The Graduate Record Examination or GRE is a commercially-run standardized test that is an admission requirement for many graduate schools, principally in the United States, but also in other English-speaking countries. The exam is primarily focused on testing abstract thinking skills in the areas of mathematics, vocabulary, and analytical writing. The GRE is typically a computer-based exam that is administered by select qualified testing centers; however, paper-based exams are offered in areas of the world.


The exam consists of four sections. The first section is a writing section, while the other three are multiple-choice style. One of the multiple choice style exams will test verbal skills, another will test quantitative skills and a third exam will be an experimental section that is not included in the reported score. Test takers do not know which of the three multiple-choice sections the experimental section is. The entire test procedure takes about 4 hours.

Verbal section
One graded multiple-choice section is always a verbal section, consisting of analogies, antonyms, sentence completions, and reading comprehension passages. Multiple-choice response sections are graded on a scale of 200-800, in 10-point increments. This section primarily tests vocabulary, and average scores in this section are substantially lower than those in the quantitative section. In a typical examination, this section may consist of 30 questions, and 30 minutes may be allotted to complete the section. This is usually composed of 8-10 questions about antonyms, 6-8 analogy questions, 5-7 sentence completions and 6-10 reading comprehension questions (based on 2-4 passages).

Quantitative section
The quantitative section, the other multiple-choice section, consists of problem solving and quantitative comparison questions that test high-school level mathematics. Multiple-choice response sections are graded on a scale of 200-800, in 10-point increments. In a typical examination, this section may consist of 28 questions, and test takers may be given 45 minutes to complete the section. This section typically includes 14 quantitative comparison questions, 10 discrete quantitative questions (multiple-choice) and 4 data interpretation questions.

Analytical writing section
The analytical writing section consists of two different essays, an "issue task" and an "argument task". The writing section is graded on a scale of 0-6, in half-point increments. The essays are written on a computer using a word processing program specifically designed by ETS. The program allows only basic computer functions and does not contain a spell-checker or other advanced features. Each essay is scored by at least two readers on a six-point holistic scale. If the two scores are within one point, the average of the scores is taken. If the two scores differ by more than a point, a third reader examines the response.

Issue task
The test taker will be able to choose between two topics upon which to write an essay. The time allowed for this essay is 45 minutes. Issue topics are selected from a pool of questions.

Argument task
The test taker will be given an "argument" and will be asked to write an essay that critiques the argument. Test takers are asked to consider the argument's logic and to make suggestions about how to improve the logic of the argument. The time allotted for this essay is 30 minutes. Arguments are selected from a pool of topics.

Experimental section
The experimental section, which can be either a verbal, quantitative, or analytical writing task, contains new questions that ETS is considering for future use. Although the experimental section does not count toward the test-taker's score, it is unidentified and appears identical to the real (scored) part of the test. As test takers have no clear way of knowing which section is experimental, they are forced to complete this section.
If the experimental section appears as an analytical writing question (essay), if an "issue" type question is presented, a choice between two topics will not be given. This coupled with the fact that the true analytical writing section is the first test given can help the test-taker to deduce which is the experimental section and the taker can thus lower the importance of that section.


Computerized adaptive testing
The common (Verbal and Quantitative) multiple-choice portions of the exam currently use computer-adaptive testing (CAT) methods that automatically change the difficulty of questions as the test taker proceeds with the exam, depending on the number of correct or incorrect answers that are given. The test taker is not allowed to go back and change the answers to previous questions, and some type of answer must be given before the next question is presented.
The first question that is given in a multiple-choice section is considered to be an "average level" question that half of the GRE test takers will answer correctly. If the question is answered correctly, then subsequent questions become more difficult. If the question is answered incorrectly, then subsequent questions become easier, until a question is answered correctly. This approach to administration yields scores that are of similar accuracy while using approximately half as many items. However, this effect is moderated with the GRE because it has a fixed length; true CATs are variable length, where the test will stop itself once it has zeroed in on a candidate's ability level.
The actual scoring of the test is done with item response theory (IRT). While CAT is associated with IRT, IRT is actually used to score non-CAT exams. The GRE subject tests, which are administered in the traditional paper-and-pencil format, use the same IRT scoring algorithm. The difference that CAT provides is that items are dynamically selected so that the test taker only sees items of appropriate difficulty. Besides the psychometric benefits, this has the added benefit of not wasting the examinee's time by administering items that are far too hard or easy. This occurs in fixed-form testing.
An examinee can miss one or more questions on a multiple-choice section and still receive a perfect score of 800. Likewise, even if no question is answered correctly, 200 is the lowest score possible.

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