What Is the Graduate Record Examination (GRE)?

The graduate record examination (GRE) is a standardized exam used to measure one's aptitude for abstract thinking in the areas of analytical writing, mathematics, and vocabulary. The GRE is commonly used by many graduate schools in the U.S. and Canada to determine an applicant's eligibility for the program.

The GRE today is primarily offered via computer; however, in areas that lack the appropriate computer networks, a paper-based exam may be given.

Key Takeaways

  • The GRE is a standardized graduate program aptitude test that measures abstract thinking in areas such as reading comprehension, writing, and mathematics.
  • The GRE score scale is 130-170, with top graduate programs looking for those scoring in the mid-to-high-160s.
  • The GRE is available at online testing centers and, in most countries including the U.S., costs $205 to take.

Understanding the Graduate Record Examination (GRE)

The GRE consists of three key sections designed to measure verbal and quantitative reasoning, and critical writing skills.

The verbal reasoning section analyzes the test taker's ability to draw conclusions, distinguish major and relevant points, and understand words and sentences, among other things. It’s structured to measure the test taker’s ability to analyze and evaluate written material. This section also gauges their capacity to process the information they gather from written material and see and analyze relationships between different parts of sentences.

In the quantitative segment, the test taker’s ability to solve problems is measured through the use of concepts of geometry, data analysis, and algebra. Test takers must solve problems using mathematical problems, and interpret and analyze quantitative data.

The final section, meanwhile, measures the test taker’s capacity for critical thinking and analytical writing—in particular, how well they can articulate complex ideas and provide effective support for those concepts.

History of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE)

The GRE was introduced in 1936 by a consortium of four universities and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. In 1938, the University of Wisconsin became the first public university to ask students to take the GRE.

The Educational Testing Service (ETS) was created in 1948 and currently oversees GRE testing. Initially, the GRE test included only verbal and quantitative sections. An analytics and logic section was later added, but then replaced, after 2002, with the analytical writing assessment.

New questions were introduced in 2007, together with fill-in-the-blank style questions in the math section, while 2008 brought style changes to the reading comprehension questions. The biggest changes came in 2011, with a new design that includes the current 130-170 scoring scale, doing away with particular question types, and making the computer adaptive testing adjustments based on sections and not questions.

Despite its ubiquity, some universities have begun dropping GRE requirements, amidst criticism that the exam is unfair and biased, and moreover does not provide a good prediction of graduate student success or further employment in academia.

How the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) Is Scored

The current score scale for the verbal and quantitative sections is 130-170, scored in one-point increments. The analytical writing section is scored 0-6 in half-point increments.

The ETS has provided the mean scores for each section of the GRE based on all test takers from July 1, 2016, to June 30, 2019, which are as follows:

  • Verbal Reasoning: 150.4
  • Quantitative Reasoning: 153.4
  • Analytical Writing: 3.58

How Admissions Use the Graduate Record Examination (GRE)

The GRE General Test is used broadly by graduate and business schools to screen applicants. Some schools may require applicants to take GRE Subject Tests, which measure knowledge in particular fields of study. These subject areas may include physics, psychology, biology, literature in English, and chemistry.

Note that GRE Subject Test areas of focus are not always static; tests have been introduced or discontinued for topics such as computer science and biochemistry, though the scores from previously taken tests remain reportable.

Business School Admissions

Most business schools prefer that applicants attempt the GMAT before applying for an MBA program, although many of them will also accept GRE scores as an equivalent.

The GRE measures a test taker's skills in vocabulary, as opposed to the GMAT, which focuses more on mathematical ability. Nevertheless, many business schools, including the top business schools in the U.S., accept the GRE as an entrance exam for their MBA programs.

To get a better idea of typical scores for the GRE, here are the 2019 average exam scores for the top 10 business schools in the U.S.

2019 Average GRE Scores for the Top 10 Business Schools
Ranking Business School Mean GRE Verbal Mean GRE Quant
1 University of Pennsylvania (Wharton) 162 162
2 Stanford University 165 165
3 Harvard University 163 163
3 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Sloan) 162 162
3 University of Chicago (Booth) n/a n/a
6 Columbia University n/a n/a
6 Northwestern University (Kellogg) n/a n/a
6 University of California at Berkeley (Haas) 162 161
9 Yale University 165 164
10 Duke University (Fuqua) 160 159
Rankings from U.S. News’ Top Business Schools of 2019

How to Take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and its Cost

Those who are looking to take the GRE typically schedule to take the exam at a test center. The time allotted to complete the exam is more than three hours, with scheduled breaks between testing sections. While there is no limit on the number of times one can take the exam, there must be a 21-day gap between any two consecutive test attempts. The exam also cannot be taken more than five times in a calendar year.

A test taker might take the exam multiple times in order to improve their test scores and increase their chances of being accepted into the graduate schools they are interested in attending. Test takers choose which scores they send to graduate schools, unlike other standardized tests that are reported without input from the applicant.

The cost of the exam in the U.S. is $205. That same fee applies to many other countries in the world, although there are some exceptions—in China, Australia, India, Nigeria, and Turkey, the exam costs $231.30, $230, $213, $226, and $255, respectively.

Signing Up and Preparing for the Graduate Record Examination (GRE)

Individuals can sign up to take the GRE on the ETS website. Taking the computer test requires a free ETS account, then the test taker can sign up for a test date and center—although they must register at least two calendar days prior to the planned test date. Payment for the test can be made via credit or debit card, e-check, paper check, or PayPal.

In terms of preparing for the GRE, the ETS website offers a range of resources, most of which are free. The ETS offers free practice tests, math skills reviews with definitions and examples, and instructional videos.

The ETS also offers paid materials, which includes a number of additional practice tests. Section-specific questions, such as verbal reasoning, can be purchased, too. In addition, there are online writing practice features available through the service, which allows you to write two essays and get scores and feedback.