In 2020, ETS began offering the GRE as an at-home test. Before that, nearly everyone taking the GRE did so in a computer lab. Now that test takers can choose between both formats, they should be weighing the pros and cons of the GRE in a computer lab or at home.
What is it like to take the test in a computer lab?
You register usually at least several days before your test at the computer lab. These computer labs also offer many other kinds of tests, so you may be the only person taking a GRE in the room. On test day, you check in with a front desk person shortly before your scheduled start time, then get placed on a computer, usually in a cubicle area with dividers. You then follow the directions on the computer. While you will not be allowed to bring food or a drink into the lab, some labs offer cubbies or lockers to store them so you can access them during the break.
What is it like to take the test at home?
You generally also register at least several days before your at-home test, although more last minute spots are likely to be available, often even for the next day. You will take the test on your own computer using ProctorU software, so your system has to meet certain requirements. You can check using the ProctorU Equipment Check page to see if your system meets the hardware and software requirements (for example, you must use a Windows or Mac desktop or laptop and cannot use a Chromebook or tablet). When you begin your test, you will be assigned a virual proctor who can see you through your camera and can talk to using your computer’s speakers and microphone. They will guide you through the specific instructions for getting started, including some security steps such as showing them your room and workspace to make sure you don’t have any prohibited devices or materials close by. The software then does the rest. Your interactions with the proctor after you start the test will be minimal. The software records video and audio of you taking the test, which are then stored. These recordings are unlikely to be reviewed unless there is some specific issue.
Is the test different in a lab versus at home?
No – the test has the same time limits, numbers of questions, and content regardless of whether you take it at home or in a computer lab. It is computer adaptive in the same manner in either format.
How do I pick?
The difference is in the experience of taking the test. If you have a living situation in which you have limited control over noise levels or other possible disruptions, opt to take the test in a computer lab. If you can be home alone for a few hours or know your housemates will respect your need for no interruptions, taking the test at home can provide a much lower stress experience than taking the test in a lab.
Even for those with a good home testing situation, one key downside is the greater potential for technical issues. The lab’s computers are set up and maintained for the purpose of test taking. With your home computer, there is a greater chance tech issues could delay your starting the test. The ETS is sympathetic and usually helpful in getting these resolved, and they will normally let you reschedule your test for a few hours or days later if needed. That being said, it can be difficult to refocus after such an issue.
I’ll give two test case examples from students I’ve worked with (names changed) to help illustrate.
Ashton took the GRE in a computer lab before he started test prep with me. He had done a fair amount of studying, but then got a real score that was close to his lowest practice score ever. He contacted me to get some help prepping for a retake. We determined that his biggest issue was stress and anxiety. In addition to working on some techniques and doing some substantive skill development covering a few test areas, we decided that he should take the GRE at home next time because it was a much more relaxed setting and would therefore be conducive to better performance. HIs at home test went much better, and he raised his score considerably, outperforming just about all of his practice test work.
Another student who worked with me recently and took the GRE at home is Janelle. She opted to take the at home GRE as well. When she went to start her test, she couldn’t get it to load. She restarted and updated her browser, and eventually was able to get the test up and running. Since she had spent nearly an hour trying to get it to work, she was rattled by the time she started her first section. She felt stressed out and off her game for the first half of the test before she got into the groove. She wound up getting a decent score, but decided to take the test again at home, correctly assuming that she would do better without the stress at the start. That time she had no issues and did even better. However, needing to take the test again had already cost a fair amount of time, money, effort, and stress.
These two examples are fairly representative – I have had several students who had similar experiences in the last year. Of the dozens of students Marks Education has helped prepare for the GRE since the at home testing option began, about 1/3 had tech issues that delayed their start by 15 minutes or more, and about half of those had to spend about an hour or more trying to resolve the issue, or had to reschedule their test for another day. Nearly everyone who did not have technical issues reported that taking the test at home lead to a much less stressful experience than taking the test in a computer lab
For many people, the at home GRE will provide a lower stress option for the test. That being said, test takers need to have a quiet home environment and be tech savvy enough to resolve any compatibility issues with the testing software quickly. Anyone with loud roommates, young children not in school or daycare, or a shared space like a dorm, might well opt to take the test in a computer lab instead. The key to a successful at-home test is preparation. Update your operating system, update your browser, make sure you have the newest version of any relevant software, plug in, or driver that might matter for the test. Use the ProctorU testing software to confirm compatibility. If you can arrange for it, having an old computer on hand or borrowing one from a friend or relative is good insurance as well. Decreasing the chance of tech issues will lower your stress and improve your testing experience.