The GRE Test - An overview of the GRE

Established in 1936, the GRE, or Graduate Record Examinations, is a standardised, computer-based test which is required for entry to the majority of graduate schools in the USA and Canada.  The score is valid for five years and ranges from 130-170 in two papers (verbal reasoning and quantitative reasoning)and 0-6 in the analytic writing section. There are over a thousand  GRE test centres in 160 countries, and you can sit the GRE five times a year, as long as you leave a gap of 21 days between exams. The cost of sitting the General GRE is approximately $220, while each of the three GRE subject tests costs $150.

Changes to GRE format

The GRE changed format on 22 September 2023.

  New Format Old Format
Number of questions 54 100
Length of exam 1 hour 58 minutes 4 hours
Number of break times None 10 minutes plus 1 minutes between sections
Analytical writing 1 essay –“Analyse an issue”- in 30 minutes 2 essays in 60 minutes: “Analyse an argument” AND “Analyse an issue”
Verbal reasoning- two sections 12 questions in 18 minutes and 15 questions in 23 minutes 40 questions in 60 minutes
Quantitative reasoning- two sections 12 questions in 21 minutes and 15 questions in 28 minutes 40 questions in 70 minutes
Unscored research section and scored experimental section Removed Used to help ETS develop their question database – experimental section was unmarked and both were allocated randomly, with variations in time limits.
Subject tests available Three -Physics, Mathematics, Psychology Four -Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics Psychology
Subject test length 2 hours for Physics and Psychology 2 hours 50 minutes for Maths 2 hours 50 minutes for each subject
Results posted 8-10 days 15+ days

NB: while the GRE may now be shorter, it is not any easier and still covers the same topics. You can now preview and review each section and choose what to answer first. You may mark and review your answers and skip questions you find difficult, to return to later on. Note, however, that time is of the essence in each part of the GRE, and it is very easy to run out of time and find yourself unable to go back to what you have originally missed.


You can resit the General GRE up to five times a year, and take the subject tests every 14 days.

The GRE Test - Breakdown of the GRE sections

Analytical writing

ETS has a pool of topics which it draws upon to choose the “Analyse an issue” subject  and you would be well advised to look through this list at and familiarise yourself with what to expect.

The analytical writing paper assesses your critical thinking abilities, whether or not you known how to construct an argument and defend your point of view, and convey complex ideas in a clear and well-structured manner. Once you are presented with an issue, your task is to evaluate what is being said, and give examples and reasons for your own perspective on the issue under discussion.

ETS will provide you with a basic word processor for typing your essay, but be aware that this does not offer spellchecker or grammar checker, so proofread your work carefully. Thirty minutes is not a long period of time, so planning your answer is crucial. Make a point of reading the question very closely -because this will give you specific instructions on how to write your essay and the approach you need to take. Are you being asked to confirm/criticise/evaluate/rebut…the keyword holds the clue to what your essay should look like and cover.

The paper is scored from 0-6 and you need to aim for 4.5+, whereas the average score has been calculated at 3.5. The general structure of your essay should include:

  • An introduction
  • 3-4 main paragraphs
  • A conclusion

Clarity, coherence, logic and providing relevant evidence for your viewpoint are key to gaining a good mark. Note that ETS uses plagiarism software when marking this paper and unattributed quotations are not acceptable.

The best way to prepare for this section is to look through the above ETS pdf and practise writing 30 minute essays on a range of topics.

Verbal reasoning

The verbal reasoning section of the GRE assesses whether you can:

  • Evaluate the information you are given in written material and reach conclusions or summarise a passage.
  • Analyse how the different parts of a sentence relate to each other.
  • Identify the links between words and concepts.

This is achieved through three types of questions: reading comprehension, text completion and sentence equivalence.

Reading comprehension

Passages are taken from books and journals,  can be academic or general, and could focus on any number of subjects, including but not limited to social sciences, business, physical or biological sciences etc. You do not need any specialised knowledge, since the answers are contained in the text. You will be presented with a multiple choice option and asked to choose one or more answers -read through all the options before deciding; alternatively, you could be required to choose a sentence in the passage you are reading  which matches the description in the question. You will be told which paragraphs to look at if the passage is a long one. Use your keyboard to select the right word or sentence.

Text completion

You will have to choose short phrases or individual words to fill in gaps in a text. Read through all the options and make sure that your chosen word/phrase is grammatically correct. There may be between 1-3 blanks in a sentence. Where there is one blank, you will have 5 answer choices; where there are two or three blanks, each blank has three answer choices.

Sentence equivalence

You will be presented with single sentences with one blank and six answer choices – and you will have to decide which two choices make the sentence itself complete. Check the grammar and make sure you have  created a logical sentence.

Quantitative reasoning

This multiple-choice paper sets out to assess your knowledge of basic arithmetic, geometry, data analysis and algebra. It evaluates whether you are skilled at reasoning quantitatively and using quantitative methods to solve and model problems.

You will not be tested on your ability to construct proofs or inferential statistics, or your knowledge of calculus or  trigonometry.

The paper can be divided into four sub-sets:

  • Quantitative comparison questions
  • Numeric entry questions
  • Multiple-choice questions where you choose one answer
  • Multiple-choice questions where you choose one or more answers.
  • Data interpretation questions are combined in one place and can fall into the multiple-choice or numeric entry brackets. You may be given a bar or line graph.

You will be provided with  an on-screen calculator to use in this paper – you are not allowed to  use your own calculator. Double check your answers to make sure you have not made a key-entry error.

GRE subject tests

These tests are gradually being discontinued .They take place two weeks a month in September, October and April and if you are not satisfied with your score, it is possible to resit them after a break of 14 days.

At present you can sit the test in Psychology, Physics and Mathematics, see below:

Subject Number of questions Topics covered
Mathematics 66 multiple-choice Number theory, mathematical logic, abstract algebra, calculus, linear algebra, probability and statistics, sequences, complex variables etc
Physics 70,multiple-choice Quantum mechanics, optics and wave phenomena, thermodynamics, electromagnetism, special relativity, atomic physics, statistical mechanics, classical mechanics  etc
Psychology 144,multiple-choice Research design, cognitive, behavioural and social development, clinical psychology, measurement and methodology etc.

Scores range from 0-100 and the test can be done at home. Registration is on a first-come, first-served basis.

The GRE Test - registration and test regulations

In order to sit the GRE General test, you need to open an account  by registering with

You will be able to reschedule test dates  through your account, pay fees online, request reinstatement of scores, choose up to four  score recipients or ask for diagnostics of your General Test performance – a free service.

The most important thing to remember is that your ID has to match the name under which you register.

Practical guidelines

If you decide to sit the GRE at home, you must ensure that the environment is uncluttered, well-lit and that you are undisturbed. Before the proctor starts the test, you will be asked to use a mirror or your smartphone to pan around the room and show your screen. You must sign-in at the agreed time, and if you are more than 12 minutes late, the GRE will be cancelled

You will also be required to show your ID, which has to be an original document and not a photocopy, must have a photo and a signature, be government-issued and valid at the time you are sitting the test. An expired passport, for example, will not be accepted. You may also be asked for a signature, for ID purposes.

You are not allowed to obscure your face by wearing a cap etc.

If you attend a test centre, you may have to pass through a metal detector, empty your pockets, pull up your sleeves and trousers, give a signature and remove any hats, scarves, glasses,hair ornaments for inspection. You may also be photographed and asked for a voice sample.

Candidates can bring in a whiteboard with an erasable marker or one sheet of blank paper in a transparent sheet-protector, along with an erasable marker.

Forbidden items:

  • tobacco products
  • e-cigarettes
  • electronic devices
  • food and liquids
  • jewellery -apart from a wedding and/or engagement ring
  • weapons

Remember that if you need to go to the toilet, you must ask for permission, whether you are sitting the paper at home or at a test centre.

Once you have finished the GRE, you will be given the choice to cancel or report your scores to the recipients you named on registering. If you change your mind about cancelling your scores, you have 60 days to reinstate them through your ETS account.


You can score from 130-170 in the verbal reasoning and quantitative sections of the GRE, and 0-6 in the analytical writing. You should aim for 158 and 162, respectively, in the verbal and quantitative reasoning sections, in order to come in the top 80th percentile. Recent studies demonstrate that the average GRE scores are:

  • verbal reasoning -150.37
  • quantitative reasoning -153.66, resulting in an overall score of 304.
  • To put this number in context, Harvard requires a GRE score upwards of 320, while Yale is looking for 319-329.
  • Of course, each GRE score is made up of two parts: the scaled (numerical) score AND the percentile rank. To stand a good chance of being offered a place on a highly-rated course at a prestigious university, you need to get high scores and end up in the top 85-95 percentile. In addition, the required scores fluctuate from one department to another. For example, MIT favours applicants for Physics who can offer a GRE score of 329-335, whereas Computer Science scores can range from 325-330.These small margines can make all the difference.


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