Aspiring graduate students juggling multiple responsibilities may be tempted to cram for the Graduate Record Exam, or GRE. But achieving…
Aspiring graduate students juggling multiple responsibilities may be tempted to cram for the Graduate Record Exam, or GRE. But achieving an impressive score on this graduate school entrance exam is difficult without significant preparation, experts warn.
[READ: How to Find Free Money for Graduate School]
“A lot of our students, especially our students who are still in undergrad, will say, ‘Oh, typically I’ll study a weekend for a test, and … be all set,'” says Dennis Yim, director of live online courses with Kaplan, the education and test prep company. “This test is not like that. … The main thing students need to know is that it’s not just about content, and it’s not enough to have memorized hundreds of vocabulary words and have gone through the math courses that you haven’t seen since high school. You need to be able to use that and become a problem-solver in the moment.”
Yim says students who intend to take the GRE should take timed practice exams and analyze their performance on them so that they are confident enough to ace the exam when it counts. “You have to be comfortable,” he says. “We like to call it, when we get dramatic, ‘crisis prevention,’ and so what it comes down to is a student’s ability to perform to their level when the pressure is on, when the time constraints are real.”
Here’s what you need to know about the test.
What is the GRE General Test?What are GRE subject tests? How does the GRE General Test compare to a GRE subject test?At-home version of the GRE general test.Pros and cons of taking the GRE at home vs. in a test center.What types of grad programs accept GRE scores? GRE test scores.How much does it cost to take the GRE? How often are GRE tests offered?When should you take the GRE?What Is the computer-adaptive GRE General Test like? How much do GRE scores matter? How much time should you budget for GRE test prep? What types of GRE test prep should you consider? How does the GRE compare to the GMAT and LSAT? How to raise a GRE score.
What Is the GRE General Test?
The GRE General Test is a standardized test created and administered by the Educational Testing Service, commonly known as ETS, that is designed to measure overall academic readiness for graduate school. Some grad programs require that applicants take not only the general test, but also a GRE Subject Test that assesses technical knowledge in a specific discipline like physics, psychology or mathematics.
Andrew Selepak, program coordinator of the master’s program in mass communication with a specialization in social media at the University of Florida, says the GRE general test is similar to the SAT college entrance exam in that it assesses competence in math, reading and writing.
What Are GRE Subject Tests?
GRE subject tests are content-based exams that assess a person’s mastery of a particular field of study, such as physics or psychology. Each is designed for students who have majored in or extensively studied the particular exam subject. A grad school hopeful might take a math subject test in order to demonstrate quantitative skills to grad schools in fields where numerical competence is vital, such as computer science or economics.
“Very few schools require the subject test,” says Ryan Starr, an instructor with Manhattan Prep, a Kaplan test prep company. Students who fared well in undergrad and are pursuing that discipline in graduate school typically won’t need the subject test. But for those who struggled, the subject test can be a method to prove proficiency, he says.
Subject tests are offered in chemistry (through April 2023), mathematics, physics and psychology, and ETS provides free digital practice books for each. Below is an overview of the courses covered on each test.
Chemistry. This exam, which will be discontinued after April 2023, requires knowledge of all four major categories of chemistry and the ways various types of chemistry are related. The four focus areas are analytical chemistry, inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry and physical chemistry, with greater weight on the latter two.
Mathematics. About half of this exam focuses on calculus while roughly a quarter concentrates on algebra and number theory. The remaining questions cover miscellaneous courses typically included in an undergraduate math curriculum.
Physics. This exam typically includes questions on optics and wave phenomena; thermodynamics and statistical mechanics; classical mechanics; electromagnetism; quantum mechanics; atomic physics; special relativity and laboratory methods. It also includes questions on specialized physics courses such as nuclear and particle physics, but the specific courses covered depend on the individual exam.
Psychology. This exam includes questions on six aspects of psychology, including biological, cognitive, social, developmental, clinical and measurement and methodology.
How Does the GRE General Test Compare to a GRE Subject Test?
Yim says the general test focuses on assessing critical thinking abilities applicable in multiple disciplines, while a subject test is designed to determine how much a person knows about a specific academic subject.
“On the general test, expect to use more strategy than content, whereas … when it comes to subject tests, there is a lot more content-based knowledge that is required,” he says.
The subject tests tend to be more straightforward in terms of the questions asked, whereas the general test may feel more like a reasoning test, says Starr. He also notes that one of the main differences is that each section of the general test is timed, while the subject test is “self-paced,” meaning test-takers generally have the flexibility to determine how much time to reserve for each section.
“On the GRE general test, the time limitations are a huge factor in how you handle the test, and they’re meant to be,” he says. “You’re meant to have to deal with the fact that you’ve got limited time, and probably time that’s too limited for you to do your best on every single problem, whereas the subject tests are really more about doing your best.”
At 3 hours and 45 minutes, the general test is also longer than the subject tests, which take 2 hours and 50 minutes.
Alberto Acereda, associate vice president for global higher education at ETS , says prepping for a subject test is not entirely different from studying for the general test. “Similar to the General Test, to prepare for a GRE Subject Test, students should become familiar with the test content and structure so they know what to expect on test day,” Acereda wrote in an email.
At-Home Version of the GRE General Test
During the coronavirus pandemic, ETS introduced an at-home version of the GRE general test. The company has continued to offer this option and appointments are “available around the clock, seven days a week,” according to the ETS website.
“The GRE General Test taken at home is identical in content, format, on-screen experience, scoring and pricing to the GRE General Test taken at a test center,” Acereda explained in an email. “Key differences include the at-home test is taken on a test-taker’s personal computer and is monitored by a human proctor online. … All of the test features such as the ability to preview, review, skip questions and change answers while testing in a Test Center are also available when testing at home.”
If you’re planning to take the GRE at home, it’s important to have supplies ready, Yim says. “That means doing some prep work beforehand to secure a whiteboard or transparent sheets, as well as a couple of fresh markers.”
Tyler Johnson, a GRE instructor with Manhattan Prep, suggests that at-home GRE test-takers use a wired internet connection rather than wireless to minimize the risk of connectivity problems. They should also take the test in the quietest and most private room in their house.
“Keeping it private is important, because ETS is very big on making sure that you’re the only person in the room to minimize cheating, so if you have roommates or a kid or someone who might accidentally walk in the room, you just want to make sure that they are aware of that,” he says.
At-home test-takers should avoid scheduling the exam during a time when there might be significant external noise, testing experts say, adding that it’s prudent to ask people in your household and neighbors to avoid being noisy during the test administration.
Pierre Huguet, CEO and co-founder of H&C Education, an admissions consulting firm, advises at-home test-takers to go through the ETS equipment and environment checklist and equipment check tool to ensure that they are set up to take the GRE at home. “Students should read the fine print and make sure they have the right equipment before registering for the at-home exam,” Huguet wrote in an email.
Pros and Cons of Taking the GRE at Home vs. in a Test Center
Where to take the test depends on an individual’s situation and preferences, Starr says, noting that the at-home and in-person options tend to yield similar scores. Testing experts urge test-takers to take the test in the environment where they believe they will perform best.
Test-takers who live in rural areas far away from test centers may find the at-home version of the test more convenient, but should ensure they have a reliable internet connection, experts say.
Those taking the at-home test must go through an “extensive” process to demonstrate their environment is free of anything that could aid them in their test and a proctor monitors everything through a webcam, Starr says. Test-takers also must log into a secure connection that prevents them from opening other browsers while taking the test.
Amanda Medders Paldao, founder and director of Tri-Ed Tutoring, notes that some GRE test-takers get a powerful adrenaline rush when they walk into a test center, which helps them perform better than they might otherwise. This phenomenon, Paldao wrote in an email, is “just like an athlete who performs better in the big game than in practice.”
However, some people panic immediately upon entering a test center, which makes them perform worse on the test than they might in a more familiar environment, so taking the test at home may be the optimal approach for them, Paldao says.
“The GRE at Home exam differs in that you will be alone in your room taking the test, rather than surrounded by other test-takers,” Arash Fayz, founder and executive director of LA Tutors 123, wrote in an email. “If you are easily distracted, this can be an advantage since you won’t have to worry about other test-takers making noise or getting in your eyeline. However, you should be mindful of the potential for distractions or technical issues at home.”
Schools tend to view both the at-home and in-person the same, Starr says, “especially American schools.” He says he’s heard anecdotally that some European business schools are less eager to accept the online test and prefer students take the in-person option.
Kaplan and Manhattan Prep routinely survey business school administrators on how they view the at-home test compared to the in-person test and “98% of them said there’s no difference between those kinds of applicants,” says Kaplan spokesperson Russell Schaffer. “No test-taker should feel that they’re at a disadvantage because they took the at-home test. They’re viewed completely equally.”
What Types of Grad Programs Accept GRE Scores?
Many types of grad programs allow applicants to submit GRE scores, including master’s, Ph.D. and professional degree programs in an array of disciplines ranging from liberal arts subjects to technical fields.
In latest years, it has become common for business schools to accept GRE scores in lieu of the GMAT, the traditional business school entrance exam.
And more than 100 American Bar Association-accredited law schools now accept the GRE for admission in lieu of the the typical law school entrance exam, the LSAT, says ETS spokesperson Kristen Mitchell.
GRE Test Scores
Students who successfully complete the GRE general test will receive three scores, in verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing. Verbal and quantitative scores range from 130 to 170, and these scores are always a whole number. Writing scores range from zero to six, and these scores are assigned in half-point increments.
Scores on GRE subject tests range from 200 to 990. On the psychology subject test, test-takers not only receive an overall score but also several subscores, ranging from 20 to 99, reflecting their knowledge of particular courses within the academic discipline.
Experts say grad school applicants should set their target GRE score based on the competitiveness of the programs where they are applying and the maximum score they believe they can achieve.
In order for a GRE score to have a positive impact on a prospective grad student’s admissions chances at his or her target schools, it needs to be higher than the norm at those schools, Yim says. “If you reach that score, you are an average student, so the score really just doesn’t help you.”
How Much Does It Cost to Take the GRE?
In most parts of the world where the GRE general test is administered, the cost is $220, but there are two nations where the price is higher: $228 in Australia and $231.30 in China.
The price of GRE Subject Tests is $150 everywhere, according to ETS.
How Often Are GRE Tests Offered?
GRE general test appointments are offered year-round at physical test centers in most parts of the world, but slots are granted on a first-come, first-served basis. At-home testing is available worldwide, according to ETS, and timeslots can be scheduled at any available day or time.
Registration for the GRE general test can be done online, by mail or by phone while registration for a GRE subject test is available online or by mail.
GRE subject tests are administered in April, September and October, but that will change starting in September 2023 when the mathematics, physics and psychology tests are offered in a computer-based format, Mitchell says. The tests will be offered more often in more locations, including in test centers worldwide and at home in most countries, she says. They’ll also be shortened so students can take them within two hours as opposed to the current structure that takes nearly three hours.
“These changes are intended to bring greater accessibility, convenience and options to students around the world who want to stand out and show admissions committees they’re serious about and ready to attend competitive graduate programs,” she wrote in an email.
When Should You Take the GRE?
GRE test-prep experts say grad school hopefuls should schedule the exam a few months before their grad school application deadlines to allow time to retake the test if the score is lower than they had hoped.
[See: 10 Steps to Tackle a Low GRE Score.]
What Is the Computer-Adaptive GRE General Test Like?
The GRE general test “is section-level adaptive,” Acereda explains, “which simply means that the second section of the test is selected by the computer based on a test taker’s performance in the first section. Every question from each section of the test contributes equally to the test taker’s final score which is based on the total number of correct answers as well as the difficulty of these questions.”
Acereda says a common mistake among GRE test-takers is spending disproportionate time on questions they find hard.
“Do not waste time on questions you find extremely difficult, since no question carries greater weight than any other,” Acereda advises. “When you see a question that you think may require a lot of time, mark it, and come back to it after you have reviewed and answered the questions in the section that take less of your time.”
How Much Do GRE Scores Matter?
GRE scores are a key factor that grad school admissions officers consider but are not necessarily the deciding factor, says Priyam Shah, a master tutor at IvyWise. “The GRE is part of the application package and doing well on it will certainly help your odds but other aspects of the application (college grades, extracurricular activities, recommendations, etc.) carry weight as well,” Shah wrote in an email.
Selepak at the University of Florida says GRE scores supply him a metric he can use to make apples-to-apples comparisons between students who would otherwise be difficult to judge fairly because they have vastly different undergraduate backgrounds.
How Much Time Should You Budget for GRE Test Prep?
Shah suggests students set aside two to three months for intensive GRE study, or that they spread out their test prep over three to four months.
For a GRE subject test, Starr says the amount of time required depends on the student and their reasons for taking the test. Someone who majored in a specific field and wants to go to graduate school for that discipline or a related discipline likely won’t require as much study time as someone attempting to go to graduate school in a discipline they didn’t study in undergrad, he says.
What Types of GRE Test Prep Should You Consider?
ETS provides numerous free and for-purchase general GRE test prep resources, including online practice exams and a content outline and digital practice book for each subject test.
Yim says one extremely helpful resource is a list of essay prompts used on the Analytical Writing section of the GRE general test.
Selepak says many grad school hopefuls could benefit from a formal GRE test-prep course, which forces them to spend a significant chunk of time on test prep and provides them with a teacher or tutor who can hold them accountable. Companies like TargetTestPrep, Varsity Tutors and Kaplan offer courses with in-person or online tutors.
How Does the GRE Compare to the GMAT and LSAT?
The GRE, GMAT and LSAT are primarily general knowledge tests, Starr says, though each serves a different purpose.
The LSAT is extremely different from the GRE, Starr says, and is used only for law school admissions, while the GMAT is used primarily for admission to business schools. The GRE is more general in nature. Many law schools have started accepting the GRE in the last 10 years, Starr says. And many B-schools consider the GRE and GMAT to be roughly equivalent. The ETS website includes a list of business schools that accept the GRE in lieu of the GMAT.
The GRE and GMAT both have math sections, which cover concepts typically taught in ninth or 10th grade, Starr says. Many people find the GMAT math section more challenging because calculators aren’t allowed and test-takers can’t revisit questions, he says.
[Read: GMAT vs. GRE: Key Differences Between the Tests.]
All three tests include reading comprehension, though the LSAT tends to be the most challenging, Starr says. All three also include a critical reasoning component where test-takers are given short arguments and they have to add something that would strengthen them or weaken them.
Where they differ is in the verbal and language sections, Starr says. The GRE includes vocabulary that the other two don’t, while the GMAT includes a grammar section that the others don’t. The LSAT also includes an analytical reasoning section, colloquially known as “logic games.”
How to Raise a GRE Score
Jennifer Winward, founder and CEO at Winward Academy tutoring company, says the most effective approach to raising a GRE score is to figure out why you made the mistakes you did on a prior exam and devise strategies to prevent making them again.
For instance, Winward recommends students keep an up-to-date list of mathematical equations they forgot during the math section of the GRE general test to practice for next time. Likewise, students who have difficulty with vocabulary should keep a running tally of words they missed on prior general GRE exams so they can memorize the definitions of those words, she says.
Anyone struggling to speed read on the general test’s verbal reasoning section should try reading for fun more often during their free time, she suggests.
“If you read actively, then you become a faster reader; you remember what you read and where you read it.”
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What the GRE Test Is and How to Prepare originally appeared on usnews.com
Update 02/07/23: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.