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How the GRE Works

GRE Format

The GRE is a three-hour exam, comprised of three sections that measure the test taker's readiness for graduate school. In the analytical writing section, the first part of the exam, students have 45 minutes to answer one of two essay questions on an issue and 30 minutes to write an essay critiquing an argument on the given topic. This section measures the ability to think critically and clearly express ideas. It's good to know that all the possible topics for the analytical writing section are listed on the GRE Web site. Unfortunately, there are hundreds of them in the pool and you essentially have no choice on the topics you'll be assigned.

The next two sections, which may be given in any order, are verbal reasoning and quantitative reasoning. Verbal reasoning, which measures comprehension and the ability to analyze written material, has 30 questions, and test takers are given 30 minutes to answer them. In the quantitative reasoning section test takers use math skills to solve 28 problems within 45 minutes. Calculators are not permitted.

Two other sections, used for research, may also appear on the exam. They are mandatory, but not scored.

In the early 1990s, when the computer became a tool for taking the GRE, it allowed for adaptive testing on a large scale. As a result, the GRE's verbal and quantitative reasoning sections became adaptive tests, meaning the test questions adapt to your answers. In other words, the difficulty of a question is based on your previous answer. For example, if you answer a moderately difficult question correctly, the next question will be more difficult. If you answer incorrectly, the subsequent question will be easier.

The downside to the adaptive test is that it forces the test taker to answer all questions, so skipping a question or planning to return to a question is not an option. The new GRE, which will debut in 2011, is adaptive by section allowing test takers to move more freely throughout the test sections, skipping difficult questions and returning to them if time permits.

The new, "friendly" test will also eliminate the antonyms and analogy questions in the verbal reasoning section and replace them with reading comprehension questions that require more complex reasoning. In the quantitative reasoning section, the biggest change will be the addition of an on-screen calculator and the downsizing of the geometry section. Developers believe these two changes allow for a more accurate measure of the test taker's understanding of real-life scenarios as opposed to the ability to do quick calculations [source: McNutt].

Now that you know what to expect on the test, let's get into how to prepare for it and what to expect on your test day.