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Introduction to the GRE

Introduction to the GRE

What is the GRE?

You might have just heard of the GRE for the first time, and are wondering exactly what this test is all about. For starters, the GRE, which stands for Graduate Record Examination, is the general test for most grad schools (you can think of it as the SAT for grad school).

The GRE is composed of three sections: Quantitative (AKA math), Verbal, and Analytical Writing (AWA). The GRE is a general test, meaning that it is not subject specific. So even if you are just fresh out of college–or even still in college–the material on the test doesn’t necessarily overlap with anything you’ve learned in the last several years. Rather, the GRE tests your reasoning skills, both with words and with numbers.

ETS is the company that administers the GRE, and they have a lot of great information on their site.


Do I need to take the GRE?

This is actually a very good question. After all, I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t want to go through 3,000 vocabulary flashcards if you could avoid doing so. So here’s the deal: The GRE is required for most graduate programs except for medical school and law school.

You may have noticed I left out business school in that “except” part. A majority of the top business programs in the United States—and many abroad—accept the GRE. So if you are thinking of b-school, and have heard horrible things about the GMAT, you may want to start dusting off those flashcards.

If you are unsure whether the program(s) you are applying to require GRE scores, check out their website or contact them. They should be able to tell you a minimum/average score, or some general advice.


When should I take the test?

There are two ways to look at this question. For those still in college, the likely interpretation of this question is “Should I take the test in college, or wait until after college?” However, for those who haven’t stepped onto a college campus since the 20th century, they’re probably wondering about the best time of year to take the exam. I’ll deal with this latter question at the end.

If you are in college–meaning you are likely inundated with academic reading and pulling all-nighters writing 20-page papers–taking the GRE may not be a bad idea (at least once that 20-page paper is finished). The idea is that your brain is already in GRE mode. And if you do not do as well as planned, you can always take the test again. Retaking the test is by no means a blight on your academic transcript (for more on this check out this post)

If you are wondering what time of year to take the GRE, there really isn’t one perfect time. Many people cram in September and October so they can submit their scores before the deadline. Doing so, however, doesn’t leave you much opportunity to retake the exam. And the fact that many others are taking the test during these months makes finding a testing appointment very difficult. You might have to wake up at 6 in the morning on a Saturday–if you are lucky enough to get an appointment at all. Thus in order to get a plum testing appointment and to give yourself plenty of time to prep, and, if necessary, retake the test, take the GRE in the spring. If this isn’t possible, try to book your appointment as early you can.

However, because different schools and programs have varying application deadlines, you should research the programs you’re interested in to see when their deadlines are.  Once you know the application deadlines, then you should aim to take your test at least 3 weeks before these deadlines (and a month more than that if you want to leave room for a retake!). Scores take about 10-15 days to arrive at universities after you take the test, so it’s best to leave some wiggle room– who needs extra stress when cramming for an already stressful exam?


So what’s on the GRE?

The GRE is made up of three different types of sections: a math, verbal, and an essay section. The essay section, which consists of two essays, comes first. Next, you will have five sections, two math, two verbal, and a mystery section, called the experimental section, which can either be math or verbal.

There’s plenty of more detailed information about each section below:


It’s on a computer? What is that like?

Basically, for those in the United States and Canada, the only option is the computer-based test. ETS provides a paper-based test only for those whose countries do not provide computer testing centers; ETS does not provide the paper-based test so students can have a choice between taking the test on the computer and doing the paper-based test.

To find out if your country offers the test on a computer: GRE Test Locator

For many, not being able to take the paper-based test is dispiriting because staring at a computer for four hours can be headache inducing. I won’t lie and tell you that focusing on a screen for that long can be draining. It is hard, but one way to acclimatize is by taking ETS’s PowerPrep test. Indeed any online resources, whether it be Magoosh or Manhattan GRE’s online practice tests, can help build your endurance for staring at a computer screen.

For details on computer based vs. paper-based:



How much does the test cost?

The test is not as expensive as the GMAT. But at $185, with the possibility of a few extra fees, taking the GRE is by no means cheap. Remember to also factor in traveling costs, which, for some, can be more expensive than the actual test.


How do I sign up?

Signing up for the GRE is easy. Go to ETS’s Registration page and you can set up an appointment. Make sure that there are testing centers in your area/country. And to get a more choice spot—say 10:00 a.m.—book early.


What are the GRE subject tests?

Do you think that the GRE general test is…well, too general? Want to strut your stuff in your specialty? Well, if you are looking to study chemistry, physics, biology, biochemistry, psychology, mathematics, or literature, there is a special GRE subject test for you. The test does not replace the general test–there is basically no way getting out of the latter. And programs don’t always require the GRE subject tests–though they will accept subject test scores. If you think you know your stuff, take the relevant GRE subject test. Doing well will help you stand out from the crowd.

More information on each subject exam on ETS’s site here.

The tests are paper-based and are only given three times a year: in October, November, and April. One final thing: the subjects listed above are the only subjects that have exam. So if you are looking to get your Ph.D. in history, economics, comparative religion, etc. don’t go scrambling for your web browser. You won’t find any info on a subject-specific GRE test.


Introduction to the GRE
Studying for the GRE
GRE Test Format
GRE Verbal Reasoning
GRE Quantitative Reasoning
GRE Analytical Writing
Test Day
GRE Scoring
Revised GRE vs. Old GRE vs. GMAT vs. LSAT vs. SAT
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