Graduate Admissions Tests at a Glance: GMAT, GRE, LSAT, TOEFL & IELTS

If you’re applying for a graduate-level degree, especially a master’s program, you may be required to submit scores from one or more standardized graduate admissions tests. These are internationally delivered tests which aim to ensure applicants are prepared for the rigors of advanced study, in their own country or abroad.

Here’s a quick guide to help you decide which graduate admissions tests are most relevant to you, the kind of questions to expect, and what steps to take next.

GMAT (Graduate Management Admissions Test)

Target audience: Business school applicants.

Required by: Business schools.

Purpose: To assess a candidate’s suitability for business school, by assessing verbal, mathematical and analytical skills.

Duration: Three hours and 30 minutes (four hours if you choose to take the optional breaks).

Test content: The GMAT is divided into four parts:

1.Analytical writing assessment: An essay analyzing an argument (one essay in 30 minutes).
2.Quantitative: Multiple-choice questions testing the candidate’s ability to solve problems and understand data (37 questions in 75 minutes).
3.Verbal: Multiple choice questions testing the candidate’s ability to understand written material, evaluate arguments and correct written material to conform to standard English (41 questions in 75 minutes).
4.Integrated reasoning: A multiple choice section which measures a candidate’s ability to evaluate information presented in di­fferent formats and from multiple sources (12 questions in 30 minutes).

Scoring: The verbal and quantitative sections of the GMAT are both scored from 0-60; the analytical writing assignment is scored on a scale of 0-6 (in increments of 0.5); the integrated reasoning section is marked on a scale of 1-8 (increments of 1). You also receive a percentile rating for each of the four parts, indicating the percentage of test takers you outperformed, and a ‘Total’ score which is calculated based on the verbal and quantitative sections. This is given on a scale of 200-800.

You may choose up to five schools to send your score report to, with additional reports available for an extra fee. You may retake the test if you are unsatisfied with your score (a maximum of five times over a 12 month period), but be aware that all scores from the previous five years will be included on the scorecard sent to the business schools to which you are applying. Results can be cancelled immediately on completing the test.

Cost: US$250 (worldwide)

Valid for: Five years (older scores are available but are not always considered to be an accurate measure of your current standard).

Results needed: Most GMAT candidates achieve a score between 400-600 – extremely high and low scores are rare. There are no straightforward passes or fails, and the score you need will depend entirely on the school to which you are applying.

Points to note: Multiple choice sections begin with an intermediate-level question. A correct answer will lead to a more difficult question, while an incorrect answer does the opposite. To complete a section you must work through the most difficult questions. There is a penalty for not finishing in the allotted time. The GMAT is only delivered in English.

Resources: The official site o­ffers free prep software to registered users. This uses the same software as the test itself so should serve as an accurate simulation. Candidates may also wish to enroll on a prep course, or make use of the many online resources available.

GRE (Graduate Record Examination)

Target audience: Prospective graduate students across all disciplines.

Required by: Graduate schools and departments.

Purpose: GRE scores are used to assess the suitability of applicants for graduate-level study across many different subject areas. Some departments may ask applicants to take one of the GRE Subject Tests, while others require the General Test. The Subject Tests assess knowledge in a particular field, while the General Test assesses verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing.

Duration: Around three hours and 45 minutes (six sections with a 10-minute break after the third).

Test content: The GRE revised General Test is divided into three parts:

Analytical Writing: Two essays. The first asks candidates to put forward a perspective on an issue; the second requires an analysis of an argument. This section tests candidates’ ability to articulate ideas, present supporting evidence and use the English language correctly. (Two separately timed essays in one hour).
Verbal Reasoning: A mostly multiple choice section which tests candidates’ ability to analyze and evaluate written material and synthesize information, analyze relationships among component parts of sentences and recognize relationships between words and concepts. (Two sets of 20 questions, each set lasting 30 minutes.)
Quantitative Reasoning: Mostly multiple choice, with a few questions requiring candidates to enter a number. This section tests ability to understand basic concepts of arithmetic, algebra, geometry and data analysis, and to reason numerically. (Two sets of 20 questions, each set lasting 35 minutes.)

Unscored sections: In addition, an unidentified section and/or a research section may be included. These are used by the test provider to develop new questions or for other research purposes, and do not affect candidates’ scores.

Scoring: Candidates receive a score for each section. Verbal and Quantitative Reasoning are measured on a scale of 130-170, in 1-point increments. Analytical writing is scored on a scale of 0-6, in half-point increments. You cannot pass or fail the GRE, but universities and departments may require applicants to achieve a specific score. If you are unhappy with your score you can re-sit the test (a maximum of five times over a 12 month period).

When sending score cards to admissions departments, candidates can now choose whether to include only their most recent score, or all scores from the previous five years. Candidates may choose up to four institutions to send score reports to, or more for an extra fee. Results can be cancelled immediately on completing the test.

Cost: US$185 (worldwide)

Valid for: Five years

Points to note: The GRE is only delivered in English. A paper-based version is offered at centers where the computer-based test cannot be delivered. Candidates sitting this version are allowed slightly longer for the Verbal and Quantitative sections.

Resources: The official site features sample questions and offers free software which simulates the test. Various third-party resources are also available.

TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language)

Target audience: Those wishing to study a program delivered in English.

Required by: Institutions offering programs in English (this includes English language degrees in non-Anglophone countries). TOEFL results are accepted as proof of English language proficiency in countries where this is required to obtain a visa.

Purpose: To test a candidate’s proficiency in English.

Duration: Around four hours and 30 minutes, with a mandatory 10 minute break midway through.

Test content: The test is divided into four parts:

Reading: 36-56 questions based on three or four passages from academic texts (60-80 minutes).
Listening: 34-51 questions based on audio recordings of lectures, classroom discussions and conversations (60-90 minutes).
Speaking: Six tasks, requiring candidates to talk about a topic familiar to them, as well as about issues relating to the material in the reading and listening tasks (20 minutes).
Writing: Two essays, the first based on topics introduced during the reading and listening tasks, the second requiring candidates to express and support an opinion (50 minutes).

Scoring: Each section is scored out of 30 to give an overall score out of 120. Test-takers also receive performance feedback. The cost of the test includes free score reports for up to four institutions, and additional reports for an extra fee. Guidance on the score you need should be given by the institution.

Cost: Varies depending on test center location. Example prices: Milan, US$240; Sofia, US$210; Seoul, US$170; Hyderabad, US$165; Bogota, US$215.

Valid for: Two years

Points to note: Before taking an English proficiency exam, be sure to check which tests are accepted by the institution you are applying to. A paper-based test is offered at some centers where the standard internet-based test cannot be provided. This lasts about four hours, with four sections: Listening Comprehension, Structure and Written Expression, Reading Comprehension and the Test of Written English. You will receive a total score out of 677, and a separate score on a scale on 1-6 for the written section.

Resources: Various study resources, including free sample questions, are available at the official site.

IELTS (International English Language Testing System)

Target audience: Those wishing to study a program delivered in English.

Required by: Institutions offering programs in English (this includes English language degrees in non-Anglophone countries). IELTS results are also accepted as proof of English language proficiency in countries where this is required to obtain a visa.

Purpose: To test a candidate’s proficiency in English, for an academic or general context.

Duration: Two hours and 30 minutes, plus 15 minutes for the speaking test.

Test content: There are two versions of the test: IELTS Academic and IELTS General Training. Both are divided into four sections, with the same content for the Listening and Speaking sections, but different Reading and Writing sections. The Academic version focuses more on English in a higher education context, while General Training focuses more on workplace and social situations.

Listening: 40 questions based on four recordings of conversations and monologues. The audio content features a range of different accents (30 minutes).
Reading: 40 questions based on three passages of text. For the IELTS Academic, these texts may include graphs or illustrations, and may be taken from sources including books, journals and newspapers (one hour).
Writing: Two tasks. For the IELTS Academic, these are a short formal essay and a task in which candidates must describe or explain a table, chart or other diagram (one hour).
Speaking: A face-to-face interview, in which test-takers must answer simple questions, speak about a familiar topic, and participate in a structured discussion. This section can be taken up to seven days before or after the other three sections (which are taken at the same time) and lasts for 11-14 minutes.

Scoring: Each of the four sections is marked on scale from one to nine, with band one indicating a non-user and nine an expert user. Candidates also receive an overall score on the same scale. Institutions are responsible for setting their own target scores. There is no limit on the number of times the test can be retaken.

Cost: Varies according to location. Sample prices: Beijing RMB1,550; Kuala Lumpur, RM590; New Delhi, Rs8,900; Paris, €190; São Paulo, R$440.

Valid for: Two years

Points to note: Before taking an English proficiency exam, be sure to check which tests are accepted by the institution you are applying to.

Resources: The official website offers practice materials and free sample questions. Many test centers run preparatory courses.

LSAT (Law School Admission Test)

Target audience: Students who wish to enroll in law school at JD level.

Required by: Law schools in the US and Canada, and a growing number of law schools elsewhere in the world.

Purpose: The LSAT is designed to measure skills considered necessary for success at law school, including comprehending and analyzing complex texts, organizing information and evaluating arguments.

Duration: Two hours and 55 minutes.

Test content: The LSAT is delivered in five sections lasting 35 minutes each, with three different types of multiple choice question:

Reading Comprehension: These questions test a candidate’s ability to understand lengthy and complex passages of text, and make reasoned judgments based on this information.
Analytical Reasoning: These questions test ability to draw logical conclusions based on statements which describe relationships between various people, objects and events.
Logical reasoning: A test of ability to evaluate and complete arguments, by answering questions based on a short passage of text.

Scoring: Raw scores are converted to a score on the LSAT scale of 120-180. All questions are weighted equally. One of the five sections does not contribute to the score (this is used to trial new questions). You will also get a percentile rank, indicating how many people you outperformed.

You can retake the test, but not more than three times over any two-year period.

Cost: US$160

Valid for: Five years

Points to note: The LSAT can be taken at test centers around the world, on up to four dates during the year. If you live more than 100 miles from a listed test center you can request that the Law School Admission Council (LSAC) sets up a nonpublished center. This costs US$255 within the US, or US$339 internationally. Many law schools require applicants to take a test in December at the latest for admission the following academic year.