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What is the GRE?

Many colleges use GRE test scores as part of admissions decisions for graduate programs. Here's how this popular standardized test may advance your educational and career goals.
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Written by Nate Delesline III, Contributing Writer on

Students from around the world take the Graduate Record Exam, or GRE. Most people who take the GRE are undergraduate students who want to continue their education by earning a master's or doctoral degree. If you're considering a graduate degree, your college may require the GRE.

In recent years, however, some schools have moved away from requiring students to take the GRE and other standardized tests. Education and student rights advocates say standardized tests aren't useful indicators of a person's academic potential.

On the other hand, taking the GRE can give you an advantage. Many schools continue to use the GRE as an important part of their admissions process. Having GRE scores to submit can mean having access to more program choices. 

Keep reading to learn more about how you take the GRE, the types of test questions you'll see, when and how you take the exam, and how it's scored.

Key highlights about the general GRE

Used for

Master's and doctoral program admissions

Cost

$205 in 2022

Duration

Four hours 

Skills tested

Analytical, verbal, and quantitative reasoning

Computer-adaptive?

Yes.

Scores

Verbal: 130-170 (1-point increments)

Quantitative: 130-170 (1-point increments)

Analytical: 0-6 (0.5-point increments)

Average score

Verbal: 150 

Quantitative: 153

Analytical: 3.6 

Available online?

Yes.

When to take it

At least two months before applications are due.

Can you retake it?

Yes.

Are there subject-specific tests?

Yes. 

What skills does the GRE test for?

The Educational Testing Service, the nonprofit organization that administers the test, says that the GRE measures your aptitude in three areas: Analytical writing, verbal reasoning, and quantitative reasoning. According to ETS, the GRE tests you on skills that can help you succeed in a graduate school program. 

Here is a breakdown of each section's focuses.

Analytical writing

  • Use standard English to explain complex ideas
  • Examine ideas and evidence
  • Sustain a focused discussion

Verbal reasoning

  • Read, analyze, and draw a conclusion from a writing passage 
  • Identify important ideas in a written passage
  • Recognize the relationships among words in written material

Quantitative reasoning

  • Analyze and interpret quantitative information
  • Solve problems based on mathematical concepts 
  • Analyze and interpret data in tables and graphs

In addition to the general GRE, ETS also offers four subject-specific tests. These tests focus on chemistry, math, physics, and psychology. Some graduate schools require or consider scores from subject-specific GRE tests as part of their admissions process.

The general GRE is a computer-based adaptive test, which we explain in more detail below.

How is the general GRE scored, and what's a good GRE score?

In the US, the GRE is a computer-only and computer adaptive test. That means as you take the test, the computer will change the difficulty of upcoming questions in the next test section based on your responses in the previous section.

People who take the GRE receive a three-part score. For the verbal and quantitative sections, scores range from 130-170 in one-point increments. Scores for the analytical writing sections range from zero to six in half-point increments.

Upon completing the GRE, you can submit or cancel your scores. If you choose to submit the report, you'll see your unofficial scores in the verbal and quantitative sections right away. 

GRE essays are partly scored by humans, so you'll receive that third score — and your final, official scores — about 10 to 15 days later through your online ETS account.

You'll also receive a percentile rank. The percentile rank is often the more valuable aspect of your score. Some programs require applicants to score at or above a certain percentile to be considered for admission.

Although "good" is a subjective measure, the ETS says the most recent average scores are 150 verbal, 153 quantitative, and 3.6 analytical.

How do I take the GRE?

First, you must register to take the GRE. You have the option to take the test at one of 1,000 testing centers worldwide. Or you can take it at home if you have a reliable internet connection. 

Regardless of where you take the test, you'll have three hours and 45 minutes to complete it, with a 10 minute break halfway through. 

The ETS recommends that you:

  • Read and understand the GRE's rescheduling and cancellation rules
  • Choose your testing date to meet admissions deadlines
  • Bring valid, acceptable ID if you choose to take the test at a testing center

Can I take the GRE online?

Yes, you can take the GRE online. But your computer and testing room must meet specific requirements

For example, you must use a PC or Mac, and you can't use a tablet or smartphone for test-taking. You can't take the GRE in a public place, like an internet cafe. You must be alone in a room with the door closed.

Can I take the GRE more than once?

Yes, you can take the GRE more than once. You can take the test once every 21 days up to five times within a 365 day period. This rule applies even if you canceled your scores on a previous test. 

However, most education experts suggest retaking the GRE only if you missed your desired score by a double-digit margin.

When should I take the GRE?

Undergraduate students who want to enter grad school right after completing their bachelor's degree usually take the GRE between the spring semester of their third year and the fall semester of their fourth year of college. The GRE is available year-round.

However, before you take the GRE, check a few tasks off your to-do list. One of them is determining how far away you are from your ideal score. You can do this by taking a practice test. Next, you'll want to consider program application deadlines. 

Allow up to a month to get your official scores. And remember to build in some flexibility. For example, if a grad school program deadline falls in mid-January, aim to take the GRE by mid-November. That gives you about two full months to meet your application deadline.

How much does the GRE cost?

Taking the general GRE costs $205 in 2022 in the U.S. and all but two countries.

The exceptions are India and China. In those locations, the test costs $213 and $213.30, respectively. Also be aware that sales tax or a goods and services tax may apply to the cost of the test in the US, Canada, Australia, Colombia, Nigeria, and Turkey. Subject-specific GRE tests cost $150 worldwide.

If cost is a concern, ETS offers fee-reduction vouchers for students with a demonstrated need.

Beyond the cost of the test itself, you may also want to budget for study materials. ETS has a selection of free and paid test prep materials. Costs range from $27 for an online writing practice tool to $72 for a package of study guides.

Additionally, third parties offer GRE study guides, on-demand courses, and live tutoring. Kaplan, for example, offers these services for $449, $999, and $2,299, respectively. Alternatively, Kaplan also offers free practice questions, a free practice test, and a "GRE 20-Minute Workout."

What's the difference between the GRE and the GMAT?

The GRE isn't the only standardized test used to screen graduate school applicants. Some schools — especially business schools with MBA programs — require students to take the Graduate Management Admission Test, or GMAT

Not all schools or programs accept both the GRE and the GMAT, so check the requirements before applying.

Like the GRE, you can take the GMAT online or at a testing center. It costs slightly more ($250 online, $275 in person). The GMAT is also fully computer adaptive. That means the difficulty of each question varies depending on your response to the previous question. 

The GMAT is run by a different organization with no connection to the GRE.

According to one source, the GRE's math section "tends to be a bit easier than" the GMAT. In contrast, the GRE's verbal section may have "more difficult vocabulary than the GMAT." The GMAT also has an integrated reasoning section. In this section of the test, you analyze data and solve quantitative and verbal problems.

This article was reviewed by Lonnie Woods III

A head-and-shoulders photo of a Black man wearing large glasses, a black turtleneck, and a gray vest.

Lonnie Woods III is a student affairs administrator, professor, and professional development consultant whose work and research examine the career competencies of students interested in pursuing artistic careers or those studying arts-related majors in college. 

He has 10-plus years of experience working in education with professional experience spanning various institutions, including Pratt Institute, Maryland Institute College of Art, Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York University, The George Washington University, and The Whitney Museum of American Art. Woods holds a bachelor of science in fine art photography from Towson University and a master of arts in higher education and student affairs from New York University. 

Woods currently serves as a professor within the arts administration master's program at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Lonnie Woods III is a paid member of the Red Ventures Education freelance review network. 

Last reviewed Feb. 26, 2022.

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