GRE Guide for Nurses

January 12, 2022 · 6 Min Read

Nursing students pursuing a graduate degree will first need to pass the GRE. Find out how to best prepare for and take this exam.

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GRE Guide for Nurses
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While requirements for graduate level nursing programs may vary, some applicants might need to take the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE). The GRE determines if the test-taker will be successful in graduate school.

Many schools waive the GRE requirement based on the applicant's previous undergraduate GPA. Many online programs also do not require applicants to take the GRE and look to other educational prerequisites.

When applying to nursing school, be aware of the various requirements and timelines for applying to nursing school as both in-person and online programs may have different application processes.

This guide is an overview of the GRE, including the structure of the exam and a breakdown of the three areas in which test-takers are assessed. Review the registration process and the best ways to prepare for exam day.

GRE Subject Tests

In addition to the GRE General Test, the Educational Testing Service administers GRE Subject Tests. These specialized exams cover one subject each, including biology, chemistry, mathematics, and psychology.

The GRE Subject Test for nurse practitioners' programs may include biology, and learners looking to enroll in online psychiatric nurse practitioner programs may need to take the psychology subject test.

While students take the GRE General Test on a computer, learners must take subject tests with pencil and paper. Designated testing centers administer these exams three times per year in September, October, and April.

The specialized tests vary in length and question style. The biology exam, for instance, has 190 multiple-choice questions with five possible answers per question.

Each subject test costs $150 and comes with a free practice book.

Featured Online Programs

Do All Nursing Schools Require the GRE?

While many graduate schools require applicants to submit GRE scores, it's possible for a learner to earn a master's in nursing online without it. For example, nurses with a master of science in nursing degree can often attend an on-campus or online nursing doctoral program without GRE scores.

Some online family nurse practitioner programs may waive the test requirements for applicants with high undergraduate GPAs.

What Does the GRE Look Like?

The Structure of the GRE

The GRE General Test has five graded sections and one unscored section. Students should expect to take about three hours and 45 minutes on the test, with a short break after the third section.

The first subject is always analytical writing. This portion consists of two writing assignments, and learners get 30 minutes per essay. The next five parts consist of two verbal reasoning sections, two quantitative reasoning sections, and one ungraded portion. These five sections may appear in any order, and the ungraded part may not be identified.

Test-takers should treat each section as though it will be graded. Each verbal section allows students 30 minutes to complete 20 questions. For quantitative research, the time limit is 35 minutes per section with the same number of questions.

There are two types of ungraded sections: unscored and research. Each student only receives one of these sections per exam. The unscored parts are not marked, but the research sections state their purpose.

Throughout the exam, students can mark questions to revisit and edit previous answers. Computer-based exams include an on-screen calculator to help with the quantitative reasoning sections.

Delivery Format

While most students take the GRE on a computer in a testing center, the paper version is available in several testing facilities across the country. Testing centers that are equipped to administer the computer version do not provide paper tests unless a student receives prior authorization for special test conditions.

The paper test does not include the unscored or research sections. Furthermore, learners get an extra five minutes on each verbal and quantitative portion of the paper test.

While the computer exam gives students an unofficial score immediately after the test, those who take the paper test must wait five weeks to receive a score.

The Verbal Reasoning Section

true Skill Areas

The verbal reasoning sections test a student's ability to comprehend written concepts. Learners demonstrate aptitude for analyzing text, relating concepts, and synthesizing the information in an essay. This portion of the exam requires test-takers to understand the relationships between parts of sentences.

Question Types

The GRE uses three types of questions to measure a student's verbal reasoning skills: reading comprehension, text completion, and sentence equivalence. Reading comprehension questions require learners to read a passage and answer multiple-choice questions to demonstrate comprehension.

In text completion questions, a passage is missing a few words, and test-takers must choose the correct words from three choices.

Finally, sentence equivalence questions give students one sentence with a single blank. Learners must choose two answers that could complete the sentence.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

GRE scores can mean the difference between acceptance and the waitlist, so it's essential for test-takers to avoid preventable mistakes. Students who rush may miss important nuances in the text of the question, which can cause them to lose points.

Learners can maximize scores by reading the full text before looking at the questions and highlighting key words, such as "however" and "also." Likewise, learners should pay attention to punctuation and grammar that can alter the meaning of a sentence.

Successful students also ensure that both answers in the sentence equivalence questions make sense in the original text.

Helpful Tips
  • Read the full passage first: Some students may feel tempted to read the questions before the passage, but reading the passage first gives students a better understanding of the material.
  • Fill in the blanks: Fill-in-the-blank questions might be easier if the student tries to fill in the blanks before reading the answers. This strategy ensures that the answers align with the learner's intuition.
  • Check both answers: Some fill-in-the-blank questions have two correct answers that students must select. Test-takers can avoid mishaps by ensuring both words fit the blank equally well.
  • Proofread: If time allows, learners should reread the material after answering the questions. This strategy can help test-takers identify potential errors and improve their scores.

The Analytical Writing Section

Skill Areas

In addition to basic English language concepts, the analytical writing section tests a learner's ability to think critically about an issue, construct an argument based on those thoughts, and convey the ideas to an audience. While the essays must be coherent, this section does not test a learner's specific content knowledge.

Question Types

This section has two questions: one that requires students to analyze an issue and another that asks them to analyze an argument.

For the issue, successful students address a broad topic and the many perspectives that people may have on that subject. The argument question presents test-takers with one side of an issue and evidence to back up that side. The learner must write about the rationale behind the argument.

Word Processing Software

Students who take the exam on a computer complete this section with a specialized word processing program. ETS developed this software to have minimal functionality and maintain fairness between paper-based and computer-based tests.

Online test-takers can only do a few actions: insert text, delete, undo, cut, and paste. Test-takers do not have access to tools, such as spell check.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Test-takers may not have encountered questions like those on the analytical writing section of the GRE, which leaves many students unsure of what the graders want to see.

For example, some learners use large, complicated words. While it's good to have a wide-ranging vocabulary, this is not likely to improve a student's score. Instead, students should focus on presenting a clear argument with sound reasoning.

Exam candidates should take GRE preparation courses that cover scoring to better understand the grading system.

Helpful Tips
  • Review the topics: The ETS posts all of the possible essay prompts before the exam. Students should take time to read the prompts and practice writing responses.
  • Leave time for proofreading: Test-takers are wise to keep an eye on the time and leave a few minutes for proofreading. Doing so ensures that students turn in their best work.
  • Learn and review scoring guidelines: Learners can take GRE preparation courses to understand how graders score this section. They can also review the guidelines before test day to keep the ideas fresh.
  • Explain in full: Test-takers should reread their essays to check for inconsistencies in their logic. It's important not to assume the reader agrees or even understands the subject.

The Quantitative Reasoning Section

Skill Areas

This section allows students to showcase their mathematical and quantitative problem-solving skills. Some questions cover basic mathematical concepts, such as arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and data analysis.

The word problems address a student's reasoning abilities more broadly and require the learner to decide what formulas to use.

Question Types

The ETS uses four question formats to test quantitative skills. The first type is quantitative comparison in which students must solve two equations and compare the values. The next two types are both multiple choice. However, some multiple-choice questions ask for only one selection, while others require students to choose all the correct answers.

This section also includes numeric entry questions that do not provide answer choices. Test-takers must solve the problems and type their answers.

Can You Use a Calculator on the GRE?

Students who take the computer version of the test have a calculator on the screen during this section. Testing centers provide calculators for students who take the paper test.

Both types of calculators have only five functions: addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, and square root. Test-takers may not take their own calculators to the exam.

Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

Perhaps the most common mistake that test-takers make in this section is studying the wrong types of mathematics. Students do not need to understand advanced mathematics like calculus. Instead, it's important to study basics like grade school-level math and high school-level algebra.

Another common pitfall is that test-takers spend too much time completely solving the equations in the quantitative comparison section. Savvy students look at the concepts behind each equation and come to the correct answer quickly.

Helpful Tips
  • Get back to basics: As learners prepare for the GRE, they should study basic mathematical concepts, such as mean, median, mode, and solving for x. These skills are essential on the exam.
  • Get scratch paper: Whether a student takes the computer or paper test, plenty of scratch paper is helpful. During the break, learners should stock up on more paper.
  • Memorize important equations: Students with limited time to prepare should focus on memorizing the formulas that they may encounter on the exam.
  • Proof the work: Test-takers should take some time to look over their work and proof mistakes. Even a small mistake can lead to an incorrect answer in this section.

How Is the GRE Scored?

Graders give the analytical writing section of each exam a score between 0 and 6. Professionals read the essays and rate each one based on factors, such as critical thinking, coherence, and structure. They then round the score to the nearest half-point interval.

Both the quantitative and verbal reasoning sections receive grades of 130-170. This score accounts for the number of questions a student answers correctly and the difficulty of the questions.

Instead of giving all students the same questions, the computer-based GRE relies on section-level adaptation to provide a more personalized test. This means that the better a test-taker does on one section, the harder the following section of the same type will be.

So, if a student performs well on the first verbal reasoning section, the second one will have more challenging questions. The grading system gives allowances for that difficulty level.

Students who take the paper-based GRE do not have adaptive tests, which means that the score is based mostly on the number of correct answers.

Score Ranges on the GRE General Test
GRE Section Score Range
Verbal Reasoning 130-170 (1-point increments)
Analytical Writing 0-6 (half-point increments)
Quantitative Reasoning 130-170 (1-point increments)
Source: ETS

What's the Difference Between Your Scaled Score and Your Percentile Rank?

The grades of 0-6 and 130-170 are a student's scaled scores. Test-takers also receive their percentile ranks, which help put the scaled scores into context.

Percentile ranks show learners where they rank against their peers. For example, a student with the percentile rank of 95 did better on the section than 95% of fellow test-takers and scores lower than about five percent. Such a score shows nursing programs that the applicant has a high skill level in the relevant section.

What's an Average Score on the GRE?

Average Scores on the GRE General Test
GRE Section Score Range
Verbal Reasoning 150.37
Analytical Writing 3.6
Quantitative Reasoning 153.66
Source: ETS

What's a Good GRE Score for Nursing Programs?

Kaplan provides the following comparison of what a good GRE score looks like and how it compares to other scores.

Comparing GRE Scores
Top Scores Competitive Scores Good Scores Below Average Scores
Top 10% Top 25% Top 50% Bottom 50%
Verbal: 163-170 Verbal: 158-162 Verbal: 152-158 Verbal: <151
Quantitative: 165-170 Quantitative: 159-164 Quantitative: 153-158 Quantitative: <152
Writing: 5-6 Writing: 4.5 Writing: 4.0 Writing: <3.5

How Do You Register for the GRE?

To register for the GRE, students should first create an account on the ETS website. Then, test candidates should review the available test dates, nearby centers, and exam fees. Once a learner finds the best day and location, it's time to register.

During the registration process, students can designate a few schools to where the ETS should send the scores. Registrants are allowed to cancel at any time; however, the ETS does not issue refunds for cancellations processed fewer than four days before the test date.

When Should You Take the GRE?

Nursing graduate school hopefuls should take the exam roughly one year before they plan to begin classes. This allows time to retake the test for higher scores to include in nursing school applications.

How Much Does the GRE Cost?

In the U.S., the GRE General Test costs $205 and the Subject Tests cost $150 each. Students may incur additional fees for taking the exam in certain countries, registering late, and choosing the paper exam.

How Many Times Can You Take the GRE?

Students must wait 21 days in between computer tests and can take the exam up to five times per year. Those who take the paper exam can take it as often as the testing center offers it.

How Should You Prepare for the GRE?

At-Home Study Methods

Students can access many different tools to help them do their best on the GRE.

Online and brick-and-mortar bookstores stock printed study guides for GRE hopefuls. Students can choose from single-subject or full-test guides and study anywhere. Many students use index cards to create flashcards. These work well for formulas and other hard facts that test-takers should memorize. Students who struggle with solo studying can work with a private tutor to prepare for the exam. A simple search for GRE tutors may pull up plenty of local professionals. In today's tech-based society, many students have access to incredible study tools in their pockets. Apps like Magoosh can prepare learners much like a printed book. Part of preparing is measuring progress. Online practice tests can help students determine which study methods work for them and what subjects they should focus on.

GRE Prep Courses

Test-takers can enroll in GRE preparation courses from organizations like Kaplan, The Princeton Review, Magoosh, The Economist, and GraduateX. The cost for these courses can range from $199 to over $1,000.

These courses are taken in-person with a set schedule or online with a self-paced format. Many of the courses cover the exam material, provide practice exams, and review the scoring systems.

Programs like ETS PowerPrep II offer these features for free.

Studying Tips for the GRE

Students shouldn't shy away from studying the subjects they don't understand. Instead, learners should spend most of their study time on weak areas. Test-takers don't have to worry about revisiting college literature or advanced calculus classes. The GRE covers high school-level content. For some students, the most difficult part of the GRE is the time restriction. Timed practice tests can help learners work on time management. The key to understanding many difficult words is to learn as many prefixes and suffixes as possible. It's important for students to avoid putting off studying until the last minute. Learners should schedule regular time to study and pencil it into their calendars.

Helpful Resources

Students do not have to spend hundreds of dollars to get ready for the exam. They can take advantage of many free resources.

The ETS publishes its own preparation course that helps students get familiar with many aspects of the test, including question styles, the word processing system, and the provided calculator.

Test-takers don't have to make their own flashcards. Instead, they can use hundreds of free flashcards on Quizlet, which cover the quantitative and verbal sections.

These free cards cover subjects like common words and advanced vocabulary. Students can use these on a web browser or in the free app.

This site has free 30-minute courses, example questions, blogs with tips, and social learning tools. Students can also pay for private online tutoring.

What Should You Expect on Test Day?

Students should show up to the test at least 30 minutes early. The test administrator assigns each test-taker a seat as they file into the room. After three sections, the administrator allows learners to take a 10-minute break.

During breaks, students can only leave the testing room to use the restroom. The administrator provides scratch paper and may inspect any items of clothing for written exam materials.

What Should You Bring With You?


A valid ID helps the ETS determine who showed up for the exam. The ID must be the original document, government issued, not expired, and include the student's full name and photo. Test-takers should print their confirmation email and bring it to the testing center. This proves that the student paid for the exam. Some testing centers are cold, while others are warm. Students should dress in layers they can easily remove if needed.

What Should You Leave at Home?


Test administrators do not allow any notes, books, or study materials into the testing center. This policy helps maintain fairness and prevent cheating. The testing center provides each learner with as much scratch paper as necessary. Students are not allowed to bring their own scratch paper. Fairness is important to the ETS. That's why they provide each student with the same basic calculator and do not allow test-takers to bring their own.

Accommodations for Test-takers With Disabilities or Health-associated Needs

The ETS makes accommodations for students with disabilities who need braille devices, extended time, a magnified screen, selectable colors, or more break time.

Students who need these accommodations due to a disability can apply through their ETS accounts. They must receive approval before the test date. In the application, test-takers must present documentation relevant to their disabilities.

Submitting Your Scores


When Will You Get Your Scores?

Students who take the computer-based exam get unofficial results immediately after the test. The ETS sends the official scores to the chosen nursing programs 5-10 days later.

Learners who take the paper exam do not receive unofficial scores, and their ETS account will be updated with scores within five weeks.

How Do You Submit Your Scores to Schools?

During registration, the ETS asks students to choose higher learning institutions to receive scores. Learners can add or remove recipients until 10 p.m. the night before the exam.

The ETS automatically sends these scores to the institutions. After the exam, students can pay a fee to have the ETS send scores to additional schools.

What Scores Will Schools See if You Take the Test More Than Once?

Many learners choose to take the test more than once to optimize their scores. The ETS provides the ScoreSelect Option for these students. Test-takers can designate whether the ETS should send all previous scores, only the most recent results, or only grades from specific dates.

Students can choose among these options before their exam or after, which helps applicants put their best scores forward.

How Long Will Your Scores Be Valid?

Scores are valid for five years following the test date. For example, scores for a test taken on July 3, 2021, are reportable through July 2, 2026. This is a change from the previous system, which allowed students to use exam scores for five years following only the year of the test.

Additional Resources

NurseJournal.org is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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