How the GRE Works

You can take the written GRE test on certain dates. But most opt for the computerized version.
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For the first two decades of your life, there were few detours on your academic road map. The first stops were preschool and primary school, then middle school and high school. Along the way, there were a variety of standardized tests, placement tests and, of course, the SATs and ACTs. You got better at using your No. 2 pencil to fill in the little circles on the answer sheets. You may even have been tempted to make a random pattern to see if it affected your score.

Each level of school and every test was a step on the journey to the ultimate destination: college. After graduation, you could look forward to a career and no more standardized tests. With your degree in hand, the only classes you planned to take were for personal enrichment, courses like art history and Italian cooking.


But, a funny thing happened on the way to your college diploma: You realized a graduate degree could provide the necessary fuel to compete in the increasingly competitive job market. And inevitably, more school means more standardized tests.

For college students whose career goals are law, medicine or business, LSATs, MCATs or GMATs have always been on the horizon. The test for most other students on their way to graduate school is the GRE, also known as the Graduate Record Examination. For 60 years, the GRE has been their key to graduate school and career advancement.

Since it was developed, the GRE has morphed from a written test to a fill-in-the-circle version, and most recently, to a computerized version. Sections have been added and taken away in the hope of perfecting the exam and providing an accurate measure of analytical and reasoning skills. And in the fall of 2011, the GRE will see the most significant changes in its history.

This article explores the current GRE, the anticipated changes to the test, and what you can do to prepare. First, let's take a look at the basics of the GRE.


GRE Background

The Graduate Record Examination, or GRE, was first administered in the fall of 1939 by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. It was the first large-scale attempt to use standardized assessment in higher education [source: McNutt].

While many things have changed over the past 60 years, the GRE, now administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), continues to be a measure of readiness for general graduate level study. Recently, however, business schools began to accept GRE scores in an effort to diversify and broaden their applicant pool. This is good news for prospective business students as the GRE is both less expensive than the GMAT and it's offered in more locations around the world.


The GRE, like any standardized test, attempts to level the playing field for applicants who come from a variety of backgrounds and who are considering graduate schools across the globe. In fact, each year, more than 670,000 people from 230 countries take the GRE. Americans account for the greatest number of GRE test takers. And in 2009, ETS saw its biggest increase ever in the number of people who sat for the exam, reporting a 13 percent increase among U.S. citizens and a 12 percent increase among Europeans [source: McNutt].

ETS attributes the overall increase in the number of people taking the GRE to three main things:

  1. A broader awareness of the options
  2. The trend for business schools to accept the GRE
  3. The tendency for graduate school admissions go up in a down economy

Yet, the increase is not only in who is taking the test. ETS has also seen a trend in terms of where the scores are submitted. Additionally, they've found U.S. students are applying to European graduate schools, which are generally less expensive than those in the states and where nearly 70 percent of all programs are taught in English [source: McNutt].

Now that you know who's taking the test, let's look at what the test measures and how the 2011 version will differ from the current exam.


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.


Preparing For and Taking The GRE

From the time you decide to sit for the GRE until you answer the last question, the key to success lies in your planning, preparation and pace. Working backward, you need to determine when you want to enter graduate school. Ask yourself: Do you want to start graduate school in the fall after your college graduation or take time between the two? Once that is determined, lay out a strategy to prepare for the exam and pace yourself.

This is not a test where cramming works.


One approach is to first

take a practice test online to determine the areas you need to strengthen. PowerPrep, free software offered by ETS, includes two free practice tests including scoring of the verbal and quantitative sections. For a small fee, ETS will also score your essays.

Next, register for the test several months in advance of the date you prefer. Fall is the most popular time to take the GRE, in order to meet graduate school admission deadlines. So register early to make sure you get a spot.

Once the date is set and you have a handle on your strengths and weaknesses, choose a test preparation strategy that works best for you. These goal-oriented study methods can help you pace your preparation:

  • Score-based -- Use a study manual and take practice tests until you reach your score goal.
  • Time-based -- Commit to studying for a specific amount of time each day or week
  • Material-based -- Commit to studying a chunk of material each day or week

[source: Gradsource]

There are numerous GRE test preparation resources for sale, or available online at no cost. Additionally, you may consider tutoring, classroom courses or online courses.

ETS strongly encourages test takers to pace themselves during the exam. And taking practice tests throughout the preparation phase helps you know what to expect and establish a familiar rhythm for when your test day arrives. The GRE recommends the following strategies for completing the exam:

  • Read the directions carefully before you begin.
  • Budget your time for each section and frequently consult the on-screen clock.
  • Carefully read each question to determine what is being asked. Eliminate the wrong answers and choose the best of the remaining options.
  • Try not to get hung up on one question; it's important to try to finish each section.

[source: ETS]

After preparing for and taking the GRE, the only thing that stands between you and graduate school is your score. On the next page, you'll learn how the test is scored and the scoring changes being made to the new GRE.


GRE Scores

Before you register and study for the GRE, do some research to determine the expectations of your prospective graduate schools. Some schools look at the whole score, while others are interested only in certain parts [source: Gradsource].

On the current GRE, scores in the verbal and quantitative reasoning sections range from 200 to 800 in 10 point increments. As we have discussed, ETS uses the adaptive test model for these sections, which means some people may answer moderately difficult questions, while others may only answer moderately easy questions. So, how can these sections be scored fairly? ETS uses a complex algorithm, which analyzes:


  • The number of questions answered
  • The number of questions answered correctly
  • Level of difficulty among other factors of each question answered

[source: ETS]

Because these two sections are scored as the test is being taken, scores are immediately available at the end of the test. Instant gratification sounds good, until you read the fine print, which says that you must decide to accept or reject the results before you see them. If you decide to accept the results, then you can see them immediately. But, suppose you have a bad feeling about your performance on the exam. If you choose to cancel your results, you will never see your score. However, the fact that you canceled your scores will be part of your record [source: Princeton Review].

The new 2011 GRE will score the verbal and quantitative reasoning sections on a scale of 130 to 170 in one-point increments. In the analytical writing section, the scoring will stay the same. Two experts read and grade your essays on a scale of 0 to 6, with half-point increments. The essay scores are averaged to obtain your final analytical writing grade.

For those who take the online version of the test, scores for all three sections are available 10 to 15 days after the test date. Paper version test results are mailed approximately six weeks after the test is taken.

Finally, at the time of your exam, you may designate up to four schools to receive your scores. The schools will be sent a report including any additional GRE scores you have earned in the past five years. Then it is up to the institution to weigh your GRE results along with your past academic performance and a variety of other factors to determine if you will pursue your next degree from their graduate school.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • About the GRE General Test.
  • Get a Jump Start on the GRE. GradSource Magazine.
  • GRE General Test: How the Test Is Scored.
  • GRE General Test: Prepare for the Test.
  • GRE Subject Tests: About the GRE Subject Tests.
  • GRE General Test: Send Score Reports.
  • GRE FAQs. Princeton Review. (Feb. 15, 2010)
  • Jaschik, Scott. "The New GRE, Redux." Inside Higher Ed. Dec. 7, 2009. (Feb. 11, 2010)
  • McNutt, Mark. Public Relations Manager, GRE Program. Personal interview. Feb. 12, 2010.
  • "Preparing for the GRE or the GMAT - There are iPhone apps for that too." Feb. 1, 2010. (Feb. 9, 2010)
  • Testmasters. The GRE Scoring Scale.