Chapter 1

Introduction to the GRE

Every year, more than 700,000 people take the GRE. To score in the 90th percentile, you will need to beat 630,000 of them…

The GRE Revised General Test is a graduate school entrance exam, designed by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) to measure verbal, quantitative, and analytical writing abilities of a student, for admission into graduate, and business schools across the world.

Despite what most people tell you about how the test is created to effectively measure your success in graduate school, the GRE is in fact far more limited than ETS would like to admit. Yes, one could only estimate how successful you might be in graduate school, by your performance on the GRE, but:

At the end of the day, the GRE is really only good at measuring how well you take the GRE.

GRE is the leading standardized test in the world and a significant number of undergraduate students in the world is studying for it. In their 2013 annual report, ETS showed a 13% increase over the previous year in the number of GRE test takers, bringing the total to over 800,000 test takers across all the 180 countries where the test is administered.

That’s 800,000 students from across the world looking to study at graduate schools across the world. So, if you want to make real progress in increasing your GRE score, randomly trying different study plans and other methods, and then crossing your fingers hoping for a decent score isn’t going to get you very far. You need something that can give you real information on what the GRE is, how and what it tests, so you can be better prepared.

So, let’s get started!

What is the GRE?

The new revised GRE is an exam required for admissions to many graduate and business school programs around the world. An increasing number of universities, including some of the top business schools, are now accepting the GRE score, and not surprisingly, the best universities require higher scores on the GRE.

The bottom line is if you are looking to attend graduate or business school, you will need to take the GRE.

This is good news. That means irrespective of how well you did in school, whether you went to a top college, or whether you have exceptional GPA or if you published papers in international journals, you can get into a grad school of your dreams, if you take the GRE. Though all these aforementioned factors come into play during admissions, scoring high on the GRE has nothing to do with these elements. What the GRE actually tests, is rather extremely limited in its scope. This can only mean one thing:

everyone, everywhere, has a decent chance at scoring high on the GRE.

GRE Test Format:

The following topics in this chapter will cover everything that you need to know, to score exceptionally well on the GRE. This chapter in particular covers the general aspects of the test, from format to scoring, from calculators to basic test-taking strategies.

Format – Six Sections

Here is the GRE test structure:

1. One Analytical Writing section composed of two 30-min essays

2. Two 20-question Verbal Reasoning sections (30 min each)

3. Two 20-question Quantitative Reasoning sections (35 min each)

In addition to the five sections mentioned above, there may be an unidentified Experimental Section, which could be either verbal or quantitative. Occasionally, there may be an identified optional Research Section (but not if there is an Experimental Section). This is decided at random by the system, so no one knows for sure whether you will get an experimental section or a research section.

Do NOT waste any time trying to identify which section is the experimental section! It is impossible to identify. Sometimes it’s the first section, sometimes it’s the last. Any random section could be treated as the experimental section by the computer, and there is no way one can find out which one.

Scoring

Each GRE section is scored individually:

Verbal Reasoning

130-170, in 1 point increments

Quantitative Reasoning

130-170, in 1 point increments

Analytical Writing

0-6, in 0.5 point increments

Features of the test

Section-Adaptive Test

The new GRE is a ‘Section Adaptive’ test, where you begin with a moderately difficult section, and the difficulty of the upcoming section depends on your performance on the previous section. This means that the more questions you answer correctly in the first section, the harder the questions that you will be given in the second section of that subject. If you however, answer many questions wrong on the first section, you will be given an easier second section. And there is no adaptation within each section. All questions in one section are more or less of the same difficulty level, and each question within a section is weighted the same.

Guessing

There is NO penalty for an incorrect answer on the GRE General Test. If you don’t know an answer, make an educated guess by eliminating clearly incorrect choices, and move on. Never leave a question blank on the GRE! Since there are no negative marks, and since very question carries the same weight, attempt all questions.

Calculator

There is an on-screen calculator for the quantitative section, and you are permitted to use it during the test. Use it wisely! Though vast majority of questions on the GRE do not require complex calculations, a calculator might come in handy when it comes to saving precious time. But remember, even a calculator can go wrong if you don’t give the right inputs. So, be careful while entering numbers on the calculator. Do not be in a hurry when entering numbers. Check twice or thrice, especially if the calculation is complex.

Note: The calculator uses the standard order of operations when performing multiple operations. You should understand that it does not necessarily perform operations from left to right. The order is Parentheses, Exponentiation, Multiplication and Division (from left to right), Addition and Subtraction (from left to right). This is often remembered by the acronym PEMDAS. So, for example, if you enter this: 2 – 3(4) and click the equal symbol (=), the calculator will multiply the 3 and 4 and subtract the result from 2, giving the answer –10. So, be extra cautious while using brackets and mathematical symbols.

There is also a “Transfer Display” button on the calculator that you may use to directly translate the calculator display to a question’s answer box. This is a very useful feature for you because one, you can save time by not entering values manually on screen, and two, there won’t be any errors which usually happen when you manually enter numbers.

Skipping and “Mark for Review” Feature

The GRE software is equipped with a “Mark for Review” feature that allows you to mark questions as you go along, and then at the end of the section, review all the questions that you have skipped. Smart test-takers can effectively use this feature to skip all the difficult questions on the test during their first run-through, go ahead to solve as many questions as they can, and then come back and answer all the difficult questions last. This will ensure that you not only spend your time efficiently, but also don’t waste excessive time and energy on the harder ones.

Do not spend more than 20 or 30 seconds on reading and understanding a question. If you cannot decipher the question in less than 30 seconds, mark it for review and skip it off. You can always come back later.

Sections on the GRE

As discussed earlier, there are six sections on the GRE, divided into three categories, namely Analytical Writing, Verbal Reasoning, and Quantitative Ability. We’ll quickly see what each section comprises of, and move on. In the later chapters, we’ll have a closer look into each category, and discuss strategies as well.

Analytical Writing

The analytical writing portion of the GRE consists of two tasks:

  1. Writing an essay where you present your point of view on a specific issue
  2. Writing an essay where you analyze the reasoning of an author’s argument

You have 30 minutes to complete each essay. You must finish one task before you can begin the other, and you cannot skip essay questions.

Verbal Reasoning

The two Verbal Reasoning sections consist of a total of 40 questions:

  • 20 Sentence Completion questions: “Fill in the blank” style questions
  • 20 Critical Reading questions: Passage-based reading and reasoning

Quantitative

The quantitative (math) portion of the GRE consists of two math sections, each with 20 questions. Of the 40 questions, there are:

  • 15 Quantitative Comparison questions
  • 17 Multiple-Choice questions
  • 4 Multiple-Answer questions
  • 4 Numeric Entry questions

Which topics does the GRE test on?

Quant

Arithmetic: Integer Properties, Fractions, Decimals, Percent, Exponents and Roots, Ratios and Proportions.

Algebra: Solving Linear Equations, Solving Linear Inequalities, Operations with Algebraic Expressions, Solving Quadratic Equations, Algebraic Properties and their Applications, Functions, Graphs of Functions, Coordinate Geometry.

Geometry: Lines and Angles, Triangles, Quadrilaterals, Polygons, Circles, Three-Dimensional Figures.

Data Analysis: Counting Methods, Data Interpretation, Normal Distribution, Probability.

Verbal:

Sentence Equivalence, Text Completion, and Reading Comprehension.

Why do you need to take the GRE?

Like we discussed already, the GRE actually measures how well you can take the GRE. Then, why are you required to take it if you want to study at graduate schools?

Universities ask you to take the GRE, not because they would like to know how well versed you are with Math and English. Frankly, universities don’t need to test your English through the GRE since they anyway would require that you take a language proficiency test like TOEFL, IELTS, etc. And any student who graduated from high school, let alone college, would have a decent understanding of basic math.

So, if you think from the perspective of the universities, the admissions council needs something that represents you as a whole. Although it can’t be said that a test-taker’s GRE score is an indicator of his/her intelligence, it is imperative that the admission officers require a commonly tested method that can give them a fair idea of how well a student fits into the university’s academics and culture, when compared to his/her peers. So, universities expect students to possess two primary skills: Decision making skills, and time management abilities.

If you have the time, try and analyze a few GRE questions, and you will understand that almost every question tests how you make decisions in your life. And just like any other entrance test, the GRE also tests how well you manage your time. You might wonder why these skills are so important for a graduate student. Imagine yourself studying at a college. There are so many courses that you can take, numerous clubs to join, great people from all over the world to network with, countless activities to participate in, but so little time to do all of them. Obviously, you have to choose. And you need solid reasoning and analysis to choose one course or club over the other. If you are a good decision maker, you wouldn’t hesitate to make a decision and move forward, though knowing that you would be leaving some opportunities behind. This is what the admissions committee would infer, from your GRE scores: your ability to survive through grad school and the hectic life associated with it.

Also, if you are able to sit through a strenuous exam for close to 4 hours and still score well, it shows that you are not only a good student, but also patient, tough, and a good manager in general.

When to take the GRE?

Ideally, you should take the GRE at least six months prior to the admission season you are planning to apply for. Most students underestimate the timing of the GRE, but this is probably the most crucial aspect of your GRE study plan. It is important that you report your test scores to university admission committee way before the admissions deadline. The whole point of studying for the test goes moot if your score report doesn’t reach in time to the admissions department.

Also, you need to remember that when we say test scores, it includes English proficiency tests as well, which many students pay no heed to. So, plan your GRE test date as early as possible, so you will have enough time to prepare for IELTS or TOEFL, and dispatch all the necessary documents and scores to the admissions committee before the deadline.

For those students who are still in an undergraduate program and are planning to pursue a Master’s degree in the near future, it is advisable that you take the test as soon as possible. Considering the fact that you are still in college, you are likely to perform better if you take the GRE before you graduate, as your knowledge is still fresh. As GRE scores are valid for five years, do not worry that your scores will be old and invalid.

How to register for the GRE?

Booking a slot for the GRE is quite an easy process. Go to ETS website and get yourself registered. Once logged in, you can book a GRE appointment based on your convenience. Bear in mind that the GRE test slots fill up very quickly, so the sooner you book your slot, the better.

How long does the GRE take?

The new revised GRE test takes about 3 hours and 45 minutes to complete, excluding the time for breaks and reading section instructions before the exam. There are six sections in all.

  • Two Analytical Writing Essays – 30 minutes each, total 60 minutes
  • Two Verbal Reasoning Sections – 30 minutes each, total 60 minutes
  • Two Quantitative Reasoning Sections – 35 minutes each, total 70 minutes.
  • One Unscored Unidentified Section – 30/35 minutes, depends on the type of section: Verbal or Quant.
  • A 10 minute break between the third and the fourth sections.

The essays always appear first, but the other sections may appear in any order. In addition, test-takers may see a third verbal reasoning or quantitative reasoning section at any point during the test. Also, an unscored research section may also be included in the computer based GRE test.

How much does the test cost?

The GRE test costs $195. But, you would also want to consider travelling, and other costs like lodging, especially if your test center is in another city. These costs may sometimes sum up to be more than the actual cost of the exam. Here are all the costs that a student can expect to incur, while preparing for the GRE. Remember that these costs are generalized, and the actual costs may vary from student to student.

Test Fee: ($97.5 or $195)

Score Reporting: ($27 per university)

Prep Course: ($99 to $5,000)

Study Material: ($200)

In addition to the costs mentioned above, you will also have to consider the indirect costs as well. Travel, accommodation, and other miscellaneous expenses can sometimes add up to be more than the actual cost of the GRE. So, test takers should be wary of the indirect expenses as well.

The GRE, as you can see, is not just a measure of academic ability. It also tests your endurance, strength, patience, and focus, all of which may only be attained through rigorous and attentive practice.

Summary
Being familiar with the layout and format of the test is a necessary component of being well-prepared for test day, and the only way you can gain an intuitive understanding of the test, is by taking practice tests and familiarizing yourself with concepts and questions.

In our next chapters, we will have a look at how you can assess your strengths and weakness, prepare an effective study plan and schedule for yourself. We will go through each component of the test in detail: Quant, Verbal, and AWA. We will also discuss effective strategies to score higher in all the three sections.

What is a good score on the GRE?

According to the official reports by ETS – the creators of the GRE – the average quantitative score of a GRE test taker worldwide, is 151.3, with a standard deviation of 8.7. And the average verbal score of a GRE test taker worldwide, is 150.8, with a standard deviation of 8.5.

Now, what this means, is that the world average for the composite GRE score is 151.3 + 150.8 = 302.1. So, if you scored above 302, you’re better than half the test takers around the world. Does ‘better than average’ correspond to ‘good’? Definitely not!

That’s where the standard deviations come into play. If you add up the average scores and their respective standard deviations, you arrive at a quant score of 160, and a verbal score of 159.3. This means, your composite score one standard deviation above the average score would be 160 + 159.3 = 319.3.

Now, that looks like a good score, doesn’t it? If you ask us, yes, that is definitely a good score. So, you may assume from this little calculation that if you score somewhere around 320, you can consider your score as good. Especially because 320 corresponds to somewhere around the 80th percentile, meaning you scored better than 80 percent of the test takers around the world. Now, that’s surely a good score.

How to overshadow a low GRE score?

Even though you have a low GRE score, you don’t have to worry much about it. In fact, the GRE score isn’t a deal breaker when it comes to your grad school admissions, as the test score is only one of the factors. Usually, universities give about 30-40% weightage to your GRE score, but this varies from one university to another. This means, when an admissions officer has to decide if you should be accepted into their program or not, he/she will look at your entire application and not just your GRE score.

They will assess your entire profile, including things like undergrad GPA, relevant work experience, extracurricular and co-curricular activities, community service, previous research works, project work, TOEFL/IELTS scores, etc., all of which constitute the remaining 60-70% of your profile. So, the GRE score is but one part of the entire application, and you need not worry if it isn’t as high as you would like.

Hence, the 5 things that will dramatically improve your overall profile, and hence help overshadow your GRE score are:

  1. A powerful Statement of Purpose
  2. Strong Letters of Recommendation
  3. Leadership Potential
  4. Co-curricular and Extra-curricular Activities
  5. Research Experience

If you have at least 4 of the aforementioned 5 aspects in your profile, then you will not be at a significant disadvantage due to your low score. Find out more details here on what else you can do to overshadow a low GRE score.

How to book for an Appointment?

Getting a GRE appointment certainly isn’t rocket science, but if you are a first time test taker, it might seem like a tediously long process. Nothing to worry about, though. You can avoid all the hassle if you know what you are doing. The GRE registration process is simple and easy, and there are quite a few things you need to keep in mind before you do register, so you can get the job done faster. Here’s a quick glimpse of what needs to be done before you get yourself a GRE appointment.

  1. The GRE test costs you $195 irrespective of which country you are giving it in. And only Credit cards are accepted worldwide, and PayPal is accepted in a few countries. So, make sure you have your credit card ready.
  2. Read ETS policies and procedures Before you begin your online registration, make sure you read all the policies regarding registration, scheduling, rescheduling, and cancellation on the ETS website.
  3. If you have health related needs that need to be taken care of, or if you think you will require additional breaks during the exam, you need to follow the accommodation request procedures provided by ETS.
  4. Figure out the test taking format The GRE is currently offered in two formats, computer based and paper based, depending on your test center location. Find out here which formats are allowed in your country, and decide which format you are going to write the exam in, if you have the choice.
  5. Read and understand the ID requirements. Only passports are accepted as valid official IDs in most countries, but this may vary. Find out what ID documents are accepted in your country and verify if you have them ready.
  6. Understand various important rules you need to follow when creating an account: The name you use during account registration must be the SAME name used when you register for the GRE appointment.
  7. Register with your official/real name and include all First, Middle, and Last names. Watch out for spelling mistakes.
  8. Get yourself registered on the ETS website and create a ‘My GRE Account’ for yourself.
  9. Decide when you want to take the GRE, depending on how many days you would need to prepare for the test, and when you need to report your scores to your target universities.
  10. Select your test provider from the given options. Usually, the most favored test provider is Prometric.
  11. Select your test city Now, you will be asked to choose the country and then the city where you would like to appear for the test. You will be provided with the test centers that are the closest to the city you have chosen.
  12. Check availability of dates and choose a suitable test date.
  13. Check if you have access to a Credit/Debit Card Credit and Debit cards are accepted for payment in almost all countries. The GRE costs you $195. So, make sure you have relevant cards ready with you and check if you have sufficient account balance.
  14. Confirm your registration. Complete the payment process and make sure to take a printed form of the receipt.

If you would like a more detailed explanation, we have illustrated a step-by-step process that you can adopt, in order to book a GRE appointment. Find out more details here.

When is the best time to take the GRE?

If you would like to know when to take the GRE, you should first begin with the ending. What is your ultimate goal here? To study a graduate program at some university. You should have a clear idea of which academic year you are planning for, and which intake you are aiming at. This is the first and the most critical decision you need to make. Sometimes this is not an easy decision to make.

You may have several factors to take into consideration, like your job, your family, your financial conditions, etc., before you can finalize on a season you want to apply to. But, anyway, this will be the first of several steps that will lead to your dream university. So, it is paramount that you make the right decision.

But then, there are at least 10 factors that you need to consider before taking the plunge: your target season, your target score, your current level of preparation, how much time you would need to study, what your daily schedule is like, how much practice you would need, how confident you are, how stressed you are, and other tests you will have to take, like TOEFL, IELTS, subject tests, etc. All these factors must be considered before deciding when to take the GRE.

If you want to know more about when you should be taking the GRE, we have got it covered here.

When to expect scores?

After completing the computer-delivered GRE revised General Test, you will be given the opportunity to Report or Cancel your scores. If you choose Report Scores, you will see your unofficial scores for the Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning measures at the test center. Because of the Analytical Writing essay scoring process, you will not be able to view your Analytical Writing score at the testing center.

Your official scores will be available in your My GRE Account and sent to your score recipients approximately 10–15 days after your test date.

Cancelling scores

Although you have the option to cancel your scores, consider very carefully before doing so because the score reporting choices available with the Score Select option allow you to report only the scores you feel reflect your personal best. If you cancel your scores, neither you nor any schools will ever see them and they will not be part of your reportable history. If you select to report your scores, you will view your unofficial scores on the screen and the score will become a part of your reportable history.

Score Submissions

On test day, after completing the test and viewing your unofficial Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning scores, you will be asked to designate which score recipients you want to receive your General Test scores. If an institution is not listed, ask the test center administrator for the appropriate form to indicate unlisted institutions. Complete the form and turn it in before you leave the test center. The form will not be accepted after you leave the test center.

You will have the option to select the Score Select Most Recent option or Score Select All option for up to four institutions for free. You also can choose not to send any scores at that time. After test day, you can order Additional Score Reports for a fee of US$27 per recipient.

Rescheduling

You must change your GRE revised General Test registration no later than four days (10 days in Mainland China) before your appointment or your test fee will be forfeited. If you change your test registration, you will be charged a fee of US$50. Appointments cannot be rescheduled beyond one year of the original appointment date. If you do not change your test registration as indicated above, your full test fee will be forfeited. Be prepared to provide your appointment confirmation number and the full name you used to make an appointment when rescheduling. Testing fees and registrations are not exchangeable between paper-delivered tests and computer-delivered tests.

Retaking

You can take the computer-delivered GRE revised General Test once every 21 days, up to five times within any continuous rolling 12-month period (365 days). This applies even if you canceled your scores on a test taken previously. If you take the paper-delivered GRE revised General Test, you can take it as often as it is offered.

The retaking a test policy will be enforced even if a violation is not immediately identified (e.g., inconsistent registration information). If the violation is identified after registration but before the test administration, the testing appointment will be canceled and test fees will be forfeited. If the violation is identified after test scores have been reported, the invalid scores will be canceled, score recipients will be notified of the cancellation and test fees will be forfeited.

So, we have covered almost everything regarding the GRE test and in our next book, we will talk about practice tests, self-assessment, and study plans, that will help you on your quest for a high GRE score.

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