What’s on the GRE?

Old photo of students taking exam

The GRE tests your quantitative and verbal reasoning abilities as well as your ability to understand and articulate arguments through writing. So what does this actually look like on the test?

On the GRE, you’ll face two essays, two quantitative sections, and two verbal sections as well as one experimental section. The experimental section will appear as a third quant or verbal section. The test makers use this section to gather data on new questions, and it won’t affect your score. However, you won’t know which section is the experimental section and which sections are the scored sections, so you’ll still need to try your best on each section your presented with.

The Analytical Writing section

The Analytical Writing section, which contains the two essays, comes first. For each essay, you’ll have 30 minutes to write and submit it. The first essay is the Issue essay. This essay begins with a prompt that expresses one point of view on a subject. Your job is to form an opinion about the view taken in the prompt and then logically support your opinion by making claims and providing evidence.

In the next essay, the Argument essay, you’ll be tasked with analyzing an argument rather than supporting your own argument. The prompt will argue for a certain conclusion supported by evidence. However, the reasoning that leads to the conclusion will be faulty, and it’s your job in your essay to point out the argument’s weaknesses.

Verbal and quantitative reasoning

After the two essays, you’ll proceed to the two verbal and two quantitative sections. Each verbal and quant section contains approximately 20 questions. For the verbal sections, you’ll have 30 minutes, and for the quant sections you’ll have 35 minutes. Again, this is also where you’ll encounter the experimental section, as it will take the guise of a verbal or quant section.

The verbal sections are composed of three different question types: Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence, which tests your grasp of English vocab, and Reading Comprehension questions, which test your ability to understand ideas in complex pieces of writing.

The quant sections also feature three different question types, each of which test subjects such as arithmetic, algebra, geometry, statistics, and percentages. Problem Solving questions can take a few forms. Some are multiple-choice questions that ask for one correct answer while others ask you to select more than one correct answer while others require you to enter the correct answer yourself. You’ll have a calculator built into the test software on which you take the GRE; however, you won’t need it for most questions.

Data Interpretation questions follow all of these same forms; however, the questions are preceded by a graph, chart, or diagram that contains information (for example the gross revenue of a company by year or the total attendance for different movies at a theatre) that you’ll need to consult in order to select or input the right answer. Quantitative Comparison questions are multiple-choice questions that ask you to compare to entities and indicate the relationship between them, for example whether one entity is larger than the other.

The GRE is a MST (multi-stage test)

You may have heard that the GRE is an adaptive test. However, the GRE functions differently than other adaptive tests such as the GMAT. The GRE is adaptive by section. What this means is that how well you do on the first quant and verbal sections determines the difficulty of the second quant and verbal sections you receive and the maximum possible score you can receive.

For example, the better you do on the first verbal section, the harder the second verbal section will be and the higher your verbal score potential will be. If you do poorly on the first verbal section, the second verbal section will be easier but your score “ceiling” will be lower. Your performance on the first verbal section only affects the second verbal section; it does not affect the second quant section and vice versa.

While this structure stresses the importance of doing well on the first quant and verbal section, it shouldn’t change your strategy. You still need to try your best on each section as your score is determined both by the difficulty of the questions you’re asked and the percent of questions you answer correctly.

Since the GRE is adaptive by section, you can skip questions and return to them later as well as go back and change your answers – functionalities that aren’t possible on adaptive tests like the GMAT, which are adaptive by question rather than section. Use this ability to your advantage. Don’t be afraid to take a quick guess on a difficult question and return to it later, and don’t forget to go back and check your answers if you have time.