A Guide to Grasping the GRE

Image by Brandy, Flickr

Image by Brandy, Flickr

The GRE is used to gage a student’s ability outside of their institution’s grading methods. Since each university is different, the GRE is meant to give students a chance to showcase their intellectual talents on a level playing field.

The GRE stands for Graduate Record Examinations, and is administered by the same company that administers the SAT and the TOEFL – the Educational Testing Services (ETS). Check out their site for further information.

Difference between the GRE and the GMAT

The GRE is accepted by a variety of graduate programs. Not all Canadian universities require the GRE, but many American universities do. Whether a graduate program requires or accepts a GRE score will be mentioned in their application guidelines/requirements. Many general graduate school programs will accept the GMAT as well as the GRE. In the past, the GMAT has been specifically directed towards business schools, but a growing number of business schools are now accepting the GRE as well.

The GMAT is more expensive to take, and can take longer to write than the GRE. The GRE is composed of three sections (analytic, verbal, and quantitative), while the GMAT is composed of four sections (analytic, integrated reasoning, quantitative, and verbal). If you take both the GRE and GMAT, your scores cannot be compared or judged in relation to each other, as they are completely different tests with different formats and scoring methods.


The GRE is composed of three sections: Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, and Analytical Writing. Overall, there will be six divisions of the GRE composed of any kind of these sections. The GRE takes approximately 3 hours and 45 minutes. One half hour should be devoted to each of the six sections, as there is a ten minute break dividing the first three from the last three sections; but you should use your time however you see fit, according to your strengths and weaknesses.

The Verbal Reasoning section contains multiple choice questions that test your vocabulary and deductive abilities pertaining to words and written concepts. Most students run into trouble in this section because they have not brushed up on their vocabulary. Research the “top 100 words used in the GRE” to practice. Make sure you understand the meaning of the words in isolation, instead of relying on context.

The Quantitative Reasoning section is, in a word: math. Typically, the difficulty level will not go beyond grade 12 functions, calculus, or data management. If you took some of these math courses in high school, return to your notes to brush up. Students who did not take math in grade 11 or 12 should do some serious studying if they want to do moderately well in this section. Memorize the “special triangles,” how to find the area of basic shapes (circle, triangle, etc), and the Pythagorean Theorem.

The Analytical Writing section requires you to write responses instead of choosing from multiple choice. You will be asked to write a response that tests your analytical abilities, critical thinking, ability to articulate complex ideas, and of course, your writing skills. This section is essentially an in-class essay written in undergraduate final exams, but one that could be on any topic. To succeed in this section, outline the argument(s) and/or structure of your essay before you start writing.

Extra Sections

The GRE may include two extra sections – do not panic. Neither of these potential sections will count towards your score. One is an “Unscored” section that will not be identified within the test. The other is a voluntary “Research” section administered after the main test. Both these sections can contain any kind of question, verbal or math. Neither of these sections will count towards your grade. If you have more than the standard two math sections, it can be assumed that one of them is an experimental section; but do not try to skip the third math section on this basis, since the “Research” section will be anonymously mixed in with the others.


You can write the GRE on a computer or on paper. There is no difference other than the medium through which the test is administered. The computer-delivered test is designed to allow the flexibility of the paper-based test. You can move freely back and forth through the test questions, can tag questions to return to them later, use an on-screen calculator, and can edit answers within a section. The paper-delivered test will provide you with a standardized calculator – you are not allowed to bring your own.


You can choose which scores you would like the universities to see. If your score is better the second time you write the GRE, you can send that score to your desired university without them ever knowing the inferior original score.

The paper-delivered test is not offered very often, so research the future times months in advance to register if you want to write in this format. There is no maximum to how many times you write the paper-delivered test. You can write the computer-delivered GRE a maximum of once every 21 days, up to five times within a year.

Here’s a GRE Prep Guide if you want some more in-depth information on it.

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