Many universities and colleges in the US, Canada, UK, and other countries use Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores as a criterion for admissions to their graduate-level courses. The ETS GRE (revised) General Test evaluates the test-taker’s overall knowledge and skills in three main segments—analytical writing, verbal reasoning, and quantitative reasoning. The scores indicate the candidate’s aptitude for taking up graduate studies in various disciplines.
The GRE offers the General Test in two formats—computer-based and paper-based. The computer-based test lasts about three hours and 45 minutes overall, and consists of six sections, or “measures,” as they are officially known: one section on analytical writing, two sections each on verbal and quantitative reasoning, and an additional section that may contain questions on either verbal or quantitative reasoning, but is not taken into account for scoring nor timed. The test always starts with the analytical writing section; the other sections may follow in any order.
The analytical writing segment comprises two tasks (“analyze an issue” and “analyze an argument”) to be completed in 30 minutes each. The verbal and quantitative segments contain 20 questions each, but while 30 minutes are available for each of the two verbal sections, 35 minutes are given for each of the two quantitative sections. The order of the sections is not announced, so the test-taker does not know which section is unscored and meant only for research. However, a research section may sometimes be identified as such, and may follow the five scored sections. The Educational Testing Service (ETS), which conducts the GRE, offers software that allows the candidate to experience the test firsthand.
As mentioned, GRE is also offered in a paper-based format. The main segments are the same—analytical writing, verbal reasoning, and quantitative reasoning. Each of these three segments has two sections. While 30 minutes are available for each section on analytical reasoning, 35 minutes are given for each section on verbal reasoning, and 40 minutes for each section on quantitative reasoning. The test lasts about three hours and 30 minutes overall.
GRE Syllabus: Three main segments
The two-task analytical writing segment appraises the test-taker’s ability to critically examine complex issues and arguments and put forth his or her ideas clearly and logically. In the first task, called the “analyze an issue task,” a viewpoint on a topic of popular interest is presented, and the candidates are asked to analyze the issue and express their own opinions. In the second task, “analyze an argument task,” an argument is presented, and the candidates have to analyze the logical strength of the argument and point out its pluses and minuses. The objective is not to test the test-takers’ knowledge in a particular topic but rather their analytical capability and power of expression.
Candidates who take the General Test on the computer-based format will have no advantage over those who opt for the paper-based format: only a basic word-processor, with options to insert and delete text and copy and paste material, is made available to them, and the test-takers cannot correct their spellings or grammar.
Here is a typical example of an issue-task question that one might see on the test.
Issue statement: The comforts of life available today are making people “soft,” and they are gradually losing their strength of character and becoming weaklings.
Task instruction: Discuss your response, giving logical reasons to support your opinion. Also say under what circumstances the statement might or might not stand. Explain your position taking into consideration those circumstances, too.
The verbal reasoning segment measures the test-taker’s capacity to read and understand written material of the kind that is commonly used in academia. Three types of questions have been devised: (i) Reading comprehension; (ii) Text completion; and (iii) Sentence equivalence. To be able to comprehend texts in graduate school, a student will be required to identify the relationships between parts of a sentence, and associations between words and concepts. The verbal reasoning segment tests whether the test-taker has the talent and ability necessary. About 50 percent of the questions are on reading comprehension, and the rest expect the candidate to read, understand, and complete sentences or passages.
In order to score high in reading comprehension, the candidate has to understand the meaning of words and the purport of paragraphs and passages; understand how parts of a text relate to one another; be able to pick out important points from unimportant ones; infer stated and unstated information from passages; and grasp the author’s opinion and position on the issue. The passages may be drawn from any of the sciences, humanities, or business topics published in academic or non-academic journals.
Under text completion, the candidate is asked to supply missing words or phrases in a passage, given the overall context. Again, what is tested is the ability to comprehend the text and make the correct inferences.
The third type of questions—sentence equivalence—requires the test-taker to fill in the blank in each sentence with the most appropriate word and also select an alternative word from six choices. The task is not limited to picking out a word that appears suitable, but includes intuiting the context and selecting the two best options from among the possible answers.
The main objective of the GRE quantitative segment is to assess the test-takers grasp of the basic math concepts of algebra, arithmetic, geometry, and data analysis, and skills for solving problems based on these concepts. There are various topics under each of the main concepts.
The questions on mathematics and statics are of the high-school level. Trigonometry or calculus or other areas that come under higher level mathematics are not included. Knowledge of high-school mathematics concepts, such as “prime numbers are greater than one” and “numbers increase towards the right of the number line,” is sufficient.
Four types of questions can be found as part of quantitative reasoning: quantitative comparison, multiple-choice with one correct answer; multiple-choice with one or more correct answers; and numeric entry (computation) questions. Among these types of questions, quantitative comparison questions perhaps demand a short explanation: they ask the test-taker to compare two quantities and select one statement from four that best describes the comparison.
Candidates taking the computer-based test are provided with on-screen calculators, and those taking the paper-based test are provided handheld calculators. However, the GRE website contains some guidelines that advise against the use of the calculator for some type of questions. It points out that the powers of reasoning and estimating may be more effective and less time-consuming in these cases.