About the GRE Test – What is the GRE Exam? (2024)

Student with cap planning to take the GRE exam - image by Magoosh Original image by Syda Productions

The GRE test is a computer-based standardized exam that many global graduate, graduate business, and law programs require as part of the admissions process. The GRE exam takes 1 hour and 58 minutes to complete. Here’s the exam breakdown: Two Verbal sections, two Quantitative sections, and one essay (called Analytical Writing). To learn all about what you’ll need to prepare for the exam, watch the video below and read on for Magoosh’s Guide to the GRE!

Magoosh’s Guide to the GRE

Chapter 1: What is the GRE Exam? - image by Magoosh

What is the GRE Test? An Introduction

The GRE test is an exam that master’s and doctoral programs use to evaluate candidates. However, individual universities do not offer the GRE as an entrance exam. Instead, the Educational Testing Service (ETS), an independent organization, writes and administers the test. Admissions committees then use GRE scores, along with other factors to evaluate an applicant’s admissions file. These factors include undergraduate GPA, letters of recommendation, and personal statements.

If you’re thinking about applying to a graduate program, it’s important to find out early on if it requires GRE scores. That will also give you an idea of the target GRE score that you’ll need. Lastly, all of this will help you set a test date based on your goal score.

When is the GRE exam offered?

The GRE at home is effectively available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The in-person exam taken at a test center is also available very frequently throughout the year. However, the exact availability depends on your location. See this article for more details about GRE exam dates and how to register to take the test.

For both the at-home and in-person options, seats can fill up fast so they may not be available to you every day of the year. That’s why you should register for the exam as soon as you know you want to take it, bearing in mind deadlines for the programs to which you’re applying.

Not sure which option you want to go with? Check out what test day looks like for both the at-home and in-person exams.

Who takes the GRE test?

Future graduate students, that’s who. This applies almost across the board, from the sciences to the humanities. And, yes, you have to take all the sections, no matter which program you’re applying to. With that said, STEM programs usually won’t care much about your Verbal score, and humanities programs rarely worry about your Math score.

To sum it up:

  • If you’re applying to a Master’s or Doctoral program in the Arts, Sciences, or Humanities, you probably need to take the GRE.
  • If you’re applying to law or business school, you might opt take the GRE. In some cases, the GRE can be used as a substitute for the LSAT or the GMAT. However, it all depends on what your specific schools require.
  • And if you’re debating between the GMAT vs GRE for your MBA, the GRE is probably better if you’re very strong in verbal skills but weaker in math. Click here for a full comparison of the GMAT vs GRE.

GRE Subject Tests

GRE Subject Tests focus on how well you know a specific subject: Biology, Chemistry, Literature in English, Math, Physics, or Psychology. Candidates who plan to study one of these programs may take a Subject Test as a requirement for that program. Others do so to supplement their applications.

Grad Schools That Don’t Require the GRE

Many graduate schools have loosened or completely waived their GRE requirements in recent years. However, whether schools continue to do so is always subject to change. Thus, you must check the current admissions requirements for every program to which you are applying.

Is the GRE test hard?

We get this question all the time! The answer is… it depends on you! Questions to consider: What did you study in college? How long ago did you attend? What are your strengths? Your weaknesses? Have you prepared for the GRE exam? For a more in-depth response, take a look at How Hard is the GRE?

chapter 2: What is the format?

GRE Test Sections: What is the GRE format in 2024?


Section Time and Questions Per Section Score Range
Verbal Reasoning
12 questions in 18 min
15 questions in 23 min
Quantitative Reasoning
12 questions in 21 min
15 questions in 26 min
Analytical Writing Assessment
1 essay in 30 min 0–6,
in half-point increments

Note that there are no breaks between sections of the exam.

The GRE Verbal Section

The Verbal Reasoning section ultimately tests how you read. You’ll need to parse dense passages to identify main ideas and inferences. You’ll also need to pay attention to context clues and navigate tricky grammatical structures to determine which vocabulary words (or phrases) best fill in the blanks. And many of those vocabulary words are quite advanced.

The main question types on GRE Verbal are Text Completion, Sentence Equivalence, Reading Comprehension, and Critical Reasoning. For more details about each question type as well as the Verbal section as a whole, take a look at this comprehensive guide:

The GRE Math Section (Quant)

The Quantitative Reasoning section is mainly set up as a reasoning test. This means you don’t have to worry about advanced calculus, trigonometry, geometric proofs, or really anything that you studied past the third year of high school. However, you may need to brush up on the basics—for most of us taking the GRE test, high school was a while ago!—such as integer properties, exponents and roots, word problems, and basic geometric properties like circles or triangles.

The main question types on GRE Math are Quantitative Comparison, Multiple Choice, Multiple Answer, and Numeric Entry. And of those last 3 types, at least 3 questions will belong to the same Data Interpretation set. For everything you need to know about success on the GRE Math section, see the following article:

The GRE Essay Section (Analytical Writing)

Finally, the Analytical Writing section requires you to write one essay. This will require you take a position and make an argument for your own stance on a specific issue. Luckily, the essay is always based on real-world, straightforward examples. And ETS even has a pool of topics for you to study ahead of time. You’ll want to write an essay that’s well structured (including a clearly defined thesis), well reasoned (have examples and convincingly show your position), and well expressed. Read more below:

GRE Test Sample Questions

Click here for more free GRE Verbal practice questions and explanations!

Click here for more free GRE Quant practice questions and explanations!

Chapter 3: Scores

GRE Test Scores and Percentiles

Before you take the GRE, it’s important to familiarize yourself with GRE test scores. That way, you’ll know how you’ll be evaluated and what your score means in context.

This is all the more important because few (if any) programs will care about your composite/total score and instead will look at your GRE Verbal and GRE Math scores separately. Usually a program gives one much more significance (depending on your field). To see how you’ll be evaluated, here’s a rundown of the GRE score range and what makes for a good GRE score.

For the full picture, always look at your percentile ranking. When you receive a score report, you will also receive a number indicating the percent of people you scored better than (in these GRE percentile charts, look to the right of the score for the percentile rank).

If you score in the top 90% in both Math and Verbal, then you are a competitive candidate, even at competitive schools. Less competitive schools may only require 50%. Exam score standards can vary considerably by school!

Chapter 4: how to prepare for the GRE test

How to Study for the GRE Test in 2024: Next Steps

Now that you know all about the GRE test, what is the best way to study for the GRE?

1) Use a practice test to “diagnose” your strengths and weaknesses, and gauge your current score

Take a free GRE practice test to get an accurate baseline for where you’re currently at. Or take a shorter GRE diagnostic quiz to get a feel for the exam, as well as your strengths and weaknesses.

Once you have your score, check it against a score-to-percentiles table to see if you’re in range for your school. As you go forward, plan on taking plenty of practice tests as you strive towards your target score.

2) Choose a study plan based on your diagnostic test and calendar

After receiving your estimated score from a practice test, you’ll then have an idea of how much work you need to do for the GRE test.

Check out this list of free, expert-crafted study schedules and cross-reference them with your calendar. Be honest about your commitments. It’s totally fine if your five-hour Netflix Sundays are non-negotiable, but factor that into your study time. There’s nothing worse than watching Netflix feeling guilty that you should be studying for the GRE exam.

Ultimately, you need to be realistic about how much time you have available and set your goals accordingly. Take a look at How Long Should I Study for the GRE? for an idea of how much studying to anticipate doing.

While you have your calendar open, start thinking about when to register for your future GRE test date. Also keep in mind the cost of the GRE itself as well as additional services. Your total fees will depend on factors such as how many schools you’re applying to and the GRE test prep you choose.

3) Find the best resources for you, and start prepping for test day!

When it comes to studying for the GRE test, you have a few options:

Practice questions and practice tests:

These are the materials you’re going to rely on the most. By working through them frequently, you’ll see how to improve your score and how close you are to achieving your goals. Be sure to evaluate these early! Here is a full-length, free practice test from Magoosh that includes a detailed score report with a topic-by-topic breakdown of your performance.

GRE books:

Good if you’re a self-starter with lots of energy and motivation! While these are an inexpensive, self-paced option, they may not be the best if you need special guidance. Read our reviews of the best GRE books for recommendations.

In-person GRE prep classes:

These are good if you need motivation or if you have a compressed timeframe. These are also helpful if you want to have an expert explain the test to you in person. On the other hand, they can be expensive and may not fit your schedule or be easily accessible from your location. Additionally, you’ll need to do some research to find reputable classes.

GRE tutors:

Tutors are excellent option for those who need extra motivation or want personalized study plans and support. Tutors can also be especially helpful if you are looking to address particular problem areas. However, tutoring will normally be more expensive than classes because you’re paying for one-on-one time. The biggest issue here is finding someone qualified. A good tutor isn’t just someone that scored high on the GRE. They also need strong 1-on-1 teaching skills (which are different than the teaching skills needed for a large group).

Online GRE test prep:

While we’re obviously a little biased, online test prep offers the best of all worlds. You have lots of material (often more than any book can provide!). It’s computer-based practice to match the actual GRE test. It gives you a clear path forward with the ability to go at your own pace, along with some level of personalization. Good online GRE prep will also be transparent. They’ll let you know what you can expect from the program and will have the data (and testimonials) to back their claims up. Whichever program you opt for, look for ones that offer lots of practice similar to what you’ll see on test day. Detailed answers and explanations are a must as well, and it’s even better if they offer access to experts.
Furthermore, a score guarantee can instill some confidence and peace of mind.

Closing Thoughts

Now you know what the GRE exam is all about! Give yourself a pat on the back for learning all the GRE basics and trying your hand at some GRE sample questions. For more practice as well as lessons covering all the content and strategies you need to know for the GRE test, consider a Magoosh GRE Premium plan. Happy studying!


  • Rachel Kapelke-Dale

    Rachel has helped students around the world prepare for various standardized tests, including the SAT, ACT, TOEFL, GRE, and GMAT, and she is one of the authors of our Magoosh ACT Prep Book. Rachel has a Bachelor of Arts in Comparative Literature from Brown University, an MA in Cinematography from the Université de Paris VII, and a Ph.D. in Film Studies from University College London.

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