GRE Guide

With exceptions like law and medical programs -- which require the LSAT and MCAT, respectively -- most U.S. graduate schools include the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) in their admission criteria. This means that prospective educators must take this standardized test before attending graduate school. Facilitated by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), the largest organization of its kind in the world, the GRE General Test covers three main skill areas: Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning (mathematics), and Analytical Writing. Each section of the GRE contains certain question types, including select in passage, multiple choice (with one or more possible answers), quantitative comparison, numeric entry, and written analyses to issue and argument prompts. Most candidates take the GRE electronically, though some prefer to complete the exam through a paper delivery format. All U.S. students pay a $205 fee.

the GRE General Test covers three main skill areas: Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning (mathematics), and Analytical Writing.

Colleges and universities that require or strongly recommend the GRE for education master’s degree applicants use the results as part of a holistic examination of credentials, which also includes a personal statement, academic transcripts, and recommendation letters. All graduate students should take the exam seriously since these scores not only factor into general admission but also count toward scholarship and fellowship decisions.

GRE Subject Tests

In addition to the aforementioned General Test, the ETS facilitates GRE Subject Tests in six areas: biology, chemistry, literature in English, mathematics, physics, and psychology. Education graduate programs usually do not require Subject Tests, but applicants may submit them as supplemental information reflecting specific qualifications. Prospective teachers who want to specialize or obtain optional certification in a subject-based field, like elementary math, especially benefit from these exams.

Candidates can take Subject Tests worldwide in September, October, and April. Unlike the General Test, ETS centers only offer these exams in paper form. Candidates should review the stringent test-taking guidelines, which do not allow mechanical pencils, pens, or personal calculators. Each exam costs $150. Test takers have two hours and 50 minutes to complete a Subject Test. With no individually monitored sections, time management is a crucial skill for success. All Subject Tests consist of multiple choice questions. The biology and physics exams limit the number of choices to five.

Though there are some exemptions, particularly for online degrees, most graduate schools require the GRE test for education students. Exam criteria varies based on individual programs. For example, certain colleges and university require GRE scores only if applicants do not meet the minimum GPA. It is important for students to discuss the General and Subject Test with their prospective institutions to discern how important the exams are to admission offices and what areas warrant extra attention.

The Structure of the GRE

The computer-based GRE General Test consists of six sections, totaling three hours and 45 minutes. The Analytical Writing portion includes one section comprised of two 30-minute tasks. The Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning portions consist of two 30-minute and two 35-minute sections, respectively. Each section contains 20 questions. In addition to these scored items, most test takers receive an unscored research or experimental set of questions. The ETS uses this part of the GRE to analyze and categorize future test items. The exam identifies the research section, so candidates can skip it if they wish. However, the experimental section is unidentified and indistinguishable from the scored verbal and quantitative portions.

On test day, takers should keep these important points in mind as they finalize strategies: The Analytical Writing section comes first. Afterward, candidates may encounter the Verbal and Quantitative Reasoning sections (including a possible experimental section) in any order, so it is best to prepare for this randomness during practice exams. Test takers can go back or skip questions at their leisure as long as the items are within a single section. However, they need to maneuver deliberately, factoring in time constraints and room for review. The research section always shows up at the end, if at all. A small number of GRE candidates encounter neither the experimental nor research section.

Delivery Format

Graduate students can take the GRE General test electronically or through a paper format, and there are important differences between the two. The paper test does not contain any unscored questions. Additionally, this GRE format divides the Analytical Writing portion into two sections (not one section with two tasks). Relatedly, paper test takers enjoy a 10-minute break after the second section instead of the third. Here, the Verbal Reasoning portion consists of two 35-minute sections, each with 25 questions. The Quantitative Reasoning portion consists of two 40-minute sections, each with 25 questions. Finally, paper test takers do not receive unofficial scores after the exam and must wait five weeks for their official results while electronic test takers get unofficial verbal and quantitative scores immediately and may access official results in 10-15 days.

Skill Areas

Totaling 40 or 50 questions depending on whether a student takes the computer-based or paper-based GRE, respectively, the Verbal Reasoning portion evaluates a candidate’s ability to understand, analyze, and synthesize written information. In addition to reading comprehension, students must identify relevant information and recognize relationships between component words and ideas.

Question Types

This part of the GRE General Test includes three question types: reading comprehension, text completion, and sentence equivalence. Structured in multiple choice and select in passage formats, reading comprehension passages and questions draw from the sciences, arts, humanities, and everyday topics. Text completion questions range from 1-5 sentences with 1-3 answer blanks. Sentence equivalence questions require candidates to pick two answers from six choices featuring a single sentence. Reading comprehension and text completion usually make up the bulk of questions, but test takers should expect around six sentence equivalence items.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Passive reading is among the major errors GRE candidates make in the Verbal Reasoning sections. Test takers should interrogate everything they read and remember that, though the passages may contain a topic unfamiliar to them, the answers to these questions always lie in the text. Because of this fact, relying on outside knowledge is another common mistake students make. Test makers exploit this tendency by crafting answers that seem logically correct but are actually false due to nuances in grammar or context. Students may sidestep these pitfalls by carefully reading both passages and questions, saving difficult ones for last.

Helpful Tips

  • Read the Whole Passage: Do not work backward by reading the questions first and searching the passage for answers. Read the entire text first to ensure you understand the ideas and their relationships.
  • Distinguish Textual Components: To pick the correct answer(s) from a list of plausible choices, you need to differentiate main ideas from supporting ones. This also means parsing out structurally important words, such as "however" and "although."
  • Note Two Blank Questions: When facing these test items, make sure each answer you pick fits into both question blanks. Test makers tend to write false responses that fit into one slot but not the other.
  • Proofread Carefully: As with any standardized test, the GRE requires efficient time management that allows for revision. Make sure you proofread for logical, stylistic, and grammatical errors.

Skill Areas

The Analytical Writing portion of the GRE General Test consists of two writing prompts that assess the student’s ability to critically think, then transfer these thoughts into clear and persuasive prose. Both the writing tasks require test takers to present, support, and sustain complex arguments and related factual components.

Question Types

With 30 minutes for each task, GRE candidates must write analytical responses to an issue and an argument. The former presents an opinion on a general interest topic with specific instructions on how a student must construct and support an argument in response to the prompt. The latter task provides test takers with an argument and asks them to craft an evaluation of the logic and validity of the position.

Word Processing Software

The ETS designed its computer word processor to equalize functionality and fairness with its paper-based test format. The processor enables students to insert, delete, and copy and paste text. Test takers may also undo a previous action. The processor does not provide spelling and grammar checkers.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Some GRE candidates assume that the Analytical Writing tasks evaluate knowledge of a particular subject area; they do not. The ETS creates the two prompts to test complex thinking and writing skills necessary for success in graduate programs. Some candidates, while completing practice tests, leave this section until the end, or skip it altogether. This is a significant pitfall because the Analytical Writing section always comes first on the actual GRE and, by neglecting practice, students wire their brain for a two hour and 45-minute marathon instead of the full duration. On test day, this leads to low scores on the final two or three sections because students fatigue before the exam is over.

Helpful Tips

  • Review Possible Topics: The ETS provides a pool of all possible topics for the Issue and Argument tasks. Familiarize yourself with these entries so no surprises appear when you sit for the exam.
  • Understand Grading: The ETS offers grading guides for the Issue and Argument tasks. By knowing how the system operates, you can better prepare by focusing on what graders want.
  • Manage Time Efficiently: Because you get equal time for the two tasks, you should give each one the same measure of attention. This means planning enough time for reading, outlining, composing, and proofreading.
  • Prioritize Clarity: Clear writing is the most important factor since it affects all other aspects of your composition. Avoid convoluted or needlessly complex words and syntax because they diminish content clarity and may confuse the reader.

Skill Areas

Depending on whether a candidate takes the computer-based or paper-based GRE, the Quantitative Reasoning measure consists of 40 or 50 questions, respectively. This portion of the General Test assesses a student’s knowledge of basic mathematical skills and concepts, and how well they apply these assets to data models and real-world problems.

Question Types

The Quantitative Reasoning portion includes four question types: multiple choice with one answer, multiple choice with one or more responses, numeric entry, and quantitative comparison. While some exam items reflect pure mathematical settings, most represent practical problems that students must interpret. Topics include data analysis and geometry, with coordinate systems and graphs drawn to scale so test takers may evaluate by sight or measurement. (Geometric shapes may or may not be drawn to scale.) Quantitative Reasoning questions also tackle algebra and arithmetic, including prime numbers, absolute value, and quadratic equations.

Can You Use a Calculator on the GRE?

Students cannot bring their own calculators. Instead, they get access to an on-screen application or ETS-approved machine depending on whether they take the computer-based or paper exam. In either case, the features include addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and a square root function. The calculator provides supplementation to a student’s knowledge, not compensation for its absence.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

This part of the GRE tends to overwhelm students, which leads them to waste time relearning high school calculus or geometry proofs. In actuality, the Quantitative Reasoning section focuses on high school algebra and lower mathematical skills and concepts. Students should focus on understanding question forms. An overreliance on computations represents another common pitfall. Test takers misuse the calculator, particularly for quantitative comparison questions. As part of test preparation, students should train themselves to use mental math and make accurate estimations. These skills not only help students simplify questions and avoid misleading information but they also help students identify patterns and locate shortcuts.

Helpful Tips

  • Focus on Basic Math: Though you do not need to relearn calculus, brushing up on elementary math concepts, including probability, mean, median, and mode, will help you succeed. Likewise, take time to memorize major equations.
  • Develop a Strategy: As part of your preparation, develop a set of problem-solving strategies. Once you understand a question, identify the optimal strategy and stick to it. If you get stuck, retrace your steps to locate errors and to see if another strategy suits you better.
  • Use Process of Elimination: If applicable, use possible answers to your advantage by plugging them into equations and models. These responses also allow you to work backward toward an answer.
  • Review Answers: As with all other sections of the GRE, manage your time well. This allows you to perform quick proofs of your work, locating answers that stand only one or two digits off from complete accuracy.

As detailed in the table below, each portion of the GRE General Test uses a particular score range. Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning measures each add up to a possible 170 points. A student’s performance results first in a raw score, or how many questions they answer correctly. This number is then put through an equating process that takes into account slight variations in difficulty based on exam edition and section-level adaptation. This latter aspect only affects computer-based test takers because the program adapts the second section of the same measure based on performance in the first.

The ETS grades the Analytical Writing measure on a holistic scale of 1-6, with the highest score demonstrating "Outstanding" performance and a score 1 reflecting "Fundamentally Deficient" writing. Students receive a score of 0 if their responses are completely off topic or indiscernible. Note that these tasks are graded by a human judge and a computer program, with the final scores reflecting averages rounded to the nearest half point interval.

Score Ranges on the GRE General Test
Source: ETS
GRE Section Score Range
Verbal Reasoning 130-170 (1-point increments)
Analytical Writing 0-6 (half-point increments)
Quantitative Reasoning 130-170 (1-point increments)

What's the Difference Between Your Scaled Score and Your Percentile Rank?

Once the ETS calculates a student’s scaled score, it transfers that number into a percentile rank. This scale reflects how well the student performs when compared to all other recent examinees. Test takers receive a percentile rank for each of the three exam measures. Future teachers should strive for the 60th percentile or higher. However, the required average GRE score for education graduate programs varies based on individual colleges and universities. Students should discuss benchmark scores with their prospective programs. They can consult the 2017-2018 ETS guide for additional information.

What's an Average Score on the GRE?

Average Scores on the GRE General Test, 2013-16
Source: ETS
GRE Section Average Score
Verbal Reasoning 149.97
Analytical Writing 3.48
Quantitative Reasoning 152.57

Students must create an ETS account to sign up for the GRE and access related functions. Note that the name a candidate inputs during account creation must exactly match the ID they bring on test day. During exam registration, students can designate recipient institutions through ScoreSelect. Exam fees include four official score reports; students pay $27 for each additional report. GRE candidates may reschedule and cancel exams, but they must do this at least four days prior to the test day (10 days in Mainland China) or forfeit their registration fee.

At-Home Study Methods

Test preparation differs based on students’ preferred learning strategies. The list below details five ways to study for the GRE.

  • Printed Study Guides

    Students value these guides for their comprehensiveness and portability. Additionally, printed materials offer more convenient note taking, especially for learners who value tactile connections.

  • Flashcards

    These can come in paper form or through a smartphone application. Either way, flashcards enable students to incorporate GRE prep into their daily routine, which is especially useful for learning vocabulary.

  • Private Tutoring

    Extensive one-on-one attention represents the main benefit of this study method. A skilled teacher caters sessions to fit a student’s particular test-taking needs.

  • Studying Apps

    These applications provide many tools and strategies for learners from different backgrounds. They also tend to offer more interactivity and visual engagement than their printed counterparts.

  • Online Practice Tests

    Regardless of other study methods a student uses, all GRE candidates should use practice tests. These resources help examinees familiarize themselves with possible question topics and the different ways the ETS presents them.

GRE Prep Courses

A preparation class is among the most popular ways students prepare for the GRE. Big providers include Kaplan, the Princeton Review, Manhattan Prep, and Magoosh. Though some of these services offer limited free resources, like the Magoosh flashcard library, students can expect to pay from $200-$800 for a full GRE preparation course. Those who want to pursue this route should seek discounts online and through their schools. There are three types of courses: in-person, live online, and self-paced online. Study materials include strategic guides, hands-on skill development, graded quizzes, and practice tests.

Studying Tips for the GRE

  • Put In Time

    On top of ineffective study habits, you create unnecessary stress by waiting until the last two or three weeks to prepare. Generally, you want to spend at least four months preparing for the test.

  • Study Effectively

    Understand what topics and skills the GRE assesses, and how, so you can study the materials most likely to appear on the test. Effective preparation also allows you to avoid some of the common pitfalls discussed above.

  • Practice Extensively

    Take advantage of free online practice tests because they not only enable you to hone skills but also place yourself comfortably in exam simulations that prepare you for the big day.

  • Analyze Weaknesses

    As you go through practice tests, take a step back and reflect on which areas need the greatest improvement. This helps you allocate study time to maximize knowledge acquisition and skill development.

  • Reinforce Strengths

    While you should spend significant time bolstering weaknesses, do not neglect to maintain your best assets. Test-taking strengths yield easy points that you should hold onto.

Helpful Resources

Students do not need to pay money to access GRE preparation materials. The following websites provide free services and resources.

  • ETS POWERPREP Practice Tests GRE candidates benefit from computer-based practice tests, with the option to pay for additional exams and scoring tools. The website also provides paper-based practice tests and large print accessibility.
  • Quizlet This interactive flashcard and learning game service enables students to review vocabulary and mathematical topics. Users may also access flashcard sets and online classes dedicated to a particular subject area or skill.
  • Magoosh GRE Vocabulary Flashcards Like Quizlet, Magoosh allows students to learn GRE vocabulary terms through interactive flashcards. However, this resource stands out for its free phone application that lets test takers review words and terms wherever they are.
  • LEAP This website offers comprehensive GRE test preparation services, including thousands of practice questions, verbal and math seminars, and a large library of video guides and blog posts.

GRE candidates should arrive 30 minutes prior to the stated test time. Coordinators assign seating. Test takers get one 10-minute break. Students who take the paper-based GRE earn their break after the second section, while electronic test takers wait until after the third. Candidates can take additional bathroom breaks with the clock still running by notifying a test coordinator. ETS centers provide scratch paper, but students must bring their own number 2 or HB pencils with an eraser (mechanical pencils and pens are prohibited).

What Should You Bring with You?

  • Valid Photo ID: On test day, GRE candidates must furnish an original federal or state identification document, such as a passport or driver’s license. This up-to-date ID should contain the student’s signature and a recent photograph. Most importantly, the name on the ID must exactly match the name on the exam registration.
  • Confirmation Email/Voucher: In addition to the aforementioned identification documents, test takers must bring a printed copy of the confirmation received after exam registration. This email includes test choice, test date, test center, and score recipients.
  • Layers of Clothing: Test centers generally keep their facilities cool, but temperatures vary by location. Candidates should dress in layers so they can adapt as necessary.

What Should You Leave at Home?

  • Study Notes/Books: As a closed-book test, the GRE prohibits printed and electronic notes, literature, and guides of any kind. Failure to comply leads to dismissal without refund and/or cancellation of test scores.
  • Your Own Scratch Paper: The ETS does not allow any personal items inside its testing sites except identification documents. The center provides scratch paper, which candidates hand back after completing the exam.
  • Your Own Calculator: Candidates may not bring personal calculators. Students who take the computer-based GRE gain access to an on-screen calculator during the Quantitative Reasoning sections. Similarly, the test center hands out their own calculators for those taking the paper exam.

Students can apply for special accommodations with ETS Disability Services through their online account. They can also contact the office through electronic and snail mail. The application process takes up to six weeks, and if additional materials are required, an additional six. Criteria vary depending on the individual’s disabilities and needs. Students apply for their exam after receiving approval notification. Services include extended test time, extra breaks, and assistance with note taking and spoken directions. Computer-based test takers specifically benefit from keyboard options and screen magnification. The ETS also provides alternative test options, including braille, large text format, computer-voiced, and recorded audio.

When Will You Get Your Scores?

Candidates who take the computer-delivered GRE can access official scores 10-15 days after the test date through their ETS account. Paper test takers also receive their scores through this method but may wait up to five weeks. Unofficial scores are available to electronic test takers only, who receive their Verbal and Quantitative Reasoning results immediately upon exam completion.


How Do You Submit Your Scores to Schools?

The registration fee a candidate pays entitles them to send official reports to four different colleges, universities, and fellowship sponsors "for free" through ETS ScoreSelect. Electronic test candidates designate their four recipients in the test center, on test day. Those who take the paper-based GRE complete this process at the time of exam registration. Students may send additional scores reports (ASRs) for $27 each.


What Scores Will Schools See If You Take the Test More Than Once?

GRE candidates can send scores from the General Test or any of the Subject Tests through the ScoreSelect option as long as said scores remain valid. Note that the initial selection process is not mandatory, so students who plan to take the exam more than once can choose to wait to pick score recipients. Regardless of how many times a candidate takes the GRE, they can opt to send scores from the "Most Recent" test date, "All" scores from every exam, or "Any" score from the past five years.


How Long Will Your Scores Be Valid?

Scores for the GRE taken on or after July 1, 2016, last five years after the test date. Students may no longer report scores earned on or prior to July 30, 2012. Scores earned between August 1, 2012, and June 30, 2016, stay valid for five years after the testing year in which the exam was taken. A testing year starts on July 1 and ends on June 30 of the following year. This means that someone who took the GRE on March 20, 2014, has until June 30, 2019, to report their scores.