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GRE for PhD: Graduate Record Examination Test

by Dr Nathalie Mather-L'Huillier

The GRE test is one of the most widely accepted graduate admission tests, particularly in the United States and other English-speaking countries like Australia. It is worth noting that it is NOT often a required test in the UK. This test is exclusively provided by a company called Educational Testing Service (ETS) which also owns TOEFL (for English language proficiency). While the GMAT tends to be the test of preference for candidates applying to gain admission onto business & finance PhD programmes, a number of business schools continue to accept either GRE OR GMAT. However, the GRE is not just for postgraduate study in business and management and may be requested for postgraduate degree admissions in a wide variety of subject areas.

The general GRE (see below for subject-specific GRE) measure skills in four areas: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, critical thinking and analytical writing which are considered as those which new students should possess before embarking in postgraduate study (or 'grad school' as our cousins in the USA call it!).

About the test

The GRE test is marketed as being a flexible test. This doesn't mean that it is easier than the GMAT. The flexibility comes from the fact that preview, editing and tagging features are built into the computer-based format of the test. This allows candidates to go back, within each section, to questions they have temporarily skipped or that they would like to change. Prior to 2011, the test used computer-adaptive testing (like in GMAT) but this was removed.

The test currently consists of three main sections:

Analytical writing section

This section is always the first one of the exam. This section consists of the writing of two essays in which you will, respectively, analyse an issue and analyse an argument, both on topics of general interest. The test doesn’t assess your knowledge of the subject but your critical thinking and analytical writing skills. You will have half an hour for each essay. Scores for this section will range from 0-6.

Verbal Reasoning

This section determines the candidates ability to understand information that they have read and to critically analyse it. You will have 30 mins to answer 20 questions, most often distributed as follows: six text completion, four sentence equivalence, and 10 critical reading questions. Recent changes have seen the removal of the 'antonyms and analogies' and while vocabulary usage is still important, this is examined in the context of the texts that you will read during the exam. The questions are multiple-choice and scores for this section will range from 130-170.

Quantitative section

This section will test the candidates' problem-solving skills and ability to interpret and analyse quantitative information. The test requires basic mathematical knowledge, including algebra, arithmetic, geometry and data analysis. This section lasts 35 minutes, during which you will have to complete 20 questions: eight quantitative comparisons, nine problem solving items and three data interpretation questions. Questions in this section are not multiple-choice. Scores for this section will range from 130-170.

In addition, your test may include a research or experimental section which does not count towards your final score but allows ETS to try out new questions for future use. The entire testing procedure lasts about 3 hours 45 minutes with built-in breaks.

Subject-specific GRE

These tests are available in biochemistry, biology, cell & molecular biology, chemistry, computer science (to be discontinued after 2013), literature (English), mathematics and physics. They measure candidates’ knowledge in individual subject areas and assume that the candidates have studied these at undergraduate level. Subject-specific GRE are widely accepted and some graduate schools and universities (or individual masters programmes) may request a subject-specific GRE over the general one.

What score do I need?

Universities will set their own requirements in terms of GRE and in the United States, for example, the average GRE scores for the general test range from:

  • 3.0-5.5 for writing
  • 154-163 for verbal
  • 157-167 for quantitative

This will also vary considerably depending on the subject area you are interested in, a higher 'verbal' score may be required if you're applying for a degree in the humanities while a higher 'quantitative score' may be required if you're applying for a programme in the sciences or engineering.

Test preparation

There are resources, such as sample questions and past exam papers available from ETS. Since the company does not sell any of its practice material, any other source may not be of good quality. You can also download the GRE preparation software (again from ETS) and practice from home. A few companies also offer preparatory courses, although the test is such that preparation (through courses or on your own) should probably focus on the format of the examination itself than the content of the questions.

How much is the test and when/where can I take it?

The test costs around $200 but this will vary amongst test centres. The computer-based version of the general GRE test is available throughout the year, although some test centres are busier than others. In some countries (such as China), availability is restricted to a few times a year. Subject-specific GRE are only available at set times of the year so make sure you check availability at test centres so it doesn't delay the application procedure for your course. A paper-based format is also available in some regions but only at fixed points in the year.

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