Looking into getting a master’s degree? An advanced graduate degree in your field can give you a great competitive advantage in the working world! Plus, it’s an excellent route to take if you’re dreaming of getting a doctoral degree down the line too. Whether for career advancement or striking out a pathway for research, you’ll need a strong application to show universities that you’re the right candidate for their programs. And the GRE General Test is a great way of doing this! Admissions offices and fellowship panels use these scores alongside your transcripts, certifications, statements of purpose, etc. to evaluate your eligibility as a graduate candidate. With thousands of universities and graduate schools accepting GRE scores, what do you need to know about this exam to get an admissions advantage?

What is the GRE Used For?

The GRE – or Graduate Record Examination – is a standardised test universities often consider when assessing their master’s program applicants. This computer-delivered exam tests the types of skills you’d need as a graduate student. In other words, your performance in the GRE test gives admissions officers an idea of how you’re likely to perform in their graduate programs.

 

Applicants to business and law schools, specialised master’s and other graduate programs can greatly benefit from strong GRE scores! For instance, nearly 80 law schools in the USA accept GRE test scores for their Juris Doctor programs. Over 1,000 business schools also use these scores to evaluate whether prospective candidates are the right fit for their program. 

 

Getting into graduate-level programs can be a tough race. And good GRE scores supplementing your application help you stand out as a promising candidate! So, to give yourself this advantage, what can you expect when sitting the GRE General Test?

The GRE General Test Format 

The GRE General Test is computer-adaptive, taking about three hours and 45 minutes overall to complete. There are three scored sections of the GRE exam – Analytical Writing, Verbal Reasoning, and Quantitative Reasoning. Here’s an overview of what to expect for each of these sections!

 

Section/Measure
Contents
Duration
Analytical Writing 
  • One section
  • Two separate, timed tasks:
    • Analyze an Issue
    • Analyze an Argument
30 minutes for each task
Verbal Reasoning
  • Two sections
  • 20 questions for each section
30 minutes for each section
Quantitative Reasoning
  • Two sections
  • 20 questions for each section
35 minutes for each section
Unscored/Research*
Varies
Varies

 

* You may have to answer an unidentified unscored section or an identified research section as part of your test. The unscored section includes questions the test makers are trying out for future tests or to make sure scores for new editions of the test are comparable to earlier versions. 

 

The Analytical Writing section will always come first. But since the unscored and Quantitative and Verbal Reasoning sections can appear in any order, do your best for each section!

 

If your test includes an identified research section, it’ll appear at the end of the test. ETS uses these questions for their own research! Neither the unscored nor research section contribute to your final scores.

 

So, with the format in place, let’s go into more detail about the GRE questions.

Analytical Writing Section 

This section evaluates how well you can:

  • Express complex ideas with clarity and conciseness in writing
  • Back up ideas with appropriate reasoning and examples
  • Critically evaluate a claim and its corroborating evidence
  • Sustain a clear and focused discussion
  • Appropriately use the tools of standard written English

 

Here, you get two types of tasks, each timed separately:

  • Analyze an Issue
  • Analyze an Argument

 

Both items look at your ability to respond directly to the task at hand! Let’s take a look at the types of questions you might get under each of these task types.

Analyze an Issue

For this task, you get an issue statement followed by a set of instructions asking you to respond to the issue. The task looks at your ability to critically think about a general interest topic and articulate yourself clearly and meaningfully in writing. The instructions following the issue statement may ask you to discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with a:

  • Statement – you will need to explain why you agree or disagree, developing and supporting your stance. Discuss how the statement may or may not be valid and elaborate how this informs your stand
  • Recommendation – You will need to explain why you agree or disagree, developing and supporting your stance. Under which circumstances would the recommendation work or not work? Use these examples to explain why you adopted your current position
  • Claim – You will need to explain why you agree or disagree, developing and supporting your stance. Make sure to argue for both sides – what reasons or examples challenge your position? And why do you still maintain your position nonetheless?
  • View – Discuss which view aligns better with your position and explain why. While developing and corroborating your argument, be sure to discuss both sides! 
  • Claim – You will need to explain why you agree or disagree with both the claim as well as the reasoning behind the claim
  • Views on the policy – Discuss what your views on the policy are and why. Talk about the possible implications of the policy after implementation. How do these implications affect your position on this matter?
Analyze an Argument

This task looks at your critical thinking, analytical, and evaluation skills. Are you able to understand, and then analyse and evaluate different arguments? And are you then able to get your evaluation across in writing? 

 

The task involves a passage in which the author advocates a course of action or interprets a set of events. The argument comes with a set of reasons and evidence describing why the author is taking this stance. Your task is to assess, given all the evidence, how logically sound the author’s argument is, based on specific instructions. For this task, you may have to write a response discussing:

  • What specific evidence you will need to evaluate the argument. How would this evidence make the argument stronger or weaker?
  • The stated or unstated assumptions of the argument. Explain how the argument relies on these assumptions to stand and what would happen if the assumptions are invalid
  • What questions you need answers to before you can decide whether the advice and the argument on which the author bases the advice are valid. Explain how the answers would help you evaluate the advice!
  • What questions you need answers to before you can decide whether the recommendation and the argument on which the author bases the recommendation are valid. Explain how the answers would help you evaluate the recommendation!
  • Which questions you need answers for to decide whether the recommendation will have the result the author predicts. Explain how the answers would help you evaluate the recommendation!
  • Which questions you need answers for to decide whether the prediction and the argument the author bases the prediction on are valid. Explain how the answers would help evaluate the prediction!
  • One or more alternative explanations to stand against the proposed explanation. Why might your explanations plausibly account for the facts in the original argument?

Verbal Reasoning Section

This section looks at your ability to:

  • Analyse and draw conclusions from written discourse
  • Reason using incomplete data
  • Identify the author’s assumptions and/or perspective
  • Understand multiple levels of meaning, including literal and figurative meanings and the author’s intent
  • Identify core points
  • Distinguish important points from minor or insignificant details
  • Summarise text
  • Understand the structure of a text
  • Know and grasp the meaning of individual words, sentences, and full texts
  • Understand the relationships between and among words and concepts

 

You’ll encounter three types of questions under the Verbal Reasoning section!

Reading Comprehension

Here, you’ll get a passage you have to read to answer the questions that follow. The passage typically falls under one of three subject areas: humanities, social sciences (which include business), and natural sciences. This passage could be a single paragraph or about four to five paragraphs long. Under the Reading Comprehension question type, there are three subtypes of questions:

  • Multiple-Choice Questions – Select One Answer Choice (out of five options)
  • Multiple-Choice Questions – Select One or More Answer Choices (of the three answer options, you can choose one or more. To get full credit, you must pick all the correct options. You don’t get credit for partially-correct answers!)
  • Select-in-Passage – this question will ask you to choose a sentence within the given passage that fits a specific description. If the passage is on the longer side, the question will restrict you to choosing from one or two paragraphs. You choose the answer by clicking on any word in your chosen sentence! You can also select the answer with your keyboard
Text Completion

This question type also includes a passage of between one to five sentences. These sentences will have one to three blank spaces that you need to fill in with one of the available answer choices! You’ll have three choices to select from for each blank. If there’s only a single blank space, you need to choose from a list of five options. There’s only one correct answer – you won’t get credit for partially correct answers.

 

Sentence Equivalence

For this question, you get a single sentence, with one blank space. You then have to choose two of the available options, which best fit the context of the sentence and are synonymous or close in meaning!

Quantitative Reasoning Section 

The name gives it away, but yes there is some math involved in this section. Here, the test assesses your ability to:

  • Understand, analyse and make interpretations from quantitative information
  • Use mathematical models to solve problems
  • Apply basic mathematical skills and knowledge in arithmetic, geometry, algebra, and data analysis to problem-solving

 

Before you freak out, no you don’t have to do mental math! There’s an onscreen calculator to help you out. Here’s an overview of the four question types under this section:

Quantitative Comparison Questions

These questions ask you to compare two quantities (Quantity A and Quantity B) and then choose which one of the given statements describes that comparison.

Multiple-Choice Questions – Select One Answer Choice

Based on the given data, you need to choose a single answer from the list of five options.

Multiple-Choice Questions – Select One or More Answer Choices

Here, you choose one or more answers from the set of options. The question might not tell you how many right answers there are, so make sure you’re thorough in your choices!

Numeric Entry Questions

You need to enter either an integer or decimal in the answer box or enter your answer as a fraction in two separate boxes – one for the numerator and the other for the denominator. 

 

Under this section, questions are either independent standalone questions or part of a Data Interpretation Set. The latter is a group of questions based on the same table, graph, or other quantitative data. For the data interpretation sets, you need to interpret or analyse the data. Questions may fall under the Multiple-Choice type questions or Numeric Entry questions.

GRE Score Chart

Now that you have an idea of what the GRE exam tests you on, what about the scores? If you hopped on to this guide after checking out the GRE requirements of programs you’re planning to apply to, hopefully, our score chart breakdown will help those requirements make more sense:

 

Section
Score Range
Verbal Reasoning
130-170 (increments of 1 point)
Quantitative Reasoning
130-170 (increments of 1 point)
Analytical Writing
0-6 (increments of 0.5 points)

 

Understanding How the GRE Score is Calculated

Quantitative and Verbal Reasoning 

The Quantitative and Verbal Reasoning sections fall under section-level adaptation. Remember how both of these sections have two subsections each? The first section of the Quantitative or Verbal measures is of average difficulty. Depending on how you perform in this first section, the computer varies the difficulty level of the second operational measure! So, say for example that you perform well for the Verbal Reasoning section at average difficulty. This means that the computer will set the second section measure to a higher difficulty level.

 

Scoring for Quantitative and Verbal Reasoning takes into account the overall number of questions you answered right across both sections. It also accounts for the difficulty level of the sections. The process is machine-driven since the computer can recognise whether or not you chose the right answer! So, right after you finish the exam, you can report your score to see the unofficial total of your Quantitative and Verbal Reasoning sections right away.

Analytical Writing

The Analytical Writing section, on the other hand, is more subjective. At least one trained rater will assess your essay using a six-point holistic scale. The quality of your essay overall goes under evaluation. The rater(s) make sure that you appropriately responded to the task you were given! So, be sure to follow the instructions of the task. As you saw earlier, there’s a variety of different responses the test may ask for. Be sure that you fully understand what the task is asking you to do and put together a focused response.

 

After the human rater, an e-rater (an ETS-made computer program) scans the essay to check for writing proficiency. If the scores by both the human rater and the computer program are close to each other, your overall score is the average of these two scores. If there’s a significant difference between the two scores, a second human rater will review the essay. The final score is then the average of the scores by the two human raters!   

 

Resources for GRE Preparation

So now you know what the format of the test is and how the scores work. The next thing you need to know about the GRE is how to prepare. Now, we won’t blame you for feeling a little intimidated by this test. It’s definitely more challenging than any admissions tests you may have taken at the undergraduate entry-level. 

 

But don’t be scared – you’re not the same person you were when you applied for a bachelor’s degree either. You picked up a lot of critical and analytical skills during that time. All that’s missing is fine-tuning them and knowing how and when to use them for this test. If you’ve been working while planning out your master’s, you may also already be using some of the skills that graduate schools look for in their applicants! What you need is the practice to put them into use and showcase your strengths during the exam. Here are a couple of great resources to help you do just that!

The Official Guide to the GRE General Test

This GRE test prep book contains two official practice tests and hundreds of GRE sample questions. The book, now in its third edition, contains breakdowns for many of the answers, strategies for test-takers, sample essay answers, steps involved in answering Quantitative Reasoning questions, and much more! Working through this GRE prep book, you get to take your time learning all the strategies you need to answer the types of questions you’ll see in the real test. Even better, the book comes with two free POWERPREP Online practice tests! These practice tests simulate the real exam, giving you a taste of what sitting the actual GRE would be like, complete with score reports, actual test features, and timed sections. 

POWERPREP Test Preview Tool 

This free resource is a handy introduction to the GRE General Test for first-time test-takers. You learn more about the types of questions you’ll run into as well as how the test works in practice. The tool comes with two Analytical Writing questions, seven Verbal Reasoning, and eleven Quantitative Reasoning questions. You also get an answer key to help you score your answers!

POWERPREP Online 

This is a great free resource that helps you experience what sitting the actual test feels like. Alongside getting an idea of how the scoring works and how you’d perform at your current level, you can also practice strategies like time management for each section. The tool contains two free practice tests emulating the way the real test works, including the same test features. These features include being able to move back and forth through questions in a section to choose the order in which you answer, changing your answers, and the onscreen calculator for the Quantitative Reasoning section. The practice test also features lots of helpful accommodations to make the process comfortable for you. For example, you can have extended time for your answers, longer breaks, magnified screens, and more!

 

POWERPREP PLUS Online

While this is a paid resource, it comes with plenty of helpful tools to make it worth the price tag. You will be able to purchase (separately) three never-before-published practice tests simulating the real deal. You can get your test scores for all three sections in minutes with a breakdown of your performance and explanations of the right answers. This helps you figure out, through hands-on experience, which areas you may need more practice in as well as the best practices for scoring higher in each section.

Other Resources

ETS offers lots of other resources worth looking into, including GRE guide books for specific sections. If you find that you’re consistently scoring lower in one of the three measures – Quantitative Reasoning, Verbal Reasoning, and Analytical Writing – you can pick up a resource that helps you double down on improving in that measure specifically! UniSearch also offers our own selection of helpful resources, from downloadable guides and practice tests to workshops and courses!

How to Sit for the GRE General Test

You have two options for sitting the GRE General Test. You can sit for the test at one of the +1,000 GRE test centres nearest to you. Alternatively, if you don’t have access to a test centre or an available slot, you can also sit the test at home! Here’s what you need to know about both GRE test options.

GRE Registration

  • To book a test, you need to create an ETS account
  • Once you do, you can log in and through this account, choose the “Register/Find Test Centres” option
  • From the options available, select the GRE General Test. Here you’ll get to choose between whether you sit the test at home if the option is available in your country or a test centre near you
For the “at home” version of the GRE test
  • Verify your email address 
  • Choose the two-month block during which you’d like to sit for the test and click “Continue”
  • On the “Test Center and Date” screen, confirm your timezone or choose the one that fits you
  • Choose an available date for your test from the calendar 
  • Choose an available time slot for your test
  • Click the “Register for this Test” button when you lock down your chosen test date and time

 

To take the GRE exam at a test centre
  • Specify the location you want to take the test in
  • Choose the two-month block during which you’d like to sit for the test and click “Continue”
  • On the “Find Test Centers and Dates” screen, you can choose any of the available dates you see on the calendar 
  • From the list of available locations, choose the one you want to sit the test at and click “Show Test Times” for that location
  • If you find a time slot that works for you, click “Register” for that slot 
The remainder of the registration process is the same for both testing options:
  • Before you finalise your registration, you will see a page listing out Accommodations and Testing Policies. We recommend reading through both, before checking the “I understand and agree to the testing policies and terms and conditions above” box
  • Confirm your personal information 
  • You can opt for the GRE Search Service. If your profile matches a university’s requirements, you might be able to access tons of helpful information about their programs, tuition fees, scholarship opportunities, and more! Choose whether or not you’d like to participate, and click “Next”
  • Review all your Registration details and click “Next” again
  • You can browse through ETS’ test prep resources and add items to your cart to purchase along with your registration!
  • On the Shopping Cart screen, make sure the test date, location, timezone details, etc. of your chosen test date are correct. Then, you can check out! 

GRE Test at a Centre

  • Try to arrive at your test centre 30 minutes before test time
  • During check-in, you may need to take your mask off for a digital photograph. You can’t get into a test centre without a mask
  • You will need to show a valid, up-to-date ID
  • As part of the inspection process, the administrators may ask you to empty your pockets, visually inspect your clothing and glasses, etc.
  • You can only take your mask and ID into the exam room. Leave your other personal belongings like your phone, bags, notes, watches, jewellery (aside from engagement/wedding rings), etc. in a secure location – at home, in your car, etc. You can also store your items on-site – your administrators will show you where 
  • Once you check in, you can’t leave the test centre without permission. If you leave without authorisation, you risk test cancellation
  • After checking in, your test administrator will show you to the exam room and your designated seat
  • If at any point during the test you experience difficulties with the equipment, raise your hand to get the administrator’s attention. Remember that the administrator can’t help you with the test itself
  • You will get some scratch paper at the beginning of the exam. If you use it all up during the GRE test, you can ask for more! You will need to return all the scratch paper you use back to the administrator after the test
  • After the third section, you can opt for a 10-minute break, as well as 1-minute breaks between the rest of the sections. During these breaks, you must stay in the test centre or its immediate surroundings and can’t leave without permission
  • If you aren’t in your seat at any time other than the breaks, the time for your test section will keep ticking 

GRE Test at Home

The “at home” version of the GRE test is identical to the test you’d sit at a centre! Typically, you’ll be able to sign up for this test in most locations where the GRE test is available. Do check the availability of your options when you’re registering! This version of the test is available 24/7 – you can sit for it through a computer at home, monitored by an online proctor through ProctorU.

Here’s how things will go on test day! 
  • To sit the test at home, you need a desktop or laptop computer, speaker, microphone, and a camera you can move around to show your proctor your workspace. You can’t use headsets or earphones!
  • Run the ProctorU Equipment Check to make sure your computer fits the requirements. We recommend doing this before registering so that if your equipment isn’t up to standard, you can make other arrangements!
  • You will need to download the ETS Secure Test Browser and install the program onto your computer. Installation is only complete once you run the file!
  • On test day, make sure you’re taking the test in a private location, alone. You must have your device on a desk and sit on a regular chair for the test
  • Your workspace must not have any items not approved for the test, including books, bags, and notes
  • To take notes during the GRE test, you can bring in a blank whiteboard or a blank sheet of paper inside a transparent sheet protector. You can write on these using an erasable marker during the test! 
  • You can launch the test through the link in the confirmation email you got after registering or through your ETS account
  • Make sure you’re ready to check-in within 12 minutes of your scheduled test time. If you’re late, you risk a test cancellation
  • Your online proctor will guide you through check-in. Be sure to bring a mirror or your phone with you to show your proctor your computer screen as well as your ID
  • Using your moveable camera, show your proctor a 360-degree view of your room
  • During the test, stay within your proctor’s view at all times. Focus on the test and avoid doing anything the proctor may find suspicious, like looking away from the screen or talking to yourself

Getting Your GRE Scores

At the end of the exam, you can see your unofficial scores for the Quantitative and Verbal Reasoning sections right away. When you get the option to either report or cancel your scores, you will need to report to view these unofficial scores. Since the Analytical Writing section goes through one or more human raters, you don’t get this score immediately.

 

Overall, you’ll get your official GRE scores within 10 to 15 business days of sitting the test. You will be able to see the score report through your ETS account! An official email will let you know when your scores are ready. 

 

These scores are valid for five years after you take the test. On the day of the test, you can authorise ETS to send your scores to up to four graduate schools or fellowship sponsors. We recommend doing this if you already know where you want to apply since your test fee covers this service! If you want to decide where you want to send your scores after the test or have additional schools you’re applying to, you can send your scores to these institutions after your test date for a fee. This comes up to USD 27 for each score recipient. 

ScoreSelect

If you sit the test more than once, you can, through the GRE ScoreSelect option, send the scores that you feel best represent you to your chosen institutions. You can opt to send your most recent scores, test scores from any of the tests you sat in the past five years, or all of your past scores!

How Much Does the GRE Cost?

For most parts of the world, the standard test administration fee is USD 205. In India, the cost is USD 213 and in China, it comes up to USD 231. Remember that these are the base fees for the test itself. There may be additional costs if you purchase any extra resources or request to send your scores after test day or to more than four institutions.

Our Final Thoughts on the GRE General Test

We won’t pretend that sitting for the GRE General Test is a walk in the park but it’s definitely not impossible either. With the right degree of practice with the right resources, you can be test-ready before you know it! Alongside letting the graduate schools you’re planning on applying to know that you have the skills they’re looking for in candidates, sitting for the GRE test lets these schools know that you are a driven individual committed to your goal of getting that master’s degree. So, we hope that our thorough breakdown of the GRE General Test has given you everything you need to get you going and make your graduate school dreams come true!

 

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

GMAT or GRE – which is easier?

This is purely subjective – both the GMAT and GRE General Test are aptitude tests. In other words, rather than looking at your knowledge within a specific subject area, they look at your critical thinking, analysis, and problem-solving skills. Both tests explore your ability with written text, reading, comprehending, and critically evaluating it, and then expressing your evaluation clearly and concisely in writing. Both tests also look at your ability to understand, process, and evaluate quantitative information and use this to solve complex problems. Ultimately, which of the tests you find easier would depend on you! And which of the tests you would need to sit also depends on your requirements. GMAT is made by business schools for business schools, so if you’re planning to enrol in a graduate business program, this is likely the best choice. Many business programs do also accept the GRE General Test – note though that this is more of a holistic aptitude test for master’s and specialised master’s programs overall. 

Is the GRE test hard?

We always say how “hard” a test is depends on the person. Since this is an aptitude test that evaluates the underlying skills you use when critically analysing and evaluating information, expressing your evaluations, and using them to solve problems, it’s less tangible than sitting for an exam that tests your knowledge of a specific subject. A good way to get a handle on the difficulty level of the GRE test for you is to try out the free GRE practice tests. Scoring keys or automated scoring options simulating the actual exam give you an idea of how you’d perform in the real thing. They also help you figure out which areas you might need more work on, with strategies and tips to help get you there.

 

A thing to note here is that the difficulty level of the test is not the same across the board and does adapt to the test taker. The Quantitative and Verbal Reasoning measures are section-level adaptive. Both test sections have two sub-sections. Very simply put, the first subsection is of average difficulty. Based on your performance in the first section, the computer adjusts the difficulty level of the second subsection. For example, if you perform well in the first section in Quantitative Reasoning, the second section adjusts to a higher difficulty level. Scoring for the Quantitative and Verbal Reasoning sections takes into account the number of questions you answered right across both subsections and the difficulty levels of the sections.

 

What is the highest possible GRE score?

Here is the score breakdown of the GRE General Test:

Section
Score Range
Verbal Reasoning
130-170 (increments of 1 point)
Quantitative Reasoning
130-170 (increments of 1 point)
Analytical Writing
0-6 (increments of 0.5 points)

 

If you choose to report your score after finishing your exam, the maximum score you can get is the sum of the highest scores of the Verbal and Quantitative Reasoning sections – 340. Overall, the highest possible score for the whole test is 346.

GMAT vs GRE for MBA?

Many business schools accept GRE scores! Note, though, that the GMAT is specifically made by graduate business schools to evaluate prospective business school applicants. Since the GMAT is the most widely-recognised test for MBA programs – with up to 7,000 MBA and master’s programs using the GMAT as the standard for graduate business schools. Some schools actually use a GRE to GMAT conversion scale to check the GMAT equivalence of your GRE scores. It’s a good idea to check which test scores your chosen program is accepting before deciding which one you want to go through with.


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