Taking the GRE

The GRE: What You Need To Know


Recent statistics stress the value of graduate degrees. The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ 2015 table of earnings and unemployment rates, sorted by level of education, showed that those with master’s degrees had the third-highest median weekly earnings and third-lowest unemployment rate, at $1,341 per week and 2.4 percent, respectively. Only those with doctorates and other professional degrees in specific disciplines (law, etc.) earned more and were less often unemployed.

Deciding to further your public sector career opportunities by enrolling in grad school to earn a Master’s of Public Administration is a big decision, but also one that can be incredibly beneficial to your career goals. Plenty of hard work will be necessary, and the first step of that is the GRE – the common name for the Graduate Record Examinations.

The GRE is a common application requirement from most grad schools. While this exam isn’t the sole deciding factor dictating your admission, understanding its ins and outs of the GRE is nonetheless vital. A high GPA may waive this as an application requirement. For example, the online MPA program at Rutgers University Newark will waive the GRE for applicants with GPAs of 3.0 or above – though it may be worth taking even when it’s not required.

Breaking down the GRE structure

All versions of the GRE contain the following segments:
Verbal Reasoning: This contains questions pertaining to your understanding of complex vocabulary and text structure, ability to properly analyze meanings and themes of language (as expressed in literature, philosophical discourse, criticism and more), and your acuity in identifying the most important aspects of text samples.

Questions will be multiple-choice, select-in-passage (picking the most relevant word or sentence), fill-in-the-blank, and sentence equivalence (multiple-choice questions with two correct answers). Because conversation and correspondence in various mediums is essential to any public service profession – not to mention an understanding of politics and civic management concepts that may be seen, directly or indirectly, in the test questions – your GRE prep should focus significantly on this. Based on ETS statistics culled from tests taken between 2012 and 2015, MPA students most frequently scored between 150 and 154, with few scores higher than 159 or lower than 140.

Quantitative Reasoning: Beyond gauging your arithmetic, geometry, and algebra knowledge , this GRE portion requires you to comprehend and explain relationships within sets of data, often involving working-world examples such as workforce-related, industrial and sociological statistics.

The QR section features multiple choice, numeric entry, and data interpretation questions. It won’t be as germane to societal and policy matters as the other two portions of the exam, but that doesn’t mean it can be written off. Admissions personnel will still want to see, at minimum, a satisfactory performance on it. ETS found that the majority of MPA applicants – 49.6 percent – scored between 140 and 149 on the QR portion.

Analytical Writing: Arguably the most intensive segment of the GRE, Analytical Writing provides an opportunity to for prospective MPA applicants to showcase their critical thinking abilities in clear, precise language. First is the Analyze an Issue portion, for which you’re presented a statement (regarding matters of culture, sociology, economics, and ethics, among others). You must then explain your agreement or disagreement with reasonable evidence and arguments that support it – and also concede that the other side of the issue may have some validity.

Then, you tackle Analyze an Argument. You’ll analyze an opinionated statement on an issue, and then (in most instances explain) whether the argument made is logical and supply appropriate evidence – without offering your opinion. Some of these tasks will also require you to point out questions that the argument provokes without necessarily answering them.

The importance of this section to MPA applicants cannot be understated. Any job even tangentially related to government, law enforcement or other aspects of public service will demand the ability to view civic and policy-related issues from multiple perspectives without being swayed by rhetoric, to arrive at compromises that promote the greater good. A better-than-average score – between 3.5 and 4, which ETS noted as the score for about 48 percent of MPA students – is essential.

Getting prepared

Registering and beginning to study for the GRE is most optimally handled sooner rather than later. This is especially true if you’re working in the public sector while waiting to take the exam. Your schedule is more packed than that of many professionals and can change on a dime if, for example, you’re working in your city’s mayoral office during an election year or other politically fraught time.

Your paper test date depends on the center administering it, while computer-based GRE dates are mostly first-come, first-served, but either way, Kaplan Test Prep advises taking at least two months of prep time. Taking a practice test is highly valuable. Some are self-administered, while others may include instruction from a proctor via live video conferencing.

GRE best practices: Analytical Writing

Since you’ll see them first, let’s start with the Analytical Writing segments:

  • Issue: Structure won’t matter as much as the ideas and evidence you offer, but the four- to six-paragraph format that many of us learned in high school should work perfectly and is ideal for those who aren’t natural prose stylists. Remember that scorers aren’t looking for simple “This statement is correct/incorrect because”-style reasoning. Examine the issue in its entirety, state your opinion and present the evidence in a neatly linear piece of writing, with clear points of evidence stated succinctly.
  • Argument: Here, you’re picking apart the veracity of someone else’s logic as opposed to offering an opinion about it, which is a more complex task. First, state your thesis regarding the argument’s flaws. Then use the succeeding paragraphs to take on aspects of its failure – weak evidence, a lack of clarity – and top it off with ways the original argument could be changed for the better. For MPA applicants, this section of the Analytical portion may be most important.

Quantitative Reasoning best practices

In the GRE’s non-Analytical sections, it’s easier to assign each question a time limit. According to Kaplan, the questions should take one or two minutes to solve, so stick to that rule as best you can. Only word problems should be allowed more time when necessary, as misunderstanding the question can lead to errors you wouldn’t ordinarily make.

You’re given a calculator, but only use it when absolutely necessary in the interest of saving time. Also, Quantitative Comparison items often don’t require mathematics, but can be solved with logic and inference based on the questions’ text.

Verbal Reasoning best practices

The bulk of this section’s questions fall under the Reading Comprehension umbrella, with the remainder being Text Completion and Sentence Equivalency. The latter two shouldn’t take much time if you’ve properly studied your GRE vocabulary.

For the Comprehension questions, don’t get hung up on preconceived notions of literature, politics or other topics being discussed. Approaching with total objectivity is essential. Most of the truly pertinent information is at the beginning and ending of each text sample, so if you have to save time, skimming the middle usually won’t be a big problem. Finally, remember that context is everything in these questions, whether you’re analyzing a passage’s central thesis or defining its vocabulary. Knowing how meaning changes on a case-by-case basis will greatly aid in your path to successfully completing the GRE – and it almost goes without saying that it’ll bolster skills essential to your career in public service while you earn your MPA and after your program is complete.

Learn More

The online Master of Public Administration from Rutgers School of Public Affairs and Administration (SPAA) gives students a broad understanding of the field and its relevant issues. Students become competent at defining public problems, analyzing quantitative and qualitative data, developing and communicating creative solutions, and implementing ethical and practical courses of action.






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