What’s on the GRE?
The GRE contains 2 essays (the “Analytical Writing Analysis” section), two math sections (“Quantitative” sections, often called “Quant” for short), and two Verbal sections. You’re also likely to see one unscored “Experimental” or “Research” section, which could be either Quant or Verbal. In total, your test will take a little less than four hours to complete.
Within the Quant section, the problem types you’ll see include:
- Quantitative Comparisons, in which you’ll be asked to compare two quantities
- You’ll be asked to determine whether one quantity is greater than the other, whether they’re equal, or whether there isn’t enough information to determine the relationship between the quantities.
- Choose-one multiple choice problems of the type you’ve seen before (in college and high school), as well as multiple choice problems in which you can select more than one answer
- Fill-in-the-blank problems (or “numeric entry”), of which you’ll have only a couple per section
Within the Verbal section, the problem types you’ll see include:
- Text Completion problems, in which you’re asked to fill a blank or multiple blanks in a sentence with the best words
- Sentence Equivalency problems, in which you’ll choose the best two answers to fill in a blank, both of which should make the sentence mean the same thing (in other words, the two answers are synonyms)
- Reading comprehension problems, in which you’re asked to read a paragraph or passage and perform some type of analysis—infer something, articulate the main idea, strengthen or weaken an argument, and so on
To see examples of the different problem types and get some early practice, sign up for a free GRE Starter Kit study syllabus; that link also lists free classes and study sessions.
How is the GRE scored?
The essays are scored on a scale of 0-6 in half-point increments. About 85% of test-takers score between a 3 and a 5, inclusive. (Inclusive is a math term you might see on the test; it means include the numbers at each end of the given range. In other words, most people score a 3.0, 3.5, 4.0, 4.5, or 5.0 on the essay section.)
Definitely check with your program to see whether it considers the essay score—some programs don’t. You’ll still need to write the essays when you take the exam, but you won’t have to worry much about your score.
The rest of the test is scored on a 130-170 point scale. You’ll get a Quant score of between 130 and 170 (inclusive) for your performance on the two Quant sections you complete, and a separate 130 to 170 score for the two Verbal sections. The total combined score range is 260 to 340.
The Quant and Verbal sections of the test are adaptive; the questions you are given on it vary depending on your performance. Your first Quant section will contain a mix of questions (easier, medium, harder), as will your first Verbal section.
If you answer more questions correctly in your first Quant section, your second Quant section will contain a harder mix of questions. If you answer fewer correctly in the first section, your second Quant section will contain an easier mix of questions. The Verbal sections work the same way.
Here’s how you want to think about it: If you get a harder second section, that’s a good thing! There is now a floor, so to speak, below which you will not score. You’ve earned yourself a safety net, score-wise. Inversely, if you wind up with the easier second section, the opposite is true: You have now capped your score—no matter how well you do on the second section, you will not score above a certain threshold at this point. For this reason, you want a harder second section.
How do you get a harder second section? You answer as many questions as possible correctly—as you try to do on any test you take. You can’t know whether you’re earning a harder or easier section while you take the test. Just study hard and do your best on test day—again, as you already try to do on any test you take.
Where and when is the GRE administered?
The test is generally administered in test centers, but at the moment you can also take it at home online, 7 days a week. ETS has stated that this at-home option will be available for an indefinite period of time due to the pandemic; perhaps they’ll keep making it available in the long-term.
If you take the test at home, it’s the same test as you’d take at the test center. The one major difference is that instead of using scratch paper and a pencil, you’ll be required to use a dry erase pen and an erasable surface for your scratchwork.
What content is tested on the GRE?
On the Quant side, the GRE will test you on concepts and subjects covered in or before most high school programs: algebra, geometry, and number properties (exponents, prime numbers, odd and even numbers, and positive and negative numbers). It does not include trigonometry, calculus, or advanced statistics (though you may be asked about average, median, and standard deviation).
On the Verbal side, you will be tested on reading comprehension skills and assessing the proper use of GRE-like vocabulary in the context of fill-in-the-blank sentences. GRE-like vocabulary includes advanced vocabulary commonly encountered in academic texts, and most test-takers find they need to study vocabulary prior to taking the test to feel confident in the words that appear in the answer choices.
What is a good GRE score?
The GRE scores expected by graduate programs vary greatly across both schools and programs, so you’ll need to do some research. Check the websites of the programs to which you’re applying to determine what you’d like your goal score to be; if they don’t post average scores, go ahead and ask. Note also that, depending on the program, you may have different goal scores for the Quant and Verbal sections of the test.
Many programs, such as MBA programs, post the average scores for students admitted in prior years. Some schools will also offer a range of scores, typically the “middle 80%” range. Basically, they cut off the bottom 10% and top 10% of scores (to get rid of outliers in the data) and then report the resulting scoring range.
In order for your GRE score to be considered a positive for your application, you’d want your score to be above that school’s average. Note: This doesn’t mean you have to be above the average in order to get in; many admitted applicants must score below the average, by definition. But if you have another aspect of your application that could be considered a negative (eg, a lower-than-average undergraduate GPA), then you might be able to offset certain concerns by earning a GRE score that is above average for that school.
If a particular program does post a middle 80% range, then it’s a good idea to be at least within the range. If you are below their range, then your chances of getting in drop quite a bit unless you have some other extraordinary aspect to your application.
Once you’ve determined your goal score, study for a week or two to learn the very basics of each problem type, then take a practice test. (Our free GRE Starter Kit includes a practice test, by the way.) Now that you know your starting point and your goal score, you can set up a reasonable timeframe for your study plan to lift your score.
Good luck and happy studying!
Mary Richter is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Nashville, Tennessee. Mary is one of those weirdos who loves taking standardized tests, and she has been teaching them for 15 years. When she’s not teaching the LSAT or GRE for ManhattanPrep, she’s writing novels under the last name Adkins.
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