GRE General Test


GRE stands for Graduate Record Examinations. It is a standardized test that is required for admission into many graduate schools in the U.S. and other countries (click here for a complete list of schools). In the U.S. and in Indonesia, the GRE General Test is administered in the computer-based format. Paper-based tests are also provided but only in places where computer-based tests are not available.


GRE General Test consists of three main parts: Analytical Writing, Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning. The computer-based test takes approximately 3 hours 45 minutes to complete the test. A brief overview of each part can be found in the table below. More details about the test content and structure can be found in this official GRE page. You can also find some example questions here.

Measure Number of Questions Allotted Time
Analytical Writing
(One section with two
separately timed tasks)
One “Analyze an Issue” task
and one “Analyze an
Argument” task
30 minutes per task
Verbal Reasoning
(Two sections)
20 questions per section 30 minutes per section
Quantitative Reasoning
(Two sections)
20 questions per section 35 minutes per section
Unscored Varies Varies
Research Varies Varies

Source: ETS official GRE website

Who needs to take the GRE?

Most graduate programs in the U.S. require their students to take the GRE General test, with the exception of some areas of graduate studies. The Graduate Management Admissions Test (GMAT) is often required for graduate degrees in business administration or other business-related fields, but business schools increasingly allow their students to choose between the GRE or the GMAT. The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is the required test for students intending to enter medical schools and the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) replaces the GRE as the required standardized test for application into law schools’ JD program.

Different programs, different needs

From my personal experience, different departments/programs put different emphasis on various parts of the GRE. Humanities programs emphasize more on the verbal reasoning and analytical writing components simply because they are the more important measures of success in those programs. On the other hand, if you are applying to a science or engineering program, you have to score very well on the quantitative section while the verbal section may not be as important. I know students who had verbal scores between 400 and 500 in the old GRE test (equivalent to 146-153 in the revised GRE test) but were still accepted to engineering programs at Stanford University. That said, being an international student you should still aim to score high in the verbal section as this section (along with the TOEFL test) is an indication of your good command of English which shows that you will have no problem following lectures and communicating with your peers and professors.

You should contact current students in the program you are interested in to find out what applies in your case. This is often a known fact that cannot be found in the admission webpages of graduate programs.

Preparing for the GRE: tips and tricks

Here are some of the tips and tricks to prepare for the GRE:

  • Start now! It is never too early to start preparing. Cramming the week before the test will lead to a lower score than you can potentially earn. Starting early will allow you to identify your weaknesses and give yourself enough time to work on them. It will also allow you to be comfortable with the test format and procedures so that there will be less surprises on the exam day. Since English is not our native language, it is all the more important to begin early to allow more time to learn the vocabularies.
  • Use the right study materials. There is only one official study guide to the GRE from the maker of the test: “ETS Official Guide to the GRE Revised General Test”. There are, however, many third party study guides. You need to understand the strengths and weaknesses of each guide so that you do not have false expectation about the questions that will appear in the test. A review of the different GRE books can be found here. In general, the official guide by ETS will give you practice questions that will most faithfully emulate the questions that will appear in the test, but it may not do as good a job in explaining how to approach the questions as other study guides.
  • Increase your word bank the smart way. You can find many GRE word lists online or from study guides but how do you go about committing those words to your memory? Many people take the brute force approach, covering word definitions with their hands and trying to memorize as many words as possible in this manner. This approach is ineffective in the long run with thousands of words to memorize. A better approach is to use a spaced-repetition flashcard software such as Anki that incorporates increasing intervals of time between subsequent review of previously learned material in order to exploit the psychological spacing effect. In addition to that, you also need to learn words the right way so that they stay in your long-term memory. Magoosh, an online test prep company, has a free guide to GRE vocabulary that shows you exactly that. Magoosh also has an online GRE vocabulary flashcard tool that you can use to increase your word bank.
  • Improve your speed. You will be taking the GRE test under time constraint so the more efficient you are, the greater is the time saving that you can use to answer more difficult questions. This naturally comes through practice and familiarity with the test questions so it is imperative that you have completed many practice tests before the actual test. Specifically for the verbal section, you will have to spend considerable amount of time reading and comprehending passages so learn to increase your reading speed and master the strategies to excel in reading comprehension.
  • Make specific study plans and stick to it. The key here is to be realistic and honest about how much preparation you can put in given your schoolwork and other commitments. Setting intermediate goals along the way can help you to visualize your progress more concretely and give you a rewarding sense of accomplishment that pushes you to work harder. This can be done, for example, by setting a target date to finish learning certain number of words or certain number of book chapters.


All in all, the GRE is but one of the many requirements that you have to submit as part of your graduate admission application. Your personal statement, letters of recommendation and undergraduate research activities are equally important determinants of your application success. Nearing the application deadline, you will be busy writing your personal statement and making sure that you do not miss anything, so start your GRE preparation early to give yourself more time to complete other requirements. I wish you luck for your graduate application and as always, let me know if you have any question or comment through the comment box below.

Photo Credit: Kaplan International College Brisbane via flickr

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Martin Tjioe is currently working as a geomechanicist with Shell Exploration and Production Company in New Orleans, LA. He attained his MS and PhD in Civil and Environmental Engineering from Stanford University. For his undergraduate study, he went to Lafayette College, a small Liberal Arts College in Easton, Pennsylvania where he had a chance to double major in A.B. Mathematics & Economics, and B.S. Civil Engineering. He is fortunate to have received full financial aid to study both at Lafayette and Stanford and he encourages other Indonesian students to look into these opportunities. Prior to studying in the U.S., he was an ASEAN scholar studying in Singapore's Victoria School (VS) and National Junior College (NJC). He is from Medan, and he is passionate about helping talented students obtain the quality education they deserve.


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