How to Prep for the GRE

psychology student studying gre sample test

If you’ve earned your bachelor’s degree and plan for a career in psychology, entering a graduate program is the logical next step. Along with admission requirements such as transcripts, essays, and letters of recommendation, many schools require you to submit scores from the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).

There are two different tests you might take—the GRE General Test and the GRE Psychology Subject Test. A school might ask for scores on one, none, or maybe even both. If you can, it’s a good idea to take both exams to ensure you can meet the admission requirements of as many possible schools. Read on to find the information you need on fees, test formats, subject matter, scoring, and more.

GRE General Test Overview

The GRE General Test is the most widely used exam for graduate school admission, regardless of the concentration of the program. Administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS) and given to students all over the world, the test is designed to measure the critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills you’ll need to be successful in grad school.

Registration and fees

The GRE General Test is available at more than 1,000 testing centers worldwide. To take the computer-delivered test, you’ll need to register with the ETS online and select a time and date at a testing center near you. These exams are offered year-round and seats are offered on a first-come, first-served basis.

In a few areas around the world, the computer-delivered test might not be available. If that’s the case, you’ll need to register online or by mail to take the paper-delivered test. These are only offered up to three times per year.

No matter which test you take, you’ll need to submit a fee along with your application. In most locations, the GRE General Test costs $205, though this fee is slightly more in China, Australia, Nigeria, and Turkey. Additional fees might be assessed for:

  • Late registration
  • Changing your test center
  • Rescheduling your exam date

Subject matter, format, and length

The GRE General Test is administered over a period of about 4 hours, with a 10-minute break in the middle. The exam is broken into three main subject areas, each with two separately timed sections:

Verbal Reasoning: This section consists of two parts with 20 questions each. They’re designed to measure your ability to draw conclusions from text and analyze an author’s intent. The questions will be a mix of multiple choice, select-in-passage, and fill-in-the-blank.

Quantitative Reasoning: This section also has two parts with 20 questions each. These measure your ability to analyze mathematical data and solve problems using skills in arithmetic, geometry, and algebra. Questions will be multiple choice and numeric entry.

Analytical Writing: There are two writing tasks in this section—one will ask you to analyze an issue and the other will ask you to analyze an argument. This section measures your ability to articulate complex thoughts and support your ideas with strong reasoning and evidence.

Scoring

The scoring of the test varies depending on the subject area. The tasks are scored by ETS professionals as well as specialized scoring software. The scores of the ETS professional and the computer software are averaged together to give a final score.

Verbal Reasoning

130–170, in 1-point increments

Quantitative Reasoning

130–170, in 1-point increments

Analytical Writing

0–6, in half-point increments

An important thing to remember when taking the test is that you can’t lose points for answering incorrectly in the sections of Verbal and Quantitative Reasoning. For that reason, it’s in your best interest to answer every question even if you’re guessing.

Receiving your scores

If you took the computer-based exam, you’ll be able to view your unofficial Verbal and Quantitative Reasoning scores as soon as you complete the test. At this point, you’ll have the option to select up to four institutions that you want to receive your scores for free. Any additional score reports will cost you $27 each. If you feel you didn’t do well on the exam, you can choose not to have your scores sent to any school.

In about 10–15 days after the exam, you’ll be notified of your score for Analytical Writing and your official scores on the other sections. You’ll also receive verification that your scores have been sent to any schools that you selected.

If you had to take the paper exam, you’ll be able to view your scores online roughly a month after your test, with scores being sent to your schools in about 6 weeks.

What’s considered a good score?

Your scores will be compared to the average scores of other test takers. According to ETS data, average results for 2015–2018 were:

Section

Average Score

Verbal Reasoning

150

Analytical Writing

3.55

Quantitative Reasoning

153

Any scores above the average will help your application but scores that land in the top 25% of test takers will give you a significant advantage. For your score to be considered part of this top tier, you’ll generally need:

Section

Scores in the Top 25%

Verbal Reasoning

158 or above

Quantitative Reasoning

159 or above

Analytical Writing

4.5 or above

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Can I retake the test?

Yes. You can retake the computer-delivered GRE up to five times in a single 12-month period. Your retake attempts will need to be 21 days apart. If you need to retake the paper exam, you’ll have to wait until the next available testing period.

How long are test results valid?

As of 2016, scores are valid for 5 years from the exact date that you take your exam. With the ETS ScoreSelect option, you can choose to have the results of any exam that you took within the last 5 years sent to your potential schools. This allows you to select the scores that show you at your best, but keep in mind that exam scores must be sent in their entirety. You can’t mix and match scores from different sections on multiple exams.

GRE Psychology Subject Test Overview

The GRE Subject Tests are used to measure how well you know a particular field of study. They’re designed for students who have extensive knowledge, either from an undergraduate degree or professional experience. These tests might not be required by a graduate program but submitting these scores can give you an edge when applying to highly competitive psychology programs.

Registration and fees

You’ll need to take the GRE Psychology Subject Test at a paper testing center, though you’ll be able to register online with your ETS account. You’ll be given your choice of testing centers worldwide, however the subject exams are only offered three times a year, in April, September, and October.

Along with your registration, you’ll need to submit a $150 testing fee. Additional fees are assessed for late registration, changing your test center, or rescheduling your exam.

Test format and length

The psychology exam consists of 205 multiple-choice questions. You’re given 2 hours and 50 minutes to complete the exam, but no section is timed so you can work at your own pace.

Prior to 2017, the subsections and subscores did not fall in these six categories. Some information online still lists the old categories, but the ETS website lists these new sections.

Subject test subject matter

The GRE Psychology Subject Test examines your knowledge of core psychological principles. Questions will cover material normally taught in undergraduate-level psychology courses. There are six primary areas covered by the test:

Biological

  • Sensation and perception
  • Physiological/behavioral neuroscience

Cognitive

  • Learning
  • Language
  • Memory
  • Thinking

Social

  • Social perception, cognition, attribution, beliefs
  • Attitudes and behavior
  • Social comparison, self
  • Emotion, affect, and motivation
  • Conformity, influence, and persuasion
  • Interpersonal attraction and close relationships
  • Group and intergroup processes
  • Cultural or gender influences
  • Evolutionary psychology, altruism, and aggression
  • Theories, applications, and issues

Developmental

  • Nature-nurture
  • Physical and motor
  • Perception and cognition
  • Language
  • Learning, intelligence
  • Social, personality
  • Emotion
  • Socialization, family, and cultural
  • Theories, applications, and issues

Clinical

  • Personality
  • Clinical and abnormal

Measurement/Methodology/Other

  • Research theories
  • Methods and protocol
  • Reliability and validity of testing methods

Scoring

Scores on the psychology subject test range from 200–990 and are assigned in 10-point increments. Subscores in the six primary subject areas also given in a range from 20–99 in one-point increments. As with the General GRE, there’s no penalty for answering incorrectly. To maximize your score, it’s better to guess than not answer at all.

For psychology students, average scores on the test are around 600, but graduate schools will generally want to see at least a 650 for your application to stand out.

Roughly 5 weeks after taking the exam, you’ll receive an email letting you know that your scores can be viewed online and that your score reports have been sent to any schools you selected.  

Can I retake the test?

Yes. You can retake the test as often as it’s offered throughout the year.

How long are test results valid?

All GRE Subject Test scores are valid for 5 years from the exact testing date. As with the General GRE, you can choose to send schools the results of any exam that you took within the last 5 years. Taking the test multiples times before applying can give you the opportunity to choose which exam shows you at your best.

How to Prepare for the GRE

The ETS offers free study guides and resources for all of its tests. You can use these resources to get a feel for the type of questions you’ll be asked on the GRE and even take practice exams. Numerous other resources are available both online and in print, for free and for a fee. If you’re currently an undergraduate student, there might even be study groups or preparation material offered at your school.

Additional Tips for Test Day

Taking the GRE can be an important step on your path to fulfilling your career goals, so it’s important to be as prepared as possible on test day. Follow these tips to make sure you’re as ready, confident, and comfortable as can be:

  • Arrive 30 minutes prior to testing time.
  • Double check that you have your ID. You won’t be able to take the test without it.
  • Get a good night sleep and eat a healthy meal beforehand.
  • Bring a snack or beverage to have in case you need it during the break.
  • Dress in layers so you can adapt to any room temperature.
  • Leave jewelry at home except for wedding or engagement rings.
  • If you’re taking a paper exam, bring at least three No. 2 pencils and a good eraser. These won’t be supplied at the testing center. Pens and mechanical pencils aren’t allowed.

If for any reason, you have health-related needs that require you to take extended breaks, bring a prohibited item into the testing room, or otherwise go against the testing regulations, you’ll need to follow the procedures for submitting an accommodation request.

What’s Next?

Are you ready to take the leap toward psychology graduate school? Before settling on a program, make sure to ask yourself these questions to determine if a school is a fit for you and your needs. Or, if you’re ready to start researching schools, click the button below.

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