Graduate Record Examinations (GRE): GRE Subject Tests

Graduate Record Examinations (GRE)

The Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) is a standardized test that is an admissions requirement for many graduate schools in the United States and Canada.

The GRE is owned and administered by Educational Testing Service (ETS). The test was established in 1936 by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

According to ETS, the GRE aims to measure verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, analytical writing, and critical thinking skills that have been acquired over a long period of learning.

The content of the GRE consists of certain specific

  • Algebra
  • Geometry
  • Arithmetic
  • Vocabulary Sections

The GRE General Test is offered as a computer-based exam administered at testing centers and institution owned or authorized by Prometric.

In the graduate school admissions process, the level of emphasis that is placed upon GRE scores varies widely between schools and departments within schools.

The importance of a GRE score can range from being a mere admission formality to an important selection factor.

The Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) was significantly overhauled in August 2011, resulting in an exam that is not adaptive on a question-by-question basis, but rather by section, so that the performance on the first verbal and math sections determines the difficulty of the second sections presented. Overall, the test retained the sections and many of the question types from its predecessor, but the scoring scale was changed to a 130 to 170 scale (from a 200 to 800 scale).

The cost to take the test is US$205, although ETS will reduce the fee under certain circumstances. It also provides financial aid to those GRE applicants who prove economic hardship.

ETS does not release scores that are older than five years, although graduate program policies on the acceptance of scores older than five years will vary.



Key Description of Graduate Record Examinations (GRE):

Acronym: GRE

Type: Computer-based or paper-based standardized test

Developer / Administrator:

  • Educational Testing Service
  • Knowledge / skills tested Analytical writing
  • Quantitative Reasoning
  • Verbal Reasoning.

Purpose: Admissions to master's and doctoral degree programs in various universities

Year Started: 1936; 84 years ago

Duration: About 3 hours and 45 minutes (includes 1-minute breaks after each section and a 10-minute break after third section)

Score / Grade Range:

  • Analytical writing: 0.0 to 6.0 (in 0.5-point increments)
  • Verbal reasoning: 130 to 170 (in 1-point increments)
  • Quantitative reasoning: 130 to 170 (in 1-point increments)

Score / Grade Validity: 5 years

Offered: Computer-based test: Multiple times a year (depends on availability of the test center)

Paper-Based Test: Up to 3 times a year in October, November and February

Restrictions on Attempts Computer-Based Test: Can be taken only once after 21 days from the day of exam in every year. Maximum of 5 times a year. (Applies even if candidate cancels scores on a test taken previously.)

Paper-Based Test: Can be taken as often as it is offered.

Countries / Regions: About 1,000 test centers in more than 160 countries
(Paper-based test offered only in areas where computer-based testing is not available.)

Languages: English

Annual number of test takers: 584,677 (2016)

Prerequisites / Eligibility Criteria No official prerequisite. Intended for bachelor's degree graduates and undergraduate students who are about to graduate. Fluency in English assumed.

Fee: US$ 205 or INR 15491

Scores / Grades Used By: Most graduate schools in USA, and few in other countries


Social Network: LinkedIn


History of Graduate Record Examinations (GRE)

The Graduate Record Examinations was "initiated in 1936 as a joint experiment in higher education by the graduate school deans of four Ivy League universities and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching."

The first universities to experiment the test on their students were Harvard University, Yale University, Princeton University and Columbia University.

The University of Wisconsin was the first public university to ask their students to take the test in 1938. It was first given to students at the University of Iowa in 1940, where it was analysed by psychologist Dewey Stuit.

It was first taken by students at Texas Tech University in 1942. In 1943, it was taken by students at Michigan State University, where it was analyzed by Paul Dressel. It was taken by over 45,000 students applying to 500 colleges in 1948.

"Until the Educational Testing Service was established in January, 1948, the Graduate Record Examination remained a project of the Carnegie Foundation."


Structure of GRE Test

The computer-based Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) General Test consists of six sections. The first section is always the analytical writing section involving separately timed issue and argument tasks.

The next five sections consist of two verbal reasoning sections, two quantitative reasoning sections, and either an experimental or research section.

These five sections may occur in any order. The experimental section does not count towards the final score but is not distinguished from the scored sections.

Unlike the computer adaptive test before August 2011, the GRE General Test is a multistage test, where the examinee's performance on earlier sections determines the difficulty of subsequent sections.

This format allows the examined person to freely move back and forth between questions within each section, and the testing software allows the user to "mark" questions within each section for later review if time remains. The entire testing procedure lasts about 3 hours 45 minutes.

One-minute breaks are offered after each section and a 10-minute break after the third section.

The paper-based GRE General Test also consists of six sections. The analytical writing is split up into two sections, one section for each issue and argument task.

The next four sections consist of two verbal and two quantitative sections in varying order. There is no experimental section on the paper-based test. This version is only available in areas where the computer-based version is unavailable.


Scoring of Graduate Record Examinations (GRE)

An examinee can miss one or more questions on a multiple-choice section and still receive a perfect score of 170. Likewise, even if no question is answered correctly, 130 is the lowest possible score.


Scaled Score Percentiles: The percentiles for the current General test and the concordance with the prior format are as follows.

According to interpretive data published by ETS, from July 1, 2015 to June 30, 2018 about 2 million people have taken the test.

Based on performance of individuals the mean and standard deviation of verbal section were 150.24 and 8.44.

Whereas, mean and standard deviation for quantitative section were 153.07 and 9.24. Analytical writing has a mean of 3.55 with a standard deviation of 0.86.

Scaled score Verbal reasoning percentile Verbal prior scale Quantitative reasoning percentile Quantitative prior scale
170 99 760–800 96 800
169 99 740–750 95 800
168 98 720–730 93 800
167 98 710 90 800
166 97 700 89 800
165 96 680–690 86 790
164 94 660–670 84 790
163 93 650 82 780
162 90 630–640 79 770
161 88 620 76 770
160 86 600–610 73 760
159 83 590 70 750
158 80 570–580 67 740
157 76 560 64 730
156 73 540–550 60 720
155 68 530 56 700–710
154 64 510–520 53 690
153 60 500 49 680
152 54 480–490 45 660–670
151 51 460–470 41 640–650
150 46 450 37 630
149 41 430–440 34 610–620
148 37 420 30 590–600
147 33 410 26 570–580
146 29 390–400 23 550–560
145 26 380 19 530–540
144 22 370 16 500–520
143 19 350–360 13 480–490
142 16 340 11 460–470
141 14 330 9 430–450
140 11 320 7 400–420
139 9 310 6 380–390
138 8 300 4 350–370
137 6 290 3 330–340
136 4 280 3 300–320
135 3 280 2 280–290
134 2 270 1 260–270
133 1 260 1 240–250
132 1 250 <1 220–230
131 1 240 <1 200–210
130 <1 200–230 <1 200


Analytical Writing score Writing % Below
6 99
5.5 98
5 92
4.5 81
4 57
3.5 39
3 15
2.5 7
2 2
1.5 1
1 <1
0.5 <1

"Field-wise distribution" of test takers is "limited to those who earned their college degrees up to two years before the test date."

ETS provides no score data for "non-traditional" students who have been out of school more than two years, although its own report "RR-99-16" indicated that 22% of all test takers in 1996 were over the age of 30.


Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) Subject Tests

In addition to the General Test, there are also six Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) Subject Tests testing knowledge in the specific areas of

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Literature in English
  • Mathematics
  • Physics
  • Psychology.

The length of each exam is 170 minutes.

In the past, subject tests were also offered in the areas of:

  • Computer Science
  • Economics
  • Revised Education
  • Engineering
  • Geology
  • History
  • Music
  • Political Science
  • Sociology
  • Biochemistry
  • Cell and Molecular Biology.

In April 1998, the Revised Education and Political Science exams were discontinued. In April 2000, the History and Sociology exams were discontinued; with Economics, Engineering, Music, and Geology being discontinued in April 2001.

The Computer Science exam was discontinued after April 2013. Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology was discontinued in December 2016.


GRE Score Use in Admissions

Many graduate schools in the United States require GRE results as part of the admissions process. The GRE is a standardized test intended to measure all graduates' abilities in tasks of general academic nature (regardless of their fields of specialization) and the extent to which undergraduate education has developed their verbal skills, quantitative skills, and abstract thinking.

In addition to GRE scores, admission to graduate schools depends on several other factors, such as GPA, letters of recommendation, and statements of purpose.

Furthermore, unlike other standardized admissions tests (such as the SAT, LSAT, and MCAT), the use and weight of GRE scores vary considerably not only from school to school, but also from department to department and program to program.

For instance, most business schools and economics programs require very high GRE or GMAT scores for entry, while engineering programs are known to allow more score variation.

Liberal arts programs may only consider the applicant's verbal score, while mathematics and science programs may only consider quantitative ability. Some schools use the GRE in admissions decisions, but not in funding decisions; others use it for selection of scholarship and fellowship candidates, but not for admissions.

In some cases, the GRE may be a general requirement for graduate admissions imposed by the university, while particular departments may not consider the scores at all.

Graduate schools will typically provide the average scores of previously admitted students and information about how the GRE is considered in admissions and funding decisions.

In some cases programs have hard cut off requirements for the GRE; for example, the Yale Economics PhD program requires a minimum quantitative score of 160 to apply.

The best way to ascertain how a particular school or program evaluates a GRE score in the admissions process is to contact the person in charge of graduate admissions for the specific program in question.

In February 2016, the University of Arizona James E. Rogers College of Law became the first law school to accept either the GRE or the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) from all applicants.

The college made the decision after conducting a study showing that the GRE is a valid and reliable predictor of students' first-term law school grades.

In the spring of 2017, Harvard Law School announced it was joining University of Arizona Law in accepting the GRE in addition to the LSAT from applicants to its three-year J.D. program.


GRE score for MBA Admission

GRE score can be used for MBA programs in some schools.

The GMAT (Graduate Management Admission Test) is a computer-adaptive standardized test in mathematics and the English language for measuring aptitude to succeed academically in graduate business studies.

Business schools commonly use the test as one of many selection criteria for admission into an MBA program.

Starting in 2009, many business schools began accepting the GRE in lieu of a GMAT score. Policies varied widely for several years. However, as of the 2014–2015 admissions season, most business schools accept both tests equally.

Either a GMAT score or a GRE score can be submitted for an application to an MBA program. Business schools also accept either score for their other (non-MBA) Masters and Ph.D. programs.

The primary issue on which business school test acceptance policies vary is in how old a GRE or GMAT score can be before it is no longer accepted. The standard is that scores cannot be more than 5 years old (e.g., Wharton, MIT Sloan, Columbia Business School.


Preparation of GRE Test

A variety of resources are available for those wishing to prepare for the GRE. ETS provides preparation software called PowerPrep, which contains two practice tests of retired questions, as well as further practice questions and review material. Since the software replicates both the test format and the questions used, it can be useful to predict the actual GRE scores.

ETS does not license their past questions to any other company, making them the only source for official retired material. ETS used to publish the "BIG BOOK" which contained a number of actual GRE questions; however, this publishing was abandoned. Several companies provide courses, books, and other unofficial preparation materials.

Some students taking the GRE use a test preparation company. Students who do not use these courses often rely on material from university text books, GRE preparation books, sample tests, and free web resources.

Testing Locations of GRE

While the general and subject tests are held at many undergraduate institutions, the computer-based general test can be held in over 1000 locations with appropriate technological accommodations.

In the United States, students in major cities or from large universities will usually find a nearby test center, while those in more isolated areas may have to travel a few hours to an urban or university location. Many industrialized countries also have test centers, but at times test-takers must cross country borders.


Criticism of Graduate Record Examinations (GRE)


Algorithmic Bias: Critics have claimed that the computer-adaptive methodology may discourage some test takers since the question difficulty changes with performance.

For example, if the test-taker is presented with remarkably easy questions halfway into the exam, they may infer that they are not performing well, which will influence their abilities as the exam continues, even though question difficulty is subjective. By contrast, standard testing methods may discourage students by giving them more difficult items earlier on.

Critics have also stated that the computer-adaptive method of placing more weight on the first several questions is biased against test takers who typically perform poorly at the beginning of a test due to stress or confusion before becoming more comfortable as the exam continues.

On the other hand, standard fixed-form tests could equally be said to be "biased" against students with less testing stamina since they would need to be approximately twice the length of an equivalent computer adaptive test to obtain a similar level of precision.

Implicit Bias: The GRE has also been subjected to the same racial bias criticisms that have been lodged against other admissions tests.

In 1998, The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education noted that the mean score for black test-takers in 1996 was 389 on the verbal section, 409 on the quantitative section, and 423 on the analytic, while white test-takers averaged 496, 538, and 564, respectively.

The National Association of Test Directors Symposia in 2004 stated a belief that simple mean score differences may not constitute evidence of bias unless the populations are known to be equal in ability.

A more effective, accepted, and empirical approach is the analysis of differential test functioning, which examines the differences in item response theory curves for subgroups; the best approach for this is the DFIT framework.


Weak indicator of graduate school performance

The GREs are criticized for not being a true measure of whether a student will be successful in graduate school. Robert Sternberg (now of Cornell University; working at Yale University at the time of the study), a long-time critic of modern intelligence testing in general, found the GRE general test was weakly predictive of success in graduate studies in psychology.

The strongest relationship was found for the now-defunct analytical portion of the exam.

Historical susceptibility to cheating

In May 1994, Kaplan, Inc warned ETS, in hearings before a New York legislative committee, that the small question pool available to the computer-adaptive test made it vulnerable to cheating. ETS assured investigators that it was using multiple sets of questions and that the test was secure. This was later discovered to be incorrect.

In December 1994, prompted by student reports of recycled questions, then Director of GRE Programs for Kaplan, Inc and current CEO of Knewton, Jose Ferreira led a team of 22 staff members deployed to 9 U.S. cities to take the exam. Kaplan, Inc then presented ETS with 150 questions, representing 70–80% of the GRE.

According to early news releases, ETS appeared grateful to Stanley H. Kaplan, Inc for identifying the security problem.

However, on December 31, ETS sued Kaplan, Inc for violation of a federal electronic communications privacy act, copyright laws, breach of contract, fraud, and a confidentiality agreement signed by test-takers on test day.

On January 2, 1995, an agreement was reached out of court.

Additionally, in 1994, the scoring algorithm for the computer-adaptive form of the GRE was discovered to be insecure.

ETS acknowledged that Kaplan, Inc employees, led by Jose Ferreira, reverse-engineered key features of the GRE scoring algorithms. The researchers found that a test taker's performance on the first few questions of the exam had a disproportionate effect on the test taker's final score.

To preserve the integrity of scores, ETS revised its scoring and uses a more sophisticated scoring algorithm.