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The GRE: What’s On The Test & How To Prepare

Graduate Record Examinations (GRE)

You’ve made the decision to go to graduate school. Congratulations! Graduate school is no easy feat, and the fact that you are taking this important step to further both your education and career is admirable.

It is likely that you are looking into what exactly is required of a graduate school applicant. While requirements may vary based on university and academic discipline, there is one component of the application that remains constant for many graduate programs: the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE).

About the GRE

The GRE is a standardized examination that is required for admission to many graduate programs in the United States, including veterinary medicine, occupational therapy, audiology, psychology, etc. The exam aims to assess the verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, critical thinking, and analytical writing skills that you have acquired over many, many years of learning. These are skills that all graduate students are expected to possess to excel in their studies and do not apply specifically to one field. The GRE can be computer-based or paper-based, depending on what your testing institution offers.1

The length of the computer-based GRE is about 3 hours and 45 minutes. The exam is organized into six main testing sections: one Analytical Writing section, which includes two separate writing tasks; two Verbal Reasoning sections; two Quantitative Reasoning sections; and an un-scored Experimental section.1

The length of the paper-based GRE is slightly shorter than the computer-based at about 3 hours and 30 minutes. This version of the exam is also organized into six main testing sections: two Analytical Writing sections; two Verbal Reasoning sections; and two Quantitative Reasoning sections. There is no Experimental section on the paper-based exam.1

*The below information applies primarily to the computer-based version of the GRE, as this is the version that is most commonly taken both in the United States and across the world.*

Analytical Writing

The Analytical Writing section includes two 30-minute sections, each section containing one writing task. These writing tasks test your critical thinking and analytical writing skills. They assess your ability to articulate and support complex ideas, evaluate and craft arguments, and maintain a focused and logical discussion.1 The writing tasks include:

  1. “Analyze an Issue”: The Issue task presents you with a standpoint on an issue of general interest and provides you with instructions on how to respond to the issue. You will need to evaluate the issue and develop an argument with reasons and/or examples to support your standpoint, given the complexities of the issue.1
  2. “Analyze an Argument”: The Argument task presents you with an argument and then requires you to evaluate it according to specific instructions. You will need to craft your response in a way that speaks to the logic of the argument, rather than agreeing or disagreeing with the standpoint it presents.1

Analytical Writing is scored on a scale from 0-6 in .5 point increments.1

Verbal Reasoning

Verbal Reasoning includes two 30 minute sections, each containing 20 questions. This section tests your ability to analyze written passages and synthesize information from them, analyze relationships between parts of sentences, and identify relationships between words and concepts. Verbal Reasoning questions arise in the following formats: reading comprehension, text completion, and sentence equivalence. In short, half of the Verbal Reasoning section requires you to read passages and answer questions based on the passages while the other half requires you to read, interpret, and complete sentences or paragraphs based on what you read. Verbal Reasoning is scored on a scale from 130-170 in 1 point increments.1

Quantitative Reasoning

Quantitative Reasoning includes two 35 minute sections, each containing 20 questions. This section tests your mathematical skills, quantitative reasoning, and quantitative problem solving and modeling. The questions appear in the following formats: arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and data analysis. Quantitative Reasoning is scored on a scale from 130-170 in 1 point increments.1

How to prepare

As with most examinations or standardized tests, there is no one right way to prepare for the GRE for everyone. Some prospective graduate students swear by a particular exam prep course, some use a variety of exam prep methods, and some do not require studying at all. You should ultimately select an approach that works best for you – one that suits your prior knowledge, budget, schedule, learning style, and helps you to achieve a score that is within your target range.

That being said, below are a few well-reviewed GRE test prep courses that might help you select which approach is best for you.

Kaplan: Kaplan GRE test prep seems to be the gold standard, and rightfully so. Kaplan offers in-person, live online, and self-paced courses for $1,299, $1,299, and $699 respectively. While features differ slightly depending on what course you select, all courses offer four GRE prep books, 180+ hours of online instruction and practice, 5,000+ practice questions including the Qbank, seven full-length computer-based practice tests, and The Official Test Day Experience. Kaplan is the only GRE test prep company to offer a simulated GRE test at a testing facility. If you struggle with test anxiety or lack confidence in your performance on standardized tests, this feature might help you to become more comfortable in the testing environment while allowing you to see how you might perform on the test day. Lastly, Kaplan guarantees a higher score or you’ll receive a full refund.2

You can learn more about Kaplan here.

Princeton Review: Princeton Review GRE test prep also offers in-person, live online, and self-paced courses for $1,299, $999, and $199 respectively. Similar to Kaplan, features differ slightly depending on what course you select, but all courses offer 470+ practice drills, 3,500 practice questions, eight practice exams, and Drill Smart, which is a Princeton Review exclusive practice tool that helps you overcome point plateaus and increase your score. Princeton Review also has a great satisfaction guarantee: if you don’t score higher than your previous GRE score, you will receive a full refund and if you were not satisfied with your course, the ability to repeat the course free of additional charge.3

You can learn more about Princeton Review here.

Magoosh: Magoosh is the GRE test prep course I used when preparing for my GRE. This course is ideal if you are on already on a “grad student budget” and are somewhat limited on time, totaling to $129 for one month of studying. The content includes a very comprehensive coverage of math, verbal, and analytical writing, over 200 video lessons, over 1,000 practice questions, three full-length computer-based practice tests, and a variety of targeted study schedules to help you remain on track. Other features include email assistance, a score predictor, and a five-point increase guarantee (or you’ll receive a full refund).4

You can learn more about Magoosh here.

If you decide that a GRE test prep course is not for you and that you will prepare independently, don’t forget that Khan Academy is an excellent resource for a quick refresher on many topics covered on the GRE. Khan Academy is also free!


Depending on which test prep approach you select, the time leading up to your GRE will vary quite a bit. No matter how you choose to prepare for the exam, below is advice that will apply to everyone:

  • Leading up to the exam: Familiarize yourself with the route to the testing facility and facility parking so that way you are not surprised by either of these factors the day of the exam.
  • The day before the exam: Feel free to do some light studying (e.g. review some vocabulary and/or formula flashcards) but if at all possible, try to take some time to relax. Many test prep professionals recommend you not to study heavily or take a practice exam the day before the GRE. Try to preserve your energy for test day.
  • The night before the exam: This might go without saying, but try your best to get a good night’s sleep the night before the GRE. A hard test is even harder without sleep, so try your best to rest.
  • The morning of the exam: Eat a breakfast that is normal for you—this is not the morning to try the papaya that has been in your fridge for a week. In all seriousness, you will not want extra distractions during the exam if you can avoid them, so try and stick to your normal routine.
  • The exam: Arrive to your testing facility with plenty of time to spare. Remember to bring the required confirmation email that you received after your GRE registration is processed, valid identification (for more information, check here), and extra pencils and/or scratch paper just in case your testing facility does not provide you with these materials.1

I wish you the absolute best of luck as you prepare for the GRE, take the exam, and embark on your graduate school endeavors!


  1. The GRE Tests. ETS GRE. https://www.ets.org/gre. Accessed June 22, 2018.
  2. GRE Test Prep, Your Way. Kaplan. GRE Prep – Courses & Test Prep. Accessed June 22, 2018.
  3. GRE Prep Programs. The Princeton Review. GRE Test Prep | The Princeton Review. Accessed June 22, 2018.
  4. The GRE prep everyone is talking about. Magoosh. Magoosh Online GRE Prep. Accessed June 22, 2018.
Meghan is a recent MPH graduate from Saint Louis University where she currently is a research assistant on a project aiming to address increasing rate...