GRE Guide

When applying to graduate and business schools, applicants often need to submit their Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) scores. Most students take the GRE General Test, which includes questions measuring verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing skills. Students can also take one of six subject-specific tests to demonstrate specialized knowledge in content areas like biology or physics. The Education Testing Service (ETS) -- a private and nonprofit testing organization -- administers all GRE tests.

Most students take the GRE General Test, which includes questions measuring verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing skills

Most sections of GRE tests feature multiple-choice questions. However, test takers also write two brief responses for the analytical writing section. Additionally, some questions in the quantitative reasoning sections require individuals to fill in a blank with an exact figure. Test takers must complete GRE tests at an approved ETS testing facility. The GRE General Test usually costs $205, while subject tests cost $150 each. Most students finish their exam in 3-4 hours. Participants who take a computer-delivered test can view their unofficial scores immediately after finishing the exam and receive their official scores within 15 days. Alternatively, individuals who take a paper-delivered test may need to wait up to five weeks to receive official scores.

Most schools use a holistic admissions process, considering factors such as an applicant's GPA, professional experience, and personal statement. Nonetheless, GRE scores can play a significant role in a school's decision to admit a student.

GRE Subject Tests

Only a handful of programs require students to take one of the six GRE Subject Tests. Instead, typically students choose to take these exams to bolster their application materials and demonstrate subject-specific expertise. ETS administers subject tests in the areas of biology, chemistry, literature in English, mathematics, physics, and psychology.

All subject tests feature multiple-choice questions, although the length of each test varies. For example, the chemistry subject test includes 130 questions, while the physics test only contains 100. Subject tests require about the same amount of work for each discipline, and you should plan to spend roughly 3.5 hours completing your exam, regardless of the area you choose.

You can take subject tests at paper-delivered test centers in September, October, or April. Test takers pay a $150 fee to register for each test.

Many graduate programs in social work require students to take the GRE, although some online programs give students the option of submitting their scores.

ETS does not administer a specific GRE test for social work, but you can opt to take the psychology subject test to demonstrate skills in a related field. However, social work graduate programs do not typically require students to take any of the GRE Subject Tests.

Before registering for the GRE, contact your school's admissions office to find out whether they require GRE scores. If they do, make sure to register for an exam date well in advance of the school's deadline for submitting scores.

The Structure of the GRE

The majority of students take the computer-delivered form of the GRE General Test. This test includes an analytical writing section as well as multiple quantitative and verbal reasoning sections.

All computer-based tests start with the analytical writing section. For this portion of the exam, you must write brief essays in which you "analyze an issue" and "analyze an argument." You have up to 30 minutes to brainstorm, write, and proofread each of these essays.

After completing the analytical writing section, the rest of the exam may appear in any order. For example, you may begin by completing the verbal reasoning portion of your test, which consists of two sections. You must answer 20 questions per section, taking up to 30 minutes to complete each section. After that, you may begin the quantitative reasoning portion of the exam. This also includes two sections of 20 questions each; however, you have up to 35 minutes to complete each of these sections. You can skip over and return to questions, but you can only do so within a particular section.

Computer-delivered tests also feature one additional verbal or quantitative reasoning section. ETS does not score this extra section, instead using it to conduct research and try out sample questions for future exams. However, test takers do not know which of the sections is unscored; therefore, you should always try to answer all questions correctly.

You have approximately three hours and 45 minutes to complete the GRE General Test, although some test takers complete the exam in less time. Additionally, after the third section, the test administrator allows participants to take a 10 minute break.

Delivery Format

As mentioned above, the majority of students take a computer-delivered form of the GRE General Test. However, students living outside of the U.S. or those with exceptional needs may take the exam in a paper-delivered format. While the two exams have much in common, some key differences do exist.

The paper-delivered exam, for example, features five extra multiple-choice questions in each of the four verbal and quantitative reasoning sections. In order to answer these 20 additional questions, ETS allows students an extra five minutes for each verbal reasoning section and 10 minutes for each quantitative reasoning section. Because paper-delivered exams do not include an unscored section, students typically finish in approximately 3.5 hours -- less time than the computer-delivered exam.

Skill Areas

The two verbal reasoning sections of the exam assess your ability to analyze and evaluate written material. Test takers also need to synthesize information from written passages to analyze various structural components of sentences and recognize the relationships between individual words and larger concepts.

Question Types

The verbal reasoning sections feature three types of questions: reading comprehension, text completion, and sentence equivalence. Questions in these sections feature multiple-choice answers, and you may need to choose more than one right answer to a question.

To answer the reading comprehension questions, participants read a brief passage and select answers to show that they understand the provided material. To answer text completion questions, test takers fill in blanks with the most appropriate words available. Additionally, to answer sentence equivalence questions, participants select two words that give a sentence a similar meaning.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Some people make the mistake of looking at the questions and answers before reading the passage. This may cause you to miss the broader context. Instead, read the passage carefully first and take note of transition words like "however" and "although" as well as other key concepts.

Similarly, many test takers try to work backwards from the answers on text completion and sentence equivalence questions. Avoid doing this. Instead, try to fill in the blanks with a word you know. Then review the list of provided answers to find the closest synonym. This can help increase the likelihood that you fully understand an answer before choosing it.

Helpful Tips

Read Passages First

Don't try to work backwards from the potential answers. Review the text, mark it up or take notes to help you better understand its meaning, and then look at the questions.

Don't Answer Questions from Memory

A useful strategy is to try to fill in the blank with an answer that you think might fit, and then compare your answer to the multiple choice options.

Take Notes

Engage with the text in whatever manner works best for you. This might mean underlining words or sentences on a paper-delivered exam or jotting down key phrases on scratch paper during a computer-delivered exam. Taking notes helps boost comprehension.

Review All Answers

The first answer you see may seem like a good fit, but a later answer may work even better. Give yourself enough time to carefully consider all answers before making a final selection.

Skill Areas

The analytical writing section assesses your critical thinking and writing skills. To receive the highest possible score on this section, you must demonstrate the ability to articulate and defend complex ideas, create and evaluate an argument, and sustain a clear and cogent discussion. The exam does not require test takers to possess any kind of specialized content knowledge to successfully complete this section.

Question Types

In the analytical writing section, you must complete two writing tasks where you analyze an issue and analyze an argument.

For the "analyze an issue" prompt, you must critically evaluate an opinion related to an issue of general interest. For example, the prompt may ask whether governments should fund scientific research when the potential benefits of that research remains unknown. To complete this section, you should take a stance and then provide reasoning to defend your position.

For the "analyze an argument" prompt, you must consider the logic of a given argument and assess its soundness. These prompts provide sufficient background to complete the analysis; you do not need to use outside knowledge to draft a response.

Word Processing Software

Test takers who register for a computer-delivered test use a basic word processor to compose their responses. This word processor allows participants to insert and delete text, cut and paste, and undo previous actions. However, it does not offer a spelling or grammar check function because these skills contribute to the overall writing score.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

This section of the GRE does not necessarily assess how well you write; instead, it determines how well you can follow the exam's instructions. Scorers use a specific rubric to grade these brief essays, and you should carefully review the scoring guides before taking the exam.

You do not automatically benefit from using advanced vocabulary or descriptive language in your writing. Instead, scorers look for clearly developed ideas presented in an organized manner. You may receive a lower score if you make repeated spelling or grammar mistakes.

Helpful Tips

Understand How Graders Score Essays

Graders look for clarity, persuasive and relevant examples, and organized thinking. They also assess your word usage and sentence variety to convey your points.

Review the Prompt Pools

ETS publishes all possible essay prompts on their website. You do not need to construct essay ideas for all of these prompts, but reviewing the pool of topics can help you identify commonalities.

Make Sure to Proofread Your Writing

You can lose points for spelling and grammar mistakes, as well as typos. Carefully proofreading your work can make a significant difference on your score.

Manage Your Time

ETS gives you 30 minutes to respond to each prompt, and you should use all of this time. Begin by brainstorming your response and then write a simple outline. After completing your essay, review what you have written and check for clarity and mistakes.

Skill Areas

The quantitative reasoning sections assess basic math skills, your understanding of elementary concepts in mathematics, and your ability to use quantitative reasoning and methods to solve problems. The questions cover four concept areas: arithmetic, geometry, algebra, and data analysis. Questions in this section cover early high school math, but not trigonometry or calculus.

Question Types

The quantitative reasoning sections contains quantitative comparison questions; single-answer, multiple-choice questions; multiple-answer, multiple-choice questions; and numeric entry questions.

For quantitative comparison questions, you must determine the greater of two quantities. For these questions, the correct answer may sometimes be that the question does not give you enough information to make a determination. The multiple-choice questions cover a variety of subjects, and you should make sure to determine whether the exam wants you to select a single answer or multiple answers. Finally, some questions require you to complete a calculation and enter a specific number in a box to receive credit.

Can You Use a Calculator on the GRE?

Yes. You can use a calculator on the GRE. However, you cannot use your own device.

On the computer-delivered exam, you may use a calculator provided on the testing computer. Alternatively, on the paper-delivered exam, the testing center provides a handheld calculator. These calculators only possess simple functionalities, such as addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and finding square roots.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

While preparing for the exam, some social work GRE students mistakenly believe they need to review concepts from advanced math courses. However, the GRE does not require test takers to perform math found beyond a typical algebra II high school course. Remember to focus on early math skills and memorize essential algebraic and geometric formulas.

In contrast with the verbal comprehension sections, you may benefit from working backwards from the answers in these test sections. For example, you may be able to estimate the answer to a question without completing all of the calculations required to arrive at an answer. This can help you eliminate possible answers and save time.

Helpful Tips

Focus on Basic Concepts

The GRE focuses on algebra and geometry. Study concepts related to probability, number properties, word problems, plane geometry, functions, and systems of equations.

Bring the Right Tools

The testing center provides a calculator, but you should bring at least two non-mechanical pencils and a good eraser. Request more scratch paper than you think you might need to save time during the exam.

Save Time to Check Your Answers

You can lose points for spelling and grammar mistakes, as well as typos. Carefully proofreading your work can make a significant difference on your score.

Memorize Essential Equations

You cannot bring any guides or written material into the testing center. This means that you should try and remember all necessary equations. For example, memorize how to find the area of a circle and the perimeter of a triangle.

For the quantitative and verbal reasoning sections of the GRE, you can score from 130-170 in one-point increments. For the analytical writing section, you can score from 0-6, again in one-point increments.

ETS uses adaptive scoring on the GRE. This means that your score on one section can influence the types of questions you see on the next, allowing ETS to compensate for variations in difficulty between tests and better assess your overall ability compared to other test takers.

As an example, assume you answer 12 out of 20 questions correctly on your first verbal reasoning section. You then receive more difficult questions and answer eight out of 20 correctly on your second verbal reasoning section. Another test taker correctly answers eight out of 20 questions on their first section. They then receive easier questions on their second section and correctly answer 12 out of 20. While you both correctly answered 20 out of 40 questions, you receive a higher score because you answered more difficult questions.

ETS does not use adaptive scoring on paper-delivered tests; instead, test takers answer more questions.

Score Ranges on the GRE General Test

GRE Section Score Range
Verbal Reasoning 130-170 (1-point increments)
Analytical Writing 0-6 (half-point increments)
Quantitative Reasoning 130-170 (1-point increments)
Source: ETS

What's the Difference Between Your Scaled Score and Your Percentile Rank?

For your scaled score, you receive a number from 130-170 on the quantitative and verbal reasoning sections. You also receive a scaled score of 0-6 on the analytical writing section.

Alternatively, for your percentile rank, you receive a number from 1-99. This number corresponds to the percentage of the testing population who you outperformed. For example, if you receive a scaled score of 162 on the quantitative reasoning sections, you may receive a percentile rank of 80. This means that 80% of all other test takers scored lower on these sections than you did. The translation between scaled scores and percentile ranking can change from year to year.

Schools often review both of these figures, although percentile ranks typically provide a more complete picture of how your results compare to the average GRE scores for social work applicants.

What's an Average Score on the GRE?

Average Scores on the GRE General Test, 2014-17

GRE Section Average Score
Verbal Reasoning 150.05
Analytical Writing 3.50
Quantitative Reasoning 152.80
Source: ETS

What's an Average GRE Score for Social Work Programs?

Kaplan provides the following comparison of what a good GRE score looks like and how it compares to other scores.

Top Scores
Top 10%
Verbal: 163-170
Quantitative: 165-170
Writing: 5-6
Competitive Scores
Top 25%
Verbal: 158-162
Quantitative: 159-164
Writing: 4.5
Good Enough Scores
Top 50%
Verbal: 152-158
Quantitative: 153-158
Writing: 4.0
Below Average Scores
Bottom 50%
Verbal: < 151
Quantitative: < 152
Writing: < 3.5

To register for the GRE General Test or one of the six subject tests, you must first create an account with ETS. Once you have an account, you can look for nearby test centers and review test dates. Make sure you pick a date well in advance of admissions deadlines and register for the right type of exam.

During registration you can select up to four schools; ETS will automatically share your official scores with these institutions. To send your score to more schools you need to pay an additional fee. If you take the computer-delivered exam, you can view your unofficial scores as soon as you finish the test. At that time, you can choose whether or not to share your scores with your selected schools. You can also login to your ETS account to cancel your exam registration or reschedule your test for another date.

When Should You Take the GRE?

Try to take the GRE at least one year before you hope to begin graduate school, which usually means in the late summer or early fall the year prior to matriculation. This allows you enough time to retake the exam -- if needed -- and share your scores with schools that use early or rolling admissions deadlines.

How Much Does the GRE Cost?

Most students pay $205 to take the GRE General Test, although test takers in some countries (e.g., Australia and China) may pay slightly more. Additional fees for rescheduling or changing test centers may also apply.

The GRE Subject Tests each cost $150.

How Many Times Can You Take the GRE?

ETS allows you to take the GRE once every 21 days and up to five times in any 365-day period. If you need to take the GRE multiple times, consider using the ScoreSelect option to only report your best scores. Your scores remain valid for five years after the test date.

At-Home Study Methods

Try to find the study methods that work best for you. The list below contains several helpful tools and services that can help you improve your score.

GRE Prep Courses

Instead of individual tutoring, you can enroll in a GRE prep course. Companies like Princeton Review and Kaplan offer courses across the country. Students usually must pay $500-$2,000 for these courses, although you could find less expensive (or even free) alternatives at a local college or community center. You can also take GRE prep courses online.

In these classes, students take practice exams individually but learn as part of a cohort. Participants receive less individual attention than they would from a tutor but can benefit from the questions, experience, and advice of fellow test takers.

Studying Tips for the GRE

Know the Outline of the GRE

Understanding what to expect can help you prepare and reduce stress during the test. Remember that the analytical writing section always comes first, followed by the verbal and quantitative reasoning sections (in a random order).

Review the Writing Topic Pools

You can review all possible prompts for the analytical writing section online. You do not need to prepare answers to all of these prompts, but reviewing the prompts can help you better understand the types of issues and arguments you need to evaluate.

Focus on Vocabulary

A broad and diverse vocabulary can help you succeed on the verbal reasoning sections of the exam. Use flashcards and word lists to memorize vocabulary words that appear on the GRE often.

Refresh Your High School Math Skills

Don't bother studying trigonometry or calculus. Instead, focus on algebra and geometry and memorize basic equations (e.g., how to find the slope of a line or multiply exponents).

Take Practice Tests

Be mindful of the time constraints, especially for the analytical writing section. Leave enough time to go back over your answers, double-check your math, and proofread your answers.

Helpful Resources

Preparing for the GRE can be expensive, but many free or low-cost resources exist.

  • ETS POWERPREP Practice Tests To get the real GRE experience, take an ETS practice test. You receive one free, full-length test when you register for the GRE. You can also purchase additional practice tests.
  • Quizlet Quizlet offers dozens of online flashcard sets. Most of these sets cover common vocabulary words seen on the GRE. Some sets also help students memorize basic mathematical concepts, such as working with fractions or converting units of measure.
  • Magoosh GRE Vocabulary Flashcards Magoosh offers vocabulary flashcards through an app. You can download thousands of words to your smartphone, allowing you to practice at your convenience. The app can also track your responses and indicate when you have mastered a particular word.
  • LEAP LEAP -- a largely free online test preparation platform -- provides webinars and other instructional videos for GRE students. It also hosts a database of sample questions and practice tests and a forum that allows test takers to support one another.

Try to arrive at your testing center at least 30 minutes before your test is scheduled to begin. Dress for variable temperatures and remember that you cannot bring anything other than non-mechanical pencils and erasers into the testing room. The testing center provides calculators and scratch paper.

After you register, the administrator assigns you a seat. After you complete the third section of the exam, participants can take a 10 minute break. You can also ask for a bathroom break at any point during the exam, but the clock does not stop for these unscheduled breaks. Additionally, you cannot leave the testing facility at any point during the exam. If you do, ETS may invalidate your scores.

What Should You Bring with You?

What Should You Leave at Home?

ETS works to accommodate test takers with special needs. If your condition warrants accommodation, your test administrator may allow you extra time to complete the exam or additional or lengthened breaks during the test. They may also assign you someone to help you read the passages and questions or provide screen magnification. Additionally, they may offer a separate testing room or permit you to bring outside items, such as an oxygen tank, into the testing room.

However, you cannot request accommodations on the day of your test. You must do so in advance through your ETS account. Once ETS receives your accommodation request, they will reach out to you with additional information or questions.

When Will You Get Your Scores?

After finishing a computer-delivered test, you can see your unofficial scores for the verbal and quantitative sections immediately. You should receive your official scores, including your score for the analytical writing section, within 15 days.

You cannot review unofficial scores on a paper-delivered test, and you should receive your official scores within five weeks of your test date.

How Do You Submit Your Scores to Schools?

During registration, you can select up to four schools, and ETS will forward your official scores to these institutions. You can also choose whether to send your most recent scores or all of your previous scores. You can cancel or change your score recipients until 10 p.m. the night prior to your exam. If you want to send your scores to more than four schools or make changes to the list of recipients after taking the test, you must pay a $27 fee per institution.

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

The ScoreSelect option gives you more control over which of your scores a school sees. Using ScoreSelect, you can opt to only share the results of the GRE general or subject tests on which you performed well.

For example, assume you have taken the GRE three times. You scored poorly on your first attempt, high on your verbal reasoning section on the second try, and high on the quantitative reasoning section on your third try. Using ScoreSelect, you can send scores from your second and third exams without needing to also send the results of your first test.

How Long Will Your Scores Be Valid?

ETS allows you to submit your GRE scores to graduate schools for up to five years after the date of your test. Keep in mind that ETS may take up to five days to process a request for scores; don't wait until the last minute to submit your test results to schools.