GRE study guide

GRE Test Guide - All You Need to Know

by Becton Loveless

The Graduate Record Exam, more commonly known as the GRE, is a standardized test used in North America as an admissions test for graduate school. The history of the GRE is a long one. First created in 1936, it is currently administered by the Educational Testing Service. The GRE is deigned to measure four aspects of a student’s capabilities, including verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, analytical writing, and critical thinking. These are skills that test designers anticipate students have picked up over the course of their lower level studies. Because the test is designed to measure such a broad array of skills, students can expect to see both math based and vocabulary based problems.

During the test, there are three scores you will receive, which include the:

  1. Analytical Writing Score
  2. Verbal Reasoning Score
  3. Quantitative Reasoning Score

Given that these are the three score that students will receive, there are also three respective sections that students will need to complete. There is no dedicated section for critical thinking. Rather, the test designers expect that students will need to use critical thinking to be successful in the other sections of the test. Both the Quantitative Reasoning and Verbal Reasoning sections of the test are scored along a range between 130 to 170. On average, students score a 151 in Verbal Reasoning and 153 in Quantitative Reasoning. Analytical Writing, on the other hand, is scored in half point increments from 0 to 6. The mean score for test takers is 4.0 in Analytical Writing.

Types of GRE

There are two variations of the GRE. The most commonly discussed form of the GRE is the GRE General Assessment. The General Assessment is the most commonly taken form of the test. This form of the test assesses students in the three areas of Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, and Analytical Writing, without any focus on a specific subject.

The second form of the GRE is the GRE Subject Test. These Subject Tests are designed to measure the degree to which learners have mastered knowledge within a specific field. These tests are therefore highly specific instead of acting as more general assessments of knowledge. Students opt to take these tests when they want to apply to specific programs in graduate schools. Subject tests can be taken in the following areas.

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Literature in English
  • Mathematics
  • Physics
  • Psychology

After undergraduate students have achieved a bachelor’s degree in one of these areas, they can then take the GRE in one of these six areas to continue their specialization in their respective field. In this respect, the GRE Subject Tests are little different from the GRE General Assessment. Graduate boards consider scores, either in the General Assessment or Subject Test, along with undergraduate records, letters of recommendation, and other qualifying achievements, whenever the board is considering a student for entrance into a graduate school.

How You’ll Take the Test

Students have two options for taking the GRE: a computer delivered and paper delivered test. Test centers for each type of test can be found on the ETS-GRE website. The computer administered GRE is offered around the year at specifically Prometric test centers. However, some non-Prometric testing center do offer the GRE, but only on specific dates. The computer administered GRE can be taken once every 21 days up to five times within and 365 day period. The paper administered GRE, on the other hand, is only offered on certain test dates. Like the computer administered test, the paper administered test can only be taken up to five times within any 365 day period.

The Three Sections of the GRE

As noted, there are three primary sections of the GRE test. Test takers should be familiar with these three section if they hope to be successful on the exam. Here is an overview of the three sections you will see on the GRE.

Analytical Writing

To put it simply, the Analytical Writing section of the exam is an essay section. The purpose of this section of the test is to gauge a student’s ability to gather their thoughts and devise an argument within a limited time period. These argument need to be adequately supported with evidence and structured in such a way that has a logical flow that reasonably leads the reader to the test taker’s conclusion. In many cases, the material will not be very familiar to the student. The purpose of this is to encourage creative thinking in devising a response that still adheres to commonly accepted methods of argumentation.

The Quantitative Analysis section of the exam includes two timed tasks, and each task is allotted 30 minutes, meaning that the total time allotted for this section is 60 minutes total. The first part of this section asks the test taker to analyze an issue in which opinions on a general topic will be read. After reading, test takers will formulate an argument based on the evidence they have read. The second part of the section asks the student to analyze an argument, during which test takers will consider an argument and typically formulate a counterargument.

Verbal Reasoning

The Verbal Reasoning section of the exam includes three types of questions. There are a total of 20 questions broken up into three sections. There will be six Text Completion questions, four Sentence Equivalence questions, and 10 Reading Comprehension questions. In total, students will have 60 minute to complete their Verbal Reasoning section.

Text Completion

Test takers will first want to familiarize themselves with Text Completion questions. Text Completion quests are the kinds of questions many students have answered throughout their lives. The student is required to read a sentence and, within that sentence, there are one, two, or three blanks. It’s up to the student to appropriately fill in these blanks. This is essentially a test of the student’s vocabulary knowledge and understanding of grammar.

The Text Completion question itself will be associated with a box of potential answers. There will be a box for each blank. So, the first blank will need to be filled in with words from the first box, the second blank will need to be filled with words from the second box, and the third blank will be filled with words from the third box. Of course, this is only if it is a three blank question.

For some final notes about Text Completion, test takers should be aware that there is no partial credit. If the question can’t be answered entirely, there will be no partial credit. Test takers should keep this in mind when answering. If they encounter a question with words that are highly outside of their vocabulary in even on box, the test takers should move on to the next question.

Sentence Equivalence

The second type of question to be answered is sentence equivalence. These questions ask test takers to fill in a blank by drawing upon two voices to create two coherent sentences. These sentence should be similar in meaning. In practice, test takers will see two sentences, one of which has already been completed. The test taker must then choose from a list of words to fill in the incomplete sentence and create a similar sentence. Again, if the words seem particularly difficult, it’s best to skip the question and return later.

Reading Comprehension

Reading Comprehension questions are different from Text Completion or Sentence Equivalence because they ask the student to demonstrate comprehension following a reading of a given passage. Test takers need to be able to understand the core ideas in the passage, how the passage is structured, and identify details in the passage. Test takers will also need to be able to make inference from the text. However, these answer will not need to be generated by the test taker. Instead, a list of choices will be given from which the test taker can select from.

Quantitative Reasoning

From the name, it should be clear that students will need to work with math when it comes to getting through the quantitative reasoning section. This section consists of 20 total questions. Students can anticipate between seven and eight Quantitative Comparison questions and between 12 and 13 Problem Solving questions. Questions do not involve advanced calculus, trigonometry, or other high level forms of math. However, test takers should expect arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and data analysis to be part of the exam. In total, test takers will have 35 minutes to complete a Quantitative Reasoning section.

Quantitative Comparison

Quantitative Comparison questions ask test takers to compare two quantities. Test taker will be presented with a quantity in the Quantity A column and a quantity in the Quantity B column. From those two quantities, test takers will need to identify the relationship that exists between the two. For instance, students will need to read the two quantities and selection from a list of options that say whether (a) quantity a is greater, (b) quantity b is greater, (c) the two quantities are equal, or (d) no relationship can be determined between the two quantities. Test takers ill need to quickly examine the quantities and identify if they can quickly assess the relationship. If not, then it’s best to move on and return to the question later.

Problem Solving

Far more abundant in the exam are Problem Solving questions, which ask test takers to solve problems. Some of these questions can be answered by selecting from a list of choices, while other questions need to be solved by submitting an answer by writing it into a box. It’s a little difficult to quickly assess whether these kinds of questions can be answered quickly. It may be best to solve as many Quantitative Comparison questions first, since Problem Solving questions are more robust. There are also many more of the Problem Solving questions on the test. Some problems also ask test takers to solve problems by interpreting charts, so test takers will need to solve a range of problem types and possess a broad range of math skills.

General Tips

From reading through this overview of the general list of GRE sections, it should be clear that test takers want to focus on identifying questions they can finish quickly and prioritize getting through as many of those as possible. If a problem is going to take several minutes to complete, then it’s a problem you will want to save until the end of your test taking time. For instance, if a Problem Solving question is going to take seven minutes to complete, that’s a full 20% of the total time set aside for Quantitative Reasoning. Test Takers would do well to put these time consuming questions off until the very end of their exam.

It’s also helpful to learn how to eliminate obviously wrong answers from multiple choice selection lists. Take, for instance, a question that includes four potential answers. At a random guess, you would have a 25% chance to get the question right. On the other hand, if you could eliminate one answer, your potential for guessing the question right would rise to 33%. And, if you could eliminate two answers, your chance of randomly guessing the answer would rise to 50%. Of course, it may not be possible to approach each problem this way. Some types of questions lend themselves to eliminating answers more than others. You should always try to eliminate at least one answer if possible.

Also, your score doesn’t go down if you select a wrong answer. If you’re completely lost on a question but can eliminate one or two answers, then take a wild guess at the answer after maximizing your chance of answering it correctly. Even if you only have 30 seconds left on the test, go back and fill in any unanswered questions. Your score can never go down, but it can go up.

Tools at Your Disposal

You won’t be unarmed when it comes to answering the questions on your GRE. Instead, there will be a number of tools for you to use. Test takers using a computer format will be able to use an on-screen calculator. Those taking the paper version of the GRE will be provided a specific calculator by the ETS. Test takers should keep in mind that in many cases, it is often faster to solve the questions mentally than to use a calculator on every single problem. This is particularly the case for those questions whose answers are apparent. Don’t waste time double checking your answers out of paranoia, solve the easy questions first, and after you’ve reached the end of the test, use the calculator to double check if possible.

You’ll also be given scratch paper before the test which you can replenish by speaking with the test administrator. Finally, although not strictly a tool, you will be given a 10 minute break after the third section of the exam and a one minute break between other test sections. This is the best time to replenish your paper if you need to. At this point, it’s probably best to mention that you should avoid taking unscheduled breaks during the exam. The test won’t pause for you. So, in simplest terms, make sure you use the restroom before you begin the test.

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