GRE 101

Introduction to the Graduate Record Examination

You might have just heard of the GRE for the first time, and are wondering exactly what this test is all about.

Naturally, you might have questions:

Who needs to take the GRE? What is tested on the GRE? Why does this score matter?

That is exactly what we’re going to discuss today.

Chapter 1

What is the GRE?

In this post, we will look at what the is GRE and why this exam is so important.

We will also learn a little bit about the exam pattern and what kind of questions that you can expect on the GRE.

So what is the GRE? The full form of GRE is the Graduate Record Exam which conducted by the Educational Testing Service usually called the ETS. So the GRE tests you on three different skills – verbal reasoning skills, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing. The overall test comes to around three hours and 45 minutes so that’s roughly four hours. We will learn a little bit more about each of these skills now.

What is GRE?

If you’re applying to a Masters or a Phd program in the U.S., GRE scores are almost mandatory. for most of the programs they require a GRE score. Additionally universities in other countries like Germany, UK, France have also started accepting GRE scores.

There are many universities which have started accepting your GRE. As of last year, the exam is conducted in more than 180 countries and it takes about 200 dollars to write this test. This fee is for an international test taker. For test takers in the US the price is a little bit lower now.

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Costs involved with taking the GRE vary depending on the country you take it in but you can expect to pay between USD$200 and USD$240. 

The test is mainly computer-based. They do offer paper-based tests as well but they’re very rare so most likely you’re going to be taking the test on a computer.

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Now you can attempt the GRE multiple times so you can attempt up to a maximum of five times within a period of twelve months. Also note that you can attempt the GRE once in a span of 21 days so if you have to attempt it again you need to wait for 21 days before you can attempt again.

Another factor to note is that the GRE score is valid for a period of five years so you can plan ahead, you can take your GRE early. So that explains what this exam all about.

Chapter 2

Why is your GRE score important?

Why is a good GRE score important? Most of you are aware as to why the GRE score is important but there are a couple of important factors that I want to highlight. Remember that when you apply to universities the other applicants are going to be from extremely diverse backgrounds.

Now it’s very difficult to compare two different candidates with a very different academic background, cultural background may be very different, research experience as well so the universities do place a lot of importance on a GRE score which is kind of a measure of a raw ability.

Importance of good GRE scores

If you remember, the GRE tests you on your writing skills, your quantitative reasoning which is basically your math skill and verbal reasoning which is essentially your English and communication skills – so they’re testing you on very basic skills which kind of highlight what your raw abilities are so because this is a standardized test it’s easier for them to make a comparison across people from different backgrounds. In that sense if you get a good score, it sets you apart from the other applicants.

Now the other factor is that the GRE compensates for any shortcomings in your own profile.

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You might think that your academic performance could have been better or you could have done some extra research projects but these are not things that you can change right now. It’s not possible for you to go back in time and change those things whereas the GRE is something that you have at hand right now so getting a good GRE score can compensate for any shortcomings that you think that you might have on your profile.

So a good GRE score is like a first stepping-stone to get into a good university which will open up your opportunities in the future right. You can think of it as the most important first step that you’re going to take towards a better future.

Chapter 3

GRE Exam Pattern

What is the GRE exam pattern like now? You might have heard people talk about a verbal score and a Quant score, right? So verbal is scored on a scale from 130 to 170. ETS has its own reasons for choosing such a scale. So the lowest that you can get is 130 which is pretty much equal to a zero score and 170 is the maximum that you can get.

Similarly for Quant as well you have a scale from 130 to 170 so a lot of people added up and say that the GRE score is on a scale from 260 to 340. Now for you to make sense of what you’re seeing, ETS also provides you with a percentile score. They will give you what is your percentile score for verbal as well as for Quant.

GRE exam pattern

So if you got 165 and it corresponds to a 95%, let’s say that means that 95% of the test takers have scored lesser than your score which is 165 so you are in the top 5%. So besides the scaled score they also provide a percentile score. So that’s about the scoring. Now to measure your verbal score and Quant score, there are two verbal sections and two Quant sections and each section has 20 questions.

The verbal sections are timed for 30 minutes and the Quant sections are time for 35 minutes. Remember that these sections are timed individually so you can’t carry over the time to another section. So you’re done with the section, you’re done with the 30 minutes and the next section will start with a fresh set of questions.

GRE syllabus

So that’s your verbal and Quant. So you have two sections of verbal and two sections of Quant with 20 questions per section. For Quant you get five minutes extra per section which is 35 minutes and the verbal sections are timed for 30 minutes. Now besides your verbal and the Quant, analytical writing is given on a separate scale.

The score on your analytical writing is on a scale from 0 to 6 in increments of 1/2 a point so to measure this score they give you two writing tasks. The first essay task is called analyzing an issue and the second essay task is called analyzing an argument. Now each task is for 30 minutes. If you add up all these you get 6 sections and the total comes to around 3 hours and 10 minutes right but if you remember I mentioned that your test is roughly around 3 hours & 45 minutes.

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So there seems to be a gap of around 30-35 minutes now. There is one more section that could come up in your exam – we call this as an unidentified section.

Now this one does not actually contribute to your score so it’s like a dummy section which ETS uses to gather data. Your performance in this section does not actually contribute to your final score but the problem is that they don’t tell you in advance so you won’t know which section is this special un-scored section.

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So as far as you are concerned it could be any one,  it could just be like any other section on the test so you have to treat this section as well as a part of the Test. Now this section could again be a verbal or Quant so depending on whether it’s Verbal or Quant it will again be 30 minutes to 35 minutes okay so that’s the seventh section that you will get on the test.

So just to quickly summarize you’ll have two Quant sections with 20 questions each timed for 35 minutes each, the 2 verbal sections are timed for 30 minutes each and you also have two writing tasks which are timed for 30 minutes each.

Besides that it’s possible that you get an unidentified section which is either verbal or Quant so depending on whether it’s verbal or Quant you will either get 30 minutes or a 35 minutes section and it will still have 20 questions.

Chapter 4

What topics does the GRE test?

As far as the topics that are tested on the GRE is concerned, it’s a little bit different in that the GRE does not have a well defined syllabus. I’ve been using the word skills because it tests skills and not just knowledge. It’s not like your knowledge based exams that you would have come across in your academic pursuit.

Now what do I mean by this? Think about it like this – you’re practicing for a music exam. Do you start a few days before the exam? Of course not – music is a skill so a skill needs to be practiced. Riding a cycle or swimming are examples of skills. Now it’s not possible to learn these by preparing in the last minute or you know preparing for a couple of days.

GRE Verbal and Quant topics

You can’t expect yourself to be able to swim after a day’s worth of practice, you need to practice a lot before you are able to swim. The GRE is kind of similar. This is again a test of skills so these skills can be cultivated only by rigorous practice and of course it’s not just any practice – you have to do it in a methodical manner.

Having said that we do have a little bit of an idea about what you can expect on the GRE.

As far as the verbal section is concerned we know what kind of question types the test will throw at you. You might have already heard of Reading Comprehension questions where you’re given a passage and you’re given questions based on that.

Now critical reasoning is also a kind of reading comprehension but the stress over here is on logical reasoning and not just a test of your English. Sentence Equivalence and Text Completion questions are questions which test a little bit more of your vocabulary as well as reasoning skills.

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In both these cases you will be given a passage or a sentence with one, two or three blanks and you’re expected to choose answer choices that will fit into the blank. Besides this vocabulary is also an important component of the verbal section. The standards required for the GRE are pretty high so a lot of people might have to work on their vocabulary. So that it’s on par with what is expected or what kind of questions will be thrown at you during the GRE.

As far as Quant is concerned you have certain basic topics that they cover- arithmetic, Algebra, geometry, a little bit of coordinate geometry, some data analysis and data interpretation, some basics of probability – there is no Bayesian Inference,it’s just simple theoretical probability that you’ll be working with again.

Some basic statistics, not too advanced. You have a few measures of central tendency and then measures of dispersion like standard deviation and variance. They also talk a little bit about probability distributions and the normal distribution but that’s not too much in detail and it’s also quite rarely tested and so it’s mostly pre-calculus level mathematics – what you would typically learn in say ninth or tenth grade.

Having said that remember that questions can literally come from any concept. Like I said before the GRE does not have a defined syllabus so it’s not something that you can prepare for in the last minute. You need to be methodical, you need to start preparing in advance and you need to spend a lot of time practicing these kind of questions so that you’re comfortable on the day of the test.

Bonus GRE Resources

How to prep for the GRE if you’re weak in Math

Tackling Sentence Equivalence & Text Completion Questions

Prioritizing the Question Types on the GRE Verbal

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