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 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 measures abstract thinking in areas such as writing and mathematics.
  • The GRE score scale is 130-170.
  • The cost to take the GRE in the U.S. is $205 and varies in other countries.

Understanding the Graduate Record Examination (GRE)

The GRE includes three key sections meant 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, 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, analytical writing, measures the test taker’s capacity for critical thinking and analytic writing. In particular, how well they can articulate complex ideas and provide effective support for those concepts is tested.

History of the 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, later adding an analytics and logic section. After 2002, the analytical and logic section was replaced with the analytical writing assessment.

New questions were introduced in 2007 and fill-in-the-blank style questions were introduced in the math section and 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.

How the GRE Is Scored

The current score scale for the verbal and quantitive 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, 2014, to June 30, 2017, which are as follows:

  • Verbal Reasoning: 150.1
  • Quantitative Reasoning: 152.81
  • Analytical Writing: 3.5

How Admissions Use the 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 their knowledge in particular fields of study. These subject areas may include physics, psychology, biology, literature in English, and chemistry. GRE Subject Test areas of focus are not always static; tests have been discontinued for topics such as computer science and biochemistry, though the scores from previously taken tests remain reportable.

Although most business schools prefer that applicants attempt the GMAT before applying for an MBA program, many business schools will also accept GRE scores as an equivalent. The exam consists of several sections including writing, verbal, quantitative and experimental.

The GRE does measure a test taker's skills in vocabulary, as opposed to the GMAT, which focuses more on mathematical ability. Many business schools, including the top business schools in the US, 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 exam scores for the top 10 business schools in the U.S.

GRE Scores for the Top 10 Business Schools
Ranking Business School Mean GRE Verbal Mean GRE Quant
1 University of Pennsylvania (Wharton) 163 162
2 Stanford University 165 165
3 Harvard University 165 (median) 163 (median)
3 Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Sloan) 158-169 (middle 80%) 154-169 (middle 80%)
3 University of Chicago (Booth) n/a 168
6 Columbia University n/a n/a
6 Northwestern University (Kellogg) n/a n/a
6 University of California at Berkeley (Haas) 165 164
9 Yale University 165 (median) 163 (median)
10 Duke University (Fuqua) n/a n/a
Rankings from U.S. News’ Top Business Schools of 2019

How to Take the 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, and a maximum of five times permitted in a calendar year.

A test taker might take the exam multiple times in order to improve their test scores to 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. It’s higher in certain countries, such as China where it’s $231.30. The cost of a subject test is $150 worldwide.

Signing Up and Preparing for the GRE

Sign up to take the GRE is done 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 site offers a range of resources—most of them free. ETS offers free practice tests, math skills review with definitions and examples, and instructional videos. ETS also offers paid materials, which includes a number of additional practice tests. As well, there are section-specific questions, such as verbal reasoning, that can be purchased. There are also online writing practice features available through the service, which allows you to write two essays and get scores and feedback.