Trevor Klee By: Trevor Klee
What is the GRE

The Graduate Record Examinations, or GRE, is the standardized admissions test required by many graduate schools in the US, and several international schools.

The goal of the GRE is to measure the academic skills one should have acquired before going on to a graduate program, and functions sort of like the “SAT for grad school.”

Summary: Learn everything there is to know about the GRE. For help preparing, consider using a GRE prep course.

The GRE was first established in 1936 by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and was initially administered to ivy league students. Today, the test is developed and administered by Educational Testing Service (ETS) and is taken by most prospective graduate students.

The GRE is a required component of many graduate school applications. But depending on the school and program you’re applying to, there may be different score expectations. For example, most graduate business programs require higher GRE scores than engineering programs.

The GRE is similar to the GMAT - read our GRE vs. GMAT guide for the differences between the two exams.

The GRE consists of 82 scored questions across six sections. However, some test takers receive an experimental or research portion on their exam, adding another 20 questions or so.

There are three main sections you’ll be tested on, some of which are split into two parts. These are the sections that will appear on every GRE exam:

  • 1 Analytical Writing Assessment section
  • 2 Verbal Reasoning sections
  • 2 Quantitative Reasoning sections

The GRE exam takes approximately four hours to complete, including breaks. You will receive 30-35 minutes to complete each section, but sections may be split into two parts.

For example, there are 2 verbal reasoning sections, each taking 30 minutes to complete, so we’ve listed the total time limit for that section as 60 minutes total.

Here’s a quick summary of each GRE section:

GRE Section # of Questions Time Limit
Analytical Writing 2 Writing Tasks 1 hour
Verbal Reasoning 40 (20 Per Section) 1 hour
Quantitative Reasoning 40 (20 Per Section) 1 hour 10 minutes
Experimental or Unscored 20 30-35 minutes (varies)
Breaks   ~12 minutes
Total:   ~4 hours

The GRE consists of four main sections given in several different formats. For example, many questions in the quantitative reasoning section are multiple-choice or fill-ins, while the analytical writing section consists of prompts you must respond to.

Analytical Writing Section Breakdown

In the analytical writing section, you’ll be given two “tasks” to complete:

  • Analysis of an issue
  • Analysis of an argument

For the issue analysis, you’ll be given a statement that you will be expected to analyze and respond to, without expressing your own opinion. Your only task is to critique the argument presented to you.

In the argument analysis portion, you will be provided a passage that you must be able to critically analyze and discuss the point of view of the author.

Verbal Reasoning Section Breakdown

The verbal reasoning section tests your ability to draw conclusions from texts and use grammar and mechanics successfully. Each of the 2 sections consists of:

  • 6 text completion questions
  • 4 sentence equivalent questions
  • 10 reading comprehension questions

These questions are composed of fill-in, multiple-choice, and short-answer questions.

Quantitative Reasoning Section Breakdown

The quantitative reasoning section will test your ability in mathematics, data analysis, and other basic quantitative skills.

Quantitative reasoning questions will appear in the following formats:

  • Quantitative comparison
  • Problem-solving (multiple choice)

It’s important to note that several multiple-choice questions on the GRE require you to choose more than one answer if correct, so you may have to select multiple answers to fully complete the question.

Variable Section Breakdown

Although the “variable” or “experimental” section of the GRE is unscored, the test taker does not know which is the variable section, as it can be labeled as either Verbal or Quantitative.

The questions in this section are ones that the ETS is considering for use in future tests, and do not count toward your overall score.

The GRE is scored by section, with each section being scaled slightly differently:

  • Analytical Writing: 0-6
  • Verbal Reasoning: 130-170
  • Quantitative Reasoning: 130-170

Because each section is scored separately, you won’t receive an overall total score like you would if you took the SAT or ACT.

The percentile measurements for each section can also vary. Here are the percentiles for each section:

  Verbal Quantitative
>90% 162-170 166-170
80-90% 158-161 162-165
60-70% 153-155 156-157
50-60% 151-152 153-155
<50% <150 <152

Although the Analytical Writing section is scored from 1-6, its score can also be converted to percentiles:

Score Percentile
6.0 99
5.5 98
5.0 91
4.5 80
4.0 54
3.5 37
3.0 13
2.5 5
2.0 1
1.5 <1
1.0 <1

The GRE is scored differently than any other standardized tests out there, so check out our guide on what is a good GRE score.

If you’re going to take the GRE, you will first need to register through the ETS website. You will be able to choose a GRE test date that works for you and opt to take the exam at a testing center or at home. Regardless of where you take the test, it is always administered online.

The cost of the GRE is $220, but test takers can also purchase additional scoring services, such as:

  • Additional score reports - $30
  • Question-and-answer review service (Verbal and Quantitative Reasoning sections only) - $50
  • Analytical Writing score review - $60
  • Score reinstatement fee - $50

Applying to graduate programs can be overwhelming enough, so we know how stressful the GRE can be. There are a lot of ways to prepare, from free GRE practice tests to in-depth GRE prep courses.

No matter what resources you use to study, making a plan and sticking to it is the best way to ensure you’re prepared.