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The GRE Test: What You Need to Know

By Peterson's Staff updated on Tuesday, January 29, 2013

If you're planning on going to graduate school, you'll probably need to take the GRE test (or the "Graduate Record Exam"). It's the most commonly required admission test for grad school.

Much like the SAT and ACT, the GRE exam is a broad assessment of your critical thinking, analytical writing, verbal reasoning, and quantitative reasoning skills — all skills developed over the course of many years. Some schools may also require you to take one or more GRE Subject Tests.

The purpose of each GRE examination, of course, is to help graduate schools decide if you've got the right stuff for their program.

Important Note: The GRE Test changed recently, on August 1st, 2011. To read more about those changes, visit GRE Test Changes.

Overview of the GRE test

The GRE test is divided into three main sections. The Analytical Writing section is always presented first. The other two sections are the Verbal and Quantitative sections and they may appear in any order and may include unscored and research sections with questions that are being considered for use in future tests. (Your answers on these won't count towards your score, but since you won't know which questions are legitimate and which aren't, you should treat every portion of the test as if it counts.)

You can take the GRE exam on paper or on a computer. GRE testing time will vary depending on which version of the test you take and the potential presence of unscored research sections, but plan to set aside at least three hours.

If you end up taking the paper-based version of the GRE, you should plan on spending a bit more time in the test center. The paper version has two verbal and two quantitative sections. Similar to the computer version of the test, the paper-based GRE examination may also include an unscored section.

Most students take the computer-adaptive version of the test, meaning that for the verbal and quantitative portions, the test adapts the difficulty level of its questions each time you submit an answer. Each student starts out with questions of average difficulty. Each time you enter an answer, the computer scores it immediately, compares it with your preceding responses, and then presents a question suited to your level. If you answer correctly, the questions become more difficult. Incorrect answers result in the next question being slightly less difficult.

Analytical writing section of the GRE test

For the first part of the Analytical Writing section, you must read a paragraph on a general issue and then address that topic as you deem fit for the next 45 minutes. Your ability to support your views with sound reasoning and examples are key elements to completing this section well.

If you take the GRE exam on a computer, this portion is completed via simple word processing software. In areas where computer-based testing is not available, this segment is handwritten, so make sure you bring plenty of sharpened pencils!

Similar to the first essay question, the second essay of the GRE writing section asks you to read and then critique an argument. You'll have 30 minutes to complete this essay. You'll need to consider the reasoning presented in the argument and then discuss whether you believe the argument is a good one or not. You don't need to agree or disagree with the statement — you just have to analyze it and convey your reasoning clearly through your written response.

The writing section is not computer-adaptive like the rest of the GRE exam. You may use a computer to complete it, but it won't "react" to your writing or attempt to score your essays. For this section, your scores are determined by real people, not computers.

Verbal section of the GRE test

Similar to portions of other exams you've probably taken, the Verbal section of the GRE test includes things like sentence completions, analogies, antonyms, and reading comprehension questions. Its purpose is to test your ability to form conclusions from written materials, recognize relationships between concepts and words, and to determine relationships between different parts of sentences.

If you take the GRE on a computer, expect to answer 30 questions within 30 minutes. On the paper version of the test, there are two segments, each 30 minutes long and each with 38 questions.

Math section of the GRE test

The Quantitative section of the GRE tests high-school-level math. If you're a bit rusty, start honing your skills in arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and data analysis. This portion of the exam aims to test your skill at solving a variety of different math problems, as well as to analyze your ability to use quantitative reasoning.

For the computer version, you'll need to answer 28 questions in 45 minutes, but on the paper version you'll have two 30-minute segments, each with 30 questions.

You'll probably notice similarities between the GRE and other tests you may have taken before you started college. You should prepare for this test much like you did the others, with GRE practice and GRE preparation, but don't feel daunted or intimidated just because it's a test for graduate school — you'll be fine!

About the Author

Peterson's has more than 40 years of experience in higher education, and the expert staff members here are all ready to leverage their considerable knowledge and experience to help you succeed on your educational journey. We have the information, the know-how, and the tools -- now all we need is you!

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