Guide to the GRE

GRE Test Preparation Guide

About the Writer
Grace Smith has served as a school administrator and taught students at every grade level. She holds a master's degree in education and completed graduate hours in administration and supervision. Grace says her time spent becoming familiar with the GRE, its components, structure and topics were critical to her successful results on the test. She also believes the confidence she gained from her preparation and practice also helped her earn her passing scores on the GRE.

What is the GRE and What is it Needed For?

The Graduate Record Exam, also referred to as the GRE, is a test that prospective graduate students from around the globe take if they want to pursue a master's or doctoral degree. The GRE provides universities and colleges a general standard with which to compare potential students' qualifications.

Students' scores are used to supplement their undergraduate records, recommendation letters and other qualifications for graduate-level study, all of which are combined to serve as the candidates' entrance packet for admission officials or fellowship panels.

The GRE is needed to apply to graduate programs across many fields of study, even sometimes business. Although there is test specifically designed for business school applicants (the GMAT), many business schools still accept GRE scores as part of their application requirements.

As of May 1, 2016, the fee for taking the GRE is $205 and can be paid with a credit or debit card.

What is a Good Score?

On the GRE revised General Test there are three scores:

  • A Verbal Reasoning score that is reported on a score scale of 130-170, in increments of one point
  • A Quantitative Reasoning score that is reported on a score scale of 130-170, in increments of one point
  • An Analytical Writing score that is reported on a score scale of 0-6, in increments of half-points

If there are sections in which no questions are answered, the score reported will be No Score (NS).

ETS, the company who develops and administers the GRE, provided a snapshot of the scores of the 572,779 individuals who took the GRE revised General Test between July 2013 and June 2014. The following is the group's mean score on each section of the test:

  • Verbal Reasoning: 150.2
  • Quantitative Reasoning: 152.5
  • Analytical Writing: 3.5

This group's means scores can give you an idea of what scores test takers generally receive.

Also, although the score requirement will vary from school to school, it helps to research the score requirement as well as the average score of accepted applicants for the schools you in interested in applying to. Below are some examples of how requirements may vary:

  • University of Alabama: Applicants must be at least in the 50th percentile.
  • Duke University: In the 2015-2016 academic year, applicants scored an average of 155 on Verbal Reasoning and 157 on Quantitative Reasoning.
  • Oregon State University: Applicants must receive a Verbal score greater than 153 and a "satisfactory" showing on the other two portions of the GRE.

If you know what your desired school's score requirements are, it will give you a clear goal to aim for.

Timeline for Studying

As with any important assignment, studying for the GRE is something candidates should take seriously. Careful preparation can help test takers be calmer, more focused and more enthusiastic when the time comes to prove their qualifications during the exam. Hopefully, this in turn will also help students earn an excellent score on their assessment.

Below is a suggested study schedule to help you stay on track. Remember to adjust the timeline to give yourself more or less time depending on your level of experience with the exam topics, how much time you have to study each day, and your desired schools' application admission deadlines.

Register for the GRE

Month 1: Usually in June

Naturally, the first step for those who are planning to attend graduate school is to register to take the GRE. Test centers and testing dates may be found here. To register for the GRE, applicants must first create a My GRE Account, which will also be used for viewing scores.
Take a Practice Test

Month 1: Usually in June

Taking a practice exam can help you evaluate your strengths and weaknesses. Doing this early on in your study plan means you can focus your time on the areas that most need improvement. Another advantage of taking a practice exam is to become familiar with the computer format of the test. This can help you be more confident while taking the exam since you won’t have to spend time figuring out how to use the testing software.
Consider Taking a Preparation Class or Hiring a Tutor

Month 1: Usually in June

If you are interested in taking a preparatory class or hiring a tutor to supplement your GRE studies, you will want to sign up early on in your studying timeline to give yourself enough time. Preparatory courses can allow students to experience the test’s time limits, become familiar with the questions types and may hone in on any areas where students need extra practice. Tutors can be found by searching online or by inquiring at local colleges and universities.
Begin Studying Quantitative Reasoning

Month 1: Usually in June

Since many GRE test takers are several years away from their last high school math class and because the basic principles of math play an essential part in the quantitative portion of the assessment, most study guides advise students to brush up on algebra and geometry concepts early on.
Begin Studying Verbal Reasoning and Analytical Writing

Month 2: Usually in July

Next you’ll want to start preparing for the verbal and writing portions of the test. Take a timed diagnostic test of the entire verbal section to determine the time it takes to answer questions. This will also help you learn the type of questions that will be asked. Review the roots of words, suffixes, prefixes and vague expressions to discover whether they are positive or negative. This can help to eliminating certain words when answering the test questions. Reading high quality newspapers and scholarly articles can also help you prepare for these sections of the test.
Research Additional Preparatory Tools

Month 2: Usually in July

Many students find it can help to diversify your study materials, instead of studying all from one source. This is because different sources may approach the subjects differently, giving you a more varied understanding of the test materials.

Use webinars, sample tests, math reviews, instructional videos, books, workbooks or any other aid to boost self-confidence and become familiar with the GRE and its components. There are free sample questions, instructions, essay response examples, and scoring guides on the ETS website. Also, the Study Resources section at the bottom of this article provides many suggestions for study sources.
Take Another Practice Exam

Month 3: Usually in August

Taking another practice exam can help you gauge how you’ve improved and evaluate what sections you still need to focus on. At this time, students still have time to return to the sections of the test that have been most challenging during the period of preparation. Where there are weaknesses, additional practice materials, prep classes and perhaps one-on-one tutoring may be necessary.

During this practice test, you can also learn how quickly you may need to complete each question in order to complete all the questions in the given time constraints.
Take the Exam

Month 4: Usually in September

In the week before the test, you can brush up on all the concepts you’ve learned. However, many experts suggest that you don’t study the day before your test, so that you can give your brain a rest. With all your preparation and studying, you should be able to walk into the testing center with confidence.

The months listed in this timeline are based on a graduate school application due date in December or January. Starting to study in summer or fall can give you time to retake the test or change your test date to give yourself additional time to study, if necessary. Many students start their study schedule three to six months before the application due dates of the graduate schools they are applying to.

What is on the GRE Test?

The design of the revised GRE General Test allows test takers to skip questions, go back to questions and change answers. It also has the flexibility to let the student choose the questions in a section he or she would like to answer first. There is an on-screen calculator for the Quantitative Reasoning portion of the test and limited word processor tools for the Analytical Writing section, including insert text, delete text, cut-and-paste and undo previous action. The test measures verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, critical thinking and analytical writing skills.

Some schools and programs require that graduates studying a certain subject take an additional assessment for that subject. These GRE Subject Tests are achievement tests that measure knowledge in specific fields of study. Some candidates use the subject tests as a way to stand out in the applicant pool. The Subject Tests are designed for those with an extensive background in these subjects: biochemistry, cell and molecular biology, biology, chemistry, literature in English, mathematics, physics and psychology. The GRE Subject Tests are taken with pencil and paper, not on the computer.

Overall, the testing time for the computer-delivered GRE General Test is approximately three hours and 45 minutes. The test is divided into six sections and a 10-minute break is provided after the third section. Two other unscored sections may be added to the exam. One of these portions contains control questions that are used to ensure that scores on new editions of the exam are analogous to scores from earlier iterations of the test. There could also be an identified section added with questions asked for ETS research determinations. Neither of these sections will affect the students' scores.

Below you can see the time allotted and number of questions for each section of the exam:


Time Allotted

Number of Questions

Analytical Writing

Section 1: Analyze an Issue

Section 2: Analyze an Argument


30 minutes

30 minutes


1 question

1 question

Verbal Reasoning

Section 1: Reading Comprehension

Section 2: Text Completion, Sentence Equivalence


30 minutes

30 minutes


20 questions

20 questions

Quantitative Reasoning

Section 1: Arithmetic, Algebra

Section 2: Geometry, Data Analysis


35 minutes

35 minutes


20 questions

20 questions

Analytical Writing

This section of the GRE revised General Test is used to measure the test taker's critical thinking and analytical writing skills. In particular, it is assessing the student's ability to articulate and support complex ideas in a clear and effective manner.

Skills Assessed

The Analytical Writing assessment asks for focused answers based on the appointed tasks and requires that the test taker demonstrates the ability to directly respond to an assignment.

This section ascertains the candidate's ability to do the following:

  • manage the elements of standard written English
  • convey complex ideas effectively and clearly
  • maintain a coherent, well-focused discussion
  • use relevant examples and reasons to support ideas
  • analyze claims and accompanying evidence

Question Types

Analyze an Issue

For the first task, Analyze an Issue, the candidate is asked to think critically about a subject and clearly express his or her thoughts in writing. A response, in the form of one of six possible formats, is requested. Below are the six response formats:

  • Explain why you agree or disagree with a statement along with an explanation of your reasoning
  • Explain why you agree or disagree with a recommendation along with an explanation of your reasoning
  • Explain why you agree or disagree with a claim along with addressing the most compelling reasons or examples that challenge that position
  • Discuss which view more closely aligns with your position with an explanation of the reasoning behind that view
  • Discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with a claim
  • Discuss your views on a policy and the reasoning for that position

A test taker's reply may include as many paragraphs as they feel is appropriate. New paragraphs should be added when the writer changes to a new group of ideas. The clarity of the student's ideas concerning the issue and the lucidity and skill with which the ideas are presented are most important.

Analyze an Argument

The Analyze an Argument task asks the student to read a passage that makes a case for some course of action or interpretation of events. Then the test taker is asked to discuss the logical accuracy of the passage's hypothesis by critically reviewing the line of reasoning and the use of evidence. There are eight different formats in which the student could be asked to frame his or her discussion. They are listed below:

  • Discuss specific evidence and explain how it weakens or strengthens the argument
  • Examine the assumptions of the argument, explaining how the argument depends on those points and what might occur if the assumptions are unjustified
  • Discuss what questions would have to be answered if the recommendation and the argument are reasonable
  • Discuss what questions would have to be answered if the advice and the argument are reasonable
  • Discuss what questions would have to be answered to decide if the recommendation will likely have the expected results
  • Discuss what questions would have to be answered to decide if the prediction and argument are rational
  • Discuss one or more alternative explanation and explain how it could account for the facts in the original argument
  • Discuss the questions that would have to be addressed to decide whether the argument and the conclusion are reasonable

Study Tips

To build self-confidence, avoid feeling unprepared and gain familiarity with the tasks in the assessment, ETS recommends these pre-planning actions:

  1. Review scoring guides.
  2. Research sample topics.
  3. Study scored sample essay responses.
  4. Examine reader commentary for each task.
  5. Review the Issue Topic Pool, which is the list of issue topics that students may be asked to write about and the instructions that explain how to respond to the issue.
  6. Review the Argument Topic Pool, which is the list of argument topics that students may be asked to write about and the instructions that explain how to analyze the argument.

It is important to pay attention to the time taken for the Analytical Writing measure. Within each 30-minute time slot, test takers will need to read and consider the passage and the instructions, plan a response and compose an essay. It is prudent to save a little time at the end of each task to check for errors.

Verbal Reasoning

The Verbal Reasoning portion of the GRE measures a student's ability to evaluate and analyze written material. This portion of the exam also analyzes the ability to recognize relationships among component parts of sentences and among concepts and words.

Skills Assessed

The following proficiencies are assessed in the Verbal Reasoning portion of the GRE and measure a candidate's ability to understand words in context, comprehend what they are reading and think logically:

  • Analyzing and drawing conclusions from discourse
  • Reasoning from data that is incomplete
  • Identifying the author's assumptions and perspectives
  • Understanding various levels of meaning, including figurative, literal and author's intent
  • Selecting important points
  • Distinguishing between major and minor relevant points
  • Summarizing text
  • Understanding the structure of text
  • Understanding the meaning of words, sentences and entire texts
  • Understanding relationships among words and among concepts

Question Types

The Verbal Reasoning section of the GRE uses three different types of reading evaluation:

  • Reading Comprehension
  • Text Completion
  • Sentence Equivalence

Questions are asked in three different ways:

  • Multiple choice questions with one correct answer
  • Multiple choice questions with one or more correct answers
  • Select-in-passage questions that ask the student to click on the sentence in the passage that meets a specific description

Questions are centered on the following topics:

  • Physical sciences
  • Social sciences
  • Biological sciences
  • Arts and humanities
  • Other everyday subjects

Study Tips

Roughly half of the Verbal Reasoning section requires that the test taker read passages and answer questions about the text. The other half requires the candidate to read, interpret and complete existing sentences, groups of sentences or paragraphs.

The following list explains how to attack this portion of the exam. Calmly addressing each question using these suggestions will greatly improve the probability of providing the type of answer the test authors are expecting.

Reading Comprehension Tips:

  1. Read carefully and pay attention to clues that can help with less explicit aspects of the passage. It is useful to read the passage and then mentally paraphrase it. Understanding the passage is paramount.
  2. Separate main ideas from supporting ideas or evidence by coming up with a quick concise title for the passage. Once the unofficial title is in place, it will be easier to focus on the central concept.
  3. Separate ideas advanced by the author from those that are only being reported. Dissect the passage quickly into these two designated areas so that the author's stance can be easily evaluated.
  4. Separate ideas that the author is highly committed to from those advanced as hypothetical or speculative. Adjectives, adverbs and writing style should help determine the author's clear-cut point of view.
  5. Identify main transitions from one idea to the next. Sometimes an important element of the answer can be hidden in the flow of the author's narrative.
  6. Identify contrasting ideas, consistent ideas, supporting notions, ideas that are more detailed and ideas that apply to one another in a specific circumstance.

General Tips for the Verbal Reasoning Section:

  1. If a passage is unusually difficult, save it for last or come back to it.
  2. Read carefully and ensure you fully understand exactly what is being asked. Do not be tempted to go with your gut instinct. Read the explanations judiciously.
  3. Test takers should expect to disagree with some ideas encountered in the reading texts.
  4. All questions can be answered by using the information provided in the passage.

In fact, the answer to each question is based only on what is included in the passage.

Quantitative Reasoning

This section of the revised GRE General Test measures the test taker's basic mathematical skills. This includes their grasp of elementary mathematical models and ability to reason quantitatively and decipher problems with quantitative techniques. Some of the questions are based on real-life issues, and others are set in solely mathematical models. Many are word problems.

There are no questions that require knowledge above the second course in algebra, such as trigonometry, calculus or other higher-level math. All mathematical terminology, conventions and symbols are the same as those used at the standard high school level.

Skills Assessed

The candidate's capabilities in the following areas are examined in the Quantitative Reasoning portion of the GRE. The test taker is expected to provide evidence of proficiency in the following areas of mathematics:

  • Arithmetic
  • Algebra
  • Geometry
  • Data analysis
  • High school mathematics up to the second course in algebra
  • Basic mathematical skills and concepts
  • Ability to reason quantitatively and to model and solve problems with quantitative methods

Question Types

There are four types of questions in this portion of the revised GRE General Test.

  1. Quantitative Comparison Questions:
    These are problems that ask the test taker to compare two quantities, Quantity A and Quantity B, and then declare which of these statements describes the relationship:
    • Quantity A is greater.
    • Quantity B is greater.
    • The two quantities are equal.
    • The relationship cannot be determined from the information given.
  1. Multiple-Choice Questions:
    These questions involve reading a problem and then selecting one or more answers that are correct. Questions may or may not specify how many choices to select.

  2. Numeric Entry Questions:
    The test taker is expected to solve the mathematical problem and record the answer in the answer boxes.

  3. Data Interpretation Sets:
    Students are expected to use the available graphs, tables or data to answer a specific question.

Study Tips

As with each section of the test, there are many study aids to prepare for the Quantitative Reasoning portion of the GRE, including practice books, practice tests with answer keys, explanations of mathematical conventions and problem-solving strategies, and other preparation aids. ETS offers an overview of the types of math questions asked on the revised GRE General Test that can be found here.

Students will find it beneficial to practice answering the different types of questions so they will be familiar with the format before they officially take the test. Students are allowed to use calculators on the Quantitative Reasoning assessment, and the computer-delivered test provides an on-screen calculator.

Some suggestions provided by ETS to facilitate problem-solving are as follows:

  • Ensure that the problem is understood. Read the problem carefully and thoroughly.
  • Understand what is needed to solve the problem, such as unknown quantities, and the form in which they must be expressed.
  • Form a strategy to solve the problem by knowing what mathematical facts are needed and when and how to use them.
  • Maintain a clear, open and flexible mind-set. If one strategy does not work, try another.
  • Once an answer is found, check that it is reasonable and computes correctly.

Descriptions of a variety of problem-solving strategies and techniques can be found here.

General GRE Test Taking Tips

By now, understanding these explanations and tips concerning the GRE has probably helped potential test takers conclude that, although time-consuming and detailed, preparing for the GRE is just a matter of preparation, fine-tuning and diligence. Students can relax and know that with the proper amount of attention and organization, earning a desired score can be possible.

Below is a list of general tips that can assist in preparing for the GRE:

  • Answer every question. On the GRE there is no adjustment for guessing, so provide an answer since an unanswered question is the same as a wrong answer.
  • Pace yourself as you take the test and watch the clock. Do not spend too much time on any single question. Tests should be taken as quickly as possible without becoming careless.
  • Eliminate answers that are obviously wrong, and return to questions you are unsure about if there is time left at the end of the session.
  • Become familiar with the test administration software, question topics and types, and time constraints.
  • Be careful to answer questions with the required response, since questions have a variety of formats.
  • Be aware that there is a review screen on the computer-delivered test that shows which questions have been answered and which have been marked for review. Answers may be changed until the test time ends.
  • It can be beneficial to answer all questions that are easily answered and then return to answer questions that require more concentration.
Test Day Checklist

When the day of the test arrives, all participants are expected to follow the procedures and policies enumerated in the GRE Information Bulletin, which can be found on the ETS site. The following tips can help you prepare for the test day:

  • Locate the testing center's address and become familiar with the route to the location.
  • Dress in a way that is comfortable regardless of the temperature of the testing room.
  • Arrive at the testing center 30 minutes or more before the scheduled test time. Plan to remain at the center for four and a half hours.
  • Eat a protein-rich breakfast for greater mental alertness.
  • Get enough sleep the night before the exam.

After the Test

Once the exam has been completed, students who have taken the computer-delivered test will be able to see their unofficial scores for the Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning sections at the testing center. The scoring process of the Analytical Writing section prohibits it from being scored immediately.

If a student would like to take the GRE again, he or she may do so every 21 days, up to five times within any continuous rolling 12-month period (365 days), even if previous test scores have been cancelled. The paper-delivered test may be taken as often as it is offered.

ScoreSelect allows students to report only the scores they feel are their personal best. At the center, participants can choose to report or cancel the test scores. The test fee pays for scores to be sent to up to four graduate institutions or fellowship sponsors. Additional score reports can be sent to graduate institutions or fellowship sponsors for a fee of $27 per score report sent. Score reports can be sent online, mailed or faxed.

Official scores will be available roughly 10 to 15 days after the test date. GRE scores are valid for five years after a student takes the test.

Study Resources

  • Sign up for the ETS GRE Webinars. The webinars explain the test preparation tools provided by ETS and give the opportunity to chat with a GRE representative.
  • Download PowerPrep II Software, a free download. This software offers practice test options, test preview tools, scoring information and reviews of scored Analytical Writing responses.
  • Use ETS-suggested Khan Academy to study GRE-relevant math topics. This review covers the basics of mathematics by subject area.
  • Purchase the Official Guides to the GRE, which are developed by ETS. The three guides review the elements of the revised General Test and provide practice questions for the Verbal Reasoning and the Quantitative Reasoning sections of the exam.
  • Download the ETS Math Review. This PDF introduces the mathematical skills and concepts needed to solve problems in the Quantitative Reasoning assessment.
  • Use YouTube video Greenlight Test Prep. These seminars use video examples for data interpretation techniques and give insight into how to answer questions in every section of the GRE at no cost.
  • Watch Ft. Hays Honor Society Exam Overview on YouTube. This four-session preparatory course includes an exam overview, as well as an overview of each specific exam section.
  • Hire a personal tutor. An example of a site that offers tutoring for the GRE is Cambridge Coaching.
  • Check out the GRE study resources provided on Magoosh, including their Complete Guide to the GRE. The site also provides free online flashcards of GRE words and various study schedules.

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