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The Ultimate GRE Prep Guide: Expert Advice & Resources to Ace the Exam

The GRE is the gateway to many graduate school programs. Achieving the best test score is critical to getting into the program of your choice. Our guide provides you with insider tips, study strategies, and sample questions to get you started on your GRE prep.

Author: Shannon Lee

Editor: Staff Editor

A smiling young man with curly hair and glasses using a laptop and taking notes in a library with bookshelves in the background.

If a master’s degree is in your future, preparing for the GRE will feature prominently in your life. Thousands of graduate programs—including some business schools and about 70 law schools—use GRE scores for applicant screening. Acing the entrance test is a crucial component of your application.

For the 2020-2021 testing year, more than 360,000 people took the GRE General Test, offered by the ETS (Education Testing Service). Your GRE test score is a primary component of your admissions application, and you’ll want to get the highest score possible. This GRE guide focuses on the general test; you’ll find plenty of study tips, test resources, and strategies to do your best. But first, let’s take a high-level look at the GRE General Test and its overall structure.

Much of your graduate school application consists of subjective and qualitative components, such as letters of recommendation, your resume, an interview, and your personal statement or essay. Graduate programs require a certain GPA as well, but even your GPA is somewhat subjective since every school, program, and professor calculates and grades assignments and tests differently. Graduate admission committees use the GRE as a quantitative and objective tool to compare students and predict their success in their post-baccalaureate program.

Section Time/Number of Questions Type of Questions Ability Measured Scoring Scale

Analytical Writing

30 minutes per essay, two tasks given

Essay

Articulation of complex ideas; critical thinking; analytical writing skills; providing focused responses with support materials

0-6, in .5-point increments

Verbal Reasoning

30 minutes per section, two sections, and 20 questions per section

Multiple choice, select-in-passage, and text completion

Understand words, sentences, and paragraphs; analyze passages; identify important points, including an author’s perspective and multiple meanings; draw conclusions

130-170, in 1-point increments

Quantitative Reasoning

35 minutes per section, two sections, and 20 questions per section

Multiple choice and numeric entry

Understand and extrapolate numeric information, solve math problems using mathematical concepts and models

130-170, in 1-point increments

Unscored

Varies

Varies

Varies

N/A

Research

Varies

Varies

Varies

N/A

The GRE General Test takes about three hours and 45 minutes, including six scored sections and two unscored sections. You’ll get a 10-minute break after the third section.

The verbal and quantitative reasoning sections are scored in one-point increments between 130 and 170. Scores are scaled and reflect both the number of questions answered correctly and the difficulty of the questions. Analytical writing is scored from 0 to 6 and goes up or down in 0.5-point increments. A computer and a human both score the writing sections. A human takes a holistic approach, while the computer identifies characteristics and signs of writing proficiency. The unscored or research section is a section that ETS uses to test future GRE questions; these sections don’t count toward your score.

Scores are scaled differently for each test, so a 160 on one test might be the equivalent of a 158 on another test. To compare scores between tests, look at the percentile ranks. In general, a score in the low 160s would be roughly 85th-90th percentile for verbal reasoning, and a score in the mid to upper 160s would be roughly 85th-90th percentile for quantitative reasoning. As for analytical writing, a score of 5.0 is approximately equal to the 90th percentile.

For United States test takers, the GRE General Test costs $205, with an additional $50 if you want to change your test center location. An additional score report costs $27, and a score review for the analytical writing section is $60. The ETS has the GRE Fee Reduction Program, which is open to individuals who are unemployed or otherwise show financial need. It’s also available for those who meet other conditions, such as being from an underrepresented group or a first-generation college student. If eligible, a test taker will receive a 50% reduction in the test fee.

GRE test scores are reportable for up to five years following the test date. Keep in mind that schools or programs may have policies on how recent a GRE test score must be to be accepted as part of your application.

If you’re looking to enroll in a master’s degree program right after your bachelor’s, plan to take the GRE in the third or fourth year of your undergrad program. You want to have plenty of time to take the GRE before your graduate school application is due so you can study and retake the test if you choose. Current ETS policy allows you to take the test every 21 days but no more than five times in any 12-month period. The following is a sample timeline for how you should plan your studies and tips on making the most of your GRE prep.

Ideally you will have already started your GRE study routine. But most people don’t begin studying this far in advance because of time constraints, availability of study prep materials, and/or fear they’ll burn out before the test. So, for most test takers, the six-month point is when you should:

  • Begin reviewing the basics of the GRE. This includes understanding how long the test is, how it’s scored, its structure, how to register, etc.
  • After you have an idea of what the GRE is all about, take a full-length practice exam. This will be your baseline, giving you a first taste of the test and insight into what you’ll need to focus on to get your desired score.

By now you should be well into your GRE prep. You’ve already taken at least one practice exam and started remedial work on academic areas you need to relearn. Other goals at the three-month mark include:

  • You should be done or almost done with remedial review.
  • If you haven’t already done so, you should start including practice questions as part of your preparation. If there’s a particular area of weakness, begin with these questions first.
  • Besides just answering practice questions and checking your answers, make sure you’re learning why you got a question wrong.

At this point in your study timeline, you should have completed more than 100 practice questions, with most of these questions focusing on your primary area of weakness. That said, you also should continue practicing questions in areas you’re already comfortable with. Other priorities include:

  • Develop a test-taking strategy. Because you’re very familiar with the test by now, you can create your system of how you want to take the test. For example, does skipping tough questions and coming back to them later work for you? Or is it worth spending extra time to complete a question and not worry about it again?
  • Finalize your approach to pacing. If you haven’t already done so, complete another full-length practice exam. Ideally, you’ll want to do it in one sitting, but if you need to split it up that’s OK. As you complete each section, note how much time you have left as you work. You want to create “mental checkpoints” to quickly identify if you’re getting behind schedule.

You’re now approaching the home stretch. If you’re still not meeting your progress goals, now’s the time to step things up. You should also:

  • Take at least one more full-length practice test in one sitting. Not only is the goal to practice the questions, but it’s also to simulate test day and get your body and mind accustomed to sitting in one place for several hours.
  • Identify the areas where you’re doing well and cut back on practicing those types of questions. Don’t stop, just reduce the time and effort you spend on them.
  • Identify the areas where you still want to improve and devote your extra time to these sections.

It’s the big day. Make sure you get plenty of rest the night before and eat a good meal before the exam. You’ll also want to consider:

  • Doing a little more practice. This isn’t to learn something new. Instead, it’s to keep up with the routine you’ve had for the past several weeks or months. Also, make sure whatever practice you do is in areas you are comfortable with. Any additional training at this point is about confidence and reassurance.
  • Relax a bit. If you don’t understand a type of question, you’re not going to figure it out right before taking the GRE. So cutting back on the preparation to get extra rest is beneficial. For example, if you have 30 additional minutes the morning of the test, getting extra sleep might be better than doing more practice questions.

If you have a disability or other legally recognized impairment, the ETS will provide accommodations for you. However, you must request these accommodations and have them approved. Apply for an accommodation by mail, email, or online through your ETS account. This request should occur at least two months before you take the test; the ETS says it takes about six weeks to review documentation supporting an accommodation request. Remember that getting approved for accommodations could take longer, as ETS reserves the right to ask for additional documentation, adding another six weeks to the process. Once approved, register to take the test.

Everyone is different, so what helps one person won’t do much for another. But these tips apply to most GRE test takers. Here are 10 of the most effective strategies.

  1. Memorize the directions but still read them carefully.

    Though you might already know the directions from all the practice tests, you don’t want surprises. The directions for the analytical writing section could be different.

  2. Set a score goal.

    Research the schools and programs you’re interested in and the average or median GRE scores for their students. This gives you a focal point when developing your study goals and habits.

  3. Take as many full-length practice exams as possible.

    The GRE is a long test, and not everyone has four hours they can devote to taking the test every few days. But it’s essential to make the mind and body familiar with the intense concentration required on test day.

  4. Find a study buddy.

    The collaborative study effort makes learning more efficient and enjoyable and offers accountability. You might be more willing to do that extra practice set knowing you and your study partner agreed to it.

  5. Don’t overdo it.

    Yes, you want to study as much as you can, but not to a point where the study time becomes counterproductive. You don’t want to lose motivation or run out of study materials well before the exam.

  6. Add variety to your study routine.

    Not only will the change of pace make paying attention easier, but the different formats also offer opportunities to learn concepts in ways you might have missed.

  7. Know when to walk away.

    There’s no point in spending so much time on a question that, even if correct, you then won’t have sufficient time for other questions.

  8. It’s okay to guess.

    You don’t want to have to guess a question, but guessing is better than leaving it blank. Remember, there’s no penalty for wrong answers.

  9. Don’t bother showing your work.

    The quantitative reasoning section only rewards you for the correct answers. Unlike math class in high school, you won’t get any credit for showing your work.

  10. Spend a few minutes planning your analytical writing response.

    After reading the prompt and directions, don’t immediately start writing. Take a few moments to think about how you want to answer the question, including creating a basic outline, if necessary. The best argument means little if it’s not presented in an organized way.

We’ve provided a lot of information about the GRE General Test; now it’s time to look at some actual questions. These sample questions are inspired from past GRE tests and reflect the type of questions you could see on the GRE General Test.

Analytical Writing

The analytical writing section asks test takers to analyze an issue by writing an essay responding to a prompt. This section aims to gauge not only your critical thinking and analysis skills but also how well you write and organize your thoughts into solid and coherent arguments.

Sample “analyze an issue” prompt (from ETS):

“As people rely more and more on technology to solve problems, the ability of humans to think for themselves will surely deteriorate.

Discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the statement and explain your reasoning for the position you take. In developing and supporting your position, you should consider ways the statement might or might not hold true and explain how these considerations shape your position.”

Read the sample essay answers on the ETS website to see how they were scored and how some successfully answered the prompt.

Sample “analyze an argument” prompt (from ETS):

“In surveys Mason City residents rank water sports (swimming, boating and fishing) among their favorite recreational activities. The Mason River flowing through the city is rarely used for these pursuits, however, and the city park department devotes little of its budget to maintaining riverside recreational facilities. For years there have been complaints from residents about the quality of the river’s water and the river’s smell. In response, the state has recently announced plans to clean up Mason River. Use of the river for water sports is therefore sure to increase. The city government should for that reason devote more money in this year’s budget to riverside recreational facilities.

Write a response in which you examine the stated and/or unstated assumptions of the argument. Be sure to explain how the argument depends on the assumptions and what the implications are if the assumptions prove unwarranted.”

Read the sample essay answers on the ETS website to see how they were scored and how some successfully answered the prompt.

While the writing prompts vary, these writing strategies will help you plan and compose a quality response.

  1. Take time to understand the prompt and what it asks; think about all sides of the argument.
  2. For the issue essays, come up with specific examples for each side of the argument and go with the side that has the best examples. Meanwhile, scorers on the argument essay are looking for you to find the premises and conclusion, then the assumptions and flaws of the argument.
  3. Compose a thesis statement for the foundation of your essay.
  4. Outline your essay to give you structure and find any holes.
  5. Take about 20 minutes to write your essay. Don’t forget to use transitions to link ideas.
  6. Spend a few minutes proofreading your response.

One major mistake people make when answering the analytical writing prompt is not carefully reading what’s being asked. This can lead to an otherwise perfect piece of writing getting a low score because the test taker didn’t follow directions. Another major mistake is starting to write the essay without taking the time to plan and organize arguments.

Verbal Reasoning

The verbal reasoning section from the GRE General Test is designed to measure a test taker’s comparison skills for sentence components, words, and concepts. The questions also evaluate a person’s ability to analyze and draw conclusions from written materials.

Sample reading comprehension question (from CommonLit):

The prompt: “It was a big, squarish farm house that had once been white, decorated with cupolas and spires and scrolled balconies in the heavily lightsome style of the seventies, set on what had once been our most select street. But the garages and cotton gins had encroached and obliterated even the august names of the neighborhood; only Miss Emily’s house was left, lifting its stubborn and coquettish decay above the cotton wagons and the gasoline pumps—an eyesore among eyesores.”

The multiple-choice question: “Both Emily and her home …”

  1. Did not fall under the property tax system because of a clerical error
  2. Was beloved in her community and was honored and respected because of her leadership
  3. Was a Civil War reminder and was a pariah
  4. Were out of place in the town, as they were symbols of tradition and the past.

Answer: D

Sample text completion question:

The multiple-choice question: “After her return to New York, she lived primarily with roommates and later in a studio, subsisting _________ upon the earnings of freelance work.”

  1. Relentlessly
  2. Permanently
  3. Irregularly
  4. Precariously
  5. Imperceptibly

Answer: D

When answering a reading comprehension question, don’t use any outside knowledge to find your answer. For text completion and sentence equivalent questions, even if you don’t know the definition of an answer choice, you can still eliminate several answers by figuring out if the blank has a positive or negative connotation and finding answers that don’t match the connotation.

Quantitative Reasoning

The point of quantitative reasoning is to test an individual’s knowledge of basic arithmetic concepts and how well they can solve mathematical problems.

Sample numeric entry question:

Question: One apple costs 25 cents, and one orange cost 35 cents. What is the total cost of 18 apples and 100 oranges at those prices?

Answer: $39.50

Sample multiple-choice question:

Question: Which of the following numbers is nearest the number 2 on the number line?

  1. -10
  2. -5
  3. 0
  4. 5
  5. 10

Answer: C

When looking at drawings or diagrams, make a note of whether the image is drawn to scale. In some cases they are, but in other cases they are not. Also, some test takers overthink a question by assuming higher-level math concepts are being tested when they are not. No quantitative reasoning question will cover topics beyond a typical Algebra II class in high school.

GRE Subject Tests

These tests aim to determine how much a test taker knows about a particular subject. Each GRE Subject Test offers applicants the chance to stand out during the admissions process. While the number of questions varies, each of the Subject Tests takes 2 hours and 50 minutes.

This test is provided in a paper format. About 130 multiple choice questions cover four chemistry areas: organic, analytical, inorganic, and physical. No calculators may be used on this test, however any mathematical calculations required will be simplified.

The mathematics test has about 66 multiple-choice questions. Nearly half of the questions cover calculus, 25% cover algebra, and 25% cover all other mathematical topics.

The physics GRE Subject Test is made up of about 100 multiple-choice questions, with no separate sections. About 20% of the questions cover classical mechanics, 18% cover electromagnetism, 12% cover quantum mechanics, 10% cover atomic physics, 10% cover thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, 9% cover optics and waves, 6% cover special relativity, 6% cover laboratory methods, and 9% cover specialized topics.

The psychology subject test consists of more than 200 multiple-choice questions that cover six topics: clinical, developmental, social, cognitive, biological, and measurement/methodology/other. In addition to getting a total score, test takers also get six subscores.

Q&A with GRE Experts

KatherineFriedman

Katherine Friedman is an educator, mother, writer, and program co-director at LA Tutors. She holds an MA in special education from George Washington University and a BA in government from Claremont McKenna College. Originally from Long Beach, California, she did her share of traveling—including two years in the Peace Corps in Jamaica—before settling down in Los Angeles 11 years ago. She is an experienced and versatile educator with eight years of full-time classroom teaching and hundreds of hours of tutoring experience.

BeverlyGearreald

Beverly Gearreald worked as a physician, small business consultant, and college counselor before becoming a community manager at Transizion, a college and career prep company. Her professional background, combined with being an MIT alumna and growing up in Africa, Europe, and North America, has given her a variety of unique firsthand experiences.

StefanMaisnier

Stefan Maisnier is MyGuru‘s director of online tutoring. He holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Southern California and a master’s degree from Northwestern University. He has been a test prep expert for nearly two decades, helping hundreds of students gain admission to top universities, writing thousands of GRE practice problems, and sharing test-taking tips at global institutions from Northeastern Illinois University to ESMT Berlin.

Q. Which sections of the GRE do you find that students struggle with at testing time?

Maisnier: The biggest struggle for most students is sticking to the plan and not rushing on official test day. The most prominent obstacle to an acceptable GRE score is not the hardest problems but instead making unforced errors on questions you should be able to get correct. Don’t cut corners on problems you can do to have time on questions you cannot do! Instead, seek individual problems that are obviously time consuming or that you immediately don’t know how to address to sacrifice in the name of pace to ensure you get to see every question in the section and can reasonably complete all the questions you know how to do in time to maximize your score.

Gearreald: In my experience, students tend to struggle with the verbal reasoning and analytical writing sections the most. The reasons for this are generally two-fold. The first is that the math on the GRE tends not to require more than high-school algebra and geometry to pass. Most students who are applying for graduate degrees have mastered this material, so it requires little more than a review. In contrast, the vocabulary level and writing expectations for the GRE are higher than a 10th-grade high school equivalent, making them more challenging. Second, many of the students I work with are not native English speakers, adding an additional level of complexity to the verbal reasoning and analytical writing components of the GRE.

Q. What are your best strategies for success on the GRE?

Friedman: Along with learning the content and strategies required for the exam, it’s important to take practice tests in a smart way:

  • Take the test in one sitting, with only allotted breaks
  • Mimic test conditions (no music, quiet environment, only the on-screen calculator, etc.) as much as possible
  • Adhere strictly to test time limits

More importantly, don’t just look at your score after each practice test, but go back and review the questions you miss. First, see if you can figure out your mistake yourself, and then look at the answers and explanations to see if they make sense. Flag any questions or concepts you can’t figure out on your own and seek out help, such as a tutor, to understand what you missed.

A full practice exam requires a block of time, so I recommend test takers put their practice tests on their calendars in advance.

Maisnier: Practice, practice, practice. This is a skills-based endeavor, so you must practice those skills regularly to improve over time without trying to cram. Find an hour to start your day with new practice problems and vocabulary review at least five times a week. In time, you’ll improve your abilities.

Gearreald: No one likes this tip, but nothing beats doing practice questions—if possible, thousands of practice questions. That’s how students pinpoint areas of weakness so they can study those areas in particular before going and doing yet more practice questions.

My second piece of advice is that students should make sure they are understanding the explanations for why they got a question wrong. Most practice questions, whether in the form of a question bank or a book, have an explanation along with the right answer. (Though not all do.) However, having access to an explanation doesn’t mean the student necessarily understands that answer. This is where I think having a tutor helps the most, as having a live person explain why an answer is wrong is often better than a book.

Q. What are some of your favorite resources for doing well on the GRE?

Gearreald: For practice questions, I love Macgoosh for its (relative) affordability, large question bank, and in-depth explanations. If students finish that, I usually recommend Kaplan‘s question bank as a second line. If students want a book instead of online questions, I recommend the Manhattan 5lb Book of GRE Practice Problems. However, given that most students take the GRE online, I encourage students to also do their questions online, if possible.

If students need help with the basics, I recommend they take a prep course (it doesn’t really matter which one), work with a cohort of tutors, or self-study using the Manhattan Prep GRE Strategy Guides, which are a set of eight books that cover almost every aspect of the exam in detail.

Maisnier: The Official Guide to the GRE books from ETS are the best resources for practice problems, and the ETS PowerPrep practice exams are the gold standard for practice tests since they use the same interface as the official exam. For more practice drills, the appropriately named Manhattan Prep 5lb Book of GRE Practice Problems does a good job breaking the problems into content categories for additional targeted practice. If you need a more remedial GRE quantitative review, the Barron’s GRE textbook has a solid math fundamentals section that puts everything in the format of the GRE.

Friedman: The GRE PowerPrep tests are the only official practice tests written by the test makers. The first two are free, and the other two are available for a fee. I recommend every test taker include the official practice tests in their preparations, and those who need more practice seek out additional practice tests.

Magoosh and Manhattan Prep both offer helpful resources for a fee. I prefer Magoosh for online practice questions and practice tests, and Manhattan Prep for its paper books (including the strategy guides and practice book) and online practice tests.

Additional GRE Resources

  • ETS GRE: Prepare for the Test

    Offered by the same company that administers the GRE, this webpage includes various low-cost and free tools to help you learn more about the organization and structure of the GRE General Test. Free resources include webinars, review guides covering mathematical terminology and symbols, and Khan Academy prep videos.

  • GRE General Test

    This is the official Facebook Page of the ETS GRE General Test and is a great way to stay informed on the latest updates and changes to the GRE and testing policies.

  • GRE General Test Practice Book

    Most people who take the GRE do so on a computer, but paper-based tests still exist. This resource gives an overview of the paper version of the test and includes a full practice test and scoring guide.

  • Magoosh’s Vocabulary Builder App

    Whether you’re on a computer, smartphone, tablet, or other device, this app lets users practice 1,000 of the most important words on the GRE.

  • r/GRE

    This is a subreddit where users can post questions and discuss anything and everything about the GRE and how to study for it.

  • Quizlet

    Quizlet is one of the most well-known online flashcard tools to help people study for almost anything, including the GRE.

  • ThoughtCo. Reading Comprehension Questions

    Besides worksheets to help test takers improve their reading comprehension skills, ThoughtCo. also explains how these worksheets work and offers tips for users to make the most of this resource.