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Mastering the GRE

The Graduate Record Examination is required by most universities for students seeking admission into a wide variety of master’s and doctorate programs. While many standardized tests, such as the ACT, SAT, and LSAT are commonly used to generate concrete cutoffs for college admissions or other purposes, the GRE tends to carry far less weight on its own. Since graduate programs tend to be so highly specialized, with two similarly named programs at different universities possibly having radically different emphases, it’s extremely difficult to create one overarching standardized test that will measure all students based on universally agreed upon criteria. However, the GRE General Test is useful for proving one’s proficiency in math and mastery of language, which are both essential skills for many graduate programs.


The GRE General Test consists of three sections: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing. The verbal and quantitative sections are each scored from 200-800, like the SAT, with a combined score of 400-1600. The analytical writing section is scored in half-point increments from 0-6, with scores appearing separate from the combined verbal and quantitative score.

Preparing for the GRE

It’s important to put some amount of effort and preparation into each section of the GRE, but students may find their test preparation skewing far more heavily towards one section on this test than on others. The focus of your efforts will depend on your areas of academic strength and weakness, and on the requirements of the program to which you’re applying.

Many students who take the GRE find the verbal reasoning section very difficult (yes, even English majors), while the quantitative section is relatively easy (well, to anyone who likes math). Consequently, as of 2008, a verbal score of 630 was sufficient to land a student in the top 10 percent of all test-takers, while a quantitative score of 780 was needed to do the same.

Different graduate programs will place varying levels of emphasis on applicants’ scores in each section. For many math-intensive graduate programs, such as hard sciences and engineering, most successful applicants will want to earn a nearly perfect score on the quantitative section, while mastering the verbal section may not be as important. Similarly, an applicant to an English program may not need to stress about a low math score if he or she can earn sufficiently high verbal and writing scores. Programs in the social sciences may weigh all three scores more or less equally.

To get a good idea of what you need to study, sample questions and free practice tests are available online. Study materials are available online, as well, and a wide range of books and other resources are also available at relatively low cost to help you prepare. Some students may choose to take a course or hire a tutor to prepare for the GRE, but considering the price of the test (not to mention the cost of tuition for graduate students), you may want to exhaust your free resources first.

Taking the GRE

The GRE is administered continually throughout the year, so if you don’t want to take it at 8 AM on a Saturday, you don’t have to! The GRE uses computerized adaptive testing, which means that it will give you easier or harder questions depending on whether you answer each question correctly. Many students like the computerized format since it eliminates the need to fill in bubbles and also provides them with an unofficial score at the end of the testing session.

However, there are a couple down sides. First, the test is only administered at designated testing centers, so you may have to travel some distance to take it. Second, the format is dramatically different from the standardized tests you’ve taken before, and trying to guess how well you’re doing based on the difficulty of each new question can be surprisingly unnerving. To overcome these things, paper tests are still offered in some areas where computer-based testing is not available. If you cannot take the test on a computer, it may be possible for you to find a center that offers the paper-based test in your area.

After you’ve taken the test, you will be able to choose which schools will receive your scores. Your scores for every GRE test you’ve taken in the last 5 years will be sent to each school you list. At the end of the test, you’ll also be given the opportunity to cancel your scores if you feel this testing session went terribly and you do not want it on your record (this occurs before you get to see them). You can retake the GRE up to 5 times in one year, but no more than once a month.


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