What Is the GRE?

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Last week, my little sister had a career advisor guest speak in her undergraduate psychology class. He asked the students, “Who knows what the GRE is?” She was the only one who raised her hand. When I found out, I definitely had a proud big sister moment.

This situation clearly demonstrates how common the question, “What is the GRE?” is. If it wasn’t for the fact her older sister has been a test-prep instructor for seven years, she too probably would not have raised her had. So what is the GRE?

The GRE stands for the Graduate Record Examination and is created and administered by ETS (Education Testing Service). Many people recall either preparing for, or choosing not to prepare for, the SAT or ACT back in high school. Those are standardized tests widely used for undergraduate admissions. You can think of the GRE as the standardized test widely used for admissions into graduate programs or graduate business programs (MBA). The GRE provides admissions with a common measure for comparing applicants.

If you are interested in pursuing a master’s, MBA, specialized master’s in business, J.D. degree, or doctoral degree, your GRE score will help the graduate or business school decide if you are prepared for graduate-level academic work.

What Content Is on the GRE?

The GRE is made up of three components: Analytical Writing, Verbal, and Quantitative (math).

Analytical Writing Section

The GRE always begins with an Analytical Writing section that is composed of two essays–one in which you will have 30 minutes to analyze an issue and one in which you will have 30 minutes to analyze an argument. This portion of the exam is meant to measure your writing and critical thinking skills. You need to demonstrate your ability to logically build and analyze an argument while conveying complex ideas in a clear way.  

The rest of the exam will be composed of Verbal and Math sections.

Verbal Section

Each computer-delivered GRE Verbal section will give you 30 minutes to answer 20 questions. The sections will measure your ability to understand and analyze written material. There are three types of questions that will appear on Verbal Reasoning section: Reading Comprehension, Text Completion, and Sentence Equivalence.

Quantitative Section

Each computer-delivered GRE Quantitative section will give you 35 minutes to answer 20 math questions. This section is meant to assess your understanding of elementary mathematical concepts, measure your basic math skills, and test your capacity to quickly draw quantitative conclusions.

There are four types of questions that will appear in the Quantitative Reasoning section: Quantitative Comparisons, Multiple Choice (select one answer), Multiple Choice (select more than one answer), and Numeric Entry. The questions will cover basic arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and data analysis concepts. These topics are typically covered in high school. Do not fret, what the GRE is not an advanced math test: trigonometry, calculus, and other high-level math will not appear.

How Is the GRE Administered?

The GRE is a computer-adaptive, multiple-choice exam that is available on a continuous basis throughout the year. Don’t let “computer adaptive” intimidate you, as many students do. All computer adaptive means is that the difficulty of a particular section will be determined by how well you performed on the prior section.

For example, the level of difficulty in your second Verbal section is based on how many questions you answered correctly in your first Verbal section. Similarly, the level of difficulty in your second Math section is determined by your success in the first Math section. Keep in mind your success in Verbal does not determine what Math section you get (and vice versa).   

Students sometimes try to figure out if they got the “harder” or “easier” section as they take the exam. Please don’t. You cannot afford to focus on anything else other than the question in front of you. Although you do not want to focus on the adaptiveness as you take the GRE, throughout your studying you want to aim towards getting the more difficult Verbal and Quantitative sections. Your raw scores (number of questions you answered correctly) will be scaled differently based on the difficulty level of the questions you were able to get.

What Are the GRE Computer Features?

There are several computer features you will want to know about:

  • Preview and review capabilities within a section
  • “Mark” and “Review” features to tag questions, allowing you to skip them and return later
  • Change/edit answers within a section
  • An on-screen (pretty basic) calculator for the Math section

Paper-Delivered GRE

It is possible to take the GRE in paper format. Your exam will be in a test booklet, not on a computer. Therefore, the paper-based GRE does not adapt to difficulty level. However, you can’t choose to take the paper-delivered exam over the computer-delivered simply because you want to. The paper-based test is administered at testing sites where the computer-based is unavailable. Additionally, you may be able to take the paper-delivered GRE if you have received approval for special testing conditions.

GRE vs. GMAT

What is the GRE?

Since this article is answering the question “What is the GRE?” I will not go into much depth here about the GMAT. A quick overview: the GMAT used to be an exam specifically for business school admissions. However, a growing number of MBA programs are starting to accept the GMAT or GRE. There are several differences between the GMAT and GRE; most notably, the GMAT adapts to difficulty level on a question by question basis. If you are applying to a business school that accepts either exam, it is important you do your research to decide which test is better suited for you.

Will all Graduate Programs Require the GRE?

Not at all. Some programs either have GRE waivers under certain circumstances or flat out don’t require it. If you want to attend a graduate program and this is the case, that is wonderful. However, I would advise against pursuing a program simply because it does not require the exam. For starters, it is important that your graduate work prepares you for the career opportunities you want to pursue. Do not let this exam hold you back from at least trying to get into a program that could be a wonderful fit for you.

Also, I have had several students who purposely chose to enter a graduate program because the GRE was not a requirement. Unfortunately, once they completed their master’s and decided to apply to a PhD program, many programs told them they had to submit GRE scores. Despite the fact they had tried to jump ship, they were back in the test-prep boat.

The following advice will not apply to everyone, but it might help some of you. If you want to apply to a graduate program and perhaps go on to earn your PhD, but you’re hesitant to take the GRE, there is no time like the present.

The exam will touch on topics that are unlikely to come up in many graduate programs (such as geometry). If you have to decide whether to take the GRE right out of your undergrad or in three years, I would recommend taking it right away. Doing so might mean the difference between refreshing and relearning.

What Are the GRE Subject Tests?

Last but not least, you might have heard people talking about “subject tests” and wondered if that is something you would need to take. The GRE Subject Tests are exams that measure your knowledge of a particular field of study. They are administered three times a year in a paper-delivered format. The Subjects Tests are meant for students who have an undergraduate major or extensive background in one of the following disciplines:

  • Chemistry
  • Biology
  • Literature in English
  • Physics
  • Mathematics
  • Psychology

If your program requires you to take a GRE subject test, it will be clear in the admissions requirements.

Final Thoughts

The information above covers the basics. If you want to know more about the GRE, we have a multitude of articles that cover the details as well, including the best GRE prep courses and books. I hope that if you are ever confronted with the question “What is the GRE?” like my sister was, you will proudly raise your hand in confidence.