The GRE: 9 Frequently Asked Questions

US News & World Report
By Ilana Kowarski
June 25, 2018

Learn how programs use the test, how scores impact your competitiveness and how to prep.

1. What is the GRE? The GRE General Test is a standardized test that is designed to measure 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 skills related to a specific discipline like physics, psychology or mathematics.

Someone who signs up for the GRE General Test can expect to receive three scores if they successfully complete the test, including how they perform 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 zero and as high as 6, and these scores are assigned in half-point increments.

Andrew Selepak, director of the graduate program in social media at the University of Florida, says the GRE is similar to the SAT college entrance exam in that it assesses math, reading and writing skills.

2. 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 instead of the LSAT, the typical law school entrance exam.

3. How and why do grad schools use GRE scores? 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 on an equal footing, because they have vastly different undergraduate backgrounds.

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.

4. 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.”

Selepak says the grad program he oversees has cutoff GRE scores. He suggests that grad school hopefuls investigate whether the grad programs they are interested in have GRE score minimums and that they also look into what the average GRE scores are at those programs, so they can target programs where they have a realistic chance of acceptance.

5. How much time will I need to budget for GRE test prep? Shah suggests students set aside two to three months for intensive GRE study, or students can alternatively spread out their test prep over three to four months.

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.”

6. What types of GRE test prep should I consider? David Payne, the vice president and COO of global education at ETS, the nonprofit organization that creates and administers GRE exams, says that ETS provides numerous GRE test prep resources, including online practice exams and a free math review document.

Christopher K. Lee, a career consultant and the founder of Purpose Redeemed, a California-based career consulting firm, suggests that anyone preparing for the GRE focus on the math questions, since those 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.”

Still, 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.

7. How does the computer-adaptive format of the GRE work? “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,” Payne 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.”

8. How does the GRE compare to the GMAT and LSAT? Skelly says that the GRE and GMAT are comparable exams, since both of these tests include math, reading and writing questions and many b-schools consider these tests to be roughly equivalent.

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.

9. What student-friendly features does the GRE have? Payne says that the GRE features that test-takers tend to appreciate are the option to save questions for later and the ability to edit answers. Another handy feature is the on-screen calculator, he says.

The GRE also has a popular ScoreSelect option, which allows test-takers to decide which GRE scores they want to report to schools, he added. “Knowing that they have these score-reporting options helps test takers focus on doing their best on test day.”