The GRE is officially called a “CBT,” which stands for “computer-based
test.” So while you’re allowed to write stuff down on scratch paper provided by
the testing center, all the questions and answers will be on the computer. This
means you’ll be clicking on the correct answers rather than filling in bubble
sheets. But more important, the GRE is also a “CAT,” which stands for
“computer-adaptive test.” This means that the GRE software
adapts the test for each test taker, depending on his or her performance, and
each test taker takes a unique test. Isn’t that special? The GRE goes out of its
way to create a personalized testing experience just for you.
Here’s how it works: As each section begins, you’ll be given several
questions of medium-level difficulty (the test makers determine a question’s
level of difficulty through years of statistical analysis). If you answer the
initial questions correctly, you’ll continue to receive harder questions until
you begin making mistakes. If you answer a question incorrectly, the software
will give you a slightly easier question until you get one right, at which point
you’ll get slightly harder questions. Your score is determined using a complex
mathematical formula that takes into account the total number of questions
answered, the number of questions answered correctly, and the level of
difficulty of those questions.
The GRE has three sections:
- Analytical Writing, which we’ll call the Essay section
- Quantitative, which we’ll call the Math section
- Verbal, which we’ll (cleverly) call the Verbal
The GRE scores the Math and Verbal sections on a 200–800-point scale,
in 10-point increments. Essays have the following scoring system: 0 (poor)
to 6 (excellent), in half-point increments.
Note that you’ll receive one score for the entire Math section, one
score for the entire Verbal section, and one for the Essay section. You’ll
get your Math and Verbal scores immediately, right after you finish taking
the test, and you’ll get your Essay score about two weeks after you take the
Due to the adaptive nature of the exam, you won’t know how you’re
doing on a question-by-question basis, but the computer will continue to
track your answers, adjusting the questions’ level of difficulty as the
section goes on. So two test takers could get the same number of questions
correct but still wind up with very different scores, because the software’s
mathematical algorithm awards test takers who answer tough questions
correctly higher scores than those given to test takers who answer the same
number of easy or medium questions correctly. The questions’ level of
difficulty resets when you begin a new section. We’ll look more closely at
scoring in the FAQ section of this chapter.
The GRE lasts about three hours, not including breaks, tutorials, or
experimental sections. Here’s the section-by-section breakdown of the
1 Issue essay 1 Argument essay
45 minutes 30 minutes
On test day, you’ll take one Essay, one Math, and one Verbal section.
The Essay section will always come first, followed by either Math or Verbal.
You might also be required to take an unidentified, unscored pretest
section, which will be either another Verbal or Math section that appears at
any point after the Essay section. You may also get an identified research
section, also unscored. If they put you through this one, they’ll at least
tell you it’s the research section, and it will always come at the end of
the test. The purpose of these experimental sections is to allow the test
makers to try out new questions. Since you may not know which Verbal and
Math sections count toward your score, your best bet is to treat every
section as if it counts.
Now let’s take a look at the GRE sections in a little more detail.
The Essay Section
The Essay section measures your ability to analyze and reason
logically, to express complex ideas coherently, and to use standard
English. This section has two essays:
- “Present Your Perspective on an Issue.”
The test makers give you two broad statements about a general
subject. You’ll then choose one with which to agree or disagree in
- “Analyze an Argument.” Here you’ll
be given a short argumentative passage, then asked to write an essay
in which you evaluate that argument based on its logical structure
and use of reason.
The Math Section
The GRE tests your ability to understand and answer questions
involving basic math, including arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and data
analysis. GRE Math has three types of questions:
- Problem Solving. You’re asked to select the
correct answer to a given mathematical problem.
- Quantitative Comparison. Here you are asked to
determine the relationships between different quantities.
- Data Interpretation. These questions require you
to read and analyze data in graphical form.
The Verbal Section
The GRE tests the strength of your vocabulary, as well as your
ability to recognize the relationships between words. This section also
measures your ability to analyze sentence structure and to understand
and analyze written information. GRE Verbal has four types of questions:
- Sentence Completions. These questions require you
to complete a sentence with the correct word or phrase.
- Reading Comprehension. You’ll be asked questions
about passages drawn from the humanities, social sciences, and
- Antonyms. Here you’ll be given a word, then asked
to correctly select its opposite.
- Analogies. These questions require you to
determine parallel relationships between sets of words.