The Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) is the most common standardized test for hopeful graduate students. The GRE, administered by the nonprofit organization Educational Testing Services (ETS), evaluates these students and provides them with a baseline assessment of their reasoning and writing abilities. The GRE covers verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing, allowing test-takers to demonstrate their academic strengths and analytical skills to admissions officers. The exam includes several types of questions, including multiple-choice, numeric entry, quantitative comparison, passage selection, and essay-form analytical writing structures.

Most top-tier universities require prospective graduate students to complete prerequisite coursework and prove their competency with the GRE, or a similar advanced exam. Not every type of graduate program requires the GRE, but hopeful applicants should strongly consider taking it anyway. Many graduate and business programs will take GRE scores into account even if the scores aren’t required. Students may also choose to retake the exam with the hope of earning higher scores on additional passes in order to stand out in their application.

GRE Subject Tests

The GRE General Test assesses applicants’ critical-thinking skills, but the GRE Subject Tests go a step further, evaluating learners’ proficiency in specific subjects. Many graduate programs don’t require subject test scores, but they may help set applicants apart. Preparation for GRE Subject Tests usually includes either an undergraduate degree in an associated discipline or extensive experience in the field. Subject tests are available in six areas: biology, chemistry, English literature, mathematics, physics, and psychology. Each paper-formatted exam takes just under three hours and costs $150. Most exam questions are multiple-choice, but the English literature exam also includes identification, interpretation, and analysis questions.

Students interested in earning a graduate degree in public health can expect each school to have its own GRE requirements. Not all public health graduate programs require the GRE, but those programs usually implement more extensive interviews and writing-intensive applications. Make sure to check each school’s GRE requirements to ensure you complete the exam in time (if necessary), retake it if necessary, and prepare a competitive application.

The Structure of the GRE

The GRE’s general structure contains three sections: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing. Each area accounts for a distinct testing section. Analytical writing always comes first, with two separately timed 30-minute assignments for which testers must first analyze an issue, then analyze an argument. Verbal reasoning and quantitative reasoning each appear in two separated timed sections, which may take place in any order. Each verbal reasoning section allows 30 minutes, and quantitative reasoning sections allow 35 minutes. Question formats in these sections vary, and may include multiple choice, numeric entry, or comparison and analysis selections. Each section always includes 20 total questions.

The computerized test also includes an additional section: either an unidentified, unscored section that compiles information on sample test questions for future test formats, or a research section at the end of the exam. In each test, one component goes unscored, but it looks identical to the other test sections. Within sections, students can move freely between questions, mark areas they wish to return to, and review questions and change answers if necessary. The total testing time is three hours and 45 minutes, with one 10-minute break after the third section.

Delivery Format

Most students must take the GRE on a computer, but those who don’t have access to a computer testing center may sit for the paper version of the test. The paper version contains five additional questions in each verbal and quantitative section, but also offers five more minutes for completion. Students testing on paper wait five weeks for their scores, while the computer exam shows unofficial scores directly after submission. Testing centers only offer the paper version up to three times per year, while students can take the computer exam almost anytime.

Skill Areas

The verbal reasoning section of the GRE tests students’ ability to analyze and interpret written materials. They must evaluate prose, determine the author’s perspective and conclusion, identify strengths and weaknesses of the text, and demonstrate a thorough understanding of grammar and syntax.

Question Types

The verbal reasoning section of the GRE includes two verbal components, each of which consists of questions in three main categories: 10 questions in reading comprehension, six text completion questions, and four sentence equivalence assessments. The exam also contains approximately 10 reading passages, and around half of the questions test the taker’s understanding of these passages. This section evaluates testers’ advanced knowledge of vocabulary and grammar, plus their ability to analyze and interpret text.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Verbal reasoning challenges students with complex passages and tricky questions, meant to weed out passive readers. Students often fall into the trap of answering questions based on logic rather than on the provided passage. To avoid this, make sure to actively read the text, underline important points, and interact with the passage as you read it. See if you can determine the correct response before reading the multiple choice options — don’t work backwards to seek out answers for the questions. After finishing a section, go back and proofread to make sure you answered the entire question. When you encounter fill-in-the-blank questions with multiple components, make sure your answer satisfies both parts of the question.

Helpful Tips

Double-Check your Answers Always go back and proofread your answers. Make sure to read the question correctly, so your answers fulfill all of the its components.
Watch for Wording Keep an eye out for grammatical nuances and key words when you read. Structural and transitional words such as “however” often change the whole point of the passage.
Read Actively Pay close attention while reading. It may help to take notes and highlight key words and phrases that emphasize the passage’s overall argument.
Don’t Work Backwards Do not read the questions and answers before reading the text. Read and understand first, and then answer based on your overall comprehension of the passage.

Skill Areas

The analytical writing section of the GRE tests students’ critical thinking and writing abilities. Test-takers need to evaluate an example argument based on the test’s instructions. On a different topic, they must demonstrate that they can construct their own argument, complete with a thesis and clearly articulated supporting analysis.

Question Types

Two separate analytical tasks, each of which takes 30 minutes, make up the writing section. These do not include any content-specific questions, but test each student’s ability to articulate ideas and piece together strong arguments. The first written piece focuses on analyzing an issue. In this component, students must present their opinion on a given topic and make a compelling argument for their position. The second essay piece requires students to scrutinize another author’s argument, then develop an evaluation of the text.

Word Processing Software

The computer-delivered GRE uses basic word software, in which you can insert and delete text, undo actions, and copy and paste. However, the ETS software does not include a spelling or grammar checker, or any dictionary or thesaurus access. This ensures that learners completing computer exams do not receive advantages over students testing on paper.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

The analytical writing section presents a challenge to most test-takers. To do well, you need to fully understand how graders mark the section, and what they look for in answers. Use GRE prep materials to study the types of arguments graders prefer. Many students also make the mistake of using verbose language and attempting overly complicated analyses, when they should focus on clarity and argument cohesion. Make sure to read the instructions carefully in each section, and develop a clear plan to accomplish the task before you start writing.

Helpful Tips

Spend time crafting arguments and outlines, and completing sample essays, before test day. Practice writing within the time limit so you can pace yourself during the exam.

Leave time for a final proofread. Spending a few minutes at the end to remove grammatical and spelling errors vastly improves the overall quality of your work.

Familiarize Yourself
Use GRE prep materials and become familiar with the prompt structure. It’s important to fully understand the two types of questions that appear on the GRE.

Read over previous exam questions and their corresponding essays. Look at how each one was scored. Reviewing high-scoring essays prepares you to write one.

Skill Areas

The quantitative reasoning section of the GRE measures basic high school-level mathematical knowledge. Test-takers must demonstrate their problem-solving skills with a variety of questions on arithmetic, geometry, algebra, and data analysis. Students also need to prove their proficiency in modeling and solving equations using standard mathematical conventions.

Question Types

The quantitative reasoning section of the GRE includes several types of questions. Quantitative comparison questions require students to determine numeric values and their relationship to other data in a set. For the multiple choice questions, students select either one correct answer or several applicable responses. Numeric entry questions require students to solve a problem and then fill in their solution. The GRE often presents real-world scenarios in word problems, which students must evaluate, though in other instances the questions are purely mathematical.

Can You Use a Calculator on the GRE?

The computer-delivered version of the GRE offers an on-screen calculator that includes general addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and square root functionalities. Paper-testing centers provide basic calculators for their test takers. The basic calculator helps students focus on reasoning and problem solving, and removes the stress and extra time required for computation.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Students may find themselves struggling with some of the questions in the quantitative analysis section. That’s because many test-takers prepare by studying advanced math and techniques, such as calculus, when most of the exam only covers up to high school-level algebra. Some students also fail to prepare testing strategies — estimation tactics and learning solution shortcuts may remove the need to fully calculate every exam equation. Sometimes, students can find the correct answer simply by eliminating the obviously wrong ones.

Helpful Tips

Reduce each question to its simplest form. Remove extra zeros in fractions, ignore irrelevant content, and answer only the question given to you.

Study Up
Brush up on the mathematical skills most likely to appear in the exam. Focus on learning basic terminology and memorizing useful equations so you can implement them quickly.

Be Careful
Take it one question at a time. Don’t speed through questions, making simple mistakes that you could avoid. Leave time to check your answers at the end.

Use the Process of Elimination
Use your estimation abilities and logic skills to quickly eliminate answers that do not make sense in the context of the question.

The GRE awards students three distinct scores: The verbal and quantitative reasoning sections each generate a raw score between 130-170, based on the total number of correct answers. Students then receive a final scaled score. The scaled score takes the difficulty of the questions into consideration so that different versions of the test still award comparable scores. One holistic reader and one e-reader score the analytical writing section. The final result — between zero and six — averages the two scores. If those two scores differ greatly, then a second reader awards a grade and the two readers’ scores average into the final determination. Scoring for the paper exam is different. Two holistic readers, rather than one holistic and one e-reader, assign scores that average to a final grade. If the scores are significantly different, a third reader comes into play to make a formal judgement.

Score Ranges on the GRE General Test

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

Source: ETS

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

Your scaled score and your percentile rank are different. Your three scaled scores take into account the number of questions you answered correctly in each section, plus the difficulty level of those questions. These scores provide comparable results across variable exam versions. Your percentile rank, on the other hand, indicates how your test scores measure up to that of other test-takers. Your percentile rank changes as more people take the exam and achieve new scores.

What’s an Average Score on the GRE?

Average Scores on the GRE General Test, 2013-16

GRE Section Average Score
Verbal Reasoning 149.97
Analytical Writing 3.48
Quantitative Reasoning 152.57

Source: ETS

What’s a Good GRE Score for Public Health Programs?

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

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

Before registering to take the GRE, create an ETS account to learn the exam requirements. Using this account, you can register to take the GRE, select a test center and exam date, and pay the fee. You can reschedule or cancel your exam up until four days prior to your exam date, and receive a full refund. You can use ScoreSelect after completing the exam to send your best scores to your designated schools.

When Should You Take the GRE?

Take the GRE approximately one year before you plan to start graduate school. This should allow enough time retake the exam if necessary.

How Much Does the GRE Cost?

The GRE General test costs $205 in the United States. In some other countries, like China, it costs more. The GRE Subject Tests each cost $150 worldwide.

How Many Times Can You Take the GRE?

You can retake the computer version of the GRE once every 21 days, but you cannot take the exam more than five times in any continuous 12-month period.

At-Home Study Methods

A variety of at-home study methods exist to help test takers prepare for the GRE.

  • Printed Study Guides: Printed study guides give students a comprehensive overview of test materials and sample questions and answers to study from. They also provide practice tests.
  • Flashcards: Flashcards address the vocabulary that’s most likely to come up on the exam. This study tactic prepares students for the verbal reasoning and analytical writing sections.
  • Private Tutoring: Private tutors can train students in pacing and test-taking tactics, and ensure structured study time is tailored to the student and focused on improving weaknesses.
  • Studying Apps: Many apps exist to help students study for each GRE section. These apps may include vocabulary practice, sample quantitative aptitude questions, and video lessons.
  • Online Practice Tests: Practice tests teach students how to pace themselves, highlight the question types students are likely to encounter, demonstrate areas of strength and weakness, and help to increase confidence on test day.

GRE Prep Courses

The biggest names in GRE prep include Kaplan, specializing in in-person lessons; Princeton Review, which offers real-time online courses with instructor feedback; and Manhattan Prep, providing self-paced online instruction. These courses cost between $500 and $1,300. There are some free study options, as well. Kaplan offers a limited number of free prep events, and Khan Academy and Magoosh provide online access to free practice tests, vocabulary flashcards, and helpful training videos.

Studying Tips for the GRE

  • Take Practice Tests: Practice exams prepare test-takers for pacing and structure of the exam on test day. Practice test scores may also help structure future studying.
  • Manage your Time: Watch the clock while you sit the test. Planning your time and getting comfortable with the pace will help you stay focused and efficient.
  • Work on Weaknesses: Focus on your weaker areas when you study. This is the only way to get better and better at taking the GRE.
  • Familiarize Yourself: Learn the test structure. Familiarize yourself with the overall test layout and most common question formats. This helps prevent surprises and roadblocks on test day.
  • Stay on a Schedule: Make a study schedule and stick to it. The GRE covers a lot of information, and success requires consistent practice and exposure to the content.

Helpful Resources

Students studying for the GRE can take advantage of a variety of free training resources.

  • ETS POWERPREP Practice Tests: ETS designed these practice tests, complete with sample scores, to help students become familiar with question formats, learn to use on-screen tools, and practice under timed conditions.
  • Quizlet: Quizlet provides free online access to flashcard decks that other users created as prep materials. These cover some of the most common vocabulary terms that students need to learn.
  • Magoosh GRE Vocabulary Flashcards: Students can access Magoosh flashcards online and on their mobile devices. These flashcards emphasize practicing the words that need the most review, based on previous answers.
  • LEAP: LEAP offers a personalized study schedule, free test prep classes, and online access to blogs and instructional videos all meant to help you accomplish your studying goals.

GRE exam days are extremely structured. Test administrators assign students their seats, and provide scratch paper, which must be turned in after the exam. Testers cannot bring any food, liquid, or personal items into the exam room. One 10-minute break occurs after the third exam section; otherwise, if you need to use the restroom during the exam, you may raise your hand to do so — but the timing of your test won’t stop.

What Should You Bring with You?

  • Valid Photo ID: You must present your photo ID with a name matching your registration, or you may be unable to sit the exam. ETS encourages all students to bring two forms of ID.
  • Confirmation Email/Voucher: Bring your registration email that confirms your test choice, date, location, and score recipients. The name on this registration must match your ID.
  • Layers of Clothing: Your clothing may be subject to inspection by the test administrator. The administrator may prohibit jewelry, personal effects like hats or neckties, heavy jackets, or outerwear.

What Should You Leave at Home?

  • Study Notes/Books: No personal notes, study materials, or paper of any kind (aside from the provided scratch paper) may enter the testing room. Leave these materials at home.
  • Your Own Scratch Paper: Do not bring your own scratch paper into the exam. Administrators may suspect a potential cheating attempt. Testing centers provide scratch paper for all students.
  • Your Own Calculator: You cannot bring your personal calculator into the exam. Personal devices can include additional programmed information, the exam supplies a basic on-screen calculator for all test-takers.

ETS offers certain accommodations to students with disabilities or health-associated needs. These may include extended testing time, extra breaks, screen magnification tools, or an alternate test format (such as recorded audio). Students applying for accommodation need to submit their request and a letter of support from their doctor before they can schedule their test. The review takes six weeks. Qualifying needs include: being hard-of-hearing, deaf, blind, diabetic, epileptic, or suffering from a different documented medical problem that affects daily living.

When Will You Get Your Scores?

Directly after completing the GRE you may select the option to report your scores. If you do so, you can see your unofficial test scores on the verbal and quantitative reasoning sections. Students can access their official scores in their ETS account 10 to 15 days after their test date.

How Do You Submit Your Scores to Schools?

When registering with ETS, select if you would like to submit all of your previously recorded scores, or only the most recent ones. Choose where you would like your scores sent. After test day, you may send scores to four graduate schools for free. Submitting scores to additional schools incurs a fee.

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

The ScoreSelect option offered by ETS allows students to choose between sending all previous GRE scores, only their most recent scores, or only the highest scores. When registering, you can elect not to report your scores, to send all previous scores, or only to send the most recent results to four designated schools. After receiving your official results, ScoreSelect lets you pick and choose what to send to schools. This appeals to students who tested multiple times but only want to send their highest scores.

How Long Will Your Scores Be Valid?

GRE scores used for public health programs are valid for five years after your test date. If you took the test before July 1, 2016, then your scores are valid for five years from the testing year, which is measured from July 1 to June 30.