GRE vs. No GRE

GRE vs. No GRE (Chapter 5)

There are a number of advantages to taking the GRE, but if you do not do well on standardized tests, then having to take one can be discouraging.

For a lot of schools and programs, the GRE is a required part of the application. For others, the GRE requirement will be waived if your undergraduate GPA is at a certain average or better. And there are masters degree programs that do not require you to take any standardized test, so do some research and see what the requirements are for the types of programs you are interested in. The necessity of the GRE really depends on the schools and programs to which you are applying, and whether or not you need outside funding. Once you have determined those things, you can decide if the GRE is necessary for you to pursue a masters degree.

GRE Basics

You can take the GRE revised general test once every 60 days and no more than 5 times in a calendar year. In 2012, the cost of the GRE revised general test is $160 in the U.S. and its territories. Outside of the U.S., it is $190. There are a variety of additional fees for late registration ($25), location changes ($50), and rescheduling ($50). The GRE is widely offered as a computer test, but you may also take a paper test, depending on your location. There are hundreds of test centers in the U.S. and it is offered every few months on a first-come, first-serve basis. You can register for the exam here. Test takers with disabilities can request accommodation, but make sure to give yourself extra time to make the request and receive the decision, since you cannot register for the GRE before receiving the accommodations. The form to request accommodations for people with disabilities can be found here.

GRE Revised General Test

In August 2011, the GRE general test was replaced by the GRE revised general test. The exam was revised to be more test taker friendly, but the structure of the test is largely the same. There are 3 sections: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing. In the revised exam, there are new kinds of questions that are supposed to better reflect the kind of thinking you will do as a graduate student. Along with the new format and new kinds of questions, the GRE revised general test also has a new scale of scoring. GRE scores are valid for 5 years, including those taken prior to the revision. However, verify with the individual programs to which you are applying to double check that they will accept the test scores that you submit.

  • Verbal Reasoning - The verbal reasoning section assesses your ability to analyze and evaluate written material, to synthesize information and to analyze relationships between concepts. These abilities are tested through 3 types of questions: reading comprehension, text completion and sentence equivalence. As with any standardized test, 1 of the best study tips is to start early, create a schedule and stick to it. Work on improving and expanding your vocabulary and familiarize yourself with the verbal reasoning questions, especially the new multiple choice questions. In addition to standard multiple choice questions that ask you to select 1 answer, the new questions ask you to choose all of the answers that may be correct. For the reading comprehension questions, train yourself to read the questions and possible answers before you read the passages. This will help focus and choose what to pay the most attention to in each passage.
  • Quantitative Reasoning - The quantitative reasoning section assesses your ability to demonstrate basic mathematical skills and to understand elementary mathematical concepts. It also gauges how well you model and solve problems with quantitative methods. These abilities are tested in 4 sections: arithmetic, algebra, geometry and data analysis. To study for this section, you should familiarize yourself with the types of questions asked, and pay special attention to the new multiple choice questions. Like the new multiple choice questions in the verbal reasoning section, these questions ask you to choose all of the answers that may be correct in each question, rather than only choosing 1. You should also use scratch paper and allow yourself to spend more time working on the problems that you find most challenging.
  • Analytical Writing - The analytical writing section of the GRE revised general test is scored separately from the verbal and quantitative reasoning sections, meaning that it stands alone and that admissions committees will see and judge it alone. This section assesses your ability to think critically and write analytically, to articulate and support complex ideas, to build and evaluate arguments and to sustain a focused and coherent discussion. You will be asked to write 2 essays, 1 in which you analyze an issue, and 1 in which you analyze an argument. To prepare for the analytical writing section, you should familiarize yourself with the skills that you will be tested on. It is important you review sample topics and to write practice essays.

Subject Tests

The GRE offers 8 subject tests, which can be taken to demonstrate content knowledge in specific disciplines. Some schools and programs require you to take these subject tests while others do not. Even if they are not required, subject tests can provide admissions committees with an additional dimension to your application.

Unlike the GRE revised general test, the GRE subject tests are only offered at test centers 3 times per year, in October, November, and April. The base fee for a subject test is $140, though there are additional fees to change the date or place of the test. GRE subject tests are offered in:

  • Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology - This subject test has approximately 175 multiple choice questions based on 3 fields: biochemistry, cell biology and molecular biology and genetics. Many of the questions focus on problem solving skills, methodology and data interpretation. Because undergraduate curricula in these topics can vary, few test takers will have knowledge of every topic covered in the test. In addition to the overall score, each field will generate a subscore.
  • Biology - This subject test has approximately 200 multiple choice questions based on 3 fields: cellular and molecular biology, organismal biology, and ecology and evolution. Many of the questions are grouped in sets and based on descriptions of laboratory and field situations, diagrams and experimental results. In addition to the overall score, each field will generate a subscore.
  • Chemistry - This subject test has approximately 130 multiple choice questions and covers 4 fields of chemistry: analytical, inorganic, organic and physical. Test takers are provided with a periodic table and some conversion factors for the International System of Units (SI). Although this exam covers 4 fields of chemistry, some questions may address more than 1 field. There are no subscores for this exam.
  • Computer Science - This subject test has approximately 70 multiple choice questions and covers 4 fields of computer science: software systems and methodology, computer organization and architecture, theory and mathematical background and related topics. Some of the questions are grouped in sets and based on diagrams, graphs and program fragments. There are no subscores for this exam.
  • Literature in English - This subject test has approximately 230 multiple choice questions on poetry, drama, biography, the essay, the short story, the novel, criticism, literary theory and the history of language with an emphasis on authors, works, genres and movements. The test breaks down into 4 fields: literary analysis, identification, cultural and historical contexts and the history and theory of literary criticism. There are no subscores for this exam.
  • Mathematics - This subject test has approximately 66 multiple choice questions based on several fields of mathematics. About 50% of the questions cover calculus and its applications, while 25% cover elementary algebra, linear algebra, abstract algebra and number theory. The remaining 25% of the questions cover other subtopics, such as real analysis introduction, discrete mathematics, geometry, probability and statistics. There are no subscores for this exam.
  • Physics - This subject test has approximately 100 multiple choice questions and is meant to determine the extent of the test taker’s understanding of the fundamental principles of physics and their ability to use these concepts to solve problems. The questions are designed to cover curricula typically learned in the first 3 years of undergraduate physics. The fields tested include classical mechanics, electromagnetism, optics and wave phenomena, thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, quantum mechanics, atomic physics, special relativity, laboratory methods and specialized topics. There are no subscores for this exam.
  • Psychology - This subject test has approximately 205 multiple choice questions and covers the core knowledge learned in undergraduate psychology in 3 fields: experimental or natural science, social psychology or social science and general knowledge. The experimental or natural science field focuses on learning, language, memory, thinking, sensation and perception, physical psychology and behavioral-neurological psychology. The social psychology and social science field emphasizes clinical psychology, abnormal psychology and personality. In the general field, the history of psychology, applied psychology, psychometrics, research design and statistics are covered. The first 2 fields generate subscores for this test, but the general knowledge field only counts toward the overall score.

GRE Scores

GRE scores are just another way for graduate admissions and scholarship committees to measure you against other candidates. Depending on what the rest of your application looks like, the GRE can help, hurt or make no difference in whether or not you will be accepted into a program. Many funding opportunities are based on your GRE scores, so if you are dependent on outside funding for school, start studying as soon as possible. For the GRE taken prior to August 2011, the verbal and quantitative reasoning sections are scored on 200-800 point scale in 10-point increments.

For the GRE revised general test taken in August 2011 and after, the verbal and quantitative reasoning sections are scored on a 130-170 scale in 1-point increments. The analytical writing section is scored on the same scale for both the GRE and the GRE revised general test from 0 to 6 in half point increments. Educational Testing Services (ETS) provides a helpful conversion chartfor scores from the old GRE and the revised GRE.It is difficult to determine what makes a good GRE score, especially since different schools and programs have different admissions standards. However, the averages from 2007 to 2010 were:

  • Verbal: 456 (revised GRE conversion: 151)
  • Quantitative: 590 (revised GRE conversion: 159)
  • Writing: 3.8 (same score for revised GRE)

Check with the schools that you are applying to and see if they list an average or a minimum score for admitted students.

GRE subject tests are scored on a scale from 200 to 990 in 10-point increments. Subscores range from 20 to 99 in 1-point increments. As with the general test, it is difficult to determine what makes a good score. Each subject test has a different average and scores from different subject tests should not be compared with each other. For example, a 600 in biology is not the same as a 600 in physics.

You may cancel your test scores at the computer test-taking facility, but if you decline to do so at that time, you cannot cancel your scores later. You are also not able to cancel 1 section’s scores (e.g. quantitative reasoning) and keep scores from another section (e.g. verbal reasoning). That said, you may retake the GRE general and subject tests multiple times in 1 year.

If you choose not to cancel your scores at the test-taking facility, and opt to sit for the test again, all of your scores from the previous 5 years will be reported.

Test Preparation

There are several ways in which you can prepare for the GRE revised general test and for the GRE subject tests. If learning independently works for you, the GRE website has free preparation guides available for download on their website. You can also purchase test prep guides from bookstores, or borrow from libraries. Make sure that the books are for the newly revised test!

Test preparation courses for the GRE and other standardized tests, like those offered by Kaplan and Princeton Review, can be very expensive but very effective. Alternatively, some colleges and universities offer similarly styled GRE prep courses but at a much lower cost. Regardless of which method of test prep you choose, you should start studying as early as possible and take at least 1 full practice exam before sitting for the actual test.