The GRE general exam is often a determining factor when applying to the graduate school of your choice. Since you are most likely finished or nearly complete with a Bachelor's Degree at this point, you should be somewhat familiar with what the standardized admissions tests are all about. The GRE is administered by ETS, and has almost exactly the same format as the SAT, which most people will recognize as the exam they took when applying to undergraduate institutions.

In order to do well on the test, it is extremely important to know what's on the exam, and how the exam is administered.

How is the GRE scored?

There are 3 sections on the exam: analytical, quantitative, and verbal. Each section is worth a total of 800 for a grand total of 2400 points possible on the exam.

How is the GRE administered?

There are two ways to take the test: on paper, or on computer. If you want to do extremely well, take the test on computer. Naturally this is not an option for computer-phobes, but since you're reading this, I'm assuming that the computer is a comfortable environment for you. With the computer option you can pick a date and time which works best for you. If you think most clearly at 1pm, you can sign up to take the test at 1pm.

The computer-based test works this way: you begin a section of the exam given a specific amount of time to finish that section. It gives you one question that is relatively simple - call that level 500. If you answer that question incorrectly, you are given an easier question, and you are dropped into a low scoring range - call that level 350. If you answer the first question correctly, you are given a harder question, and then you are bumped up into a higher scoring range - call that level 650. At each step, you either move up or down in the scoring ranges, with each question honing in on what level of questions are the most comfortable for you. In this way, the opening questions are by far the most important, and the last few questions may only affect your overall score by a few points up or down. This is excellent for most people with test anxiety, as you aren't being scored based on the total number of questions answered correctly or incorrectly, but rather the level of the question where you end the test. It is extrememly important to answer the first few questions correctly! Spend some time on those and be confident in your answers.

Because of the way these questions are given, there is no way to go back and change an answer. Take your time and answer the questions to the best of your ability. If you don't answer all of the questions in the allotted time, you will be better off than if you rush through and miss some easy questions at the beginning.

What Questions are on Each Section of the GRE?

As stated before, there are three sections, so let's break them up:

In this part of the test, your ability to reason is tested. This looks very similar to the logic problems we did in high school math class, or an IQ test. The main difference between these logic problems and the ones you may have seen before is that you will not be given all of the information to solve the problem. For example, you have a problem with this set-up: There are 5 students: Rick, Carey, Stacey, JohnBoy, and Toadstool. Each of the students is assigned a project in: science, math, english, history, or basketweaving. There are 5 different types of projects: oral report, interactive website, written report, diarama, or billboard. No two students have the same project or topic. Stacey gets the science written report. Now you clearly can't figure out what everyone is assigned from this information. There will be about 5 questions based on this one problem, and each will give you the additional information needed to solve that question, but you will need to resolve the problem for each question - the information does not carry over. It is important here to know how to set up a table that you can use over and over for each problem to quickly solve without needing to go back and rework from the beginning - there is simply no time for it.

This is what is commonly referred to as the "math" section of the test. It is also the only section that you can truly study for. The material covered is typically what you would learn up to and including a high school trigonometry course. If this is material that you haven't seen in a while, you need to brush up. You will be asked to do some simple arithmetic in the beginning, then some algebra, a few geometry questions (remember the pythagorean theorem???) and finally some trig. Nothing is extremely difficult, but this is material that you may not have used in more than 4 years, so pull out those old math books and read over that sin2x + cos2x = 1 identity.

This is the "English" section, and in my humble opinion the most difficult area of the exam. There are two main types of question: reading comprehension and analogy.

For reading comprehension, you will read an excerpt - typically about 1/2 page long, and then answer about 5 questions based on what you read. There will be more than one right answer for each question, and you will need to pick the best one - whatever that means. This is the area of the exam that scholars claim is biased towards white males since what is the best answer could be culturally different. There is no way to study for this part of the exam, so just read as quickly as possible, perhaps put a * next to what you think are important passages, then answer the questions to the best of your ability.

In the analogy questions, once again there will be more than one right answer. There will be analogies which look like canary:house::dog:______ and these make no sense. Typically what is being tested here is vocabulary, so most of the analogies will have at least one word that you have never seen. To combat a vocabulary deficiency, look over some latin roots, or sign up for a kaplan test prep vocab daily email. You can guess at the meanings of words, and then make an informed choice even if you aren't certain.

I made it through the test.... Now what?!

The beauty of the computer based exam is that your scores are available the moment you complete the exam. With the paper, you will have to wait at least a month (but probably more) for score reporting. If you need to take the test again, you will have the opportunity to do so much sooner than with the paper.

There is one very important thing to keep in mind about the GRE score reporting: EVERY SCORE IS SENT TO YOUR PROSPECTIVE INSTITUTION!!! This means that it is not in your best interest to take a trial run on this exam, and take it again if you do poorly. You must do your best each and every time, and only take the test again if you honestly believe that you could do significantly better in the future.

UPDATE (4/24/2003): It has come to my attention that I am old. The GRE format is changing as we speak, so please check into these things.

(r) 2003.4.24@14:05 yclept says Hi, they changed the Analytical section of the GRE last October. Now it involves the writing of a couple essays. One upon the validity of a short passage stating something, and another on a choice of several topics.

(r) 2003.4.24@14:24 enkidu says re How to Ace the GRE: This node needs to be updated. First, paper testing is no longer an option. Second, the analytical section has been removed. Third, there is an essay-writing section which is already or soon to be added.

Before taking the GRE, I did some online research (including pitcher's lovely writeup above) and purchased some test preparation materials. Having experienced success on all previous standardized assessments, I only gave myself a month in which to study. To my pleasant surprise, I found that to be more than enough time. The following tutorial will guide you through the quickest, dirtiest way to earn points on the the GRE--guaranteed. Seriously. If your score doesn't improve, I'll let you punch me in the face. Now *that's* a guarantee!

First of all, get it out of your head that this somehow measures your graduate school worth. It doesn't. You're playing "the game" with people who pretty much own the board. You have to play by their rules. It's not Neo in the Matrix, but it sure as hell isn't a heroic opportunity for you to prove your academic substance. It's not about what you know--it's how well you test. By this measure, the GRE can be simple because it follows patterns. If you know the patterns, you can play the game better than they can. Ready to punch me yet?

How it works

The current format for the Graduate Record Examination is threefold: two parts multiple-choice and one part constructed response. You must take the test on a computer, a fact that will alter your strategy somewhat. (We'll get to that later). No matter when/where you take it, however, there will be this format:

  • One 75-minute "Analytical Writing" (essay) section, broken down into two essay questions

  • One 30-minute "Verbal Ability" (vocabulary and reading) section, containing 30 questions

  • One 45-minute "Quantitative Ability" (math) section, containing 28 questions

  • One "mystery" section used for test improvement purposes. This section will either be Math or Verbal. You will not know it's the uncounted portion. It comes in no particular order and there's nothing you can do about this. Basically your entrance fee has earned you the privilege of being their guinea pig. Cowboy up and do your best.

No matter what, the Analytical Writing section comes first. You may take a 1-minute break between essays and a 10-minute break before returning to the rest of the test. When you finish the entire test, you get your Math and Verbal scores automatically; the written portion takes 4-6 weeks to score, as it's hand-graded.

And speaking of the computerized scoring... both the Math and Verbal sections are scored on a scale from 200-800, 800 being top score. When you begin the test, ETS (the monsters who write and administer the GRE) assumes you have an average score, something like 480. You're asked a question of a difficulty level that matches that score. You get it correct, the computer ups your score and gives you a more difficult question. You answer incorrectly, your score is lowered and the next question is easier. What does this mean? Three things for you:

  1. The first questions are worth more points than the last ones. Early in the test the computer is hunting for your general range. Later, it's fine-tuning your score. Answering the earlier questions correctly is much more important than the latter questions, so spend the majority of your time on the first 10-15.

  2. You cannot skip a question or change your answer. Good test takers instinctively use the test to their advantage, returning to questions when an answer is revealed elsewhere, etc. You can't do that here. You have to take one question at a time and even if you realize you've made a mistake, you may not go back--sorta like sudden death.

  3. Don't be tempted to try to guess what the computer is doing. Resist the urge to analyze the computer to try to figure out how you're doing or if the questions are getting difficult or easier. There's more than one type of question per section, and some people are better at some things than others. You staring at the monitor trying to decide if you're just better at analogies or if you botched the last answer is not going to earn you any points--it'll just waste valuable time and stress you out. Relax.

Analytical Writing

The written portion of the GRE comes first. You are given two prompts, each of which you select from a small group. The first essay is a 45-minute Issue Essay, where you are given one side of an argument and asked to analyze that particular issue and give your opinion. The second essay is a 30-minute Argument Essay, where you are presented with a letter or argument that someone else has already made. Your job here is to analyze and critique this fictional person's argument, providing commentary on their logic, reasoning, and what improvements you might suggest.

Unlike the computerized portion, your essays are scored in half-point increments, from 0-6.0. More importantly, they're scored by real people. Real people who, despite your grand efforts, don't really care what you said. These are college TAs and grad students earning extra money by scanning hundreds of essays a week; your work is blurred with all the other work and gets maybe two minutes of grading time. Dry your tears--we're going to use this to our advantage.

  • Relax, you're in your element. Essentially what you're doing is typing into a text box that looks somewhat like the E2 Offline Scratchpad, only without html. As someone who spends time creating text in computerized format, you have an advantage over most people who rely on Microsoft Word.

    The other great thing about the computer format is that you don't get spellchecker and you don't have much time. Yes--that is to your advantage, because it means that every essay is assumed to contain at least a few errors in grammar and mechanics. One or two spelling errors or grammatical blunders isn't going to lower your score.

  • Size matters. The single most important factor in determining the grade of your essay is its length. Your essay needs to look like a successful essay, so the more you write the better off you are. Of course this doesn't mean you can just write any old thing--but it does mean that your ideas are being skimmed for key words and points. Aim for 350-750 words per essay; your Argument Essay should be slightly shorter. General rule of thumb is 5 paragraphs for the Issue Essay, 3-4 for the Argument Essay.

  • Use what they give you. As this test is computerized, the monitor will display what time you have remaining. When the time is up, the computer moves on regardless. You may as well use the minutes you're allotted. Reread your work, make improvements. Time is your friend.

    Your other ally here is scratch paper. You can only have up to 6 pieces of scratch paper at a time, but you'll have an opportunity to switch this stuff out before beginning the rest of the test so you may as well use it now. Sketch out your ideas and do some prewriting.

  • Use a template. Okay, so the actual prompts you'll get on the day of the test are a mystery. That doesn't mean you can't drill on format. Ideally, the Issue Essay should include a summary of the argument, a summary of the opposing side, at least three points supporting the side of your choosing. On the Argument Essay you are evaluating the prompt's conclusion, premises, and assumptions.

  • These essays are two different beasts. Your opinion only matters once--on the Issue Essay. On the Argument Essay, no one cares what you think. Your job is not to address the topic, but to tear up the reasoning provided in the prompt. Use your head--this means the argument offered must contain false reasoning, otherwise no one would have anything to write about. Your job is to find the argument's weak points and possibly offer suggestions for improvement.

  • The purpose of the Analytical Writing section is to measure your reasoning skills. ETS does not expect you to be an expert on the topics they offer. You do however get to choose which topic you address, so obviously you should choose whichever you feel most comfortable discussing. Include references to literature, scientific studies, pop culture--anything you like.
When you finish the writing portion, you get a 10-minute break. If you're like me, you'll be antsy and ready to move on. Don't be an idiot. Take the break. Use it to relax, visit the restroom, exchange your scratch paper, etc. Take your time; the computer will still be there when you get back.

But first, a word about format...

Remember how I said that the fact that you're testing on a computer will change your strategy? I can hear you saying to yourself, "Oh yeah, right. I use a computer all the time. Get real, LaggedyAnne." I have no doubt you're comfortable with a mouse and keyboard. That's good, but it might provide you with a false sense of security. Here are some things to consider about the computerized format:

  • You get no testing booklet. Most test takers physically manipulate their answer booklet. You cross out answers that won't work, you underline important facts, etc. Since this test is all on a computer, and you can't exactly mark on the screen, you're going to need to...

  • Use scratch paper. You want to get every answer correct; you cannot afford errors. You're on a time crunch, so you've got to avoid wasting precious minutes accidentally forgetting what answers you've already eliminated. The solution to both of these problems involves your handy-dandy 6 pieces of scratch paper.

    Change out your scratch paper between sections, when you're given a 1-minute break. You can have as much scratch paper as you need, but it often takes time to get the attention of the attendant.

    Don't be tempted to solve the problems in your head; that's what the paper is for. You're going to use it to write down strategy and manipulate answers using the process of elimination. It'll be helpful if for each question you write down A, B, C, D, E, so you can cross through incorrect responses and make notes. Effectively you're making your own testing booklet.

Verbal Ability

The Verbal section is 30 minutes of 30 questions, broken down into the following categories: analogies, sentence completion, antonyms, and reading comprehension questions. They're mixed in together and appear in no order. You only get the directions once, though, and each section is answered differently, so it's important that you become familiar with the format.

The biggest regret I have about taking the GRE is how much time I spent trying to learn new vocabulary words. Don't do that. Learn from my mistake: spend the majority of your verbal prep. time reviewing and practicing strategies. There are tens of thousands of words you've never even seen before that they can put on the test. Trust me--you can't learn them all. Some test prep. programs offer a "hot list" of $5 words the GRE uses over and again. Study those if you really want a refresher; it can't hurt, right?


Directions: A related pair of words or phrases is followed by five pairs of words or phrases. Select the pair that best expresses a relationship similar to the original pair. On this portion of the exam, you'll get the first pair and have to determine which of the choices best mirrors that relationship. In other words, complete the analogy.

Analogies test your ability to recognize pairs of words that have a similar relationship. They're normally written as "cat : feline :: dog : canine." Cat is to feline as dog is to canine. On the GRE, you get the first half of the analogy and have to determine the second. Common GRE relationships create sentences that use the phrases "type of," "used to," "degree of," "characterized by," "part of," and "without."

For example... Weapon : Harm ::

A. bicycle : ride
B. building : raze
C. impartiality : comprehend
D. symptom : treat
E. joke : amuse

The first pair must be related in some way, so the easiest way to solve an analogy is to make a sentence where one of the words is defined in terms of the other. "A weapon is used to harm others." The best answer will be the pair that fits the sentence. A bicycle is used to ride others? No. And so on, until you realize that a joke is used to amuse others. Easy enough, right?

If only ETS used such simple analogies. Unfortunately, they view the analogy section as a terrific place to test all the ridiculous vocabulary you'd never encounter, if it weren't for the GRE.

  1. Write down your A, B, C, D, E. Next to that, scribble your defining sentence--just so you remember it.

  2. If you come up with more than one answer that fits your sentence, tailor your original definition to be slightly more specific until only one choice remains.

  3. Parts of speech can help you determine the definition of some words you don't recognize. If the first part of the analogy is noun : verb, all of the answer choices will also be noun : verb. They never, ever, ever stray from this practice. (Here's one of those rules we can use.)

    They *love* to use words that have more than one meaning, especially if those words can be considered more than one part of speech. For each problem, ETS includes one word pair that establishes the grammatical pattern. It doesn't matter if the two items aren't related--all we're using this for is to determine if we're dealing with adjectives, nouns, etc. Let's go back to our example.

    Weapon : Harm ::

    A. bicycle : ride
    B. building : raze
    C. impartiality : comprehend
    D. symptom : treat
    E. joke : amuse

    Hey, I don't know what "raze" means, so how can I tell if that's a logical answer or not? Well we can assume that the relationship is noun: verb, because "symptom" can only be used as a noun and "comprehend" can only be used as a verb.

    In this case, we're not talking about the act of building but rather a building; raze must be a verb.

    That's great, Laggedy, but I still don't know what "raze" means. You know... Mark Twain or somebody like him said, "Common sense is not so common." We're gonna use it, anyway. Let's return to our original defining sentence. Remember when we decided that "a weapon is used to harm others?"

    How about some common sense. How likely do you think it is that there is a verb in the English language that would lend itself to the sentence, "A building is used to raze others?" Yeah. That's what I thought, too.

  • Process of elimination can help us get rid of some of our replies even if we don't know what the first pair mean or how they're related. Use that common sense again. Can "impartiality" and "comprehend" be related in any way? No. Even if we didn't know what a weapon was, we can tell that the answer isn't C. Hey, we just improved our odds from 20% to 25%.

  • The ETS stresses "best" analogy because there are times when you could create more than one analogy for a given set of solutions, in which you would be right and they would be wrong. Work within their system; you get no points for being cooler than the GRE.
  • Sentence Completion

    Directions: Each sentence has one or two blanks, indicating that something has been omitted. Choose the word or phrase that best fits the meaning of the sentence as a whole. On this portion of the exam, you'll get a sentence with blanks. Fill them in with the best answer. Easy enough!

    You're right... except. These aren't typical cloze exercises, where only one solution fits the sentence. In fact, there will typically be 2-3 that would work nicely in the sentence at first glance. You'll have to read more closely and use all the context provided in order to solve these questions.

    For example... A business concerned about its efficiency should pay attention to the actions of its staff, because the mistakes of each of its employees often ______ the effectiveness of the organization of which they are a part.

    A. remake
    B. provoke
    C. celebrate
    D. undermine
    E. control

    But who has time to read and reread and agonize over the subtle differences between "provoke" and "undermine?" I'm about to share with you the most useful strategy I encountered. It's so easy it's ridiculous. I've never been so delighted to anticipate the answer of a question. Seriously--there's nothing to it.

    1. Ignore the answers.
    2. On your scratch paper, write your A, B, C, D, E, and note the key words or phrases in the sentence.
    3. Come up with your own simple words for each blank.

    4. Get rid of answers that don't match your words.
    5. Use process of elimination to clean up the rest.

    For the example, I might note "efficiency" and "mistakes." Now I'm going back through and my hunch is the word is going to be something like "destroy or take away from." Then I go back to my answers and I look for the one which most closely matches my hunch. "Undermine" is the only one that resembles "destroy or take away from." Cool, huh?

    When there are two blanks, the same procedure applies. Although there is more to solve, these are actually easier to do because you have more to work with. The important thing is that you only tackle one word at a time. Sometimes the double-blank questions are somewhat ambiguous. These can get you into trouble. Check it out:

    If you were really __________ you would ____________ me, since I'm so cool and important.

    Hrm.. Okay, I'm making my own answers, so, let's see... If you were really smart you would flatter me, since I'm so cool and important. But wait a sec, if you were really dumb you would anger me, since I'm so cool and important. Hey! No fair!

    Stay calm. What's important in this case is the relationship between the two words. It seems they're either both positive or negative, right? Okay, so rather than hunting for synonyms for "smart" and then finding the one that pairs with the synonym for "flatter," let's hunt for synonyms that include a +/+ or a -/- relationship.

    A. idiotic, praise
    B. superfluous, pander
    C. intelligent, berate
    D. idiotic, chide
    E. prodigious, insult

    See? The only pair that seem to match using the system we set up is D. Let's plug it in. If you were really idiotic you would chide me, since I'm so cool and important. Nothing to it!


    Directions: Each question consists of a word and five answers. Choose the word or phrase that is most nearly the antonym of the word given. In other words, find the opposite. Of every section, this is where vocabulary can be most important.

    We're going to use the same tricks we learned practicing Analogies and Sentence Completion. Ignore the answers--come up with your own. Then use process of elimination to clean up. Each answer will match in part of speech; this will help you to determine when secondary or tertiary meanings of words are being used.

    When in doubt, use common sense to figure out the definitions of answers. Is it likely there is a word that means the opposite of "orange?" We can eliminate words that have no opposites before even knowing what the question word means. The more comfortable you are using these strategies, the better off you'll be.

    For example... PRIM

    A. enormous
    B. unsuitable
    C. arid
    D. benevolent
    E. slight

    1. Write A, B, C, D, E on your paper. Then ignore the answers.

    2. Make your own opposite. "Hmm.. "prim" has something to do with being tidy or proper, so I bet the opposite is "disorderly.'"

    3. Eliminate what you can. I can get rid of enormous, arid, and slight--I know they have nothing to do with "disorderly."
    4. Use common sense and what you know about language. Okay, so my choices are "unsuitable" and "benevolent." What does benevolent mean? It's an adjective. Hrm. It starts with "bene." That looks like good. I'm looking for a negative word, so I'll choose "unsuitable."
    You're really getting good at this, you know.

    Reading Comprehension

    Directions: Each passage in this group is followed by questions based on its content. After reading a passage, choose the best answer to each question. In other words, answer the questions at the end of the dorky paragraph or six about whatever subject you care nothing about.

    The great thing about the Reading Comp. questions is that you get 2-4 questions per passage. That saves time--especially when you have to read each one more than once just to understand what the person is saying. Most of the passages you'll encounter are about science, though there are some about literature or humanities topics. They're not the best written stuff--in fact, they're a pain in the tuckus to read. The questions aren't much better.

    • Don't learn the content. You don't have to perfectly understand the greenhouse effect to get the main idea of the article. They're not testing your knowledge, the way they do on the ACT. They're testing your common sense and your ability to navigate a passage.

    • Answer based on the reading. Just because you have an undergraduate degree in mathematics and you think the passage presented to you in the Reading Comp. section is outdated and ridiculously inaccurate does not change the fact that you're graded based on your answers. Remember--the directions say best answer and not correct answer.

    • Avoid red herrings. Extreme statements, half-wrong answers, and direct repetitions of text are all sneaky tricks ETS uses to get you in this section. It's sad, but Reading Comp. is theoretically the easiest section on this exam, so in order to make it more difficult the only thing they can do is use harder vocabulary and trick questions.

    Quantitative Ability

    The Math section is 45 minutes of 28 questions, broken down into two formats presented in random order. Questions are either five-choice problem-solving questions, including several that require you to use charts or graphs, and four-choice quantitative comparison questions. In English? Some word problems, some equations.

    The beauty of this section is that it tests mostly what you remember from sixth-ninth grade math. They're limited to basic algebra, geometry, and statistics. No trig, no calc, no upper-level algebra. They can't even give you math that you need a calculator for--since you can't bring one into the test. In this fashion, the GRE is easier than the SAT. Remember this--it's easy math. The trick is to distinguish the traps and tricks from the real deal.

    • Write down all your calculations. Make sure you've copied correctly.
    • Only do the work you need to--use common sense to ballpark and eliminate unrealistic answers.
    • Brush up on basic math vocabulary (words like integers, numerators, etc).
    • Review

    Schedule the test for a day and time that work best for you. Remember to eat a healthy breakfast, drink plenty of fluids. Pack your pencils or pens and a good luck charm. Practice as much as you can. Do some warm-up problems before you go to take the test. Relax; you can always retake it if you don't do as well as you'd hoped.

    Think of it this way: if you're taking the time to learn and practice these strategies, I'm so confident that you'll do well that I've already offered you a chance to punch me in the face. And I like my face! You should be confident that you'll do well, too. Hey. It's a test designed by people who probably are no smarter than you. Don't be intimidated. Someone has to get top marks--it might as well be you.

    Good luck--like you need it, you assessment ninja!

    This writeup is not endorsed by or associated with ETS and contains general testing knowledge that I paid entirely too much money for, those enterprising bastards.

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