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A Detailed Overview of the GRE

GRE stands for Graduate Record Examinations, here specifically the GRE General Test administered by ETS (Educational Testing Service), a not-for-profit company. The exam is used to assess students’ Quantitative and Verbal aptitudes and is required for admission to many graduate programs. In the United States, the test is computer-based and “section-level adaptive,” as opposed to the “question-adaptive” format in use before 2011.

There are many features of adaptive tests that differ from paper-and-pencil testing, but the test is calibrated so that test-takers should receive approximately the same score using this computer-based format as they would taking the paper-and-pencil test.

Overview of the GRE

The GRE is composed of three scaled scores calculated from five scored sections: two Analytical Writing (AW) essays (considered one section) are the basis for the AW score; two Verbal Reasoning and two Quantitative Reasoning sections are the basis for the Verbal and Quantitative scores, respectively. The AW section is always first, followed by one Verbal section and one Quantitative section in either order. After this, there is a ten-minute break followed by the second Verbal and Quantitative sections. There may also be an unidentified or identified unscored research section. Thus, any given test will have two Verbal sections and two Quantitative sections and perhaps an additional Quantitative or Verbal section.

The Analytical Writing Section

The AW section was developed several years ago to replace the Analytical section, which used logic games and other question types to test analytical aptitude. The advantage of the AW section, to those evaluating your scores, is that it tests a real skill used in your graduate studies — writing. The schools that receive your scores have the option to see the actual essays that you write, although they must request them. Your essays will each receive a score of between 0 and 6, on half point increments, depending on the strength of your argument and the quality of your written English. The scores will be averaged together to produce your final score.

Initially, the essays are graded by an “e-rater” and a human grader. The “e-rater” is proprietary ETS computer system. If the e-rater grade and the human grade differ by more than a point, a second human grader is called in to score the essay and his or her score will be used in your overall AW average score.

The AW section is composed of two essays, which may appear in any order. One is called the “Analyze an Issue” task, for which you are given 30 minutes. You are given a prompt and must respond on the topic of this prompt. The prompts are declarative statements, such as “Happiness should be the most important factor in choosing a career,” with which you may agree or disagree in whole or in part. You will be expected to construct a well-written essay with a clear point of view, using specific and relevant examples to back up the points you make. In theory spelling and grammar do not count, but in practice you should pay attention to such elements of style since they tend to sway graders’ reactions. Your essay will receive a score of between 0 and 6 depending on the strength of your argument and the quality of your written English.

The other essay is the “Analyze an Argument” task, for which you also have 30 minutes, and it differs markedly from the previous task. Instead of constructing an argument, you must deconstruct and analyze an argument that is given as a prompt. The prompt will be a short paragraph which draws certain conclusions from stated premises. Your task is to identify the errors of logic and reasoning in the paragraph. Every prompt invariably has many errors. You may also want to bring up ways in which the argument could be strengthened or to discuss assumptions underlying the argument which lead to its logical flaws. Your essay will be scored based on the skill with which you analyze the argument given in the prompt, as well as your command of English.

For many graduate programs, the AW score may not be weighted as heavily the Verbal and Quantitative scores. The scoring system is far less precise than that of the other two sections: there are 13 possible scores on the AW section (6.0, 5.5 etc.) as opposed to 41 possible scores on the other sections (the Verbal and Quantitative sections are scored between 130 and 170 in units of 1). Most people will score in the upper-middle range on the AW. Your score is more likely to receive extra attention if it is unusually high (a 5.5 or a 6.0) or unusually low (below a 4). Whether the programs to which you are applying consider the AW score as important as your Verbal and Quantitative scores, it is best to be well-prepared. It’s the first section on the test; you must take it; and if you are prepared to write the essays, this section will not be unnecessarily stressful. Your goal should be to enter the rest of the test confident in your AW performance. If you are concerned about this section, ETS offers a service whereby you can write a sample essay and have it graded (for a fee) by an actual GRE grader. You may also look at a pool of prompts for the essays at the ETS website.

The Verbal Section

There are two Verbal sections on the GRE; each is 30 minutes long and consists of 20 questions. There are three question types: Reading Comprehension, Text Completion, and Sentence Equivalence. Although you have an average of one and a half minutes to answer each question, each question type requires a different approach, and you will likely spend more time on Reading Comprehension questions than on the other question types (remember, you will also be using test time to read the passages on which the Reading Comprehension passages are based). Here is a closer look at the three Verbal Reasoning question types:

Reading Comprehension

Reading Comprehension questions present you with a passage of between one and several paragraphs in length, which could be selected from any discipline – the sciences, social sciences, or humanities. You will then be asked questions about the text. Some questions will be global in nature, requiring you to understand the meaning of the passage as a whole. Other questions will require you to go back to the passage and find specific details in the passage to answer correctly. It is important not to skim while reading the passage, but to read at a comfortable pace. You will have to return to the passage to answer the questions – you will not be able to memorize the passage. There are approximately 10 Reading Comprehension question in a Verbal section, and roughly seven of these are drawn from one-paragraph short passages, which tend to test the same analytical skills necessary for the AW Argument Essay.

Text Completion

Text Completion questions present you with a sentence or paragraph that has one, two, or three blanks. Your answer choices are the words that “fill in the blanks.” You must use the structure and tone of the sentence(s) to pick the answer choice(s) that best completes the passage both logically and stylistically. You do have some context to work with in Sentence Completion questions, but there is no question that vocabulary is of utmost important. Your understanding of the meaning conveyed by punctuation is also crucial. There are approximately six Text Completion questions in a typical Verbal section.

Sentence Equivalence

Sentence Equivalence questions present you with a sentence that has one blank and six answer choices. You must select the two answers that produce sentences that are similar in meaning. As with the Text Completion questions, you do have some context to work with in Sentence Equivalence questions, but as before strong vocabulary skills are crucial. There are approximately four Sentence Equivalence questions in a typical Verbal section.

The Quantitative Section

There are two Quantitative Sections; each is 35 minutes long and consists of 20 questions. All questions are designed to be answered in about a minute and a half, but many should be answered more quickly, and you may find that you need to spend more than a minute and a half on some questions. However, you should not persist too long with any one question, as you do not want to run out of time at the end. There are two broad Quantitative question types: Problem Solving and Quantitative Comparison. Within these two basic types, a variety of mathematical topics may be covered from arithmetic, algebra, geometry and word problems. Some questions also test “data interpretation” and require you to analyze information presented in a graph. None of the problems require more than a high-school level of algebra and geometry, but that does not mean that the test will be easy even if you have studied mathematics at a higher level. The GRE tests your ability to reason and solve problems efficiently more than it tests your knowledge of any kind of math. For this reason, it is crucial not only to review the content that might be tested on the Quantitative Section but also to do enough practice problems that you become familiar with the kind of logic used to construct the problems. Further you should prepare to be versed in the most effective ways to assess the questions and find the correct answer.

Problem Solving

Problem Solving questions present a problem and require you to perform one of three tasks: select the correct answer from among five choices, select one or more answer choices from a set of answers, or supply your own answer based on your calculations (these problems are known as Numeric Entry problems). The problem could be as straightforward as an equation, in which you need to solve for x. It could also be a word problem or a geometry problem with a diagram that you may need to copy on your scratch paper. Solving the problem may involve doing simple computation (there is an on-screen calculator available). You are expected to be proficient with such concepts as exponents, square roots, fractions and decimals, etc. as well as algebra (linear and quadratic equations) and geometry (for speed purposes you must memorize basic formulas which will be crucial to solving problems). You won’t be graded on “showing your work,” so getting to the answer quickly is much more important than getting to the answer using a particular method. You can often use the answer choices to help you. About two-thirds of the 20 questions on a given Quantitative section will be Problem Solving questions.

Quantitative Comparison

Quantitative Comparison questions are quite different from Problem Solving questions. In a QC question, you will be presented with two columns, Column A and Column B, and there may be additional information centered above the two columns. In each column there is a quantity – either numerical (for example: 35 or the square root of 11) or variable (for example: x + 6, or ab/2). The quantity in a column could also refer to an accompanying diagram or to the information that is centered above the two columns (for example: the length of segment BC or the number of miles that John travels). Your task is to compare column A to column B. You are not asked to “solve a problem” – you are asked to decide whether a) the quantity in Column A is larger than that in Column B; b) the quantity in Column B is larger than that in Column A; c) the two quantities are equal; or d) the relationship between the two columns varies, or cannot be determined from the information provided. You will notice that there are only four possible answer choices, as opposed to five choices for Problem Solving questions. Approximately one-third of the questions in a Quantitative section will be of this type.

Section-Based Test Adaptivity

For both the Verbal and Quantitative sections, the test is computer-adaptive at the section level. Section-level adaptivity means that the first section that is presented is roughly in the middle of the difficulty scale. Based on your performance on that section, the next section of that topic will then be easier or harder. For example, say a student completes the first Verbal section and performs a high level on that section, in the range of a 160 scorer. The next section of Verbal will then be at a higher level of difficulty as the computer attempts to determine where exactly in that range the student should score. This adaptivity means that every test will be different, and your performance on one section will determine the level of difficulty of your next section on that topic. There are three distinct possible second sections for each Quant and Verbal.

Don’t try to analyze this process as you are taking the test. There’s no way to figure out “how you are doing.” Simply take each question as it comes, do your best, and move on when each section is over. You may have to guess for some questions, and this is fine. No question within a section is worth more than any other question within a section, are there is no penalty for guessing. Your PowerScore GRE Course will give you the tools you need to deal most efficiently with the problems, so that even when you must guess, you will guess intelligently.