What is the GRE?

By Rachel Shapiro Updated February 03, 2021

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is a standardized exam used by thousands of graduate schools as part of their application process. If you’re wondering what the GRE is and how to best prepare for it, here’s a rundown of what you need to know.

What is the GRE?

The GRE is a 3 hour and 45 minute long computer-based exam that tests your verbal, math, and writing knowledge. You’ll start the test by doing two essays. Then, you’ll do two Verbal reasoning sections, two Quantitative sections, and one experimental section. You get a minute break between each section. You’ll also get a 10-minute break after the third section.

As you’re going through each section, you can skip questions and go back to them later in the section. You can also change your answers during the time allotted for each section. The GRE is a computer adaptive test. This means that the sections adapt to your skill levels. For instance, if you do well on the first Verbal section, the next Verbal section will be a bit harder.

The score range for the Analytical Writing section is 0-6. The range for the Verbal and Quantitative scores is 130 to 170. When you send a score report, schools will see all three scores, and they’ll see your score percentile. Many graduate schools require you to take the GRE as part of their application process. This includes many MBA, PH.D., and Juris Doctor programs.

What’s on the GRE

The GRE is comprised of three sections: Verbal, Quantitative, and Analytical Writing. There’s also an experimental section that’s ungraded. Here’s what you’ll find in each of these sections.


There are two Verbal sections on the GRE. Each section is 30 minutes long and has 20 questions. The Verbal section tests your comprehension and vocabulary skills. It includes reading comprehension, text completion, and sentence equivalence questions.

The reading comprehension questions have a short passage to read. You’ll then answer multiple choice questions about what you read. This section also includes “select in-passage” questions. For these questions, you’ll be asked to highlight certain sentences inside the passage.

Text completion questions feature a three to five sentence paragraph with one to three blanks. At the end of the passage, you’ll see a table with three word options for each blank, and you’ll have to choose the best word for each.

Sentence equivalence tests your vocabulary knowledge. Each question includes a sentence with one blank and six multiple choice options. You’ll then have to choose the two words that both fit into the sentence and produce completed sentences that are alike in meaning.


There are two Quantitative sections on the GRE. Each section is 35 minutes long and has 20 questions. These questions test your geometry, algebra, data analysis, and arithmetic skills. There are four types of questions in the Quant section: quantitative comparison, multiple choice with one answer, multiple choice with multiple answers, and numeric entry questions.

Quantitative comparison questions will ask you to compare two quantities and then determine which of four multiple choice statements describes the comparison. For example, you may be given two algebraic formula and asked which one is greater.

For multiple choice—select one answer, you’ll typically be given a problem to solve, and you’ll have to choose one answer out of five possibilities. For multiple choice—select multiple answers, you’ll be asked to select one or more answers from a list of choices. You often won’t be told how many answers to select, making these questions a bit tricky.

The final question type in the Quant section is numeric entry. For these questions, you’re asked to solve a question and then write in a number as either an integer, decimal, or fraction.

Analytical Writing

The Analytical Writing section of the GRE features two essays: an issue essay and an argumentative essay. You’ll have 30 minutes to do each essay.

For the issue essay, you’re given two prompts, and you’ll choose one to write about. The prompts will include a declarative statement, such as, “Government should offer a free college education to all its citizens.” You’ll then discuss whether you agree or disagree with the statement. You’ll need to defend your point of view using examples and relevant reasons.

For the argument essay, you’re given just one prompt: a short paragraph that features an argument. In your essay, you’ll need to discuss the flaws in the argument and how it could be strengthened.

The essays are scored by both a human rater and a computer program called an e-rater. If there’s a discrepancy of more than one point between the human rater and e-rater, another human rater is brought in. Then, your final score will be an average of the two human grades.


One of the Verbal or Quantitative sections on the GRE is ‘experimental.’ This section isn’t scored—it’s used to test new material. However, the catch is you won’t know which section is the experimental one. Because of that, you’ll have to treat every section like it’s being scored.

Where to Take the GRE

The GRE is offered in Prometric centers around the world. It’s also offered on specific dates in various other test centers.

ETS also has a GRE at home test. This is a great choice for students who don’t live near a test center. To do the at-home test, you’ll need a computer with speakers, a microphone, and a webcam. You’ll be monitored by a proctor throughout the test. You’re allowed to have a small piece of paper next to you for notes, but you can’t have any other materials around you.

How to Sign Up for the GRE

To sign up for the GRE, head to ETS’ website and create an account. Then, you’ll be able to choose your test center and your test date. Or, you can choose to sign up for the GRE at home.

When you’re choosing a date, take your graduate school application deadlines into consideration. Your score report will typically be sent to your score recipients about 10-15 days after taking the test. You can take the GRE once every 21 days, up to five times within a 12-month period.

How to Prepare for the GRE

Once you’ve signed up for the GRE, you’ll probably start thinking about how to prepare for the test. There are many free or low-cost resources you can use to prep. There are also tons of GRE prep courses to try.

Preparing on Your Own

One of the best places to start your studies is on ETS’ website. They offer two free practice tests. These will give you a good idea of your baseline score. They also have a math review PDF you can download for free, and they provide strategies and tips for the test.

If you’d like more prep materials, consider buying a GRE prep book. ETS has their own set of textbooks. Many test prep companies, like Princeton Review and Kaplan, also have textbooks.

There are also many GRE prep apps you can download for your phone. These are perfect for studying on-the-go. Many test prep companies have free or low-cost apps. For example, the test prep company Magoosh has a free app with flashcards.

Using GRE Prep Courses

A prep course is a great choice if you want a more directed approach to your GRE studying. These courses have practice questions that are similar to what you’ll find on the real GRE. They also offer lessons on the math, verbal, and writing concepts you’ll see on the test. Some courses also provide helpful strategies for test day.

There are many different prep courses available, and each has a different set of study materials. Some courses are fully online. Other courses have both online and in-person courses. Some also have tutoring for an additional fee. Some courses are more budget friendly while others cost a bit more. If you’d like to do a course, spend some time researching all the options before choosing one.

It’s also a good idea to do a few prep course trials before deciding on your course. A free trial will help you determine if a prep course is right for you.

When to Start Studying for the GRE

Generally, students begin preparing for the GRE about three months before the test, and they’ll usually study for a few hours a week. However, some students need more time, and some need less. It all depends on your study habits and the way you learn.

To decide when you should start preparing, think about your study habits and the amount of time you have in a week. Also, consider creating a study schedule to help you focus your studying.

Summing Up

The GRE is an important test that’s used by many graduate schools. If you’re planning to take the GRE, be sure to create a study schedule and spend time looking through all the different question types. Also, try to read up on some strategies for the test. Doing this will help you feel prepared when test day comes.