What you need to know about the GRE

We know that many prospective students feel a twinge of anxiety when they think of taking the Graduate Record Examination, otherwise known as the GRE. That’s why we asked CEHD Professor, Michael Rodriguez to provide some insight for people preparing to take the GRE and to answer the frequently asked questions we get about the test. Michael Rodriguez is the right man for the job! He’s a professor in the Department of Educational Psychology and an expert on the psychometric properties of tests. He serves as an adviser to the National Assessment of Educational Progress at ETS, and was an advisor to ETS during the redesign of the GRE (2005-2013). See his answers below, and if you’re preparing for the GRE in the next few weeks, best of luck to you!

Photo: Michael Rodriguez
Michael Rodriguez

What is the GRE measuring?

The GRE General Test consists of three tests measuring your reasoning skills – the skills that are important for graduate school success.

  • Verbal reasoning measures your abilities to analyze and evaluate written text, to make sense of written text, and to make connections among words, sentences, ideas, and larger messages. These are important skills in all graduate school programs, as much of our learning is dependent on what we know which is represented in books and published articles; verbal reasoning skills form the basis for creating knowledge through theses and dissertations. There is less attention paid to isolated vocabulary and more attention paid to reasoning from verbal information.
  • Quantitative reasoning measures your abilities to solve problems and understand relationships among quantitative concepts including arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and data analysis. The Quant section includes questions about real data that you might encounter in research and empirical reports. There is less emphasis on math “facts” and more attention paid to your ability to reason from quantitative information.
  • Analytical writing measures your abilities to think critically and analyze issues and arguments. The test is far less a test of writing ability. Instead, scoring focuses attention on your abilities to critically analyze and make sense of issues and arguments and to use evidence to support your claims. Good writing skills will help, but it is the analysis that is key.

How should I prepare for the GRE?

You may have experienced the SAT or ACT. These are really achievement tests – based on school-level knowledge and skills. They are closely related to the learning objectives of high school classes and cover many of the content standards you might have also been tested on in your state high school tests.

By contrast, the GRE is a test of aptitudes that are developed over a long period of time – the accumulation of knowledge, skills, and abilities. The ideal preparation for the GRE is developing an inquisitive mind, developing strong reading and quantitative skills, and being able to break down arguments and create claims through analysis of evidence. These qualities are not achieved overnight or through a crash course.

Having said that, it is important to become familiar with the content of the test, and it is very helpful to practice the kinds of items that appear on the GRE. The GRE website provides sample questions with tips and descriptions of what each measure is addressing.

I recommend you use Powerprep®, available for free at the GRE website. It contains two practice tests – providing you with direct experience taking the test. That experience will give you a much stronger comfort level on test day.

Also at the GRE website, you will find practice books and math review materials. Hopefully, you will recognize all of the math concepts and know that you’ve learned them at some point – now you might just need to remind yourself of the connections. There are similar materials available for the verbal reasoning and analytical writing tests.

The GRE Program is committed to making the best prep materials available to all students and to be equitable about preparation. If you are looking for even more preparation materials, ETS has published GRE workbooks (also found at the GRE website). And who better to provide test prep materials than the test developer?

How important are GRE scores in grad school admissions?

Talk with the faculty or advisors at the graduate school departments that are on your list. Ask them about the importance and role of the GRE in admissions decisions. Hopefully, the graduate program is doing holistic application review – where they consider all forms of evidence of potential success. Remember, you present your transcript, personal statement, letters of recommendations, and resumes with your GRE test scores – and together, they provide a rich picture of your potential.

The GRE program views the scores from the GRE tests to be one source of evidence out of many to indicate your potential success in graduate school. It helps to know what a specific graduate program requires and whether or not you can provide other evidence, including outstanding grades, undergraduate research experience, volunteer and service experience, and leadership and teamwork skills that your references can address. You might be able to present a potential success profile that can make up for less-than-stellar GRE scores.

BUT, if you are committed to getting into the program of your dreams, you need to put forth your best application (including your best effort on the GRE) and make a personal appeal to the graduate program faculty. Go visit. Give them reasons to not overlook your application. Speaking with faculty is not only a good way to know what is important to them in making admissions decisions, but also a good way to understand if the program will be a fit for you. And, that is the ultimate goal – to find a graduate program that is a good fit for you while presenting evidence of your success potential.

You do have the option to retake the GRE, but this can be expensive. If you know that the scores do not reflect your abilities, because you know on the test day you were not feeling well, you were severely distracted, or there were other significant reasons, then you should consider retaking the test. However, if your test day was a typical day for you and nothing out-of-the-ordinary was going on, GRE test scores do not change a great deal because of retaking the test, even if you do more test preparation and studying. Remember, the GRE measures abilities that are developed over long periods of time.

Looking for more tips on applying to grad school?  See our posts on graduate application personal statements and keeping your graduate school applications on track