Higher Education > Advanced Advice

The ABCs of GRE

How to ace your grad school entrance exams

By Valerie Anderson

So, you’re thinking about going to graduate school. Congratulations! After figuring out what schools you are interested in applying to, you will need to prepare your application.

Practically every graduate school application consist of these basic components:


  • GRE or other standardized test scores

  • Transcript

  • Letter of recommendation

  • Personal statement and/or admission essays

In this column, we will be taking a closer look at the Graduation Record Examination or GRE. Like the SATs or ACTs that you took for your college application, this test is the most common standardized exam for entry into graduate school. GRE test scores are used by admissions or fellowship panels to evaluate and compare the qualifications of applicants. These scores are very important and will be an indicator of your success or failure in graduate school.

The GRE General Test

The General Test portion of the GRE is offered year-round at computer-based test centers in the U.S., Canada and many other countries. It’s also offered at paper-based test centers where computer-based testing is not available. It consists of three sections—the analytical, verbal and quantitative section.

According to the GRE Web site (www.ets.org/gre), the analytical writing portion of the test measures the test taker’s ability to articulate complex ideas clearly, effectively examine claims and accompanying evidence, and support ideas with relevant reasons and examples. The verbal reasoning section gauges the test taker’s ability to analyze and evaluate written material and synthesize information obtained from it, analyze relationships among component parts of sentences, and recognize relationships between words and concepts. Lastly, the quantitative reasoning section tests one’s ability to understand basic concepts of arithmetic, algebra, geometry and data analysis; reason quantitatively; solve problems in a quantitative setting; sustain a well-focused, coherent discussion; and control the elements of standard written English.

The GRE Subject Test

This paper-based test is offered in the following eight disciplines:


  • Biochemistry, cell and molecular biology

  • Biology

  • Chemistry

  • Computer science

  • English literature

  • Mathematics

  • Physics

  • Psychology

Each Subject Test is intended for students who have majored in or have extensive background in that area. It’s offered three times a year in October, November and April. Not all graduate programs require the subject tests, so make sure you find out the requirements of the programs that you are applying for.

Tips and Tricks

Always double-check your graduate school application deadlines to find out when you should take the GRE. It’s important to take the test well in advance of your application deadlines. This will ensure that you are able to re-take the test in case of an unsatisfactory score. Many graduate school Web sites will note the last date for the GRE tests on their site.

Preparation is key when it comes to excelling at the GRE. Head to a bookstore or library, and check out the numerous GRE guides that are available.

You can also log onto the Education Testing Services (ETS) Web site at www.ets.org/gre for the most up-to-date information on the application process, fees and important deadlines. On the site you can also register online for the GREs and prepare by using their free test preparation materials. You can download the GRE PowerPrep software, which provides practice tests, reviews and test taking strategies.

For IT students who are nervous about the verbal section of the GRE (and for those who do not speak English as their first language), keep in mind that many universities will be more interested in your analytical and math scores than your scores in the verbal section. You should do your best to prepare for all sections, but give special attention to the analytical and math sections. Also, foreign language students will have their Test of English as a Foreign Language or TOEFL score to prove their English proficiency.

Valerie Anderson is the editorial manager of Graduating Engineer & Computer Careers magazine. Information provided by Education Testing Services (ETS).

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