The Graduate Record Exam, or GRE, is a test that some graduate schools require for admission. Similar to the SAT or ACT, the exam has several part that each test a different part of your abilities. Everyone who takes it will be tested on critical thinking, writing, and quantitative sections, and there are supplemental subject tests that maybe required for specific schools. To be considered competitive, test takers should aim for scores of at least 158-162 on the verbal portion, 159-164 on the quantitative, and 4.5 on writing. Learn more about each section so you know what to expect.


The exam is administered in a registered testing center. Plan to arrive early to find parking and be prepared for a three hour stay before you get checked in. These days, almost everyone will take a computer version of the exam. The exam is computer-adaptive, which means when a question is answered correctly, the questions are adjusted to become harder. A wrong answer will prompt the next question to be slightly easier. You will receive an instant score for both the verbal and quantitative sections when you finish. The paper test does not adjust in this way, so there are more questions in total and you will wait longer for your score.

Analytical Section

Analytical Writing is the first section, and has two writing prompts. The first has a 45 minute time limit. You’ll be asked to read a paragraph and then write an essay that engages with that topic. The essay will be graded on your organization, clarity, reasoning, and use of examples or evidence to support your claim. The computer is a locked down station where you will not be able to access the internet or any supplemental materials. You will be writing in a very simple word processing program, with no spell check or grammar check tools. A small clock on the screen will count down the time remaining as your write, so managing time is a big part of the challenge.

The second writing task is to critique a given argument in 30 minutes. Working in the same word processing program, you should craft an essay that takes a position on the rhetoric used in the argument and critically examines the reasoning being presented. Focus on the analysis of what you read and critique the writing, not your support of the statement. Real people will score this section, so results can take up to six weeks.

Verbal Section

Despite the name, there is no spoken element to the test. This section gives you 30 minute to test your knowledge of language and critical reasoning using word associations. This section will probably feel familiar to students who have taken other entrance exams. It contains 30 multiple choice questions about reading comprehension, relationships between words and concepts, and sentence construction.

Quantitative Section

Also known as the math portion of the exam, this section takes 45 minutes to complete. The multiple choice questions include concepts from algebra, geometry, arithmetic, and data literacy, but the difficulty is not intended to exceed the earliest levels of college math courses. You will be given blank scratch paper and you can bring your own sharpened pencils for this section, and you can use the simple calculator program included on the computer screen or use a hand held one from the test center. You will not be permitted to bring your own calculator for this section.

Preparing for the GRE is one of the first steps for applying to graduate school. While it does have much in common with other standardized entrance exams, becoming familiar with the types and format of the questions can help you reduce your anxiety and increase success. There are many prep materials available, but no matter what study approach you take, the best advice is to start early and practice frequently to get your best possible score.