GRE General Test Prep Guide for MBAs

Great job, you’ve earned your bachelor’s degree and now you’re one step closer to the golden egg - a master’s degree in business administration (MBA). In aiming for one of the highest educational achievements possible, you will be expected to maintain a rigorous course of full-time study as well as demonstrate strong independent thinking and problem-solving skills and experience.

Competition for entry to MBA programs is stiff. Many colleges retain a policy requiring the graduate record examination (GRE) as part of their selection process. Your score on the GRE lets the school know whether you can keep up with master's level studies. If you have gotten this far in your education and applied to an MBA program, it’s important to have an overview of each exam's content, the type of problems it includes, what the GRE measures, how it is scored, and strategy that will improve your score so that you can start to prepare.

What is the GRE?

The GRE, launched by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in 1936 and proctored by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), is designed to measure a student’s current academic knowledge. The purpose of the test as used today is to measure whether a master’s degree program applicant has the educational preparation necessary to handle master’s degree level work. Schools don’t want to accept a student who ultimately fails or drops out because they have trouble learning the difficult material, while keeping a more capable applicant out of the program.

Many colleges that formerly required the graduate master admission test (GMAT), and did not accept the GRE, are now also accepting GRE exam scores. This makes the GRE an important test for anyone who is seeking to earn a master’s degree, including business students.

The GRE measures your academic abilities in:

  • Analytical Writing
  • Verbal Reasoning
  • Critical Thinking
  • Quantitative Reasoning
  • Vocabulary
  • Geometry
  • Algebra
  • Arithmetic

Your performance during the first sections of GRE vocabulary - verbal - English and GRE math questions drive the difficulty of the second part of each section to follow. The US cost to take the GRE is $205. However, there are fee waivers and fee reductions available for those who qualify.

Who Should Take the GRE?

The GRE is an important tool for anyone wishing to enter a graduate program. It provides a measurement of skill and knowledge that is not only useful to the colleges choosing between applicants, but also the program applicant. The last thing you want to do is enter a graduate program you aren’t prepared to complete. A high score on a GRE lets you know that you possess the academic ability to succeed in a full-length or accelerated graduate program. Completing the GRE and getting the best score you are capable of can help you get into the online or traditional program you'd prefer. Not unlike the SAT or ACT when applying as a freshman in college, your score on the GRE can rank you and will help you in the decision-making process as you whittle down your options of schools and close in on the right program for you.

The GMAT is the traditional test one might take to get into s business school program. However, as mentioned before, many schools are stepping away from the GMAT-only approach and are beginning to accept a GRE score in its place. Because this is a relatively new phenomenon, you should always check with your top schools before making a decision to take the LSAT,GMAT, or GRE.

How Important is the GRE for Graduate School Admissions?

The importance of the GRE for admission to graduate school should not be underestimated. The test has been shown to indicate the chances of an applicant’s success during the first year of a graduate program no matter their subject of study or what format they use. Therefore, admissions committees usually look closely at the GRE score of each applicant.

Scholarship awards and amounts are also often tied to applicant GRE scores. An estimated 60% of admissions committee members use an applicant’s main GRE score to help assess who gets scholarships, who gets into the program, and who is declined. This means that, in comparing applicants for a spot in a program, with all other factors being equal, the GRE score can be the tipping point for the admissions decision.

Many institutions accept GRE scores as part of the application process to their graduate programs. Examples include:

  • Harvard
  • Princeton
  • Stanford
  • University of California – Berkeley: Haas
  • University of Pennsylvania: Wharton
  • Columbia Business School
  • New York University: Stern
  • Northwestern University: Kellogg
  • Yale School of Management

What Does it Measure?

Skills measured by the GRE are basic academics that would be expected of a student at your stage of the educational path to a master’s degree. This not only includes basic learned academic skills, but also your ability to problem solve, and reason. Some targeted skills include:

  • Drawing conclusions from information provided
  • Identifying the important points in, summarizing, and extract minor points from text materials
  • Understanding the literal and figurative meaning from text topics and being able to identify each
  • Understanding the relationship between concepts and words used in text
  • Basic math and its application to math concepts
  • Geometry
  • Data Analysis
  • Quantitative Reasoning
  • Using examples and relevant reasons to illustrate your ability to articulate and make explanations in the form of an essay
  • Ability to examine evidence and apply it to alleged claims

Verbal Reasoning

The GRE Verbal Reasoning measure assesses your ability to:

  • Analyze and draw conclusions from discourse; Reason with incomplete data; Identify an author's assumptions and/or perspective; Understand various levels of meaning such as literal, figurative, and author's intent
  • Select important information, Distinguish major from minor points, Summarize text, Understand the structure of a text
  • Understand the meanings of words, sentences, and entire texts; Understand relationships between words and concepts

The test includes three reading comprehension questions.

  • Traditional multiple-choice questions ask you to choose one answer to a question about the passage you just read. There are five possible answers but only one of them is correct.
  • The second multiple-choice style will provide several answer selections and you are asked to select all correct answers. There might be one correct answer, then again there might be two, or all of them can be right. You must select all correct answers to get credit for the question during this portion.
  • Select–in–passage questions require you to choose the sentence in a passage that meets the question’s criteria/description. Sample passages you will read for this part of the test will range from one to four paragraphs.

Quantitative Reasoning

The GRE Quantitative Reasoning measure assesses your ability to:

  • Process and understand quantitative reasoning concepts
  • Analyze quantitative information
  • Use various mathematical models to problem solve
  • Apply arithmetic, geometry, data analysis, and algebra concepts correctly

During the test, remember that the geometric shapes may or may not be drawn to scale. What will be drawn to scale in every case will be the X/Y planes and other coordinate systems such as number lines. Additional items that will always be drawn to scale include bar graphs, line graphs, circle graphs, and other detailed graphical presentations in the test.

Analytical Writing

This portion of the test measures how well you can articulate your analysis and critical thinking skills in language, specifically writing. Can you support your conclusions and complex ideas? Are you able to write your evaluation of arguments? Does your writing stay focused? These and other aspects of your analytical writing skills will be assessed.

You will be presented with two test modules, with 30 timed minutes to complete each one.

The ‘Analyze an Issue’ portion will present you with a written opinion on a topic or problem and you will have 30 minutes to read, evaluate, and write an argument supporting your views.

The second section will provide specific instructions regarding a given argument. Your task will be to consider how logically sound the argument was that was presented in this resource. You won’t be delivering an opinion here, but instead articulating in writing how you decided whether it was or was not presented logically.

How Is It Scored?

The GRE test is a scored test; it is not a pass/fail test. In 2011, the test was overhauled to include section-adaptive testing. Section Adaptive Testing is used to determine the level of difficulty on the second set of questions in each section. This is somewhat different than the way the GMAT does it; the GMAT selects the difficulty level of the very next question based on your success on prior questions. The GRE chooses the questions asked in the second section based on the score from the previous, first section.

There is also a weighted component to the GRE section adaptive testing. Your score is somewhat impacted by the difficulty level of questions you ultimately receive throughout the test. There are strategies to doing your best, but it is important not hold back in the hope of getting an easier second section in either test area.

In the end your raw (how many questions you answered correctly) score will be computed. Then it will be weighted based on the difficulty level of the questions you answered correctly and, finally, your full score is determined based on those two items.

You are scored in three areas:

  • Verbal Reasoning 130–170 (using 1-point increments)
  • Quantitative Reasoning 130–170 (using 1-point increments)
  • Analytical Writing 0–6 (using half point increments)

How Long is Your Score Valid?

In general, your GRE test score will be valid for five years after you test. If you took your GRE test between July 2015-June 30, 2019, your scores would remain valid for five years from the test date. For example, you tested July 2015, your test scores are good until July 2020. If it was July 2016, your scores are valid until July 2021 and so on.


There are some general caveats to that rule. For one, each school decides how old test scores can be and still be considered valid. While you might be able to access your scores on the site for five years after testing, the program you applied to might only accept test scores that are three years old or newer. You’ll need to ask your program of choice to find out.

In addition, if you scored poorly the first time around, you might decide to take the test again if you feel the need to attempt to achieve a better score. If you do better, you can choose to send the new, updated score to the program you want to enter. You can take the GRE test up to five times in a 12-month period but you must wait at least 21 days since your last attempt to take it again. This means you could schedule to take the test nearly every other month in a year, but it's a better idea to spend plenty of time preparing so you don't have to.

What Scores Will Business Schools See?

The business schools you select to send the GRE scores will see all three scores, one from each section. Through the test center’s ScoreSelect software, you could send only the most recent GRE scores, all the GRE scores for the past five years if you tested more than once, or scores from selected years out of the prior five years. It’s up to you. If you already sent prior scores and are reapplying to the program, they may still have record of the prior scores in addition to whatever you send this time.

Are Your Scores Good Enough?

Whether your scores will be good enough to help bump you onto the admittance list at the school of your choice depends on several things. Obviously, the higher the score, the better chance you have. In fact, schools tend to have cut off scores that are used to weed out low scoring applicants. This is especially useful when there are many potential students applying to a program. The school can then decide that anything below X percentile or a certain score will be an automatic rejection and still have plenty of applicants to choose from. You can find lists online that tell you the score cut-offs for more prominent programs.

The best thing you can do is try to answer every question, especially since you aren’t dinged for incorrect answers. The raw score is based purely on how many correct answers you got on the test. Your percentile ranking has to do with how you ranked among others who took the test once the difficulty levels are weighted. For example, if your report says your percentile rank is 60, it means that 59% of potential students scored less than you did. Your percentile rank is the most important part of your score card.

ETS, the GRE test owners, do provide tools meant to convert your GRE scores to an equivalent GMAT score. This is part of why the GRE has gained traction in business schools recently. In addition, ETS suggests schools can also compare GRE scores to a range of GMAT sub scores. This method works with both verbal and quantitative reasoning.

According to ETS, doing a straight conversion from GRE to GMAT equivalent is not always accurate, as there are ingrained measurement errors in each test.

Examples of schools that accept a GRE or GMAT test scores include:

  • Harvard University - Harvard Business School
  • University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill - Kenan-Flagler Business School
  • University of California, Berkeley - Haas School of Business
  • Emory University - Goizueta Business School
  • University of Michigan, Ann Arbor - Ross School of Business
  • Carnegie Mellon University - Tepper School of Business
  • Duke University - Fuqua School of Business
  • Cornell University - Johnson Graduate School of Management

Other Things You Should Know

The computer delivered GRE test is offered year-round. If you are in an area where computer delivered testing is not available, you can take the physical test at one of more than 1,000 test centers worldwide. These tests are given three times each year. You can review the test dates at the center closest to you on the ETS website.


You will need to create an ETS account to access registration, testing information, the test itself, and your scores. The computer-delivered test is offered year-round, and you can register online or by phone. How you register may vary depending on where you will test but you can register for the test online or by mail.

In the US you can cancel your scheduled test day at least four days before your testing date to receive a refund of the test fee. Fee refund amounts depend on several factors and can be located on the RTS website.

Tips for Studying for the GRE

Like other important tasks in life, you will do better on the GRE if you are well-prepared. Not only will you be more knowledgeable when answering the questions but you will also have more confidence, which will reduce your stress level during the test. Cramming at the last minute is not a good approach. Setting study goals and sticking to them is key to study success.

Test prep help can be your best friend when it comes to the GRE. An official guide to the GRE is available along with mock tests full of practice problems that will give you the best foundation to knowing which areas you need to continue to study and in which areas you are already strong. Here are some tips that will streamline your test prep.

Take a Mock Test

To avoid spinning your wheels studying things you already know, or getting overwhelmed while trying to study everything possible, search for a placce to take a GRE practice test. The mock test will indicate which areas are your strengths and which areas need strengthening prior to the test date. Take one test prior to beginning a study program and take another halfway through to measure your progress. The first mock test will give you a baseline score.

Compare Baseline to Scores of Others

Investigate the graduate programs you want to apply for by doing a search for the average test scores of students who gained entry into the program. Hold your mock test score against the average test score of each program’s incoming class. You want to aim for a score during the real test that places you in the above-average category. Check the school’s website to find the average score of current students.

Choose Your Target Score

Once you know the scoring range you need to be accepted to the programs of your choice, you can design a study plan to get there. By choosing a target score you can decide just how far you must improve on each section in order to bring up your total score and study accordingly.

Think Outside the Box

Don’t get bogged down in continuing to view each question the same way. Practice viewing questions from different angles and see if a wider range of solutions/answers show themselves with this method.

Take at least one online practice test. Paper and pencil practice tests are fine for finding out you can nail the answers, but there’s a different dynamic to using an online test method. If you take at least one practice/mock test on the computer, you will be familiar with the process when you sit for the actual GRE test.

Use GRE Prep Books or Take a Course

The Official GRE Guides were developed to give you the meat and bones of what will be on the test. They are excellent resources to use during your study period, prior to sitting for the test. Prep courses, which can be found online, are also excellent resources for important terms, flashcards, a study book, study guide, practice questions, or a relevent app and other services.

Stick to a Study Plan

Take the number of weeks you have before your test date. Decide how many hours of each you will devote to studying for the GRE. Divide that into days of the week and sections you will focus on each week. Stick to the plan. Procrastination is your enemy and should be avoided.

Practice with and Without a Calculator

Nothing will test your math skills like setting the calculator aside during study and one of the mock tests. It will be come quickly clear which areas you should focus your studies on regarding the quantitative reasoning section.

Below are some online sites where you can find GRE prep courses, practice tests and study guides/resources.

Tips for Taking the GRE

This is an important test, but there are things you can do to reduce your stress level both before and during the test.

- Prepack everything you will need for the test several days prior to your test date. There is nothing more stressful than running around as you are trying to get out the door and forgetting something vital. Put all needed items in one place a day or two ahead of time, near the door.

- Don’t over-worry about skipping questions. Since you aren’t negatively dinged for skipping questions, if you run into questions that you know you will never be able to figure out or answer correctly, go ahead and move past them. It is better to move on with questions you do understand than to become stressed and lose confidence trying to figure out a single one.

- Rest and eat well in the days leading up to the test. This sounds elementary, but it’s easy to skip meals or stay up late cramming the night before test day and wake up tired and still feeling unprepared. You are going to do better if you are well-rested and not hungry on test day. Eat a small nutritious meal about 30 minutes prior to test time and drink some water with it. Be sure to include protein and complex carbs in the meal to maintain optimum blood sugar, which has been shown to increase the ability to concentrate.

- Leave early. The stress of getting lost or hitting traffic and possibly arriving late can destroy your Zen mood for the test. Be sure to leave early enough that, if there is traffic, you won’t have to worry about it. Arriving at the testing facility frazzled and upset is not conducive to taking a test.