The Graduate Record Examination, familiarly known as the GRE, is the the most common standardized test required for admission to graduate school. The non-profit Education Testing Service, or ETS, designs and administers a computer and a paper version of the exam to help graduate schools decide which students to admit. Although ETS claims that the two versions are functionally identical, there are a few important differences between the paper and computer tests. It's possible that these differences may affect GRE scores.

Familiarity of Paper

Most prospective graduate school applicants are familiar with paper-based standardized tests. Almost all tests administered in grade school and college entrance exams like the SAT and ACT are conducted on paper. Consequently, many students feel more comfortable sticking with paper exams as they apply to graduate school. Extra familiarity might seem insignificant, but University of California, Berkeley psychologist John Kihlstrom says it might be very important. The psychological principle of context dependency suggests that people perform better on tests in familiar environments. Students do better on exams when they take them in the same room where they attended class, for example. Context dependency implies that students might preform better on paper exams than computerized exams, Kihlstrom says.

Skipping and Returning to Questions

While skipping questions is possible on the computerized GRE, it's more difficult than on the paper version. Students familiar with standardized tests know that skipping difficult questions and returning to them later can be an effective strategy to boost scores. Community college instructor Jim Wright notes that saving harder questions for the end allows students to answer more easy questions on a time-limited test. On a paper test, skipping questions is very easy because students can circle unanswered questions and find them again. The computerized GRE, however, presents only one question at a time. Students can skip ahead and return, but it requires more extensive maneuvering. That can waste time and may increase the odds of accidentally leaving a question unanswered.

Convenience and Location

Convenience is a potential advantage for the computerized GRE. Graduate school applicants can take the computer version at hundreds of testing centers around the United States any time the local center is open for business. According to ETS, the paper tests are only offered on specific dates three times per year. Students who need flexibility in scheduling their tests will find the computer version much more convenient.

Faster Writing with Computers

Many graduate schools require the GRE for admission.
Many graduate schools require the GRE for admission.

On paper and on the computer, the GRE contains two writing assignments in which students write short essays in response to a prompt. Although the grading criteria for the paper and computerized essays are the same, handwriting can influence exam scores. If a test-taker's handwriting is illegible, graders may misinterpret the essay. Since the computerized GRE allows students to type their essays, there's no risk of sloppy handwriting interfering in the grading process. Many people can also type much faster than they can write by hand, so the computer version may allow them to write more.