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What the GRE Test Is and How to Prepare

The GRE is a graduate school entrance exam that influences admissions decisions.

Aspiring graduate students who tend to put off studying for tests should not attempt to cram for the Graduate Record Exam, or GRE, because achieving an impressive score on this graduate school entrance exam is difficult without significant preparation, experts warn.

“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 Yim, director of live online courses with Kaplan. “This test is not like that. … The main thing students need to know is that it’s not just about content, and it’s not enough to have memorized hundreds of vocabulary words and have gone through the math topics that you haven’t seen since high school. You need to be able to use that and become a problem-solver in the moment.”

Yim says students who intend to take the GRE should take timed practice tests and analyze their performance on them so that they are confident enough to ace the exam when it counts. “You have to be comfortable,” he says. “We like to call it, when we get dramatic, ‘crisis prevention,’ and so what it comes down to is a student’s ability to perform to their level when the pressure is on, when the time constraints are real.”

What Is the GRE General Test?

The GRE General Test is a standardized test created and administered by the Educational Testing Service, commonly known as ETS, that is designed to measure overall academic readiness for graduate school. Some grad programs require that applicants take not only the general test, but also a GRE Subject Test that assesses technical knowledge related to a specific discipline like physics, psychology or mathematics.

Andrew Selepak, program coordinator of the master’s in social media at the University of Florida, says the GRE general test is similar to the SAT college entrance exam in that it assesses competence in math, reading and writing.

GRE Subject Tests

GRE subject tests are content-based exams that assess a person’s mastery of a particular field of study, such as biology or psychology. Each is designed for students who have majored in or extensively studied the particular exam subject. A grad school hopeful might take a math subject test in order to demonstrate quantitative skills to grad schools in fields where numerical competence is vital, such as computer science or economics.

The “GRE Subject Tests” section of the ETS website says subject tests can help grad school hopefuls “stand out from other applicants” by demonstrating their “knowledge and skill level” within a particular academic discipline. These are the six fields where a subject test is available:

  • Biology.
  • Chemistry.
  • Literature in English.
  • Mathematics.
  • Physics.
  • Psychology.

ETS provides free digital practice books for each subject test. Below is a summary of the material a person should understand and study prior to taking a GRE subject test.

Biology. It focuses on three aspects of biology, each of which provides the basis for roughly a third of the questions on the exam: cellular and molecular biology; evolution and ecology; and organismal biology.

Chemistry. This exam requires knowledge of all four major categories of chemistry and the ways various types of chemistry are related. The four focus areas are analytical chemistry, inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry and physical chemistry, with greater weight on the latter two.

Literature in English. Demonstrating literary analysis skills is an integral component of the exam. Three other competencies are also necessary to ace this test: recognizing and accurately identifying literary works; contextualizing a piece of literature based on its historical or cultural backdrop; and understanding the history and theory of literary criticism.

Mathematics. About half of this exam focuses on calculus while roughly a quarter concentrates on algebra and number theory. The remaining questions cover miscellaneous topics typically included in an undergraduate math curriculum.

Physics. This exam typically includes questions on optics and wave phenomena; thermodynamics and statistical mechanics; classical mechanics; electromagnetism; quantum mechanics; atomic physics; special relativity and laboratory methods. It also includes questions on specialized physics topics such as nuclear and particle physics, but the specific topics covered depend on the individual exam.

Psychology. This exam includes questions on six aspects of psychology, including biological, cognitive, social, developmental, clinical and topics such as measurement and methodology.

How Does the GRE General Test Compare to a GRE Subject Test?

Yim says the general test focuses on assessing critical thinking abilities applicable in multiple disciplines, while a subject test is designed to determine how much a person knows about a specific academic subject.

“On the general test, expect to use more strategy than content, whereas … when it comes to subject tests, there is a lot more content-based knowledge that is required,” he says.

Mary Richter, a teacher with the Manhattan Prep test prep company, noted in an email that “unlike the GRE general test, which is administered almost every day of the year, subject tests are administered only a few times per year.” She warns against studying for a general test and a subject test simultaneously.

“Typically, we advise students to study between two and four months for the regular GRE,” she says. “If you need to take a subject test, give yourself some breathing room and then prepare for the subject test. Also keep application deadlines in mind when deciding when to take each exam.”

Richter notes that one important difference between the general test and the subject tests is that subject tests are typically “self-paced,” meaning test-takers generally have the flexibility to determine how much time to reserve for each section.

Alberto Acereda, executive director of GRE and college programs at ETS, says prepping for a subject test is not entirely different from studying for the general test. “Similar to the General Test, to prepare for a GRE Subject Test, students should become familiar with the test content and structure so they know what to expect on test day,” Acereda wrote in an email.

At-Home Version of the GRE General Test

In response to the coronavirus pandemic and various social distancing initiatives, ETS introduced an at-home version of the GRE general test. According to the ETS website, the at-home GRE is “here to stay” and appointments are “available around the clock, seven days a week.”

One benefit of the at-home GRE, Acereda suggests, is that it has allowed people to take the GRE “in the safety of their own home” during the COVID-19 pandemic. “This version of the GRE test has enabled students to continue their educational journeys without interruption by giving them an option to fulfill their application requirements during a time when in-person testing for the GRE test and other higher education assessments was not as readily available,” he says.

“The GRE General Test taken at home is identical in content, format, on-screen experience, scoring and pricing to the GRE General Test taken at a test center,” Acereda explained in an email. “Key differences include the at-home test is taken on a test-taker’s personal computer and is monitored by a human proctor online through ProctorU. … All of the test features such as the ability to preview, review, skip questions and change answers while testing in a test center are also available when testing at home.”

Yim emphasizes the similarity between the at-home version of the GRE general test and the test center version. “That means that if you’ve been studying for the GRE and were planning to take it soon, then it’s most likely worth it to keep yourself on schedule,” he wrote in an email.

It’s important to have supplies ready for the at-home GRE, Yim says. “That means doing some prep work beforehand to secure a whiteboard or transparent sheets, as well as a couple of fresh markers.”

Tyler Johnson, a GRE instructor with Manhattan Prep, suggests that at-home GRE test-takers use a wired internet connection rather than wireless to minimize the risk of connectivity problems. They should also take the test in the quietest and most private room in their house.

“Keeping it private is important, because ETS is very big on making sure that you’re the only person in the room to minimize cheating, so if you have roommates or a kid or someone who might accidentally walk in the room, you just want to make sure that they are aware of that,” he says.

At-home test-takers should avoid scheduling the exam during a time when there might be significant external noise, testing experts say, adding that it’s prudent to ask people in your household and neighbors to avoid being noisy during the test administration.

Pierre Huguet, CEO and co-founder of H&C Education admissions consulting firm, advises at-home test-takers to go through the ETS equipment and environment checklist to ensure that they are set up to take the GRE at home. “Students should read the fine print and make sure they have the right equipment before registering for the at-home exam,” Huguet wrote in an email.

Pros and Cons of Taking the GRE at Home vs. in a Test Center

Test-takers who live in rural areas far away from test centers may strongly prefer the at-home version of the test since it eliminates the need for a long commute, Johnson says. However, someone who lives in a very noisy place might want to take the test at a test center, since that environment would be quieter, he suggests.

Testing experts urge test-takers to take the test in the environment where they believe they will perform best.

Amanda Medders Paldao, founder and director of Tri-Ed Tutoring, notes that some GRE test-takers get a powerful adrenaline rush when they walk into a test center, which helps them perform better than they might otherwise. This phenomenon, Paldao wrote in an email, is “just like an athlete who performs better in the big game than in practice.”

However, some people panic immediately upon entering a test center, which makes them perform worse on the test than they might in a more familiar environment, so taking the test at home may be the optimal approach for them to reduce anxiety, Paldao says.

“The GRE at Home exam differs in that you will be alone in your room taking the test, rather than surrounded by other test-takers,” Arash Fayz, founder and executive director of LA Tutors 123, wrote in an email. “If you are easily distracted, this can be an advantage since you won’t have to worry about other test-takers making noise or getting in your eyeline. However, you should be mindful of the potential for distractions or technical issues at home.”

What Types of Grad Programs Accept GRE Scores?

Many types of grad programs allow applicants to submit GRE scores, including master’s, Ph.D. and professional degree programs in an array of disciplines ranging from liberal arts subjects to technical fields.

In recent years, it has become common for business schools to accept GRE scores in lieu of the GMAT, the traditional business school entrance exam. There is also a small but growing group of U.S. law schools that accept the GRE as an alternative to the LSAT, the typical law school entrance exam.

GRE Test Scores

Someone who signs up for the GRE general test can expect to receive three scores after successfully completing the test, including scores in verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing. Verbal and quantitative scores range from 130 to 170, and these scores are always a whole number. Writing scores can be as low as zero and as high as six, and these scores are assigned in half-point increments.

Scores on GRE subject tests range from 200 to 990. On the biology and psychology subject tests, test-takers not only receive an overall score but also several subscores, ranging from 20 to 99, reflecting their knowledge of particular topics within the academic discipline.

Experts say grad school applicants should set their target GRE score based on the competitiveness of the programs where they are applying and the maximum score they believe they can achieve.

In order for a GRE score to have a positive impact on a prospective grad student’s admissions chances at his or her target schools, it needs to be higher than the norm at those schools, Yim says. “If you reach that score, you are an average student, so the score really just doesn’t help you.”

How Much Does It Cost to Take the GRE?

In most parts of the world where the GRE general test is administered, the cost is $205, but there are five nations where the price is higher: $213 in India, $226 in Nigeria, $230 in Australia, $231.30 in China and $255 in Turkey.

The price of GRE Subject Tests is $150 everywhere.

How Often Are GRE Tests Offered?

GRE general test appointments are offered year-round at physical test centers in most parts of the world, but slots are granted on a first-come, first-served basis. For students in regions without test centers, the at-home version of the test might be a viable alternative. At-home testing is not currently allowed in mainland China or Iran, according to ETS.

Registration for the GRE general test can be done online, by mail or by phone while registration for a GRE subject test is available online or by mail.

GRE subject tests are administered in September, October and April.

When Should You Take the GRE?

GRE test-prep experts say grad school hopefuls should schedule the exam a few months before their grad school application deadlines to allow time to retake the test if the score is lower than they had hoped.

What Is the Computer-Adaptive GRE General Test Like?

The GRE general test “is section-level adaptive,” Acereda explains, “which simply means that the second section of the test is selected by the computer based on a test taker’s performance in the first section. Every question from each section of the test contributes equally to the test taker’s final score which is based on the total number of correct answers as well as the difficulty of these questions.”

Acereda says a common mistake among GRE test-takers is spending disproportionate time on questions they find hard.

“Do not waste time on questions you find extremely difficult, since no question carries greater weight than any other,” Acereda advises. “When you see a question that you think may require a lot of time, mark it, and come back to it after you have reviewed and answered the questions in the section that take less of your time.”

How Much Do GRE Scores Matter?

“This can vary from school to school, and even from applicant to applicant,” says Erin Skelly, a former graduate school admissions counselor at the IvyWise admissions consulting and test prep company. “Some schools have a minimum score requirement, in which case the scores are very important. But if the rest of your application is very strong, the scores may be less important.”

GRE scores are a key factor that grad school admissions officers consider but are not necessarily the deciding factor, says Priyam Shah, a master tutor at IvyWise. “The GRE is part of the application package and doing well on it will certainly help your odds but other aspects of the application (college grades, extracurricular activities, recommendations, etc.) carry weight as well,” Shah wrote in an email.

Grad schools often use GRE scores to distinguish between applicants. Selepak at the University of Florida says GRE scores give him a metric he can use to make apples-to-apples comparisons between students who would otherwise be difficult to judge fairly because they have vastly different undergraduate backgrounds.

Selepak suggests that grad school hopefuls investigate whether the grad programs they are interested in have GRE score minimums and look into the average GRE scores at those programs so that they can target programs where they have a realistic chances of acceptance.

Ian Curtis, co-founder and former director of academic development at H&C Education, notes that grad program admissions officers often care more about GRE section scores than overall GRE scores.

“Ph.D. programs are generally interested in highly specialized applicants, so a low math score, for example, won’t necessarily hurt your chances of acceptance to great humanities and social sciences programs,” Curtis wrote in an email, adding that he once assisted a student who was accepted into a prestigious history Ph.D. program despite having a math score in the 40th percentile.

“He had numerous publications and extensive teaching experience, the benefits of which far outweighed his poor performance in math,” Curtis explains.

Acereda says a common mistake among GRE test-takers is spending disproportionate time on questions they find hard.

“Do not waste time on questions you find extremely difficult, since no question carries greater weight than any other,” Acereda advises. “When you see a question that you think may require a lot of time, mark it, and come back to it after you have reviewed and answered the questions in the section that take less of your time.”

How Much Time Should You Budget for GRE Test Prep?

Shah suggests students set aside two to three months for intensive GRE study, or that they spread out their test prep over three to four months.

But Skelly cautions that the amount of time required for GRE test prep depends on the student. “Those who are still in undergrad will likely need less preparation, as they are currently in an academic mindset, but those who have been out of school for some time, or who don’t typically do well on standardized tests, will likely need more time to prepare,” she wrote in an email. “The best course of action is to take a practice exam, and use that to decide how much preparation you need.”

What Types of GRE Test Prep Should You Consider?

ETS provides numerous free and for-purchase general GRE test prep resources, including online practice exams and a free math review document. The organization also provides a content outline for each subject test, plus a digital practice book for each test.

Yim says one extremely helpful resource is a list of essay prompts used on the Analytical Writing section of the GRE general test.

Christopher K. Lee, a career consultant and founder of PurposeRedeemed, a California-based career consulting firm, suggests focusing on the math questions since they are easier to prep for than the verbal questions. “The questions may seem tricky, but you have learned the math in high school,” Lee wrote in an email. “You just need a refresher. In contrast, it’s difficult to raise the verbal score, as grammar is not something you can quickly adopt.”

Selepak says many grad school hopefuls could benefit from a formal GRE test-prep course, which forces them to spend a significant chunk of time on test prep and provides them with a tutor who can hold them accountable.

How Does the GRE Compare to the GMAT and LSAT?

Skelly says the GRE and GMAT are comparable exams, since both include math, reading and writing questions and many B-schools consider the tests to be roughly equivalent. The ETS website includes a list of business schools that accept the GRE in lieu of the GMAT.

However, she notes that the LSAT is extremely different from the GRE.

“The LSAT has no quantitative section and is based primarily on logic and reasoning ability, relies very little on memorized skills or vocabulary and is specifically geared towards law school applicants,” Skelly wrote via email.

How to Raise a GRE Score

Jennifer Winward, founder and CEO at Winward Academy tutoring company, says the most effective approach to raising a GRE score is to figure out why you made the mistakes you did on a prior exam and devise strategies to prevent making them again.

For instance, Winward recommends students keep an up-to-date list of mathematical equations they forgot during the math section of the GRE general test. This allows the student to focus on memorizing equations he or she might otherwise forget and facilitates fast and accurate recall of those equations in the future.

Likewise, students who have difficulty with vocabulary should keep a running tally of words they have encountered on prior general GRE exams and that they do not recognize, so they can memorize the definitions of those words, she says.

Anyone struggling to speed read on the general test’s verbal reasoning section should try reading for fun more often during free time, she suggests.

“If you read actively, then you become a faster reader; you remember what you read and where you read it.”

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