An Overview of the GRE and GRE Sections

What is the GRE used for? How is it structured? And how should I prepare for it? Of all the graduate-level exams, the GRE is the most widely used and therefore often the one about which students have the most questions. In this post, we’ll provide a GRE overview of the most important information for prospective test-takers.

Introduction to the GRE

GRE test preparation most commonly involves the Graduate Record Examination General Test, or GRE General Test. While various graduate programs may require additional GRE Subject Tests, most GRE prep is focused on the General Test.  As a central component of the graduate school application process, this test is taken by students who have either completed or are close to completing their undergraduate degrees. It is required by nearly every graduate program in the United States, and most students begin their GRE online prep months in advance of their desired test dates.

Additionally, because the GRE is now widely accepted by business and law schools (in place of either the GMAT or LSAT), the GRE is more popular than ever, and GRE General Test preparation online is in high demand. Students interested in pursuing advanced degrees, including applicants to business school and law school, should therefore carefully consider the most effective options available to prepare for the GRE, which is often thought of as the “big brother” of the SAT: a 3-hour 45-minute challenge that tests your algebra, geometry, data analysis, vocabulary, and advanced reading comprehension skills. Unlike the paper-based SAT, however, the GRE is a computer-based, section-adaptive exam. Consequently, the GRE format, scoring, and available test dates are also quite different.

An Overview of the GRE Test Format: GRE Sections Explained

The GRE, which can be taken at home online or at a test center, is comprised of five scored test sections and one unscored section across three categories. These sections each test a different aspect of the test-taker’s readiness for a graduate program:

  • One Analytical Writing Section: This is an essay section in which students have 60 minutes to answer two questions designed to challenge their analytical reasoning abilities. On the first question-type, which the test calls Analyze an Issue, students are asked to take a position on an issue presented to them in text. On the second question-type, Analyze an Argument, students are asked to evaluate the validity of a short, argumentative essay. GRE online test prep with Inspirica will involve efficient, practical strategies for organizing and executing these essays.
  • Two Verbal Reasoning Sections: These sections are designed to test a student’s ability to quickly read and comprehend graduate-level texts, to analyze and draw conclusions from those texts, and to understand logical relationships between component sentences of those texts. Each section is 30 minutes long and includes several question types, including text completion, sentence equivalence, and reading comprehension. GRE test prep online with Inspirica will focus on building those verbal skills that align most effectively with the GRE verbal test format.
  • Two Quantitative Reasoning Sections: These sections are designed to test a student’s competencies in math and can include basic arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and data analysis questions. Most of the topics in these sections were covered in high school, and there is no higher-level math typical of college courses found here. Questions include both the numeric-entry and multiple-choice question types that will be familiar to most students, as well as the unique Quantitative Comparison format, which requires students to determine the relationship between two quantities or sets of equations. GRE test prep online with Inspirica will painlessly help students revisit their high school math classes and rebuild their quantitative confidence.

One of two unscored section-types is usually included with each test:

  • Unscored Section: An unidentified section that is identical in format to one of the above sections but does not count towards the student’s final score is usually included among the sections. It may appear in any order after the Analytical Writing section and is used by ETS to test future questions and benchmark the current test against past offerings. Because this test section will be indistinguishable from the other sections, students must complete it assuming that it is real.
  • Research Section: An identified section that does not count towards the final test score and that features questions and question-types dissimilar to the rest of the test. This section, should it appear, will always appear after all other sections.

An explanation of the GRE sections

The aspect of the GRE format that is most essential to understand is that the GRE is a digital exam, with test-takers viewing one question at a time on a computer screen and either choosing a multiple-choice answer or inputting a number using the mouse and keyboard. Questions can be marked for review within a section, allowing students to skip and return to them before time runs out. This computer-delivered version of the test is section-level adaptive, meaning that the computer selects the second Verbal and Quantitative sections based on the student’s performance in the first. The better one does in the first section, the more difficult the second section and the higher the final section scores are likely to be. Covering the selective nature of the GRE format is crucial to any GRE overview, as the structure of the test is one of its defining features.

GRE Scoring Overview

No GRE overview would be complete without an examination of the test’s scoring. At the end of a computer-delivered testing session, students are given the option of validating the test-session and viewing their scores or cancelling the exam without the scores. There is no option for seeing the scores prior to making this selection. Once validated, students are presented with unofficial versions of both their Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning scores, which are broken down as follows:

  • a Verbal Reasoning score on a 130–170 score scale and in 1-point increments
  • a Quantitative Reasoning score on a 130–170 score scale and in 1-point increments
  • an Analytical Writing score on a 0–6 score scale and in half-point increments

The scoring on GRE Verbal and Quantitative sections is section-level adaptive, which means that the version of the second section each student receives depends on the performance in the first. By calculating the number of questions correctly answered in both sections and using a statistical process known as equating, the system is able to calculate two scaled scores that take into account the adaptive nature of the testing software.

The scoring results of both GRE sections are converted into non-linear scoring curves and scales that require multiple official PDFs to explain. For example, although the mean score in both sections is in the very low 150’s, the 90th percentile is approximately 161 for the Verbal Reasoning section but about 166 for the Quantitative Reasoning section. When combined with target scores from the graduate programs to which you intend to apply, the in’s and out’s of these scales become an essential part of any online GRE test preparation process.

The Analytical Writing score does not appear among the scores on the unofficial report presented to students on test day. Because scoring in this section involves the input of both a human and machine grader, this GRE sub-score will not be available until several weeks after the test day. Essays are graded holistically on a six-point scale, first by the human grader and then by the e-rater. If the two scores are equal or within one point of one another, then the final score is calculated by averaging the two; if the two disagree by more than a point, then the e-rater score is rejected, a second human score is obtained, and the two human scores are averaged to produce the final, official GRE sub-score.

GRE Overview: Scheduling

GRE testers now have two interchangeable options for taking the test: at a traditional test center or in the comfort of their own home. The test is identical in both settings, with only minor logistical differences separating the two.

  • GRE At Home is now available on a permanent basis.
  • GRE At Home is offered everywhere that the GRE General Test is available throughout the world.
  • GRE At Home is identical to the computerized Test Center version of the GRE in content, test format, and test length.
  • GRE At Home offers the same accommodations as the Test Center version of the test, including extended time, extended breaks, and screen magnification, among others.
  • GRE At Home offers the same limitations on test frequency—you can take the GRE General test once every 21 days, up to five times within any twelve-month period. This includes situations in which you have canceled your scores on a test taken previously.

Get all the details of the GRE At Home and test center registration process at the ETS’s website. For a more in-depth comparison of the two testing options, check out our post on taking the GRE at home vs. a test center.

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