GRE Guide


Facilitated by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) is the most popular standardized exam for graduate programs in the U.S. The GRE General Test contains three skill areas (or “measures”): verbal reasoning, analytical writing, and quantitative reasoning. Each measure contains specific question types, including multiple choice (with one or more answers), select in passage, written analyses, numeric entry, and quantitative comparison. The majority of students take the computer-based GRE, but ETS also offers paper-based exams. Regardless of the test format, however, all U.S. residents pay a $205 registration fee.

While some exceptions exist — particularly for online master’s and Ph.D. in social work programs — most graduate schools require students to submit GRE scores. Colleges and universities use these results to determine general program acceptance, and any financial awards and fellowship positions. According to the ETS GRE Worldwide Test Taker Report 2013-2016, social and behavioral science graduate students, on average, earned a 153 verbal score, 151 quantitative score, and 4 for analytical writing. However, the GRE stands as a part of a holistic admissions process that also considers factors such as academic transcripts, recommendation letters, and personal statement. To this end, the importance of GRE performance varies, and students should contact their prospective schools to discuss specific requirements and benchmarks.

GRE Subject Tests

In addition to the GRE General Test, ETS provides six GRE Subject Tests in chemistry, biology, physics, mathematics, psychology, and literature in English. In general, master’s in social work programs do not require these specialized exams, but students may submit them to bolster their credentials. The psychology subject test stands as the most useful for this field of work, but any of the sciences are relevant, particularly for clinical social workers.

ETS administers subject tests worldwide in April, September, and October. Unlike the general test, examinees can only take these exams in a paper format. They pay $150 and have two hours and 45 minutes to complete the test. Because there are no individually monitored portions, time management stands as a major key to success. Subject Tests only use multiple choice questions, while physics and biology versions limit the number of choices to five.

Is the GRE Required for a Graduate Degree in Social Work?

Social workers can usually earn initial professional credentials with just a bachelor’s degree. But for professionals who want to become fully licensed clinical social workers, a master’s or doctorate is one of the core requirements for state licensure. This means that most in the field need to tackle the GRE at some point in their career. However, students should discuss test requirements with their prospective universities, as some postbaccalaureate and social work Ph.D. programs do not require GRE scores.

What Does the GRE Look Like?

The Structure of the GRE

The computer-based GRE General Test totals six sections and spans three hours and 45 minutes. The analytical writing measure consists of one section featuring two 30 minute tasks. The verbal reasoning and quantitative reasoning measures each contain two 30 and two 35 minutes sections, respectively. Each is 20 questions, totaling 40 per measure and 80 overall. Most examinees also encounter either an unscored experimental or unscored research section that ETS uses to analyze and categorize future exam questions. The GRE identifies the research section, allowing test takers to skip it if they want. However, the experimental section is unidentified and students cannot distinguish it from scored verbal and quantitative measures.

On test day, the analytical writing section appears first. Afterwards, examinees may encounter the Quantitative and verbal reasoning sections, and a possible experimental section, in any order. Students should prepare for this randomness as they work through practice exams. The computer allows students to go back or skip questions freely — as long as they work within a single section. This mobility enables examinees to save the most challenging questions for the end, a strategy many find time effective. The research section always comes last, if at all. For unknown reasons, a small group of lucky test takers do not encounter the experimental or research section.

Delivery Format

In addition to the computerized version, ETS offers the GRE General Test through a paper delivery format. The paper exam contains only scored questions. Here, the analytical writing measure consists of two 30 minute sections, not one section with two tasks. Relatedly, the verbal and quantitative reasoning measures each contain 25 questions, totaling 50 per measure and 100 overall. To accommodate this increase, each Verbal section spans 35 minutes and each quantitative section spans 40. This means that the paper-based GRE lasts 20 minutes longer than its counterpart. Differences also exist for the scoring timeline. Unlike computer-based test takers, those who take the paper GRE do not receive unofficial scores on test day; they may wait up to five weeks for official scores, while computer-based examinees can access their results in 10-15 days after the test date.

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The Verbal Reasoning Section

Skill Areas

The verbal reasoning measure consists of two sections that assess an examinee’s ability to evaluate and synthesize written information. This include skills in discerning relationships between words, sentence components, and complex ideas. In addition to critical thinking skills, students need to develop a large and diverse vocabulary pool to prepare for this portion of the GRE.

Question Types

Three verbal reasoning question types exist: text completion, sentence equivalence, and reading comprehension. Text completion requires students to fill one to three answer blanks in texts that range from one to five sentences. Examinees can expect about six sentence equivalence questions per section, which asks them to choose two answers from six choices for one sentence. Approximately half of verbal reasoning requires examinees to read passage and answer related questions structured in multiple choice (with one or more possible answers) and select in passage formats. These passages draw from the arts and humanities, physical and social sciences, and everyday topics.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Misinterpretation of passages, questions, and answer choices stands as the major error students make during these GRE sections. To sidestep this pitfall, examinees must employ active reading skills to interrogate the written information. Additionally, students should remember that, while the passages may present a topic they are unfamiliar with, they can always find the answer in the text. The verbal reasoning measure does not test a student’s outside knowledge of a particular subject, rather the focus is general critical thinking and vocabulary. Test makers exploit this false assumption by creating answers that seem logically consistent, but are actually incorrect due to grammatical or contextual nuances.

Helpful Tips

  • Read Carefully: While you may find it tempting to read the questions and then search for answers within the text, it’s important that you first read the passages carefully. This enables you to understand how ideas relate to each other in context.
  • Locate Major Ideas: For all question types — but especially those with multiple plausible choices — you need to identify main and supporting ideas. This allows you to understand which ideas the author advances, and which ones they merely report or actually dispute.
  • Identify Question Types: Different question types require different problem-solving strategies. For example, questions that present two blanks means that you should pick answers that can fit either slot. Test makers often create false responses that fit into the first blank, but not the second.
  • Proofread: Budget time correctly so you can take a second look at your answers. While you may not be able to go in-depth, it is crucial to correct grammatical, logic, and stylistic mistakes.

The Analytical Writing Section

Skill Areas

This analytical writing measure includes two writing tasks that evaluate an examinee’s critical thinking and their ability to transfer these thoughts into cogent and persuasive text. The prompts draw from diverse topics and asks students to present and sustain complex arguments supported by facts and logical continuity.

Question Types

Examinees tackle two 30-minute writing assignments. The “analyze an Issue” task presents an opinion on a general, popular, or divisive subject, such as stem cell research. Students follow specific instructions to crete and support an argument in response to the issue. The “analyze an argument” task puts test takers in the role of judge, where they must evaluate an argument on its factual validity and logical persuasiveness. ETS designed the two tasks to complement one another, and both test students’ abilities to advance and assess information.

Word Processing Software

To ensure fairness in test taking and evaluation, ETS provides a word processor that puts computer-based examinees, more or less, on the same logistical playing field as paper test takers. The processor allows students to insert, delete, and copy and paste text. They can also undo the previous action.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

The assumption that the analytical writing measure tests knowledge of specific subjects stands as one of the common mistakes examinees makes during the preparation period. They do not. These tasks evaluate critical thinking and effective writing skills, which graduate programs see as two of the most important factors contributing to a student’s academic and professional success. With the right strategies, anyone can ace this section. While studying for the GRE, some students leave this section until the end or skip it completely on practice tests. This is an egregious error because the analytical writing measure always comes first on the real exam; also, by foregoing the writing tasks, students only train their brain and body for a two hour and 45-minute session, instead of the entire duration. This leads to low scores on the final two sections because students fatigue before the test is over.

Helpful Tips

  • Review Topics: The ETS website contains a library of every possible topic for the “issue” and “argument” tasks. By studying these prompts, you can get an idea on what to expect and therefore what to study for.
  • Analyze Grading: ETS also provides in depth grading guides for the “issue” and “argument” tasks. Because judging someone’s writing entails a degree of subjectivity, you better prepare for this measure by understanding what graders want.
  • Manage Time: You get exactly the same amount of time for the Issue and Argument tasks. This means you need to develop a consistent testing rhythm that plans for reading, outlining, writing, and proofreading.
  • Emphasize Clarity: Of all the criteria GRE graders look for in this section, clarity stands as the most important because it affects every other aspect of an examinee’s writing. Avoid needlessly complicate words and grammatical structures because it obscures content and may confuse the reader.

The Quantitative Reasoning Section

Skill Areas

Totaling 40 questions for computer-based examinees and 50 for paper test takers, the quantitative reasoning measure evaluates basic knowledge of mathematical concepts and skills consistent with high school coursework. Students must successfully model and interpret data and solve real world challenges, usually formatted as word programs.

Question Types

These sections contain four question types: quantitative comparison, numeric entry, and multiple choice with one and one or more reponses. Some present questions in a purely mathematical framework, while others pose pose them in a real work setting that examinees must translate. Topics include arithmetic, data analysis, geometric coordinate systems, prime numbers, quadratic equations, and absolute value. Quantitative reasoning questions cover concepts up to advanced high school algebra, and therefore use terminology, symbols, and conventions appropriate for this math level.

Can You Use a Calculator on the GRE?

Examinees may not bring their own calculators. Those who take the computer-based exam gain access to an on screen application during this measure, while paper test takers receive an ETS-approved calculator from test coordinators. In both cases, the features consist of subtraction, addition, division, multiplication, and a square root function.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Overusing the calculator reflects a major error test takers make, particular when facing quantitative comparison questions. To overcome this obstacle, examinees must train themselves to make accurate estimations and use mental math. By emphasizing these skills, they can better identify time saving patterns and shortcuts. In preparation, many students mistakenly relearn calculus, trigonometry, and other high level mathematical concepts, which not only wastes time, but also strengthens the wrong areas. Because these sections cap at algebra, students should cultivate lower math skills. They also need to learn how to properly read exam questions. This enables them to avoid two major pitfalls: focusing on extraneous data, leading to needless calculations; and answering unasked questions.

Helpful Tips

  • Study Fundamentals: Review basic mathematical concepts, such as mean, mode, median, probability, and major equations. This strengthens mental math skills, which enables you to solve problems quickly without relying on excessive calculator functions.
  • Develop Specific Strategies: Come to test day with a set of tools and knowledge of where to best apply them. Once you identify what strategy to use on a particular problem, stick with it. If you encounter a wall, retrace your steps to identify errors and, if necessary, a better strategy.
  • Use Available Answers: This tip applies to multiple choice questions, where the possible answers provide you with a means to work backwards. Plug in numbers and use a process of elimination to identify the correct response.
  • Review: Like any other part of the GRE, time management is a key to success. Work efficiently and leave enough time to proof your answers, locating and fixing the ones that are one or two digits off the mark.

How is the GRE Scored?

As shown below, each section of the GRE General Test uses a distinct score range. The quantitative reasoning and verbal reasoning measures each total 170 possible points. How many questions a students answer correctly adds up to the raw score. ETS then puts this number through an equating process, which takes into consideration variations in difficulty based on test edition and section level adaptation. The latter only applies to computer-based examinees, as the program adapts the second section of a particular measure based on one’s performance in the first.

The analytical writing portion works on a holistic scale of 1-6. A score of 6 reflects “outstanding” work, while a score of 1 represents “fundamentally deficient” performance. Students only receive a score 0 if their writing is completely off topic or incomprehensible. A student’s written work receives attention from an e-grader (computer program) and a human judge, and the final score comes out of the average between the two, rounded to the nearest half point interval.

Score Ranges on the GRE General Test

GRE SectionScore Range
Verbal Reasoning130-170 (1-point increments)
Analytical Writing0-6 (half-point increments)
Quantitative Reasoning130-170 (1-point increments)
Source: ETS

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

After ETS calculates an examinee’s scaled score, it transfers the number into a percentile rank. This percentage represents how well the student performs in comparison to all recent GRE test takers. ETS produces a percentile rank for each of the three exam measures. In general, graduate students want to strive for at least a 60th percentile. Individuals wanting to pursue a traditional or online master’s in social work should contact their prospective schools to discuss minimum or benchmark scores, and also the average results of applicants for their particular program. The 2017-2018 ETS scoring guide provides additional information.

What’s an Average Score on the GRE?

GRE SectionAverage Score
Verbal Reasoning149.97
Analytical Writing3.48
Quantitative Reasoning152.57
Source: ETS

How Do You Register for the GRE?

To register for tests and access user functions, prospective examinees need to create an ETS account. The name a student provides during account creation must match the ID they bring to the test center or they cannot enter the facilities. As part of exam registration, students may designate score recipients. In addition to the four official reports students receive as part of the registration fee, they can send additional records for $27 each. Test takers may cancel or reschedule an exam freely, but they must do this four days before the test date (10 in Mainland China) or forfeit their registration fee.

When Should You Take the GRE?

Scheduling the GRE for social work graduate programs require some planning based on application deadlines and test timeline. Examinees who take the computer-based version receive official results in 10-15 days, while those who choose the paper format may wait up to five weeks for their scores.

How Much Does the GRE Cost?

Both the computer and paper-based GRE General Test cost $205 dollars for U.S. residents, while the Subject Tests each cost $150. Students should inquire about financial support — like prepaid voucher programs — offered by their college or university.

How Many Times Can You Take the GRE?

Students can take the computer-based GRE every 21 days, up to five times over a continuous 365-day period. They can take paper-based exams, including the Subject Tests, whenever they are offered (usually three times each year).

How Should You Prepare for the GRE?

At-Home Study Methods

Effective learning strategies differ with every student. The list below contains five possible methods for GRE preparation.

  • Printed Study Guides: A tried and true method, printed guides offer students a comprehensive and portable way to study for the exam. Most books even contain two or three practice exams.
  • Flashcards: Examinees can buy premade sets or create their own cards. Free flashcard applications also exist. This method enables students to make studying part of their daily routine.
  • Private Tutoring: A skilled tutor personalizes study session to a student’s particular skills and weaknesses. Many students find this one-on-one attention invaluable. Though this method usually costs money, universities and community organizations sometimes offer free GRE tutoring.
  • Studying Apps: Mobile applications offer resources and study methods to accommodate diverse student needs. These interactive tools also offer more visual engagement than printed study materials.
  • Online Practice Tests: All students should use these practice exams because, on top of skill development, they allow students to familiarize themselves with how the computer program presents questions and formats answers.

GRE Prep Courses

Big names like the Princeton Review, Kaplan, Magoosh, and Manhattan Prep offer comprehensive GRE preparation courses. Though these companies publish some free resources — like the Kaplan practice tests — students can expect to pay from $200-$800 for full features, including printed and online guides and skill development through strategic practice sessions. In addition to traditional lessons at designated locations, students can take live and self-paced online classes. Most GRE preparation courses provide around 180 hours of instruction.

Studying Tips for the GRE

  • Spend Enough Time: In general, you should spend roughy four months preparing for the GRE. By waiting until the last two or three weeks, you not only cut down on crucial practice hours, but also create unnecessary stress by attempting to cram.
  • Understand the Exam: Like any other standardized test, the GRE assesses designated knowledge and skills in specific ways, which you can understand through proper research. By knowing how the exam works, you can avoid common mistakes.
  • Practice, Practice, Practice: Take advantage of free online practice tests. They allow you to hone skills and create test day simulations, preparing you for the real thing.
  • Identify Personal Weaknesses: After completing one or two practice tests, analyze the results to identify areas that you need to improve on the most. Then, schedule your studies accordingly.
  • Reinforce Personal Strengths: As you shore up weaknesses, also maintain strengths through review and practice. There are few things more frustrating then finding out you performed poorly on questions that should have yielded easy points.

Helpful Resources

GRE test preparation does not need to cost money. The five websites below provide ample free resources and services.

  • ETS POWERPREP Practice Tests: By accessing POWERPREP, students may familiarize themselves with program functions for test day. ETS also offers two free practice tests, with options to pay for additional ones.
  • Quizlet: This service offers learning games and interactive flashcards that help students master mathematical concepts and vocabulary. They can also access community shared flashcard sets organized by subject and skill area.
  • Magoosh GRE Vocabulary Flashcards: Designed by GRE experts, Magoosh flashcards help students learn difficult words through a system that adapts with their development. Users can access the cards on their computer or through a mobile application.
  • LEAP: In addition to free 30 minute online verbal and math classes, LEAP offers thousands of practice questions and a vast catalog of video and written guides. Students can also connect with peers in their vicinity and worldwide through forum based groups.

What Should You Expect on Test Day?

Students should plan to arrive at least 30 minutes before the official starting time to sign in and receive seating assignments. Though examinees must bring their own number 2 or HB pencils with eraser (mechanical pencils and pens are not allowed), the test center provides scratch paper. The GRE contains one 10-minute break. Those who take the computer-based GRE receive their break after the third section, while paper test takers enjoy a respite after the second. Students can go to the bathroom at any point, on their own time, by notifying a test coordinator.

What Should You Bring with You?

  • Valid Photo ID: To sit for the GRE, students need to furnish official state or federal identification, such as a driver’s license or passport. This original document must include an up to date photograph and signature. It must also feature the exact name as the one found on the exam registration.
  • Confirmation Email/Voucher: Test takers need to present printed copies of their registration confirmation. This email contains exam choice, date and time, specific test center, and designated score recipients.
  • Layers of Clothing: While ETS test centers do regulate room temperature for comfort, students should dress in layers to accommodate their own physical needs and adapt to changes as necessary.

What Should You Leave at Home?

  • Study Notes/Books: Test centers forbid electronic or written notes, guides, and literature of any kind. Students who break this rule face dismissal and/or cancellation of scores without refund.
  • Your Own Scratch Paper: With the exception of identification documents, ETS does not allow any personal items into the testing area. Students can get scratch paper from exam coordinators.
  • Your Own Calculator: To maintain transparency and fairness, students may not bring personal calculators. Instead, computer-based examinees receive access to an on screen application, while paper test takers receive ETS approved calculators on site.

Accommodations for Test Takers with Disabilities or Health-Associated Needs

GRE examinees who require special accommodations submit an application and relevant documents to ETS Disability Services through their online user account. They can also reach the office by email and postal mail. Specific criteria exist for individual disabilities and learning needs. Students should plan ahead because the process takes up to six weeks, and may take another six weeks if additional materials are required. ETS offers such services as extra breaks, extended test time, note taking assistance, and spoken directions. Students who take the computer-based GRE benefit from screen magnification and keyboard options. The test also comes in accessible formats like braille, large text, recorded audio and computer voiced.

Submitting Your Scores

When Will You Get Your Scores?

Computer-based test takers receive unofficial Verbal and quantitative reasoning scores as soon as they complete the exam. Those who opt for the paper test do not get unofficial results. The former group can access official scores 10-15 days after the test date through their ETS account, while the latter may need to wait up to five weeks to receive their official results via the same online system.

How Do You Submit Your Scores to Schools?

GRE candidates can send up to four official score reports as part of their registration fee via the ETS ScoreSelect function. Any report after that costs $27 each. Students who sign up for the paper-based exam designate their recipients during registration. Computer test takers complete this step on exam day.

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

Through ScoreSelect, students may send official reports from the General Test or any of the Subject Tests so long as the scores remain valid. It is important for test takers to know that designating recipients during registration or on test day is completely optional, so those who plan to take the GRE multiple times can wait to release results. Report options include the “most recent” exam, “all” scores, and “any” score from the last five years.

How Long Will Your Scores Be Valid?

Student who take the GRE on or after July 1, 2016 may report their scores for five years after the test date. Those who earned their scores on or prior to July 30, 212 can no longer report those results. Examinees who sat for the GRE between August 1, 2012 and June 30, 2016 have five years after the testing year. A testing year begins on July 1 and finishes on June 30 of the following year. For example, a student who took the exam on February 19, 2014 has until June 30, 2019 to send their scores.