There are plenty of legitimate reasons why students drop out of high school. And for most students who do, there’s a combination of eight or more reasons why they didn’t graduate. Maybe you had a kid, had to work to help support your family, or missed too many days due to a serious illness or injury. It might’ve felt like you didn’t have a choice.
Whatever your reasons for dropping out, you still have options.
For many people who didn’t graduate high school, the first step towards a better job or higher education is a GED—General Educational Development, also known as a General Educational Diploma. Every year, more than 700,000 people take the GED test.
Here’s why they do it:
We’re going to walk you through how to get your GED, but first, we need to address something. If you still have the option to finish high school, you should.
More than 40% of people who drop out of high school do it at least partially because they think the GED will be easier. And in some ways, it is. Employers and admissions offices know that, too. So when they’re sifting through dozens, hundreds, or thousands of applications, a GED might not get your application into the pile they actually review.
We’ll talk more about that later though. If a GED is the right step for you, here’s what you should do to get started.
1. Review your state’s GED requirements
If you switched schools growing up, you probably noticed: graduation requirements vary a lot from school to school. Every state has its own graduation requirements, and schools meet those requirements in different ways.
The GED works the same way. Every state has unique requirements.
No matter what state you live in, you can’t take the GED if you’re younger than 16. For some states you have to be at least 18—or else jump through extra hoops to take it at a younger age.
Every GED will test your ability in the same four areas: language arts (reading and writing), social studies, math, and science.
The scores you need to earn your GED will vary depending on your state. The same goes for cost, retake policies, and other requirements.
In most states, you need to score at least 145 out of 200 on each section of the test, but some states (like New Jersey) may require higher scores. You pay for each subject test separately, and altogether the GED tests should cost be between $80-$150. (Assuming you don’t have to retake any subjects.)
The GED Testing Service has a page to help you find your state’s GED requirements.
2. Find out what it takes to pass the GED test
You’ve probably heard that getting your GED is easier than finishing high school. But you should know: the GED test may require you to know more than graduating from high school does.
The GED is only “easier” because you take a test for 7.5 hours and then you’re done. Whereas high school students spend 1,080 hours in class every year. According to the GED Testing Service (the makers of the test) you have to outperform 60% of graduating high school seniors in order to pass. Still, their most recent data claims that about 75% of people who took the GED passed.
So what do you need to know? The GED changed quite a bit in 2014, but we’ll give you a quick rundown of the most updated GED test. Most of the questions are at a “Depth of Knowledge” level 2 or higher, which means they’ll focus on your ability to use particular skills, understand concepts, and apply strategic or “extended” thinking.
For a super quick look at the kinds of questions you’ll get asked, check out these five sample GED questions providing by the GED Testing Service.
Keep in mind: you may not have to take the test all at once. Some locations will let you pace yourself and take each subject test separately.
GED Reasoning Through Language Arts
Language arts is the longest part of the test. It’s 150 minutes total, including a 10-minute break. The “Reasoning Through Language Arts” or RLA test is divided into three sections. There are two reading-focused sections where you’ll read a passage and answer several questions about it (multiple choice and extended response), and a 45-minute essay on an assigned topic.
Here’s what the makers of the test expect you to be able to do:
- Determine the details of what is explicitly stated and make logical inferences or valid claims that square with textual evidence
- Read and respond to questions from a range of complex texts, including those at the career and college-ready level.
The reading sections are designed to test your comprehension skills. The passages you’ll read will include fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama—but the emphasis is on nonfiction. This is one of the most significant ways the test has changed. 75% of the questions in this section used to be fiction, but now 75% is nonfiction—which the GED Testing Service deemed more applicable to workplace expectations.
For the essay portion of the language arts test, you should expect to write several paragraphs, likely in response to an article—or multiple articles. Thankfully, the whole test is computer-based, so you’ll have 45 minutes to type your essay. You’ll be asked to form an opinion based on the material and to reference the article throughout your essay.
Your essay will be evaluated based on three factors:
- Analysis of arguments and use of evidence
- Development of ideas and structure
- Clarity and command of standard English
Note that this isn’t the only writing you’ll be expected to do in the test.
GED Social Studies Test
Social studies is the shortest section of the test. It’s 70 minutes long, and the questions are multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, drag-and-drop, or “hot spot” (meaning you click on part of an image).
You’ll be tested on four major areas, and the breakdown looks like this:
- Civics and government: 50%
- U.S. history (or Canadian history, if you’re in Canada): 20%
- Economics: 15%
- Geography and the world: 15%
GED Mathematical Reasoning Test
Math is the second longest part of the test. It’s 115 minutes long and has 46 questions. For the first five questions, you can’t use a calculator, but it’s fair game on the rest of them.
The test focuses on two things:
- Quantitative problem solving
- Algebraic problem solving
That may sound vague, but it’s because the test is designed to prove that you know the fundamentals, not that you’ve mastered specific types of math.
Like the social studies section, expect to see multiple choice, fill-in-the-blank, drag-and-drop, and “hot spot” questions.
GED Science Test
The science section is 90 minutes long, and covers three broad areas of science:
- Life science: 40%
- Physical science: 40%
- Earth and space science: 20%
It’s a mix of what you’d learn in high school science classes and “that which is most relevant and useful for an adult population.” In addition to variations of multiple choice, you’ll have some short answer questions.
3. Study for the test
The GED test isn’t free. If you don’t pass, you have to pay to retake it. Most likely, you’ll need to do some serious studying to prepare. GED Testing Service claims most people who pass the GED do so within about three months, but you’ll have to determine the right pace for yourself.
A lot of people spend about 30 hours studying for the GED, but it’s becoming more common for people to spend much more time than that—upwards of 100 hours. That might sound intimidating, but remember that high school students spend over 1,000 hours in school every year.
So how do you study for the GED? As much as the GED Testing Service wants this to test your knowledge of key subject areas, it’s a standardized test, which means it’s also a test of your ability to take tests. And the best way to get better at taking tests is to take tests.
You should definitely brush up on your high school social studies, math, and science, but taking practice GED tests will have the biggest impact on your score. There are many third-party test prep organizations that will gladly take your money in exchange for practice tests, feedback, and study help, but before you do that, be sure you check out the study materials provided by the makers of the test. You can even pre-purchase a voucher for your GED test to receive a free practice test.
If you do wind up getting study materials from a third party, keep in mind that the GED test changed significantly in 2014. There’s a lot of outdated information floating around out there, and you definitely don’t want to buy that outdated information.
You should also check with your local community or technical colleges to see if they have any GED prep classes or materials. This is a great way to get personal instruction from someone credible.
4. Sign up to take the test
Even though you take the test on a computer, you can’t take it on your computer. The GED is not available online. You have to go to an official GED test center.
There are more than 3,400 GED test centers in the world. GED Testing Service makes it easy to find one near you. Just enter your area code.
Again, remember that you don’t have to take it all at once. If you have the time and you feel prepared for each section you can “get it over with” and power through the 7.5-hour test, or you can break it up into bite-sized chunks and take it in any order you want.
If you don’t pass a section, every state has a slightly different retake policy. You may not have to pay the full price for a retake, and you should be able to take it again as soon as you want. You should also be able to take the test an unlimited number of times.
Why a high school diploma is better than a GED
While GED Testing Service says GEDs are accepted by 97% of employers and colleges—and 60% of GED graduates are enrolled in college—there’s more to consider. A GED demonstrates your competency in broad subject areas, but a high school diploma shows employers and admissions offices things the GED can’t. Namely, commitment.
Unless you’re applying for a seasonal job, most employers are looking for people who can make long-term commitments. They don’t want to spend the time and money to train someone who’s going to quit before that training pays off.
And while you might think all colleges care about is whether or not you pay tuition, their reputation is on the line, too. They want their students to graduate, and they want their graduates to contribute to the field. If you want them to believe you can handle four-plus years of school, a diploma that you earned from four years of school looks a lot better than one you earned in a few hours.
If you still have the option to retake classes you failed or missed at the high school you used to attend, that’s honestly your best route to a better job or higher education. As frustrating as that may be, the months you put into this now will open new doors for the rest of your life. But if it’s been too many years or for whatever reason going back is simply not an option for you, find a legitimate high school completion program.
I say legitimate because there are a lot of terrible for-profit “schools” that are more than willing to take advantage of your lack of education. They literally exist to take your money and hand you a worthless piece of paper with “HIGH SCHOOL DIPLOMA” written on it. You cannot buy a real diploma. Every state has its own legitimate high school completion programs, so you’ll have to do a little research to find one that works.
That said, a lot of the stigma surrounding the GED may be outdated. The updated test follows the U.S. Department of Education’s College and Career Ready Standards—and it seems to show. The GED Testing Service claims that under the new test, 60% of recent GED recipients are enrolled in college.
So if you’ve hit a roadblock in your career or education and finishing high school isn’t an option, the GED may be the right path for you.