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by Kaitlin McManus | January 28, 2019


Study Materials

Back in 2014, HBO’s Last Week Tonight claimed that kids can take up to 113 standardized tests before graduating high school. I’m not here to debate the efficacy or usefulness of standardized tests, but I can tell you one thing for sure: they stop pretty much the second you get to college. And thank God, because college is hard enough. But somewhere down the line, a lot of people make the choice to go to grad school. And guess what—standardized tests come back with a vengeance. Be it the LSAT, the MCAT, the GMAT, or (our subject today) the GRE, if you intend to go to grad school, you will likely be taking one of these exams.

I took the GRE in the summer of 2015 during my gap year between undergrad and my MFA (I say “gap year” like it was fun in some way—I worked 55-hour weeks in food service and retail, it wasn’t exactly the Malia Obama experience), and even though I’d only been out of school for a few months, getting back into the swing of standardized testing was nothing like riding a bike. I had to relearn so many skills and rules that I’d foolishly assumed I was done with. And I didn’t have anyone holding my hand—I didn’t know anyone who had taken the test before. Luckily for you, I’m here give you the lowdown. Trust me, if I can work that kind of schedule and pass this test, you can too.

In this series, I’ll be taking you through the various know-how you’ll need and the steps you should take as you prepare for perhaps the most pervasive grad school standardized test: the GRE. To start off, let’s walk through some of the basic information you should know about the exam before going down the test-prep rabbit hole.

What even is the GRE?

The GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) is a standardized test that many grad schools require you take. It’s basically the SAT or ACT, but for grad school. There are three sections in the general test: Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, and Analytical Writing.

Verbal Reasoning is essentially reading comprehension and vocabulary. Sometimes you’ll be given a passage and asked questions about it. Sometimes you’ll be asked to complete a sentence with the appropriate vocabulary word or to compare vocabulary to demonstrate your knowledge. The GRE vocab list is notorious—you’re going to need flash cards.

Quantitative Reasoning is math, pure and simple. Sometimes it’s solving an equation, sometimes it’s more of a logic puzzle. Technically speaking, the test is supposed to test high school level math skills. I’m not saying that any of the problems ask you for your best Good Will Hunting impression, but they do span the entire breadth of high school math (i.e., it’s not just algebra).

Analytical Writing requires you to write two essays that the test calls the “issue task” and the “argument task.” You’re given 30 minutes per essay. For the issue task, you’ll be given a stance on a certain issue. Your task is to agree or disagree, and present your case as to why you think that way. For the argument task, you’ll be presented with a logical argument. Hint: the logic of this argument is flawed. Your essay should explain why and how the logic can be improved upon. While the issue task allows for opinion so long as you make a case for it, the argument task does not. Keep your answers to the strictly empirical.

There are also GRE tests in the following subjects: Biology, Chemistry, Literature in English, Mathematics, Physics, and Psychology. Some schools or programs may require you to take a subject test as well as the general test. You will need to take these tests on separate days.

How does it work?

By all accounts, the process should be largely similar to how you took the ACT or SAT. You’ll register in advance through the official website at your preferred testing site, pay the $205 testing fee (I know. There are ways to get that reduced on a need-based basis, but yeah—it’s a lot.), and mark the date on your calendar. The GRE is taken either via computer or on paper. The computerized test is available more frequently, but make sure you know which one you signed up for.

There is no formal prerequisite for taking the exam, but the test does assume that you’ve either achieved your Bachelor’s degree or that you are about to, and that you are fluent in English. The general test takes about four hours when all’s said and done. It consists of the two essays, two verbal reasoning sections, two quantitative reasoning sections, and one experimental section that will look like either a verbal or quantitative reasoning section. The last of these is where the testing company tries out new questions. It is not graded, but it’s also impossible to tell which of the sections is the experimental one—so you should take the entire test as if it’s graded. There is no experimental section on the paper test. The subject tests take approximately three hours.

The Verbal and Quantitative Reasoning sections are scored on a scale of 130-170, while Analytical Writing is scored from 0.5 to 6. Your scores are valid for five years after taking the test, and if you take the test more than once, all of your scores will be available for the schools to view. Some schools look at your highest score, some look at your most recent. The individual school’s policies are often available on their admissions website.

How much does it matter?

Well, that depends. If a school you’re applying to requires that you take the GRE, then you know it matters to some extent. But different schools and even different programs within the same school can value GRE scores differently. For some—particularly more competitive schools and programs—GRE scores can matter quite a bit. For others, it’s essentially a box to check. My MFA program, for example, required that I take the GRE but was pretty open about the fact that their admissions focused much more heavily on my writing sample and letters of recommendation. If you’re not sure how weighted GRE scores are at the schools you’re applying to, give their admissions office a call and ask. I’ve found that many admissions counselors are happy to discuss which parts of the school’s application they value the most.

The GRE is something of a necessary evil when it comes to applying for grad school. It’s long and expensive, and if you’re anything like me, you’ve already emptied out your brain of all the math you’ve ever learned. But more than a few graduate programs require it, so if grad school is your goal, it’s important that you know what you’re getting into and prepare wisely.

Check back in next week. I’ll be going over some GRE study strategies you may find useful once you’re ready to hit the books.