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Graduate Admissions Exams Get a Makeover

Modifications to the GRE and GMAT aim to more accurately assess real-world skills.

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Starting on Aug. 1, 2011, test takers will be greeted with a new version of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) General Test, the gateway assessment for many graduate programs across the country. And in June 2012, prospective business school applicants will face a modified Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT). Here's what to expect:

GRE: The price will remain $160, but the new exam will last about four hours rather than three. It will also reflect key changes in the verbal and math sections. The current computer-adaptive test adjusts the difficulty of each successive problem based on whether the previous one is answered correctly. The new version will allow you to skip individual questions in a section, answer the others, then come back to address the unfinished portion. The computer will then score the section and modify the difficulty of the next part accordingly.

This change enables test-takers to avoid losing time when they're stuck. By temporarily putting a problem aside, you can return to it and "see it with fresh eyes," says Neill Seltzer, national GRE content director for the Princeton Review test prep company.

[Get 6 tips for GRE success.]

The content of the exam will change in other ways as well:

• Writing: You'll still be asked to write two essays, but you can no longer choose the topic. The questions will also require "more focused" responses, according to Educational Testing Service (ETS), which administers the GRE.

• Math: The revised exam will feature fewer geometry problems and will test your ability to interpret data in real-world scenarios. One bonus: You can use an on-screen calculator.

• Verbal: Expect to be tested more on reading comprehension. Some sections may require you to select multiple answers to be correct, or to highlight portions of reading passages in your response. In another break from the past, analogies and antonyms have been eliminated. David Payne, ETS's vice president and chief operating officer for higher education, says this is a definite improvement. Testing vocabulary out of context is "really pretty far removed from what you'll actually be doing in graduate school," he says.

The changes reflect an effort to create a test that admissions officials can more easily interpret and that poses less of an ordeal for test-takers, Payne says. Scores will be adjusted, too, to range from 130 to 170 rather than 200 to 800 per section.

[See how else graduate schools are quantifying your potential.]

The revised GRE will completely replace the current version on August 1 (though the first scores will not be available until November). The old test will be offered until then to those who wish to take it while spaces remain available at examination facilities. But Princeton Review's Seltzer doesn't think test takers should fret too much about the new exam. "There's a little bit of a shift in emphasis," he says, but "the content that's being tested is not changing fundamentally."

GMAT: In June 2012, all GMATs will incorporate a new integrated reasoning section designed to assess how applicants juggle and analyze different forms of information at once. Test takers will have to review spreadsheets, written passages, scatter plots, and other visuals to address questions that might require them to select multiple correct answers.

The ability to use and interpret information in different formats is precisely what business schools want to see, says Ashok Sarathy, vice president for GMAT operations for the Graduate Management Admission Council, which owns the GMAT. "It's not just a chart for a chart's sake."

Still, Scott Shrum, director of M.B.A. admissions research for Veritas Prep, a California-based GMAT test prep and M.B.A. admissions consulting company, says, "If you've studied up correctly, you're not going to be surprised" by the new section. Shrum says test takers will also appreciate the inclusion of new mini case studies, which will allow for more creative and open-ended responses. In fact, Shrum notes, these kinds of questions are very similar to what companies ask business students applying for jobs.