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GRE Exam Overview

We discuss everything you need to about the GRE — from the structure of the exam to the best prep books, we give you the low down on all things GRE. 


By Douglas Eddings, Certified Learning & Development Professional


So What Is The GRE?

The GRE General Test (GRE), more formally known as the Graduate Record Examination, is the standardized graduate school entrance exam administered by ETS, or Educational Testing Service. The GRE is required as a component of a prospective student's application by a wide range of graduate and professional programs, including business and law, across the world. The GRE is designed to test a student's knowledge and skills that will be required for success in graduate programs and in the professional world beyond. 


Where to Take the GRE

The GRE is offered at over 1,000 test locations in over 160 countries around the globe. Check here to find a test center near you: Test Centers


GRE Test Structure

The GRE is a taxing exam that will take you 3 hours and 45 minutes to complete. It is a computer-adaptive test, meaning the difficulty of the test will adjust as you progress. Each test taker will have two sections in the math and verbal sections (discussed in more detail below). The difficulty of the second section in each category will depend on your performance in the first section. If you score well on the first section, the second portion will be harder, but will open the potential for much higher scores. If you perform poorly on the first section, the second portion will be easier, but your ability to get a high score will be capped.  

The GRE consists of three sections: Quantitative Reasoning, Verbal Reasoning, and Analytical Writing

The Quantitative section is made up of 2 sections, with 20 multiple-choice questions each. The student is allotted 35 minutes to complete each section, or a little less than 2 minutes per question on average, so speed is important. This section examines the test taker's ability to understand and analyze quantitative data and information, solve complex math problems, and apply knowledge of arithmetic, algebra, geometry and more. Of the question types seen, the most common are quantitative comparisons, problem solving, and data evaluation. 

Similar to the Quantitative section, the Verbal section is comprised of 2 sections of 20 multiple-choice problems. Test takers, however, are allotted only 30 minutes to complete each section, so 5 minutes less per section than the Quantitative section. Again, speed will be crucial in this section. The Verbal section tests a student's ability to analyze and draw conclusions from passages, understand vocabulary and sentence structure in context, draw meaning from complex discourse, surmise intent, and summarize concepts, among other things. Question types include sentence and phrase equivalents, critical reading comprehension, and text completion.

Lastly, the Analytical Writing section is 60 minutes in total. It consists of two essays — one based around an “issue” and one based on an “argument.” The test taker is prompted to analyze each of the issue and the argument, and to prepare an intelligent and well-crafted responsive essay. The student is allotted 30 minutes for each essay. The intent behind the essays and the Analytical Writing section in general is to test a student's ability to support their positions with well-reasoned and logical premises and examples, use concise and effective language to make their points, analyse claims and evidence, and showcase their mastery of the English language. 


How is the GRE Scored?

The Verbal section of the GRE is scored on a scale of 130 to 170, in 1 point increments. The average score of the Verbal section is 151. 

The Quantitative section of the GRE is also scored on a scale of 130 to 170, in 1 point increments. The average score of the Quantitative section is 153. 

The Analytical Writing section is scored on a scale 0 to 6, in ½ point increments. The average score of the Analytical Writing section is 4.0. 


Tips for Studying For The GRE

One of the most common questions when preparing to take the GRE is how much time is needed to study for it.  We generally recommend anywhere between two and four months depending on the student's needs, time availability and learning curve. And when we say two to four months, we mean several hours of solid study time per week on average. To get the most out of of your study plan and ensure you are ready to rock and roll on the big day, we've put together a list of effective study tips:

  1. Commit to a Study Plan.  One of the biggest pieces of advice we can give is to create a study plan and stick to it. So many students have the best intentions in preparing for the GRE — they purchase a prep course, set their exam date and location, and then study sporadically. Don't be that person! Designate a set number of hours per week on days that you know will work to study. Commit to your lessons and doing practice problems. If you know you have 4 hours on every Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, then make that your study time. Put it in your calendar, block that time off and follow through. Commitment is key.

  2. Focus on Your Weaknesses. Learn from your weak points. If you struggle with geometry or data analysis, don't just shrug it off as being a weakness that you can't improve — focus in on those topics and dedicate yourself to improving. There's always room for improvement. Do extra practice problems in those areas and learn from why you got them wrong. 

  3. Practice, Practice, Practice.  This likely goes without saying, but practice is the key to success. The more practice problems you do, and the more simulated practice exams you take, the better off you'll be. Repetition is crucial, as the more times you see a problem type, the quicker and more instinctive the answer will come to you. And when you're taking full practice tests, make sure to take them under real exam conditions. This helps simulate the real thing so that you're conditioned on the big day. 

  4. Don't Over-study. This may surprise some students, as they may think there is no such thing as too much studying, but studies have shown that over-burdening your brain with study material can have negative effects. Don't view this as a pass to skimp on doing practice problems, but if you're up at midnight and can barely keep your eyes open as you look at a problem, there's no sense in pushing through. You will actually get more benefit from a good night's rest and letting what you learned that day sink in. So study hard, but don't kill yourself. 

Best GRE Prep Courses

One of the constants across all successful GRE study plans is a prep course. While students preparing for the GRE can potentially get by with books and self-study, the best way to improve your score and get a great outcome is through using a commercial prep course. There are a wide range of prep courses available on the market, from self-guided online courses in the budget range of $250, all the way up to comprehensive instructor-led courses that cost close to $1,800.  There are a variety of course types as well, including 1 on 1 tutoring, live in-person classes, live online lessons, and self-paced courses. Students should select a course based on their preferred learning type. We recommend using either Kaplan or Princeton Review, proven leaders in the test prep space. 


Best GRE Prep Books

If purchasing a prep course isn't in your budget, or you're just looking for some extra study resources to supplement your prep course, GRE prep books can be a great option. They are obviously lacking in depth and resources compared to prep courses, but do offer some valuable help. Good prep books contain helpful strategies for the various sections of the GRE, a number of practice problems and thorough explanations. The best part of prep books is that they are uber affordable — ranging from $10 at the cheap end to $100 at the most. We like the books offered by ETS and Manhattan Prep. 

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