What Is the GRE, and What’s a Good Score?


Getting into graduate school isn’t as simple as flashing your bachelor’s degree. Universities want to know that you have what it takes to contribute to their research programs, think critically, and ultimately, produce work that adds to their academic reputation.

No standardized test can fully prove what you’re capable of, but for over 60 years, colleges have used scores from the Graduate Records Examination to help filter applications. Even if a school doesn’t require a specific score, the GRE is a reputable evaluation tool that can give them useful information when they compare you to other potential graduate students.

There are thousands of bachelor’s degree programs with different curriculum, standards, accreditation, faculty, and expectations. But there’s only one GRE. Requiring a challenging standardized test gives admissions offices a baseline to objectively compare graduates from different schools and programs.

If you’ve been looking into graduate programs, you’ve probably found plenty that don’t require your GRE scores. But unless you’re only applying to one school, you should take the GRE to give yourself the most options. You only have to take it once, and then you can send your scores to whichever schools you want.

In most cases, you’ll just need to take the GRE General Test, but if you have a specialized expertise, you may wish to take a GRE Subject Test as well.

Here’s a breakdown of each piece of the GRE:

GRE General Test

The GRE General Test contains three sections: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing. You’ll most likely take the test on a computer, but the computer-delivered GRE isn’t available in some parts of the world. In those cases, the GRE is administered on paper, and has a slightly different structure.

The subjects covered in the test likely won’t have anything to do with the subject you’re pursuing in grad school—that’s not the point. Each section is designed to “measure” your ability to perform the advanced critical-thinking most graduate programs will require.

The GRE is an adaptive test, meaning the difficulty of the questions changes depending on how well you’re doing. Wrong answers lead to easier questions, and correct answers lead to more challenging ones. You can also leave sections blank and come back to them later, and you can even change previous answers.

Completing the whole test takes a little over three hours. The structure of the GRE has changed over the years, so depending on who you ask, you might find different information.

We went straight to the source—Educational Testing Service—so this is the most up-to-date information.

Verbal reasoning

Sections: 2

Duration: 60 minutes total (30 minutes per section)

Questions: 40 total (20 questions per section)

This section is designed to test your ability to parse information. Like many research papers, the verbal reasoning questions bury the information you need in jargon and overly wordy paragraphs, forcing you to translate needlessly technical language into something useful. It may seem ridiculous, but the reality is that academic scholarship is often littered with disclaimers, caveats, and supplemental information—usually (and ironically) in the name of precision and accuracy—which makes comprehension more difficult than it should be.

Think I’m exaggerating? Check out the sample questions for the verbal reasoning section. Those are straight from ETS.

I don’t say all that to scare you. These questions help show graduate schools that you can competently conduct independent research under time constraints. Presumably, you’re applying to grad school because you feel you can handle that. This is your chance to prove it on the spot.

But like all tests, this is also a test of your ability to take tests. There are three types of questions, but they’re all variations of multiple choice based on a paragraph. With a little prep, you’ll do fine. Just promise that when you get into grad school and start publishing papers, you won’t write like this.

Quantitative reasoning

Sections: 2

Duration: 70 minutes total (35 minutes per section)

Questions: 40 total (20 questions per section)

Remember sitting in your high school math class and thinking, When am I ever going to need to know this? This is when.

The quantitative reasoning section is designed to demonstrate your ability to interpret complex data. OK, it’s not that complex—I was serious about the high school thing. ETS says this section uses high school math and statistics, and the questions won’t go beyond a second-level algebra class.

To put it as simply as possible, you’ll be tested on:

  • Your ability to tell which number is bigger.
  • Your ability to use a calculator to solve arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and data analysis problems.

But unless you’re going to grad school for a STEM-related major, this still might be easier said than done. Check out the different question types and try your hand at some sample questions to see if you’re ready.

When you’re in grad school, you probably won’t be handed pages of equations and asked to solve them. More likely, you’ll have to construct and solve problems from scratch using data you pull from studies. That’s why many of the quantitative reasoning questions on the GRE will be word problems.

Analytical writing

Sections: 2

Duration: 60 minutes total (30 minutes per section)

Questions: Two (one per section)

In the GRE’s analytical writing section, there are no wrong answers. There are only well-written, clearly articulated, strongly supported answers—and bad answers.

The two pieces of the analytical writing section test your ability to form a position based on given material and to evaluate someone else’s position. The first part is called “analyze an issue,” and the second is “analyze an argument.” This is where you’ll showcase your ability to dissect and analyze writing.

ETS describes the relationship between the parts this way:

“The two tasks are complementary in that one requires you to construct your own argument by taking a position and providing evidence supporting your views on an issue, and the other requires you to evaluate someone else’s argument by assessing its claims and evaluating the evidence it provides.”

Throughout your undergraduate studies, you’ve likely performed each of these tasks many times. But the level of writing you’ll be expected to present and pick apart in graduate school is significantly higher. Remember those obnoxiously dense paragraphs we talked about in the verbal reasoning section? It’s a warm-up for this. Academic arguments are often hedged in an impenetrable shroud of verbiage—and your job as an academic is to penetrate it.

With 30 minutes for each part, you have plenty of time to break each piece down sentence-by-sentence. You may find that some of these arguments are easily toppled because they hinge on a single assumption.

To know exactly what you’re up against, ETS gives you sample tasks and examples of scored essays with explanations for the scores. They recommend that even good writers take the time to review the scoring criteria and get a feel for the prompts before taking the test.

If you take the GRE General Test, verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing are the only three sections you’ll take. You can, however, take additional tests if you have a particular expertise you’d like to show admissions offices.

GRE Subject Tests

Unless you’re applying to a highly competitive graduate program at a prestigious university (like an Ivy League school), you probably won’t have to submit scores from a GRE Subject Test. But if you’re applying to a program in one of the subjects these tests cover, odds are you know a thing or two about that subject, and a good score can only help your application.

Currently, you can take a GRE Subject Test for these six subjects:

These tests contain anywhere from about 60-200+ questions, and they cover each subject in-depth.

So why would you want to take a Subject Test if you don’t have to? Well, suppose for a moment that you got a terrible score on the GRE General Test. Or at least a mediocre one. But you know you can do well on the subject you studied for four-plus years in undergrad. Scoring well on a GRE Subject Test gives the admissions office one more piece of objective information that helps them determine if you’re capable of performing well in their graduate program. And a good score on the right Subject Test for the right program could be even more valuable than a good score on the GRE General Test.

Where do you take the GRE?

Whether you take the GRE on a computer or on paper, you’ll have to do it at a test center at a designated time. ETS makes it easy to find a test center near you. You can filter the results by distance or test date. There are over 1,000 test centers, so there’s bound to be one near you. (They’re often at colleges.)

The computer-delivered tests are offered throughout the year, but paper tests are only offered three times per year: September, October, and April. GRE Subject Tests can only be taken in the paper format, so they’re only available during these times.

How much does the GRE cost?

You can take the GRE General Test from anywhere in the world for $205, except mainland China. For some reason, the GRE costs a little more there—it’s $225.70. GRE Subject Tests are $150 each. But that’s not the only cost you should think about.

When you’re ready to schedule your test, keep in mind that any changes you make are going to cost you. There’s no way to get a full refund if you decide to cancel (unless you live in South Korea and cancel within seven days). And if you need to change your test time, day, location, or Subject Test, it’s $50. Oh, and if you want to reschedule your test in mainland China, it’s $53.90.

Before you even take your test though, you may want to budget for test prep, too. That can cost anywhere from zero to several hundred dollars. I know that might sound crazy, but depending on the grad school program you’re trying to get into, it could be absolutely worth it.

After your test is scored, you might wind up spending even more money. You can send your score report to four schools of your choice for free, but if you want to send them to more, it’ll cost you about $30 each. And if you want to review your scores to work on what you missed, there are additional fees for that, too.

If you’re applying to schools where your score matters, you might want to consider spending the extra money on test prep and post-test review materials. But if taking the GRE is just a box you need to check, stick to the free help.

Who sees your GRE score report?

The nice thing about the GRE is you get to decide who sees your scores. You can send your score report to four schools for free, and each additional score report is about $30. These scores are reportable for about five years. (Here’s an example GRE score report.)

ETS also has a ScoreSelect option that lets you choose which scores schools get to see. Unfortunately, you can’t pick your best result from each section of the test—you just choose which test (or tests) they see. So if you did better the first time you took the test, you don’t have to send them your more recent results. You can also choose to show them all your scores from the other times you took the test—which you might want to do if you scored significantly better on each section on different days.

It’s completely OK not to release your bad scores. So many external factors can affect how well you do on a test—including what you happened to eat that morning, how much sleep you had, test anxiety, and how you felt that day. There’s no need to beat yourself up about a bad score.

What’s a good score on the GRE?

The GRE score report shows your score on each section of the test, as well as the percentage of test takers you scored higher than.

The verbal and quantitative reasoning sections are scored between 130 and 170, and the analytical writing score is between 0 and 6. Using several years of data, ETS has determined average GRE scores for about 1.75 million test takers. Here are their findings:

Verbal reasoning: 149.97

Quantitative reasoning: 152.57

Analytical writing: 3.48

Those scores will put you smack dab in the middle at the 50th percentile. If you want to score in the top 10% though, your scores will need to look more like this:

Verbal reasoning: 163-170

Quantitative reasoning: 165-170

Analytical writing: 5.0-6.0

Depending on the program you’re applying to, they might be more interested in your score on a particular section. An engineering program, for example, is probably going to care more about how well you did in the quantitative section. Whereas a humanities or social sciences program might be more concerned with your verbal reasoning and analytical writing scores.

It wouldn’t hurt to ask the admissions office at your desired program. They should be able to give you some kind of a range to aim for based on people who actually get into the program.

What’s the best possible score you can get on the GRE?

Every year, a tiny percentage of test takers get a perfect score on the GRE. That’s 170 on the verbal and analytical reasoning sections, and 6.0 on the analytical writing section.

Do you need a perfect score? Absolutely not. Most of the top graduate programs in the country are going to be more than happy with a score in the 90th percentile. A perfect score puts you in the 99th percentile for verbal reasoning and analytical writing, and the 97th percentile for quantitative reasoning.

How do you prepare for the GRE?

Like all standardized tests, part of preparing for the GRE is getting used to the format of the test itself. Knowing when and how to utilize time-saving options like skipping sections can give you an edge over people who know the material better. Being familiar with the kinds of questions you’re going to face can help focus your studies. And understanding how the scoring system works can keep you from wasting valuable time or energy.

There are plenty of test-taking skills you can learn to improve your score, even without mastering the material itself. Take advantage of free GRE prep tools through ETS, or if you’re determined to land the perfect score, you can pay for more personalized test help. You can take GRE practice tests, quizzes, and get GRE coaching. ETS even provides a review with almost 200 pages of materials about the math skills you’ll need for the quantitative reasoning section.

What happens if you get a bad score on the GRE?

Thankfully, a bad score on the GRE isn’t going to end your academic career. It’s a bummer to spend all that time and money and have nothing to show for it, but you can always retake the test, too.

You can take the GRE once every 21 days, and up to five times in a single year. If your score isn’t improving by the second or third time though, something needs to change. That’s probably a good indicator that you haven’t been taking test prep seriously enough—either in your studies or in your personal care (diet, sleep, exercise, mental health, etc.).

If it comes down to it, and you just can’t do any better, you can always apply to graduate programs that don’t require GRE scores—or if your score isn’t too terrible, programs that don’t have a minimum score. Some people just stink at taking tests. Maybe that’s you. There are plenty of schools that are more than willing to look past standardized tests to evaluate candidates on a more individual level.

We hope this post has been helpful. Let us know if we missed anything, or if you still have questions about the GRE.

Good luck with grad school!

Ryan Nelson
Ryan has a B.A. in English Literature from Western Washington University. If he could rewind and go to college all over again, he'd do it a little differently. For now, he's living vicariously through people like you by helping you find the best online schools for your field.

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