Guide to the GRE

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Are you looking to apply for business graduate school? If you have already looked into any business school requirements for application, you may have come across the GRE score requirement. If so, we have put together this Guide to the GRE for you. In it, you will read about what this exam is all about, why it is essential, different aspects of the test, how to prepare and succeed at it, and some other insights and resources along the way.  

What is GRE?

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The Graduate Record Examination is administered through the ETS. According to ETS, the GRE is the most widely used and accepted exam for graduate admission. Graduate schools and business schools often use it to determine whether to grant acceptance to an applicant. The GRE is a multiple-choice standardized test administered on a computer. It helps assess graduate-level readiness to see whether a student will manage a rigorous course load. Higher scores increase the chances of both being accepted and performing well academically. 

Graduate school applicants have different backgrounds and educational experiences, so general test and subject area tests can identify common knowledge amongst applicants. There are GRE subject tests in addition to the General GRE test. The GRE subject tests are chemistry, mathematics, physics, and psychology. The other disciplines, biology and literature in English, were discontinued in May of 2021. 

The General GRE Exam, used for graduate business schools, assesses students’ aptitude in math, data analysis, and vocabulary. The GRE has three sections: analytical writing, quantitative reasoning, and verbal reasoning. The verbal reasoning section specifically tests whether students have college-level reading comprehension skills and vocabulary. The quantitative reasoning section assesses students’ ability to solve problems using their math skills: basic arithmetic, algebra, and geometry. The analytical writing skills portion assesses whether students can write an evidence-based essay. The evaluators pay close attention to correct capitalization, grammar, punctuation, and spelling.

Why is the GRE Important?

One of the items graduate schools look at for acceptance into their programs is the Graduate Record Exam, GRE. Another use for GRE scores is to help applicants land merit-based fellowships. There are hundreds of fellowship sponsors in and outside of the United States. Merit-based fellowships are helpful for students applying to programs that do not guarantee to fund. Several master’s and doctoral programs accept GRE scores, and specifically about 1,200 graduate business programs. These scores provide a way for graduate schools to compare applicants beyond letters of recommendation, personal statements, or grade point averages. GRE scores provide more objectivity.

Taking the GRE is essential for applicants applying to schools that require the scores, of course. Without the scores, admission is not a probability. But it is also crucial for applicants applying to schools that highly recommend GRE score submission or for students who need to cover up a weakness on their application, like low-grade point averages or subpar letters of recommendation. Providing good scores only adds to the application and makes the applicant more desirable. 

Students that have recently graduated from their undergraduate program or will graduate soon and desire to attend graduate school should consider taking the GRE within five years. For one, GRE scores are valid for five years. Secondly, early completion of the GRE can give students insight on areas of improvement in advance. Thirdly, it creates time to study and retake the exam to increase scores. 

However, it is not suggested to take the GRE if students have no intention of pursuing graduate school. The fees and time for preparation and the examination are costly. Additionally, students applying to schools that do not require the GRE are encouraged to consider whether preparing for and taking the GRE would be the best use of their time or if enhancing other areas of their application would be more helpful.

What is the Make-up of the GRE?

According to Kaplan, the test has 80 questions and two writing parts. The first section involves writing, where students are asked to write an essay on both an argument and an issue. The order continues with the verbal section, followed by the quantitative. Some examinees are given research or experimental questions on their test days. That section adds 20 questions to the student’s assessment; however, it does not affect their overall score. While these scores are relevant and measure a student’s skills, quantitative reasoning and verbal reasoning hold more weight. 

The exam is designed to determine whether students can think critically, effectively analyze and evaluate the content, and problem solve. The writing sections are scored on a scale of zero to six. The average score is four. As for the verbal and quantitative sections, scores range between 130-170. The mean scores are around 150.

The Issue Essay

Students are assessed on whether they can follow the instructions and present a well-articulated argument on the issue essay. Students should include:

  • A strong introduction
  • Three-body paragraphs that list the strongest point
  • A solid conclusion that summarizes the opinions and reflects the introduction

Additional encouragement is to choose a clear side and try not to deviate from it. Writing relevant and specific content is essential, in addition to using strong, clear statements with reasoning. Lastly, examinees should consider introducing the opposing opinion and their conclusion and then refuting it with solid points that reinforce their thesis.

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The Argument Essay

For the argument essay, the students read what someone else wrote for their argument “issue” essay. Then the examinee must disprove the person’s stance by pointing to the argument’s flaws. More specifically, the writer should write against the view, name ways to improve the idea, and conclude why the argument is unconvincing and not strong enough to stand. This essay should also be about five or six paragraphs. 

Students should again pay close attention to the instructions they are given for the argument essay. The suggested framework is to write an introduction including a thesis and a paragraph on each: how the arguments lack evidence, the weak evidence, vague language, how to strengthen the view, and finally, a brief conclusion. The final suggestions are to expose the argument using broad statements, point to the assumptions, use third-person language, and express strong, clear messages.

Verbal Sections

Each of the two verbal sections of the GRE comprises three types of questions: text completion, reading comprehension, and sentence equivalence. There are six text completion questions. A question in this section can have one to three blanks, where the test taker must choose the appropriate words for the sentence. The sentence equivalence portion makes up four questions. Two words need to be selected to complete one sentence so that with each word, the meaning in the sentence remains the same. Both types of questions assess vocabulary and the ability to use context clues. 

Reading Comprehension Section

Lastly, two formats of questions make up the reading comprehension section, and this section has ten questions. These questions contain short and long passages, ranging from one to three paragraphs in length. There are about five passages in total. This section assesses students’ ability to read and understand the text as they answer the questions. A reading strategy like paraphrasing is helpful. The questions in the verbal section should take one minute each, but the passages in the reading comprehension section allow for an additional minute or two.

Quantitative Section

The quantitative section is the math portion, including problem-solving, comparison, and data interpretation questions. There are twenty questions in total. Seven or eight questions are quantitative comparisons that focus on the relationship between two numbers. The key to quickly solving them is to compare rather than calculate. The other questions are split between problem-solving and dating interpreting. The problem-solving multiple-choice questions are the most common in this section. The data interpreting questions are similar but include graphs.

The GRE is an adaptive exam. The difficulty level of the exam questions changes while the examinee is taking the exam. It begins with a medium-level question; however, if the student does not get the question correctly, the following question will be more straightforward. Additionally, if the question is answered right, the student will continue to get questions at the same level. Similarly, if a student progresses through the first section of the exam and does well, they will then have a more challenging second section.


Many business schools accept the GRE and the Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT). Often, the applicant gets to choose which exam they want to take or which scores they would like to submit. Students with test anxiety may prefer the GRE to the GMAT. The GRE has the option for students to skip questions within a section and return to them later. But students that like a quicker and solid structure may prefer the GMAT. They do not have the flexibility to jump around but rather move forward only. 

There are official practice exams for both the GRE and the GMAT. The unofficial practice exams are not suggested as the best test preparation for either test because they do not predict the level of difficulty or the test patterns. Lastly, from a student preference standpoint, any GMAT scores that a student earns will be reported to schools unless they cancel the score after receiving it. With the GRE, a student can choose the score they want to submit. This consideration is for students that may need to take a standardized test more than once. The GRE may be preferred in this instance. 


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The GRE and GMAT have different goals. The goal of the GMAT is to measure skills for business schools, and the GRE measures one’s ability to succeed in any graduate degree. With that said, a GRE score could be used to determine that an applicant has strength in areas outside of business, which makes them a stand-out applicant. Many synchronous programs want a diverse make-up of their business cohort. Students should research their programs to see if both exams are accepted or if one is preferred over the other. 

Careers beyond business school are good to factor in as well. Some full-time jobs may request that applicants submit their GMAT scores. An October 2020 report from U.S. News and World Report showed that about 96% of 96 programs allowed applicants to submit GRE scores as an option over GMAT scores. In this article, different pieces of advice were offered regarding taking the GRE or GMAT. One of the directors from the Wharton School suggests that students should take the test that best suits their academic strength, though the scores seem to be comparable. 


The structure of each exam differs. One can complete the GRE in about three hours and 45 minutes, while the GMAT takes three hours and seven minutes. For the GRE, each writing portion is 30 minutes long. There are two 35-minute quantitative reasoning sections, two 30-minute sections of verbal reasoning, and the unscored section. 

In contrast, the GMAT has one 30-minute writing segment, one 30-minute section for integrated reasoning, one 62-minute quantitative reasoning section, and one 65-minute verbal reasoning section. U.S. News and World Report show the GMAT is slightly more costly. Both exams are adaptive, so the exam gets progressively more difficult when questions are answered correctly. 


The scores for the GMAT are 200 to 800. The GMAT subscores include:

  • Analytical writing is scored from zero to six.
  • Integrated reasoning is scored from zero to eight.
  • Quantitative and verbal scores are scored from six to 51.

The GRE is simply scored 130-170, and the analytical writing portion is scored zero to six. In addition to scores, students receive their percentile rank or performance in comparison to the larger population. 

U.S. News and World Report analyzes math and language assessment areas for both tests. According to their experts, the quantitative reasoning section of the GMAT is more challenging than the quantitative reasoning section of the GRE. Taking the GMAT presents an opportunity to display exceptional math skills, particularly appreciated by business programs that value these abilities. The GMAT has more logic problems, and the GRE has more geometry problems. So, a preference for either could help one determine which test would be a better fit. Additionally, the GRE has a more difficult verbal reasoning section for the language portion, as it intentionally uses more advanced vocabulary.

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When Do I Take the GRE?

Experts at Kaplan have a couple of suggestions for when to take the GRE. One thought is to take the GRE at the beginning of a student’s undergraduate career. Because the test is very similar to exams students have recently taken, like the SAT, they may already be prepared to do well. With GRE scores being valid for five years, the timeline works for students entering graduate school immediately after earning their bachelor’s degree. 

The second suggestion, and a more suitable option for working professionals, is to take the GRE one or two years before submitting their graduate school application. That allows for time to study and to retake it if necessary. However, because the GRE is offered regularly, there is no logistical reason to register for the exam in advance. The best time to take the exam is in a less busy season of life so that there is time to prepare and take the test with low stress. 

Some business schools admit applicants three or four times a year; others admit students in the fall. Being mindful of the business school’s dates and deadlines is most important. Students can take the GRE Test up to five times within a calendar year but must wait for a minimum of 21 days between tests. 

Currently, the GRE can be taken at home through ETS. It is suitable for students that prefer not to go to a testing center because of COVID-19 or otherwise. The online GRE test is exactly like the test offered in person at the testing center. It is provided through ProctorU. The system allows someone to monitor the test while students take it through modern technology. The home test is very accessible, and availability is not a barrier, as the test can be taken seven days a week. 

How Do I Prepare for the GRE?

Students are encouraged to practice writing for the essay portions of the exam. Kaplan suggests writing two or three essays within the allotted time before testing day. They also indicate that students spend three months studying for the GRE, allowing 10 hours a week for focused study time. Creating a study plan is the number one recommendation for preparing for the GRE. The plan should include how and when to study, practice, and review. When practicing, it is helpful to read through the explanations of the questions. The key here is not to learn to answer questions quickly but to master the concepts and skills. Being proficient in the fundamentals matters more.

Different organizations offer GRE preparation courses to help students prepare for the GRE. Practice videos, tests, books, and services are provided on the ETS website. The Khan Academy has free instructional videos. The Princeton Review has a preparatory course that guarantees students earn at least a 162 on the verbal and quantitative sections. The program is costly, but while the average score is 153 on the quantitative and 150 on the verbal, the average for students admitted into the top business schools is 161. This program provides 45 hours of live instruction, 20 hours of supplemental support on specific topics, thousands of practice questions, eight full-length practice tests, and a personalized study manager. 

How Do I Succeed at Taking the GRE?

Kaplan encourages students to prepare well for the GRE because college aptitude is tested through vocabulary as students analyze arguments and mathematical knowledge. Additionally, critical thinking skills must be honed to perform well. Good preparation is possible because standardized exams are predictable. Through practice tests and other resources, students can learn how to master the reasoning tasks and learn the testing material. 

Kaplan also suggests taking the GRE to know the starting place score and researching business programs to learn the recommended scores. Once students know their acceptable or competitive scores and where they are presently scoring, they will move forward efficiently and successfully. Much preparation may not be needed if students are already scoring where they would like to on the GRE. Suppose there is a disparity between the required and realistic scores a student earns; much practice can help increase the scores in each section of the GRE. 

Do Online MBA Programs Need the GRE?

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Throughout the U.S. and internationally, hundreds of schools accept GRE scores. For an exhaustive list, check out the ETS website. In January 2021, U.S. News and World Report named that 125 of 259 online MBA programs required either GRE or GMAT scores. Programs either accept both, do not require either, or simply require GMAT scores. Many MBA programs are waiving the GRE requirements due to COVID.

Additionally, many programs are waiving the requirement for test scores altogether. Standardized testing is starting to get a negative reputation for not viewing applicants holistically. Many schools are beginning to take into higher consideration an applicant’s high-grade point average, coursework, professional work experience, motivations, hard-working attributes, and professional certifications. Some programs think that GRE and GMAT scores limit diversity in their programs because of the costs and hoping to waive scores in the future. Many programs are even offering test waivers for this current year. Three-fourths of the schools ranking 50 to 100 offer waivers. Higher-ranking schools, however, want to continue to request standardized test scores. Make sure you check to see if your desired program requires a GRE test. 

Action Plans

There are many steps prospective graduate students can take in researching the GRE, deciding to take the exam, and preparing for it. 

  1. Make a list of preferred business schools you would be interested in attending. 
  2. Prepare a timeline that creates an action plan for studying, taking it, and applying to the business school.
  3. Research ideal scores for your program.
  4. Take a sample exam, and once completed, set some goals for increasing your scores if necessary. 
  5. Find extra preparatory resources if you need tutoring or a class or which resources you should purchase. 
  6. Devise a study plan that allows two to three months of weekly studying. 
  7. Decide when and where to take the GRE, whether you want to take it at a testing site or home.
  8. Before test day, you should get good sleep, bring valid identification, and leave personal items at home.

As you are making your personal action plans to take and ace the GRE, remember to make smart goals! Make them specific, measurable, and put them on a timeline. With the proper preparation and effort, you will be well on your way to your Online MBA.

Related Resources:

How Can I take Free Online MBA Courses?
Top Online MBA Programs
Reasons to Get an Online MBA

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