Aspiring graduate students who tend to put off studying for tests should not attempt to cram for the Graduate Record Examinations, or GRE, because achieving an impressive score on this graduate school entrance exam is difficult without significant preparation, experts warn.
“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 academics with Kaplan. “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 topics that you haven’t seen since high school. You need to be able to use that (information) and become a problem-solver in the moment.”
Yim says students who intend to take the GRE should devote some time to taking timed practice tests and analyzing their performance on those practice tests, so 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.”
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 GRE General Test, but also a GRE Subject Test that assesses technical knowledge related to a specific discipline like physics, psychology or mathematics.
Andrew Selepak, program coordinator of the graduate program 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.
GRE Subject Tests
There are six GRE subject tests, each designed for students who have majored in or extensively studied the exam subject. A grad school hopeful might take a math subject test in order to demonstrate his or her quantitative skills to grad schools in fields where numerical competence is vital, such as computer science or economics.
The “GRE Subject Tests” section of the ETS website says subject tests can help grad school hopefuls “stand out from other applicants” by demonstrating their “knowledge and skill level” within a particular academic discipline. These are the six fields where a subject test is available:
— Literature in English.
ETS provides free digital practice books for each subject test. Below is a summary of the material a person should understand and study prior to taking a GRE subject test.
Biology. It focuses on three aspects of biology, each of which provides the basis for roughly a third of the questions on the exam: cellular and molecular biology; evolution and ecology; and organismal biology.
Chemistry. This exam 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.
Literature in English. Demonstrating literary analysis skills is an integral component of the exam. Three other competencies are also necessary to ace this test: recognizing and accurately identifying literary works; contextualizing a piece of literature based on its historical or cultural backdrop; and understanding the history and theory of literary criticism.
Mathematics. About half of this exam focuses on calculus while roughly a quarter concentrates on algebra and number theory. The remaining questions cover miscellaneous topics 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 topics such as nuclear and particle physics, but the specific topics covered depend on the individual exam.
Psychology. This exam includes questions on six aspects of psychology, including biological, cognitive, social, developmental, clinical and topics such as measurement and methodology.
How Does the GRE General Test Compare to a GRE Subject Test?
Yim says the GRE General Test focuses on assessing critical thinking abilities applicable in multiple disciplines, while a GRE 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.
Mary Richter, GRE curriculum lead with the Manhattan Prep test prep company, noted in an email that “unlike the GRE general test, which is administered almost every day of the year, subject tests are administered only a few times per year.” She warns against studying for a general test and a subject test simultaneously.
“Typically, we advise students to study between two to four months for the regular GRE,” she says. “If you need to take a subject test, give yourself some breathing room and then prepare for the subject test. Also keep applications deadlines in mind when deciding when to take each exam.”
Richter notes that one important difference between the general test and the subject tests is that subject tests are typically “self-paced,” meaning test takers-generally have the flexibility to determine how much time to reserve for each section.
Alberto Acereda, executive director of GRE and college programs 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
In response to the coronavirus pandemic and various social distancing initiatives, ETS introduced an at-home version of the GRE General Test. “The test is identical in content, format, cost and on-screen experience to the usual testing experience,” Acereda explains. “Only where the test is taken has changed. As test centers around the world are reopening, test takers can choose whether taking the test at home or in a center is best for them.”
At-home testing is permitted through the end of September, and ETS is assessing whether to provide an at-home test option after that, Acereda says.
Yim emphasizes the similarity between the at-home version of the GRE General Test and the test center version. “That means that if you’ve been studying for the GRE and were planning to take it soon, then it’s most likely worth it to keep yourself on schedule,” he wrote in an email.
Something to keep in mind for the at-home GRE, though, is that 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.”
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 recent years, it has become common for business schools to accept GRE scores in lieu of the GMAT, the traditional business school entrance exam. There is also a small but growing group of U.S. law schools that accept the GRE as an alternative to the LSAT, the typical law school entrance exam.
GRE Test Scores
Someone who signs up for the GRE General Test can expect to receive three scores after successfully completing the test, including 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 can be as low as 0 and as high as 6, and these scores are assigned in half-point increments.
Scoring systems for the GRE Subject Tests vary significantly, so the highest scores attainable on them vary.
Experts say grad school applicants should set their target GRE score based on both the competitiveness of the programs they are applying for and the maximum score they believe they are able to achieve.
Yim says that, 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.
“If you reach that score, you are an average student, so the score really just doesn’t help you,” he says.
How Much Does It Cost to Take a GRE Test?
In most parts of the world where the GRE General Test is administered, the cost is $205, but there are four nations where the price is higher: $226 in Nigeria, $239 in Australia, $231.30 in China and $255 in Turkey.
The price of GRE Subject Tests is $150 everywhere.
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. For students in regions without test centers, the at-home version of the test might be a viable alternative. At-home testing is not currently allowed in mainland China, according to ETS, but the Chinese government’s “National Education Examinations Authority resumed in-person testing at a limited number of test centers in July.”
Though ETS once offered a paper version of the GRE General Test, it is no longer available. “The paper-delivered GRE General Test was previously administered to a very small number of individuals in areas of the world where computer-delivered test centers were not available,” according to an email from ETS. “We have increasingly been adding access to the computer-delivered test, and now with the availability of the at home test, the paper-delivered test has been permanently sunsetted.”
Those seeking to take the GRE General Test may register online, by mail or by phone while those who want to sit for a GRE Subject Test can either register online or by mail.
GRE Subject Tests are administered in September, October and April.
When Should You Take the GRE?
GRE test-prep experts say it’s prudent for grad school hopefuls to 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.
What Is the Computer-Adaptive GRE General Test Like?
“The computer-delivered GRE General Test is section-level adaptive, which means that the computer selects the second section of a measure based on a test-taker’s performance on the first section,” David Payne, vice president and COO of global education at ETS, wrote in an email. “Within each section, all questions contribute equally to the test-taker’s final score. Both sections are important, since the final score on each measure is based on the total number of correct answers and the level of difficulty of the 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.”
Payne says that three features of the computerized GRE General Test that test-takers tend to appreciate are the option to save questions for later, the ability to edit answers and the opportunity to use an on-screen calculator.
The GRE also has a popular ScoreSelect option, which allows test-takers to decide which GRE scores they want to report to schools, he adds. “Knowing that they have these score-reporting options helps test-takers focus on doing their best on test day.”
How Much Do GRE Scores Matter?
“This can vary from school to school, and even from applicant to applicant,” says Erin Skelly, a graduate school admissions counselor at IvyWise. “Some schools have a minimum score requirement, in which case the scores are very important. But if the rest of your application is very strong, the scores may be less important.”
Though GRE scores are a key factor that grad school admissions officers consider, these scores are not necessarily the deciding factor, says Priyam Shah, a master tutor at the IvyWise admissions consulting and test prep company. “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.
Grad schools often use GRE scores to distinguish between applicants. Selepak says GRE scores give 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.
Selepak suggests that grad school hopefuls investigate whether the grad programs they are interested in have GRE score minimums and look into the average GRE scores at those programs, so they can target programs where they have a realistic chance of acceptance.
Ian Curtis, co-founder and former director of academic development at H&C Education admissions consulting firm, notes that grad program admissions officers often care more about GRE section scores than overall GRE scores.
“Ph.D. programs are generally interested in highly specialized applicants, so a low math score, for example, won’t necessarily hurt your chances of acceptance to great humanities and social sciences programs,” Curtis wrote in an email. “I recently worked with a student who was accepted to a top history Ph.D. program with a math score in the 40th percentile. He had numerous publications and extensive teaching experience, the benefits of which far outweighed his poor performance in math.”
How Much Time Should I 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.
But Skelly cautions that the amount of time required for GRE test prep depends on the student. “Those who are still in undergrad will likely need less preparation, as they are currently in an academic mindset, but those who have been out of school for some time, or who don’t typically do well on standardized tests, will likely need more time to prepare,” she wrote in an email. “The best course of action is to take a practice exam, and use that to decide how much preparation you need.”
What Types of GRE Test Prep Should I Consider?
ETS provides numerous free and for-purchase general GRE test prep resources, including online practice exams and a free math review document. The organization also provides a content outline for each subject test, plus a digital practice book for each test.
Yim says one extremely helpful resource is a list of essay prompts used on the Analytical Writing section of the GRE General Test.
Christopher K. Lee, a career consultant and founder of PurposeRedeemed, a California-based career consulting firm, suggests focusing on the math questions since they are easier to prep for than the verbal questions. “The questions may seem tricky, but you have learned the math in high school,” Lee wrote in an email. “You just need a refresher. In contrast, it’s difficult to raise the verbal score, as grammar is not something you can quickly adopt.”
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 tutor who can hold them accountable.
How Does the GRE Compare to the GMAT and LSAT?
Skelly says the GRE and GMAT are comparable exams, since both include math, reading and writing questions and many B-schools consider these tests to be roughly equivalent. The ETS website includes a list of business schools that accept the GRE in lieu of the GMAT.
However, she notes that the LSAT is extremely different from the GRE.
“The LSAT has no quantitative section and is based primarily on logic and reasoning ability, relies very little on memorized skills or vocabulary and is specifically geared towards law school applicants,” Skelly wrote via email.
How to Raise a GRE Score
Jennifer Winward, founder and CEO at Winward Academy, 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. This allows the student to focus on memorizing equations he or she might otherwise forget and facilitates fast and accurate recall of those equations in the future. Likewise, students who have difficulty with vocabulary should keep a running tally of words they have encountered on prior general GRE exams and that they do not recognize, 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,” she says.
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Update 08/06/20: This article has been updated with new information.