The Graduate Record Exam (GRE): Need-to-Knows

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What Is the GRE Exam?

This standardized exam is used to assess a person’s abstract thinking abilities. It covers:

  • Analytical writing
  • Reading comprehension and vocabulary
  • Mathematics

GRE stands for Graduate Record Examination. Graduate schools and colleges in the US and Canada use the Graduate Record Exam to decide whether an applicant is eligible to study for a post-grad, MBA or graduate scheme.

The GRE graduate exam was first established in 1936. It was set up by a group of universities with support from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The University of Wisconsin was the first public university to screen students using the GRE.

The GRE graduate test is currently overseen by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which was established in 1947. The test is split into three questions. It measures skills and aptitude for:

Verbal Reasoning

You will need to evaluate and analyze written material. In particular, you will need to show that you can reach valid conclusions, identify important points and comprehend a range of words and sentence structures. You will also be tested on your ability to process and analyze the information that you garner from written text.

Quantitative Reasoning

You will need to apply the mathematical concepts of algebra, analyzing data and geometry. You will need to show that you can solve problems by interpreting and analyzing quantitative data.

Critical Writing

You will need to have an aptitude for critical evaluation and writing analytically. You will need to show that you can relay complex ideas, backing up the concepts with relevant evidence or other support.

Many colleges ask prospective students to take the General GRE exam. However, some educational establishments expect students to sit the GRE Subject Tests, which relate to specific areas of study, for example:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Physics
  • Psychology
  • English Literature

How Does the GRE Work?

The GRE is computer-based. However, a paper-based exam is offered in exceptional circumstances.

You can access the online exam at US testing centers for $205. This fee may be higher if you take the test in another country.

There are more than 1,000 test centers worldwide, but you can sit the test at home if you prefer.

To sit the GRE, you will need to sign up for a free ETS account. You can then choose a test date and center. If you want to sit the GRE at a test center, you will need to complete your registration at least two calendar days before your test date.

If you would prefer to sit the GRE at home, you can access the test 24/7, with appointments available as quickly as 24 hours after registration.

To be eligible for a home-based test, you will need to meet the equipment and environment requirements.

You will have around three hours and 45 minutes to complete the test. Scheduled breaks are built in between test sections.

You can sit the exam as many times as you like, but you must leave at least 21 days between attempts. You can only sit the test five times within a 12-month period.

Some candidates choose to sit the exam more than once to increase their score. A better score could help you to gain acceptance at your chosen college.

With the GRE, you can decide which scores to share with your preferred graduate schools, whereas other similar tests automatically report the results on your behalf.

How Is the GRE Structured?

The test is made up of six sections, with a 10-minute break after Section 3. The structure is as follows:

Section Category Number of Questions Time Allowed
Analytical Writing (this counts as one section, but there are two separately timed tasks to complete) Task 1 – Analyze an Issue; Task 2 – Analyze an Argument 30 minutes per task
Verbal Reasoning (two sections) Section 2 – 20 questions; Section 3 – 20 questions 30 minutes per section
Quantitative Reasoning (two sections) Section 4 – 20 questions; Section 5 – 20 questions 35 minutes per section

The Analytical Writing section is always the first section of the exam. The other sections may appear in any order.

You should bear in mind that the test may include a set of ‘unscored’ or ‘research’ questions.

These do not count towards your exam score, but they won’t be highlighted – so you should treat every section as though it counts towards your score.

The Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning sections are section-level adaptive.

This means that Section 2 and Section 4 are of average difficulty. The difficulty levels for Section 3 and Section 5 are variable, depending on your performance in the earlier questions.

If you perform well in the first set of questions, the second set will be more difficult. Scoring for these sections takes into account both the number of questions answered correctly and the difficulty level of the questions.

The scoring scale for the verbal and quantitative sections is 130 to 170. The exam is scored in one-point increments.

The best graduate programs look for candidates with a score of 165 or higher.

The analytical writing section is scored between 0 and 6, using half-point increments.

If you want to study for an MBA qualification, your school will probably ask you to sit the GMAT. However, many schools will accept a GRE score instead.

The GMAT focuses on mathematical aptitude, whereas the GRE is designed to measure your vocabulary skills. However, many top US business schools are willing to enrol prospective MBA students who have successfully passed the GRE.

Example Questions for the GRE

Answering mock exam questions is the best way to prepare for the GRE. In this section, you will find GRE-style questions to help you become familiar with the format.

Analytical Writing

In the first task, you will be asked to analyze an issue. You will be given a brief quotation, which states or implies an issue of general interest.

Alongside this, you will be given instructions on how to respond. Your task is to plan and compose a response, developing a position on the issue according to the instructions provided.

It is vital to read the quotation and instructions carefully to ensure you understand what you are being asked to do.

Practice Question

Here is an example of the type of quote you might be presented with:

“There’s one issue that will define the contours of this century more dramatically than any other, and that is the urgent threat of a changing climate.”Barack Obama (2014) – on Climate Change.

You might be asked to discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the statement.

You will need to explain your reasoning, considering ways that the statement may or may not be true, and how these considerations impact your opinion.

In the second task, you will be required to analyze an argument.

You will need to demonstrate your ability to understand, analyze and evaluate arguments, clearly communicating your evaluation in writing.

You will be shown a brief passage of text in which the author presents a course of action or interpretation of events, by presenting a claim that is backed up by evidence.

You will need to decide whether the author’s case is logically sound through critical analysis of their reasoning and supporting evidence.

Quantitative Reasoning

Quantitative Comparison Questions

In these questions, you will need to compare Quantity A to Quantity B, choosing the statement that best describes the relationship between the two:

a) Quantity A is greater
b) Quantity B is greater
c) The two quantities are equal
d) The relationship cannot be determined from the information given

Practice Question

The average cost of a loaf of bread is 60c. The addition of one loaf of bread at a cost of 65c increases the average to 61c.

Quantity A Quantity B
x 5

If the average price for x loaves of bread is 60c, the sum of those x loaves of bread is 60x.

The sum of the loaves of bread, including the additional loaf at a cost of 65c is 60x + 65.

You can then use the average formula to calculate the value of x:

Average = Total / Number of Items

In this example, 61c is the average; 60x + 65 is the total, and there are x + 1 loaves of bread. You can substitute this information into the formula as follows:

61 = 60x + 65 / x + 1

Cross multiply to reach 61x + 61 = 60x + 65

Simplify to x = 4

Therefore Quantity B (5) is higher than Quantity A (4).

The Graduate Record Exam (GRE): Need-to-Knows
The Graduate Record Exam (GRE): Need-to-Knows

Multiple-Choice Questions

For these questions, you will need to choose the correct answer.

Practice Question

The price of a designer handbag was $800 for the last six months of last year.

On January 1, the price went up by 20%. Following the price increase, an employee bought the handbag using their 10% discount.

What price did they pay for the handbag?

a) 720.40<br>b)720.40<br> b) 850.00
c) 864.00<br>d)864.00<br> d) 895.50
e) $940.35

The answer is C, using the following calculation:

800/100=800 / 100 = 8

8x20=8 x 20 = 160

New price = 800+800 + 160 = $960

To work out employee discount: 960/100=960 / 100 = 9.60 x 10 = $96

Price after discount = 960960 – 96 = $864.00

Numeric Entry Questions

For these questions, you will be asked to type your answer into the box provided on screen.

Practice Question

Moira works in a shop on a straight street. There have always been 16 shops on the street to the right of her shop, and 17 shops on the street to the left of her shop. Last year, 5 new shops were built on the same street, further to the left of the shops that are already to the left of Moira’s shop.

In total, how many shops are now on Moira’s street?

The correct answer is: 39

Moira’s shop = 1

Plus 16 shops to the right = 1 + 16 = 17

Plus 17 shops to the left = 17 + 17 = 34

Plus 5 new shops = 34 + 5 = 39

Multiple-Answer Question

If a multiple-choice question does not specify that there is one correct answer, you will need to select all of the correct answers from the list.

Practice Question

The average cost of a box of chocolates is 6.30andthestandarddeviationis6.30 and the standard deviation is 1.20.

Which of the following prices fall within 1.5 units of standard deviation of the mean?

a) 3.70<br>b)3.70<br> b) 4.60
c) 5.10<br>d)5.10<br> d) 5.20
e) 6.90<br>f)6.90<br> f) 7.60
g) 7.70<br>h)7.70<br> h) 8.30

This multiple-answer question has a list of options in order of lowest to highest. You should aim to work out a range of acceptable values to apply to the choices you have been given.

Standard deviation relates to how far data spreads out in comparison to the mean.

For this question, you have been provided with an average (mean) of 6.30,andastandarddeviationof6.30, and a standard deviation of 1.20.

Your task is to highlight which prices fall within 1.5 units of standard deviation from the mean. Therefore, the maximum possible price is 1.5 units above the mean (7.80)andtheminimumpossiblepriceis1.5unitsbelowthemean(7.80) and the minimum possible price is 1.5 units below the mean (4.80).

To work out the maximum value in the range, your calculation will be:

6.30+(1.5x1.2)=6.30 + (1.5 x 1.2) = 6.30 + 1.8 = $8.10

To work out the minimum value in the range, your calculation will be:

6.30(1.5x1.2)=6.30 – (1.5 x 1.2) = 6.30 – 1.8 = $4.50

Acceptable answers will fall between 4.50and4.50 and 8.10, so all of the choices from b) to g) should be selected.

Verbal Reasoning

In this section, you will need to answer three different types of questions.

Text Completion

For text completion questions, you will need to fill in the blanks in a passage of text. You will have three choices per blank, or five choices if there is just one blank in the passage.

To answer a question correctly, you will need to choose the correct choice for every blank in the question.

Practice Question

Select the set of words that best completes the sentence:

The elderly professor __________ on and on throughout the lecture, only pausing __________ to cast a __________ glance at the students, discouraging them from engaging at all.

a) Ridiculed. . . Restlessly . . . Perfunctory
b) Established. . . Pompously. . . Imprudent
c) Rambled. . . Briefly. . . Cursory
d) Prattled . . . Occasionally. . . Anxious
e) Babbled. . . Assertively. . . Mournful

The correct answer is c) Rambled... Briefly... Cursory


The text passage tells you that the professor is very old and whatever action he is carrying out is going 'on and on'.

Since he is giving a lecture, you can deduce that he is speaking. From context, you can identify that the word means he is talking in a long-winded or boring way. The correct answer is 'rambled', although 'prattled' and 'babbled' would also fit as they have similar meanings.

The text passage also tells you that the professor 'only paused', so you can assume that the missing word is an adjective used to describe his occasional pauses – in this case, the answer is 'briefly', although 'occasionally' would also fit.

Lastly, the professor glances at the students. The word 'glance' suggests this is only a quick look, so the correct word is 'cursory', which means quick and perfunctory.

Sentence Equivalence

For sentence equivalence questions, you will need to study a single sentence, one blank and six possible answers. You will be asked to choose two answers that can be used to fill in the blank, fit the meaning of the whole sentence and form complete sentences that are similar in meaning.

Practice Question

Some senders write the recipient’s address on the envelope so ________ it’s surprising it is delivered to the right place.

a) Interestingly
b) Responsively
c) Smoothly
d) Unintelligibly
e) Promptly
f) Illegibly

You will need to choose two words that will fit into the sentence.

The answer is d) and f) – both mean that the writing is difficult to read, making it hard for postal workers to identify where it needs to be sent to.

Reading Comprehension

Reading comprehension questions are broken down further into three types:

  • Multiple-choice – Choose the correct answer from five possible options.
  • Multiple-answer – Select one or more answer choices. To receive credit, you must select all of the correct answers and none of the incorrect answers.
  • Select in-passage – Choose the sentence within a passage that meets a specified description.

The text passages used for reading comprehension questions relate to social sciences (including business), natural sciences and humanities. Passages range in length from one paragraph to five paragraphs.

Practice Question

‘The Red Grape Convenience Store in the affluent village of Dollartown charges higher prices than the Red Grape Convenience Store in Lake City charges for the same products. Therefore, the Red Grape franchise is taking advantage of its customers in Dollartown to make higher profits on those products.’

When evaluating this argument, the most useful information to compare is:

a) The offering of specialist items in the Lake City store with the offering of specialist items in the Dollartown location
b) The average cost of similar, same or comparable items sold at other stores in Lake City with the average cost of those items being sold at other stores in Dollartown
c) How much it costs to transport goods to the Lake City location with the comparable cost of transporting those goods to the Dollartown location
d) The cost of the items in Lake City and Dollartown with the cost of the items at other Red Grape shops across the state
e) The percentage of average household grocery outgoings in Lake City with the comparable percentage in Dollartown

The correct answer is: c)


Your aim is to explain why the same items cost more in Dollartown. The argument provided is strong – the Dollartown store is just taking advantage of having a store in an affluent location.

The author is stating that the Dollartown store does not have a good reason for charging these high prices. If there were a valid reason for this, it would call the argument into question.

If Dollartown is a remote location, it could be difficult and costly to transport products to the store. This would incur additional costs, which could be a valid reason for charging more in the Dollartown store.

Top Tips for Passing Your GRE Test

As with any test, it is important to take as many practice exams as possible. This will help you to become familiar with the format of the test and the type of questions you can expect. It will also help you to improve your time management skills.

Completing practice tests will help you to identify the areas you are confident in, and which ones you need to study further for. You can access many different GRE prep courses online.

Your score in the GRE is important if you want to enrol in a post-grad, MBA or graduate program, so it’s vital that you put in the preparation and work required to get the best score.

Final Thoughts

Gaining a good score on the GRE can open many doors if you are hoping to join a graduate scheme or enrol in further study. To give yourself the best chance of success, you will need to dedicate plenty of time to practice and preparation.

To prepare for the GRE, visit the ETS website for access to a range of learning resources. Most of these are free of charge. You will find free mock exams, instructional videos, math skills reviews and more.

If you need more support, the ETS also provides access to paid learning materials, including additional mock tests. You can buy section-specific question sets if you want to focus on a particular part of the test. Finally, there are online writing practice features, allowing you to write and receive feedback on two essays.

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