Understanding the GRE

Updated October 19, 2022

Many schools require GRE scores from MBA applicants. Find tips and tricks to acing the GRE and increasing your chances of getting into an MBA program.

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Many schools rely on the GRE for MBA applicants as a method of evaluating general math, language, and composition skills for career-oriented business programs.

For aspiring graduate students, the Graduate Record Exam (GRE) makes up a primary component of the application process. Many schools require scores from the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) or GRE for MBA applicants, for example, to demonstrate aptitude in several types of skills that are relevant to graduate-level business programs. The agency responsible for administering and scoring the test, the Educational Testing Service (ETS), developed the GRE in three sections: analytical writing, verbal reasoning, and quantitative reasoning. While students may take their choice of standardized tests, the GRE stands out for its flexibility, offering students the option to go back and change answers, choose which questions to answer first in a section, and select which scores (from multiple tests) to send to recipients.

Many schools rely on the GRE for MBA applicants as a method of evaluating general math, language, and composition skills for career-oriented business programs. Test-takers may choose to complete the test on paper or on the computer, though the former is limited in its geographic availability, and only offered three times per year. Regardless of the format, students always complete the analytical writing section first, comprising essays only, followed by verbal and quantitative reasoning sections, each of which use several types of questions, including fill-in-the-blank and multiple choice.

GRE Subject Tests

Most MBA programs that accept GRE scores require only the GRE General Test, however some may also recommend a GRE Subject Test. A student may take an ETS subject test in literature in English, mathematics, physics, psychology, chemistry, or biology. While the majority of applicants focus instead on the benefits of the GRE vs. GMAT for MBA degrees, aspiring business school students with a background in one of the above disciplines may set themselves apart from other applicants by demonstrating specialty skills through a GRE Subject Test. The structure and format of each subject test varies, each including between 66 and 230 questions. The cost for a test in any subject is $150. Students must register to take subject tests on paper in either September, October, or April.

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Should you take the GMAT or the GRE for MBA Admissions?

The decision of whether to take the GMAT or GRE is subjective. Students can decide which test better highlights their core skills. Although the GMAT is designed for business school admittance, the GRE also tests fundamental capabilities through general math, writing, and language tasks. Many top business schools openly accept GRE scores for MBA programs. More colleges and universities than ever accept either test as a way to assess the each applicant's potential for success in their programs. MBA candidates should consult each school where they intend to apply and check whether that school prefers GRE or GMAT scores.

What Does the GRE Look Like?

The Structure of the GRE

The MBA GRE consists of analytical writing, a quantitative reasoning, and verbal reasoning sections. Each of the above primary sections contain two tasks (analytical writing), or subsections (quantitative and verbal reasoning). First, in analytical writing, students must complete two prompts, titled "analyze an issue" and "analyze an argument."Students spend 30 minutes answering each of the prompts in essay format. Following a 10-minute break, students complete the verbal reasoning section, comprising two 30-35-minute timed subsections, and the quantitative reasoning section, comprising two 35-40-minute timed subsections, depending on whether they take the computer or paper version of the test, respectively.

Students taking the computer-delivered GRE may encounter "unscored" questions following the analytical writing section, and "research" questions at the end of the test. These sections are unmarked, as students' answers in these sections serve ETS research purposes only and do not affect their final GRE score.

Both students taking the GRE on the computer and on paper complete analytical writing first, followed by any order of verbal and quantitative reasoning subsections. Verbal reasoning encompasses sentence equivalence, reading comprehension, and text completion questions. Quantitative reasoning includes multiple choice, quantitative comparison, and numeric entry questions. Students may go back to a question to change their answer, and choose which questions to answer first in a given section.

Delivery Format

Students may take the GRE in computer-delivered or paper-delivered format, though the former offers much greater availability. Students cannot choose the format of the test based upon their own preference, instead they must register for whichever format of the GRE is available in their area. The verbal reasoning section of the computer-delivered test includes two 30-minute subsections of 20 questions each; quantitative reasoning comprises two 35-minute sections of 20 questions each. Students taking the computer-delivered test will also encounter the "unscored" and "research" questions mentioned above.

The paper-delivered test differs slightly in format, comprising 25 questions in the 35-minute verbal reasoning section and 25 questions in the 40-minute quantitative reasoning section. The fee for the test in either format is $150. Paper-delivered test-takers must wait five weeks to see their official scores, while the computer-delivered test provides unofficial scores immediately, and official scores in 10-15 days.

The Verbal Reasoning Section

Skill Areas

The verbal reasoning section assesses a student's ability to recognize and understand analogies and language concepts, and complete reading comprehension exercises. Students must read passages and answer questions about them for roughly half of this section; the remaining portion requires students to complete existing sentences or passages through multiple choice or fill-in-the-blank questions.

Question Types

Students should prepare to answer three types of questions in the verbal reasoning section of the GRE for MBA applicants: reading comprehension, text completion, and sentence equivalence. For the reading comprehension section, which comprises nearly half of the section, students must read 10 passages and answer between one and six questions for each of them. The remainder of the section includes text-completion questions, requiring students to fill in up to three blanks per passage, and a sentence equivalence portion, in which students choose two answers per multiple-choice question.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

As any experienced test-taker will tell you, instincts should come into play when completing the verbal reasoning section. Trust your gut to tell you if a potential answer seems like it could be a trick set by the test makers to sharpen your critical thinking skills. In some cases, students may encounter a seemingly logical, but improperly constructed sentence, which makes it incorrect. Many students also make the mistake of only reading a passage halfway through before trying to answer the questions, though one should always try to grasp the big picture of the passage before revisiting details.

Helpful Tips

  • Don't Forget to Proofread: While it may seem to go without saying, proofreading is a must in this section. Don't let a common grammatical or stylistic error undermine your hard work.
  • Check Both Answers in a Double Fill-in-the-Blank: The test may purposely present you with multiple choice options in this section that seem similar but slightly different. Remember to always make sure both words fit, not just one.
  • Sentence Structure is Everything: Look for dead giveaways to an author's argument, like "however," "although," and "that being said," especially if you're struggling to understand their meaning.
  • Don't Work Backwards: Resist the temptation to get out of reading the passage by scanning for answers first. The questions reference the overall meaning of the passage in its entirety, so looking for a shortcut will actually cost you precious time in the end.

The Analytical Writing Section

Skill Areas

In the analytical writing section of the GRE, students demonstrate their communication and debate skills by constructing and presenting a coherent argument on issues provided on the test. Students must perform two tasks in this section: analyzing an issue, and analyzing an argument. These tasks require students to craft and present their argument on an issue and to present a thorough examination of an author's argument based on logical evidence.

Question Types

This section includes two 30-minute sections, requiring the analysis of an issue and analysis of an argument in essay form. In "analyzing an issue," students must articulate a clear position on an issue presented in a sentence or passage, with reasoning to support your position of agreement or disagreement. In "analyzing an argument," students evaluate an existing argument and express both its compelling and challenging points, along with suggestions for how to strengthen the author's position.

Word Processing Software

Test-takers completing the GRE on the computer use ETS-administered word processing software in this section. The software program intentionally provides only the functions needed for simple word processing, including copying, pasting, inserting and removing text, and undoing previous keystrokes. To avoid providing an unfair advantage to those taking the computer-delivered GRE, the software does not include any grammar- or spell-checking tools, as students taking the paper-delivered test could not access such resources.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

As the GRE's only essay-based component, the analytical writing section stands apart from the fill-in-the-blank and multiple choice questions on other sections of the test. The section also scores responses differently than other sections, which may seem confusing to some test-takers. Prior to test day, review the ETS website to fully understand the scoring process and prepare to meet the scorers' expectations. Also on the ETS website, students can review all types of prompts potentially included on the test. Don't fall victim to embellishing a structurally weak argument. Instead, use direct, decisive language to make your point.

How Should You Prepare for the GRE?

At-Home Study Methods

Students can choose their preferred method of at-home study for the GRE.

  • Printed Study Guides: These hard-copy study guides enable students to get a hands-on look at the content of the GRE. This method of self-led study suits students who prefer to take notes or mark up their pages by hand, instead of on screen.
  • Flashcards: Whether inspired by a website that offers printable flashcards for each section or handcrafted, flashcards can help students memorize crucial elements of the GRE, especially core math equations and vocabulary words.
  • Private Tutoring: While private tutoring is often exclusive to students with above-average financial means, studying one-on-one works well for students in need of a personal motivator and a customized study plan to prepare them for test day.
  • Studying Apps: Increasingly popular online, GRE studying apps target the on-the-go student who has only intermittent intervals of study time. Apps enable students to develop a modular study plan, based on rotating lessons they can access as often as they choose for a few minutes at a time.
  • Online Practice Tests: Perhaps the most abundant of study prep resources, the internet offers countless online practice tests for the GRE, ranging from beginner to advanced levels of intensity. Students should begin by perusing practice materials on ETS.org.

GRE Prep Courses

Students can access a variety of GRE prep courses on ETS.org, and through long standing brand names in the industry, like Princeton Review. Online study materials can accommodate all budgets, including free and low-cost prep resources like webinars, sample quizzes, and printable study guides. Those who can afford it may opt for personal tutor, ranging from $20-$85 per hour.

Studying Tips for the GRE

  • Read More Books

    Reading books can be a great way to boost your vocabulary and reading comprehension skills before test day. Even better — try challenging yourself to look up every word you don't know as you go.
  • Take and Retake Practice Tests

    This study tip is key, not only to familiarize yourself with the content of the GRE, but to understand the structure and layout of the test itself. Avoid feeling overwhelmed on test day by getting your bearings beforehand.
  • Time Your Practice

    Because each section is timed, practicing answering questions and writing prompts within the time allotted should be a critical part of every study prep plan. Continue to work on time management leading up to test day if this is an especially challenging task for you.
  • Strengthen your Weak Spots

    Use your study time to focus on areas that need improvement, not areas in which you are already experienced and confident. For example, if your vocabulary is strong but your writing skills are lacking, spend more time on sample essay prompts.
  • Revisit High School Coursework

    Even students with stellar math skills might need to revisit concepts from high school to prepare for the GRE. Whether you struggled the first time around, or breezed through ages ago, now is the right time to brush up on your skills.
  • Helpful Resources

    Students can find a variety of free and low-cost resources to prepare for the GRE online. Options include:

    • ETS POWERPREP Practice Tests: This tool allows students to preview the test for free and practice taking the computer-delivered GRE General Test. For a fee, paid through their ETS account, students may also take an advanced online prep course.
    • Quizlet: Quizlet offers one of the largest online selections of study sets, flashcards, and free and low-cost course materials, ideal for students looking to potentially try out several different methods of studying for the GRE.
    • Magoosh GRE Vocabulary Flashcards: For students focused on intensive study prep for the verbal reasoning section, Magoosh offers a mobile app and digital flashcards, designed to build vocabulary and language recall skills.
    • LEAP: Among the GRE's most comprehensive study resources, LEAP offers free courses, webinars, opencourseware options, and access to GRE-specific tutors. The site offers a variety of study blogs, how-to videos, and sample test questions.

    What Should You Expect on Test Day?

    ETS recommends that students arrive at least 30 minutes early to the testing site. The administrator will provide you with a seat assignment prior to starting the test, and will also provide scratch paper for the timed sections; you may not use scratch paper prior to beginning the GRE or during breaks. Students take a 10-minute break following the analytical writing section, and a one-minute break in between subsequent subsections. While students may excuse themselves to use the restroom during the test, timed sections will not be stopped.

    What Should You Bring with You?

    • Valid Photo ID: Test-takers must present to administrators the same valid ID used to create their ETS account and register for the GRE. The student's name on their valid ID must match their registration form. Students whose identity cannot be verified by administrators may not sit for the test and will not receive a refund.
    • Confirmation Email/Voucher: Students must bring with them the confirmation email they received upon registration for the GRE. This document enables administrators to confirm that you are at the correct test center on the correct date, you are taking the test intended, and you have properly identified recipients for your scores.
    • Layers of Clothing: While a student cannot predict the temperature of the testing room, they should prepare for comfort during the several hours of the test, no matter how hot or cold. Students should wear clothes that can be layered or removed accordingly on test day.

    What Should You Leave at Home?

    • Study Notes/Books: Any study resources, such as books or study notes used to prepare for the test, should be left at home. Because electronic devices like phones, PDAs, and even smartwatches could potentially be used to cheat in the testing room, administrators prohibit such materials, confiscating them and possibly removing the student who brings them to the test site.
    • Your Own Scratch Paper: The only paper students may bring into the test room is their confirmation email. The administrator hands out scratch paper to each student and collects any and all scratch paper, whether the student used it or not, upon completion of the test.
    • Your Own Calculator: While using a calculator for the GRE is permitted, administrators do not allow students to bring their own calculators. Students taking the computer-delivered test may use the calculators provided on screen; those taking the paper-delivered GRE receive an approved handheld calculator at the testing site.

    Accommodations for Test-Takers with Disabilities or Health-Associated Needs

    Test-takers with learning disabilities or health-associated special needs may pursue accommodations to assist them in taking the GRE on test day. Students with a documented disability or health concern should first check their eligibility to qualify for special accommodations through ETS. Applicants must submit a professional evaluation and diagnosis, performed within the last five years, of their academic or physical disability, or a diagnostic of their psychiatric disability or brain injury from within the last year. If approved, ETS offers students with disabilities various accommodations, including screen magnification, extra breaks, and additional testing time, as well as large print, recorded audio, and Braille versions of the test.

    Submitting Your Scores

    When Will You Get Your Scores?

    Test-takers completing the GRE on the computer receive unofficial scores in their ETS account immediately, with official GRE scores posting in 10-15 days. Students taking the GRE on paper may wait up to five weeks to receive scores in their ETS account.

    How Do You Submit Your Scores to Schools?

    When registering for the GRE, students may choose up to four schools and/or fellowship sponsors to receive scores. ETS offers several options for the score-submission process, including submitting only the student's most recent score, or all scores from the last five years, if multiple results exist.

    What Scores Will Schools See If You Take the Test More Than Once?

    Students can select which scores go to which schools by using the ETS ScoreSelect option. This function enables students to choose to send scores to recipients only after they take the test, send all test scores from the last five years, or send only the most recent scores to the schools on their list.

    How Long Will Your Scores Be Valid?

    Students may submit GRE scores for up to five years from the test date, provided they took the test on or after July 1, 2016. Test-takers prior to July 1, 2016 possess reportable scores for five years following the year of their test. Students can no longer report scores prior to July 2013.

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