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What is the GRE?

The Graduate Record Exam (GRE) measures your ability to succeed at graduate-school level studies, exactly like the SAT and ACT measure your ability to succeed at undergraduate schooling. Your score on the GRE is one of the primary factors used by university admissions officers for determining whether or not to accept you into their programs. As such, it is important to prepare for the GRE and score as highly as you can.

GRE Format

Developed by Educational Testing Services (ETS), the GRE exam has many similarities to the SAT. Both are now computer adaptive tests (CAT); no need to bring a pencil, pen or paper to the test site. In a CAT, you answer one question at a time; your answer to each question determines the difficulty level of the next question. As you answer questions correctly, the computer program increases the difficulty of your questions; when you answer a question incorrectly, the computer program provides another of the same difficulty or a slightly reduced difficulty. Eventually, the computer program determines your score based on the correct level of your skill in that area.

The GRE exam measures three skill areas:

Analytical Writing
(2 tasks for a total of 60 minutes)
Verbal Reasoning
(2 sections for a total of 60 minutes)
Quantitative Analysis
(2 sections for a total of 70 minutes)

The analytical writing section uses a free-response (or essay) format to measure your ability to write complex thoughts in clear, precise English prose. The skills you need to demonstrate in this section include:

  • Evaluate claims and evidence
  • Develop a complex, coherent argument/discussion
  • Support ideas with reasons and example
  • Write using standard punctuation and grammar

For this section of the test, you will need to write an essay or argument for each of the two tasks. You should be able to type and use a basic word processing program (no, the word processor does not have grammar or spell check – you have to supply those skills on your own).

For most international students, this section is moderately difficulty. Although the GRE exam requires you to demonstrate a sophisticated command of written English, the free response format allows you to craft your answer in whatever ways highlight your strengths.

The verbal reasoning section uses a multiple choice format to measure your command of English vocabulary and reading comprehension. It is very similar to the SAT and ACT reading comprehension tests, although the questions are generally more evaluative and require a finer command of the subtleties of the English language.

The skills measured in the verbal reasoning sections of the GRE exam include:

  • Analyze multiple layers of meaning (both literal and figurative)
  • Distinguish between significant and irrelevant information
  • Identify and accommodate for authorial bias / perspective
  • Identify and analyze the structure of a text (chronological, spatial, process)
  • Understand the meanings of words and phrases

For most international students, the verbal reasoning section will be the most challenging, especially for those students for whom English is not their primary language. This section demands a very sophisticated level of English comprehension; however, don't despair. As with any test, preparation is the key to success. If you have concerns about the GRE exam and your English, that just means you invest more time in preparing before you sit for the exam.

The quantitative reasoning sections also use a multiple choice format to measure your ability to perform basic and complex mathematical calculations. This section is the most similar to the SAT and ACT tests, in both style and question difficulty.

The skills measured in the quantitative reasoning sections of the GRE exam include:

  • Understanding quantitative data (both as tables and graphs
  • Analyzing data (statistics, probability)
  • Applying basic mathematical skills (arithmetic, algebra, geometry)

For most international students, the quantitative reasoning section will be the easiest to master and require the least preparation. However, that does not mean you should take it lightly. You should invest some time in reviewing basic mathematical formulas, with special emphasis on statistical and probability analysis.

What are the GRE Subject Tests?

Along with the general revised Graduate Record Exam (GRE), there are subject-specific exams you can take. The GRE has specific tests on the following subject areas:

  • Biochemistry, cell and molecular biology
  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Literature in English
  • Mathematics
  • Physics
  • Psychology

These tests are optional. Please check with the university to which you are applying to determine if they want you to take a subject area test. But, even if your program does not require a subject-area GRE test, you might choose to take it and submit the scores – with the hope that your excellent score will help distinguish you from the other applicants.

GRE Registration

You can register to take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) in a variety of ways. The easiest method for most is to register on-line by creating a GRE account. However, you may also register for the GRE exam by mail or by phone.

The cost to take the general GRE is currently $185; each subject tests costs $150. There are also a variety of additional services (such as test preparation services) that are available to you for additional fees.

GRE Testing Around the World

You do not have to wait until you are in the USA to take the GRE exam. There are about 700 ETS-authorized testing centers in more than 160 countries. In most countries, you can take a computer-based GRE at any time throughout the year. And in those regions where computer access is more limited, you may still be able to take the GRE in a pencil-paper format. Regardless of location or format, your GRE exam scores will be transmitted to the universities you designate, so they may evaluate your scores with the rest of your application.

What about GRE Scoring?

Your performance on the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) will earn a numeric evaluation for each of the three testing subsets:

Analytical Reasoning
0 – 6 in half point increments
Verbal Reasoning
130 – 170 in single point increments
Quantitative Reasoning
130 – 170 in single point increments

It is nearly impossible to advise you what score you should aim for (beyond stating “as high a score as you can”). Each university has its own expectations for GRE scores. The best way to set a GRE goal is to research the programs to which you are applying.

GRE exam scores are valid for five years after the test administration. Within that timeframe, you can request (for a fee) ETS to transmit your scores to any universities you'd like.

GRE Preparation

Preparation is the key to success in the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), as it is in nearly every area of life. There are a host of resources available for you to help improve your scores (arranged in ascending order of cost):

  • Free test questions on the internet (including, the company that designed the GRE)
  • GRE exam preparation books
  • GRE exam preparation software
  • GRE exam preparation courses (often very expensive, but often these courses include a score improvement guarantee)

Before you invest in a course (or even a book), keep in mind that the first step to GRE success is self-awareness. You need to accurately judge your own academic and intellectual strengths and weaknesses, so you may make wise decisions about how to improve your GRE scores.

GRE Practice

  1. The candidate announced, to the _______ of her devoted campaigners, that unless her performance in the polls improved she would _______ the race.
    1. consternation .. withdraw from
    2. bewilderment .. abstain from
    3. mortification .. continue
    4. delight .. constrain
    5. awe .. renounce
  2. A large aquarium contains 20 more guppies than angelfish. If the ratio of angelfish to guppies is 4 : 5, what is the total number of guppies and angelfish in the aquarium?
    1. 200
    2. 180
    3. 100
    4. 54
    5. 36
  3. Company regulations prohibit employees from smoking in the company cafeteria. Susan is an employee of the company. Thus, Susan does not smoke in the cafeteria. Which of the following is an unstated premise of the argument above that is necessary to make the conclusion valid?
    1. Susan has never smoked in the cafeteria.
    2. Company regulations prohibit Susan from smoking in the cafeteria.
    3. Susan obeys her company's regulations.
    4. Company employees usually do not do what they are prohibited from doing.
    5. Company employees have never been allowed to smoke in the cafeteria.
Answers and Explanations
  1. The correct answer is (A). Sentence completions are meant to test your intuitive grasp of the structure and logic of sentences. Keywords usually indicate either opposition or similarity. That is, the keyword will indicate that the missing word is either opposite or like another word in the sentence. In this example, the keyword unless indicates opposition: in this case, opposition to continuing in the race. The unless tells us that unless something good happens to her performance, she'll go in the opposite direction. That is, she'll withdraw from the race. Because we know her campaigners are devoted, we can imagine that they would feel consternation at her withdrawing. Therefore, the answer is (A). You might have been tempted by (B), but "abstain from" isn't quite right, as it would indicate that she isn't in the race already.
  2. The correct answer is (B). This is an example of a problem-solving question. For every 4 guppies there are 5 angelfish: it's a ratio. Since there can't be a fraction of a fish, the total number of angelfish and guppies must be an integer multiple of 9. For every 9 fish, there is 1 more guppies than angelfish. Since you are given that there are 20 more guppies than angelfish in the
  3. The correct answer is (C). This is an example of a logical reasoning question. Questions that ask you to find an unstated premise, or assumption, are testing your ability to fill in missing steps in an argument. If you get stuck on a question like this, use the denial test: Negate each answer choice as you read it. The correct answer, when it's been negated, will turn the argument into gibberish. The negation of the correct answer must be inconsistent with the argument. Here, the answer is (C). Let's try negating (C). Let's pretend that Susan DOESN'T obey her company's regulations. Then the company's regulations would have no effect on her, and we'd have no reason to believe that she doesn't smoke in the cafeteria. That is, the author's evidence about the company's regulations wouldn't add up to the conclusion that "Susan does not smoke in the cafeteria."

GRE Test Day

It is critical that you bring your registration information and photo identification with you on the day of your test administration. Because your GRE exam score can determine whether or not you get a Masters’ degree or PhD, test security is absolutely essential. For that reason, you may not bring your cellphone, PDA or any other electronic device into the testing center.

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