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All About the GRE

Overview of the GRE

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is a standardized test used for graduate school admission. Owned and administered by Educational Testing Service (ETS), the GRE is one of the world's most widely taken assessments, and approximately 655,000 prospective graduate students in many different fields sit for the GRE each year. The GRE tests verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing. The first two areas are scored on a scale of 130 to 170 in one-point increments, while analytical writing scores are given from 0 to 6 in half-point intervals. The GRE is a computer-adaptive examination, meaning that student performance affects the difficulty level of subsequent test material. However, GRE computer adaptation is section-by-section rather than the question-by-question format of some standardized tests (such as the GMAT). Most students take the GRE in its computerized version, but the GRE paper test is still available in some locations.

GRE Availability

The GRE may be taken on almost any day of the year, but availability in a specific city may be more limited. GRE administrations on Sundays are somewhat infrequent, and test centers are usually closed on national holidays. ETS reports that the test is available at over 700 test centers in 160 countries. Students are allowed to take the GRE up to five times per year (defined by ETS as any continuous 365-day period), but there is a mandatory 21-day waiting period between consecutive test attempts.

The GRE and Graduate School Acceptance

Most graduate programs in the United States require their applicants to take the GRE, and the test is accepted at universities in many other countries as well. The most common exceptions are applicants to medical school and law school (these students take different standardized tests). The GRE is also widely accepted for graduate business school, although many business students choose to take the GMAT instead. Some degree programs have minimum GRE score requirements, but most selective degree offerings do not have minimum GRE benchmarks for consideration of admission. In the latter case, applicants should consider the average GRE scores of accepted students, usually published on departmental websites, to be a reliable indication of institutional GRE expectations.

A Brief Comparison of the GRE and the GMAT

The GRE and the GMAT are roughly equivalent in length, and both tests evaluate the same general academic skills. Many educators consider the GMAT's assessment of quantitative skills to be more complex than that of the GRE, and as noted above, computer adaptation on the GMAT is affected by every question on the verbal and quantitative sections. Yet there is no universal agreement that one test is less difficult than the other; this is a matter of a given student's academic strengths. The best way for a student to make his or her choice is to simply take a practice version of both exams. As a business school admissions test, the GMAT has a more limited purpose, and students considering graduate study in business and other subjects may therefore wish to take the GRE. ETS offers a score comparison tool that allows students to view rough concordances between GRE and GMAT scores. A 165 each on GRE verbal and quantitative, for example, is correlated to a GMAT score of 730.

GRE Score Data

According to ETS, mean scores for all GRE test-takers are about 150 verbal, 152 quantitative, and 3.5 analytical writing. Verbal scores of 160 and 165 are in the 85th and 95th percentiles respectively, while quantitative scores of 162 and 166 represent the respective 82nd and 91st percentiles. 41% of test-takers receive analytical writing scores of 4.0 or higher, and only 7% score between 5.0 and 6.0. Average GRE scores by academic discipline are fairly predictable in terms of mean verbal and quantitative performance, but there are some outliers. It is not surprising that engineering students, for example, show strong quantitative skills (mean score of 159), but these students are also below average on verbal skills (149). Philosophy majors are above average in all GRE areas (160 verbal, 153 quantitative, and 4.3 analytical writing). Business students are approximately average on all three GRE sections (150 verbal, 153 quantitative, and 3.5 analytical writing).

ETS Privacy Policies for Scores

It is ETS policy to release score reports only to test-takers and the institutions they designate, and ETS gives students who have taken the GRE multiple times full control over which score reports to send. Score data is sometimes made available to other entities for purposes such as research, but this is done without including identifiable student information. Federal and state laws provide students with additional privacy protections. The most significant of these is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a 1974 federal law that applies to education records.