GRE Basics – All about the GRE

What is the GRE?

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is a computer- or paper-based test that is used to evaluate graduate school applicants. It costs $205, and is administrated by the Electronic Testing Service (ETS) at over 1,000 test centers in 160 countries worldwide. The computer test is administered year-round, while the paper-based test is administered up to three times a year in areas where computer-based testing is unavailable.

The GRE presumes a fluency in the English language, and contains sections in Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, and Analytical Writing ability. The Analytical Writing section of the test is always the first test section to be administered, followed by (in random order) two sections of Quantitative Reasoning, two sections of Verbal Reasoning, and one experimental/research section which may be either Quantitative Reasoning or Verbal Reasoning. A calculator will be provided for the Quantitative Reasoning sections. Within each section you can skip questions or go back to review your answers. There is no penalty for incorrect answers, so it is best to choose an answer for every question even if you must guess.

The GRE lasts approximately 3 hours and 45 minutes, with a 1-minute break after each section and a 10-minute break after the third section. The exam is scored on a scale of 130-170, with writing sections scored on a scale of 0.5-6.0. The 80th percentile is approximately a 159 for Verbal Reasoning, 161 for Quantitative Reasoning, and a 4.5 for Analytical Writing.

Following a revision in 2011, the computer-based GRE is adaptive between sections. The first Verbal and Quantitative sections will be of average difficulty, with a mixture of easy and difficult questions. After your first of each type of section is over, the computer will use your results to assemble your second section. If you perform well on your first section, your second section in that category will be composed of more difficult questions, and you will have the chance to earn a higher score. In other words, test takers who perform well on the first Verbal or Quantitative section will "level up", and face a more difficult second section. This helps the test administrators to achieve a more even distribution of test results. For the paper-based test, all sections are weighted the same and there is no test adaptation.

The GRE and Graduate School Acceptance

The GRE is accepted at thousands of graduate and business schools. The importance of a GRE score can vary from being a formaility to being one of the most important factors in graduate school admissions. The importance placed upon GRE scores varies widely among schools and even among departments within schools. According to ETS, the administrator of the GRE, graduate departments consider GRE scores less important than undergraduate grades, about equally important as letters of recommendation, and more important than other evaluation criteria. High GRE scores are most important when applicants have weaknesses in their other credentials.

The GRE vs. the GMAT

While the GRE is used to evaluate applicants to a broad variety of graduate schools, including business schools, the GMAT is a test exclusively for business schools. Only about 250,000 students take the GMAT every year, compared to 650,000 for the GRE. Vocabulary and writing are more rigorously evaluated on the GRE, but the GMAT tests more advanced mathematical concepts and does not allow the use of a calculator during the quantitative sections. While the GRE only adapts the test between sections, the GMAT adapts after every question.

Although GMAT and GRE scores are incomparable as both tests are unique, ETS (Administrator of the GRE) and GMAC (Administrator of the GMAT) have devised comparison metrics to put scores in each other's perspective. This tool is designed to facilitate business schools comparisons of students who have taken the GRE with those who have taken the GMAT, making it easier for business schools to start using the GRE to evaluate students.

Whether to take the GRE or the GMAT is a decision best made by you, depending on your own strengths and weaknesses and the graduate programs where you want to apply. If you are applying to business school and are unsure of which exam to take, try taking a practice exam for each to evaluate which is a better fit for you. Manhattan Review offers free, full-length, computer-adaptive diagnostic tests for both GRE and GMAT.