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.