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GRE Test: The Definitive Guide

If you are a student looking to get into some of the top universities for a graduate program, this definitive guide to GRE test prep is for you. You will learn the nuances in the GRE test structure that will improve your test prep strategies. You will also learn how to ace the computer adaptive system in the GRE exam. Finally, we will tell you all about GRE general test scoring system and what you need to target for the course you have in mind.

GRE is a standardized test for graduate programs and MBAs similar to what SAT or ACT is for undergrad programs. It is conducted by the ETS, a non-profit organization formed by the amalgam of the American Council on Education, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, and the College Entrance Examination Board. It’s the primary standardized test for entry into master’s programs in the US as well as certain universities in Canada. The ETS GRE test is a computer-based test that is taken by about half a million students around the world every year. More than half of that number are US-based students. Asians dominate the remaining.

Regardless of your level at this point, the keys to success are mainly two. One is to know the ins and outs of the test itself. The second is preparation, including going through GRE practice test samples repeatedly and addressing your weak spots systematically. We hope this article will get you started.

GRE Verbal Test

GRE Verbal Test

Getting to know the GRE Test Structure

The first thing you need to know before you start GRE test prep is that it is long and arduous. It takes a total of 3 hours and 45 minutes with a 10-minute break after the third section. The test consists of six sections of which four are related to language and two to math. Finally, the ETS GRE test truly aces in complexity and intrigue with the GRE experimental or research sections. You will soon find out how.

GRE analytical writing

The GRE test always starts with the analytical writing section which you need to complete before you move to the next section. There are two compulsory tasks to complete in this section. One of them is “Analyze an Issue” task and the other “Analyze an Argument” task. There is a time limit of 30 mins per question. The Analytical Writing section tests your ability to articulate ideas effectively, to reason and argue logically with examples, and to carry out a focused discussion, demonstrating high proficiency in English. Treat this section like a warmup. After this, there are 5 more sections that can appear in any order.

Issue Task: You will be prompted with an “issue” and you must respond to the issue logically.

Argument Task: You will be given a set of facts and an argument and conclusions based on these. You are required to critique the argument and propose an alternative conclusion if any.

The entire pool of topics from which the “issue” and “argument” are selected is published by ETS GRE on their website. You should definitely exploit this resource to the fullest during your GRE test prep.

GRE verbal reasoning sections

You will get two sections of GRE verbal reasoning each with 20 multiple choice type questions. Each section has a 30-minute time cap. The GRE verbal reasoning section basically tests if you can correctly and completely understand what the author intends to convey. You will be assessed on whether you understand the meaning of words, what conclusions you draw from incomplete information, whether you’re able to identify the author’s assumptions, and a variety of other aspects related to reading comprehension.

GRE Quantitative Reasoning 

You get two sections of GRE math called Quantitative Reasoning. Each has 20 questions each with a 35-minute time cap. GRE math tests elementary math concepts like arithmetic, algebra, and geometry, data interpretation and logical reasoning skills. In terms of level, high school math is all you need to focus on your GRE math practice. Trigonometry, calculus or other higher-level mathematics are not part of the GRE math syllabus.

The GRE experimental section

This is the trick question element of the GRE test. The GRE experimental section can be either verbal or quantitative. And it appears randomly, anywhere in the test after the analytical writing section. It contains questions that the organizer hasn’t tried before. The catch is that the experimental section is not identified and does not count towards your score. So, you have no way of knowing for sure whether you’re attempting a GRE experimental section. You must be wondering if it doesn’t count towards your score why it’s there in the first place. It is meant to test people’s responses to new types of questions with the intent of introducing them in future tests.

Should you skip the GRE Experimental Section?

The first question is whether the experimental section can be identified. We already know that there ought to be only two verbal and two quantitative sections. So, if there is a third section in either category you know that must be the GRE experimental section in that category. E.g., if there is a third GRE verbal section, then you know that the experimental section is verbal. So, one of the GRE verbal sections isn’t going to count towards your score.

We would strongly recommend that you NOT try and guess which one is an experimental section. The difficulty level of this section varies widely from test to test. It is in your interest to attempt all the sections with equal seriousness. Just know that if you do badly in a difficult experimental section it won’t count towards your score.

Students appearing for the ETS GRE test in paper form don’t get experimental sections. Also, on some rare occasions, some random candidates don’t get it either, shortening their exam timing by 30-35 minutes.

The GRE research section

The GRE research section appears right at the end of the GRE test and is clearly identified as one. You are not obliged to take it. The purpose is the same as above, i.e., to test out potential questions.

GRE Exam

GRE Exam

How the GRE test compares with SAT test

If you have gone through SAT or ACT prep, you will find GRE test prep to be in familiar territory. Broadly speaking, both of these tests measure your proficiency in reading and math. So, the whole GRE prep course will seem easier to go through. However, there are some notable differences, and here they are.

  • Even though both test the same subjects, GRE tests for a higher level of aptitude.
  • Proficiency in the English language, in terms of both vocabulary and comprehension, is going to be put you through a “fire test” in GRE test prep. You’ll find that GRE English is more challenging than that in SAT. You will be required to write two essays for the analytical writing section of the GRE test. In SAT, the essay question is optional.
  • Your GRE math practice will be for a slightly lower level of math than SAT math. However, that doesn’t mean it’s simpler. In fact, in GRE math practice you’ll need to cover very challenging problems that require a higher degree of logical reasoning than in SAT. Also, if you are a college senior preparing for grad school admissions, you may be out of touch with high school math, making GRE math practice quite a task.
  • The GRE test is computerized and available to be taken all year round every 21 days. So, if you want to reappear, you’ll get a chance to do so quite quickly. On the other hand, SAT is a paper test and can only be taken 7 times a year on specific dates.

All about the computer-based adaptive system in the GRE exam

It is very important that you understand how the computer adaptive system works since it can affect your GRE general test scores. Your test-taking strategies are significantly influenced by what you are about to learn. The computer-adaptive system of the ETS GRE test comes with a host of features making it very intuitive and user-friendly even if you are a first-timer.

  • It allows you to move back and forth within a section
  • You can use “preview” and “review” functions
  • It allows you to tag a question within a section to come back to it later, but within the section-time cap
  • You can edit an answer within a section
  • You’ll have an on-screen calculator for the GRE math section

How the computer adaptive system of the GRE test is different

In some tests, computer adaptiveness is at the level of the questions. It means that your response to a question determines the difficulty level of the next question. This is seen in exams like GMAT. The GRE exam is computer adaptive at the sectional level. It means that your performance in a section will determine the difficulty level in the next section, i.e., it will get easier or tougher or remain the same. In the GRE exam, you will not see any adaptiveness within a section.

When you get your first set of GRE verbal or GRE math questions, they will be of a medium difficulty level. If you do well in the first GRE Math section, your next GRE math section will be tougher. Same with GRE verbal sections. If the second set is tougher than the first, you know that the first one went well. So, getting a tough second section is always a good thing because it shows you are doing well. Why shouldn’t you want an easier second section? The answer lies in scoring.

Why shouldn’t you want an easier second section in the GRE adaptive system?

Example 1. If you do well in the first section of GRE verbal, you have earned yourself a “floor” in the test score. That is, whatever you score in the tougher second section of GRE verbal you will not score below that floor.

Example 2. If you do poorly in the first GRE math, you will earn yourself a “cap”. Even if you do tremendously well in the easier second section, your GRE math score won’t exceed this cap. Now, that’s not desirable. That’s why you should aim to do well in the first section and get awarded a tougher second. The “floor” and “cap” scores are not known publicly. Therefore, we can’t tell you what they are.

Test strategies to ensure a harder second section in the GRE adaptive system

There are some simple test strategies to score high in your GRE exam. Test strategies are best mastered if you go through GRE practice tests or a formal GRE test prep tutoring program with qualified test prep experts to guide you through it. However, we have a few tips and tricks that will help you crack the computer adaptive system. Here they are:

  • Use the “preview” function to check each question and quickly attempt the easier ones.
  • Don’t get stuck in any one question.
  • Use tagging to mark the tougher ones for later.
  • There is no penalty for wrong answers. So, make sure you attempt all the questions in the end.
GRE Math

GRE Math

GRE Test Scoring 

The Quantitative and Verbal sections of the GRE exam are what constitute the “GRE General Test”. The GRE General Test Scores range from 130 to 170. You should aim for a minimum of 160 to get to the most selective schools using GRE exam results. The score you obtain reflects not just the number of answers you got right. It also represents the difficulty level of the sections.

The GRE analytical writing scores range from 0 to 6. You should aim for a score of at least 4.5 to make it to the top schools. The two GRE essays are first scored by a trained reader. They are then scored by a computerized program called e-rater developed by ETS. If the scores are in close range the average of the two is taken. If the scores differ widely, GRE uses the human score.

ETS GRE General Test mean scores for different master’s programs

ETS provides the average GRE general test mean scores across major subjects to give you a perspective on what score you have to aim for. Humanities and Arts subjects demand a high GRE verbal reasoning score. Engineering and Physical Sciences demand a high GRE quantitative reasoning score.

The table below shows the general test mean scores classified by the intended board graduate major field. The results reflect the mean scores of students from different backgrounds between 2016 and 2019.



Source: ETS GRE

Getting ready for GRE prep

To get started with GRE test prep, you should first make a list of colleges you want to target and the baseline score you need to achieve in order to qualify. Appear for GRE practice tests and find out where you stand as of now. Taking up GRE test prep tutoring is a good idea if you have a lot of ground to cover. Make sure to utilize the free study resources and full-length GRE practice tests available on the ETS website. They offer tools for the GRE General Test practice with POWERPREP Online which gives you a tactile sense of online tests. Being hands-on with this is as important as studying the subjects.

We at ViTutors can help you with your GRE prep with private online tutoring for all levels and budgets. You can hire an online tutor from anywhere in the world and customize a GRE study plan that addresses your specific needs. ViTutors offers you a great deal of time and flexibility while you prepare for your GRE exam. All the best!

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