Taking the GRE test? Here's everything you need to know

The GRE is a prerequisite for admission to most graduate programs. Here's what you need to know about taking the GRE. (iStock)

Graduate schools consider many factors when deciding whether to admit you. However, your GRE exam is often one of the most important criteria. Your GRE score is obtained when you complete the Graduate Record Examination, the standardized test administered by the Educational Testing Service.

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As you ponder taking the GRE, make sure you do your research thoroughly. Here's what you need to know.

How to prepare for the GRE

If you're considering applying to grad school, you'll want to register for the GRE and take a few key steps to be as prepared as possible to excel on the exam. Here are five things you need to do to get started.

  1. Take plenty of practice tests: Practice tests are available online at websites such as The Princeton Review. There are also tutoring courses you can complete and books that are designed to help you prepare to excel.
  2. Make an appointment via the Educational Testing Service: Once you feel like you are sufficiently prepared for the GRE, you'll need to register to make an appointment to complete the test. To do that, create an account with the Educational Testing Service (ETS).
  3. Determine if you want to take the test via paper copy or computer: You will have a choice of whether to complete the test via paper copy or via computer, but you will need to visit a testing center near you in order to complete the exam regardless of which method you select. There are paper tests available only at limited times during the year, but you can register to take a computer version of the GRE at any time that is convenient for you. 
  4. Pay a fee: You will need to pay a fee to complete your test. In the U.S., it currently costs $205. However, it's possible to lower your costs by requesting a Fee Reduction Voucher from ETS.
  5. Go to the testing center and bring a valid ID: When you're ready to take the test and have signed up to do so, you'll need to bring a valid ID with you to the exam location. It will take approximately four and a half hours to complete your GRE, including a short break.

Once you've taken the GRE, you should get a jump start on preparing for grad school — which means you'll need to figure out how to pay for it. You'll likely look into getting federal student loans first. However, if you don't qualify for federal student loans, there are some perks to private student loans.

With private student loans, you have more freedom and can potentially obtain larger loan amounts. Credible can help you compare rates from up to eight lenders at once.

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How long does it take to get GRE scores?

After you've taken the GRE, you'll find out your scores on the Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning sections soon after completion (if you used a computer). If you completed a paper copy of your test, you'll receive your results approximately five weeks after your exam date. You will also have to wait several weeks to find out your essay score, even if you took your test electronically.

Both the Verbal and Quantitative reasoning components of your test are scored on a scale of 130 to 170, while the essay section is scored on a scale of 1 to 6. Graduate school programs take your overall score into account.

If you're not happy with your score, you can arrange to retake the test. You will have to register and pay the fee again to do so. If you plan to retake your exam, you can pay a fee to review the questions you answered incorrectly. This could help you better prepare for the next time.

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How to apply to grad school

After you've got a GRE score you're satisfied with, you can begin the process of applying for graduate schools. To find the right program, you should research a variety of academic institutions; look into their admission requirements and the programs they offer; and narrow down your list of schools to apply to.

Applying to schools costs money, as most have application fees. And you'll need to make sure you're prepared to cover the tuition costs and other expenses associated with attendance at any grad school you're interested in. Many grad students end up taking out student loans, but this can be a more complicated process than borrowing for undergrad as you may hit annual and lifetime borrowing limits for federal student loans.

The good news is, private student loans can help you fund the cost of attending graduate school -- and they often come at affordable interest rates. If you've hit your federal student loan limits, visit Credible to review private student loan options.

Credible's online student loan calculator can help you determine how much borrowing for school could cost you. You can also use Credible to compare student loan variable interest rates and fixed interest rates without affecting your credit score, so you'll have a clear idea of what private loans you can qualify for and whether attending grad school is within your budget.

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