About the GRE Test – What is the GRE Exam? (2021-2022)

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

The GRE test, which stands for the Graduate Record Examination, is a computer-based standardized exam that many global graduate and graduate business programs require as part of the admissions process. The GRE exam comprises six sections and takes 3 hours and 45 minutes to complete. In those six sections, you can expect to see Verbal, Quantitative, and Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA) sections. To learn all about what you’ll need to prepare for the exam, watch the video below and read on for Magoosh’s official guide to the GRE!

Table of Contents

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

What is the GRE Test?

The GRE test is an exam that universities, including 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 (adcoms) then use an applicant’s GRE scores, most often in combination with other factors such as undergraduate GPA, letters of recommendation, and personal statements, to evaluate the candidate’s admissions file.

If you’re thinking about applying to a graduate program, it’s important to find out as soon as possible whether it requires applicants to submit GRE scores for admission. Not only will this give you a better idea of the school’s requirements, but it will also help you pin down the GRE score you’ll need, plan a test date based on your goal score, and finally register for the exam.

When is the GRE exam offered?

The GRE at home is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The in-person exam taken at a test center is also available seven days a week and available most days of the year. 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. Remember, either option requires a proctor to monitor your test-taking experience for security and integrity reasons. 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.

If you’re taking the paper-based GRE exam at a test center (rare, but it still happens), it’s so important to schedule your test date as soon as you know you’ll be taking the GRE. Why? Because there are only two GRE test dates a year FOR PAPER-BASED TESTS. You can take it in February or November—but that’s it. This list of GRE test dates can help you decide, whether you’re taking the at-home, computer-based, or paper-based GRE test. You can take it in college, after college—it’s really up to you, though there are a few factors to take into consideration.

Who takes the GRE test?

Future graduate students, that’s who. Graduate programs use the GRE as an admissions metric for Master’s and Doctoral programs. This applies almost across the board, from the sciences to the humanities. And yes, you have to take all the sections, no matter what program you’re applying to (although STEM programs will usually not care much about your Verbal score, while humanities programs rarely worry about your Quant score).

Improve your GRE score with Magoosh.

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 medical or law school, you almost definitely don’t need to take the GRE. The MCAT or LSAT is the one for you!
  • If you’re applying to business school, you might need to take the GRE, or substitute it for the GMAT, or neither—it all depends on your school.
  • 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 on math (or are strong in both math and vocabulary, as the GMAT has harder math and is more grammar-focused). Click here for a full comparison of the GMAT vs GRE.

GRE Subject Tests

GRE Subject Tests focus on how well you know these specific subjects: 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, or to supplement their application.

Grad Schools That Don’t Require GRE Tests

Graduate schools loosened or completely waived their GRE requirements in response to COVID-19, and some are making the change permanent. You can check out the schools that don’t require GRE tests this year and beyond.

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 were your classes? What are your strengths? Your weaknesses? Have you prepared for the GRE exam?

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chapter 2: what does the gre exam evaluate?

GRE Test Sections: What does the GRE exam evaluate?

SectionTime per sectionScore range
Verbal Reasoning (Verbal)Two sections, each 30 minutes long, with 20 questions per section130–170
Quantitative Reasoning (Quant)Two sections, each 35 minutes long, with 20 questions per section130–170
Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA)One hour, split into two 30-minute tasks0–6, in half-point increments

There is an additional unscored research section that the GRE uses for its own purposes. This could be either a Verbal or a Quantitative Reasoning section. You will not know which section is experimental. Definitely do not try to guess!

There is a 10-minute break following your third section of Quantitative or Verbal. You will receive quantitative and verbal sections in a random order, but, once you have completed three sections, you will be given your 10-minute break.

The GRE Verbal Section

The Verbal Reasoning section is similar to the SAT’s equivalent. It includes some text completion (fill-in-the-blank) questions, critical reading, and sentence equivalence. That last type of question—sentence equivalence—is unique to the GRE exam. It asks you to fill in a blank in a sentence with two separate words, with the aim of creating two sentences that have the same meaning. To do well on this section, it helps if you have an understanding of complex vocabulary in context, strong reading comprehension skills, some knowledge of formal logic, and more-than-basic knowledge of English grammar. Read more at the links below:

The GRE Math Section (Quant)

The Quantitative Reasoning section has three main question types: problem solving, quantitative comparison, and numeric entry. (Quantitative comparison asks you to compare two quantities and figure out which one is larger.) Quant 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, basic geometric properties like circles or triangles. Read more below:

The GRE AWA Section

Finally, the Analytical Writing Assessment requires you to write two essays. One is an “argument” essay, in which you are given an argument someone else has made, and you write about what more you need to know to evaluate the argument. The second type is an “issue” essay, in which you take a position and make an argument of your own about a specific issue. Luckily, the essays are 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!

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Chapter 3: gre test scores

GRE Test Scores and Percentiles

Before you take the GRE, it’s important to familiarize yourself with GRE test scores: 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 test scores on the Verbal and Quant multiple-choice sections, usually giving 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.

To complete 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!

Go back to the top of our blog on the GRE test.

Chapter 4: how to prepare for the gre test

How to Study for the GRE Test: 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.
    Click here to learn more

    Take that all-important free GRE test as a diagnostic here on our Magoosh GRE blog, or sign up for a free 7-day trial of Magoosh GRE to start practicing! Once you have your score, check it against a score-to-percentiles table to see if you’re in the percentile you need for your target school. As you go forward, plan on taking plenty of practice tests, including the official GRE guide full-length tests.


  2. Choose a study plan based on your diagnostic test and calendar.
    Click here to learn more

    The good news about taking a diagnostic test: now that you have your score, you’ll also have some 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.

    More importantly, you need to be realistic about how much time you have to know how much you’ll be able to accomplish. Magoosh’s quiz, How Long Should You Study for the GRE, can also help give you an idea of your study needs!

    While you have your calendar open, start thinking about and register for your future GRE test date. When you register, keep in mind that the GRE cost starts from $205, but your total fees will vary depending on changes and the GRE test prep you choose.


  3. Find the best resources for you, and start prepping for test day!
    Click here to learn more

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

    • Practice questions and practice tests: The materials you’re going to rely on most—by taking 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!
    • GRE books: Good if you’re a self-starter with lots of energy and motivation! While these are an inexpensive option that you can follow at your own pace, they may not be the best option if you need special guidance. Read our reviews of the best GRE books for recommendations.
    • GRE prep classes: Good if you need motivation, if you have a compressed timeframe, or if you want to have an expert explain the test to you in person. On the other hand, they can be expensive, may not fit your schedule or be easily accessible from your location, and you’ll need to do some research to find reputable classes.
    • GRE tutors: An excellent option for those who need extra motivation, want personalized study plans and support, and/or are looking to address particular problem areas. Tutors will normally be more expensive than classes, because you’re paying for one-on-one time. The biggest issue here is finding someone qualified—not just because he or she scored well on the GRE exam, but also because of strong tutoring skills (and these are different than 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!); computer-based practice to match the actual GRE test; a clear path forward with the ability to go at your own pace; and some level of personalization. Good online GRE prep will also be transparent, letting you know what you can expect from the program and having 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, access to experts to help with your study, plus a proven track record (or even a score guarantee).

What is the GRE exam all about? Now you know. Congrats! You’ve reached the end of this GRE test guide! Give yourself a pat on the back for learning all the GRE basics and trying your hand at some GRE exam samples.

Still want more content? Head over to our GRE FAQ to get your burning questions answered or check out the GRE eBook to read our top blog posts on all things GRE.

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  • Rachel Kapelke-Dale

    Rachel is one of Magoosh’s Content Creators. She writes and updates content on our High School and GRE Blogs to ensure students are equipped with the best information during their test prep journey. As a test-prep instructor for more than five years in there different countries, 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. For over a decade, Rachel has honed her craft as a fiction and memoir writer and public speaker. Her novel, THE BALLERINAS, is forthcoming in December 2021 from St. Martin's Press, while her memoir, GRADUATES IN WONDERLAND, co-written with Jessica Pan, was published in 2014 by Penguin Random House. Her work has appeared in over a dozen online and print publications, including Vanity Fair Hollywood. When she isn't strategically stringing words together at Magoosh, you can find Rachel riding horses or with her nose in a book. Join her on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook!