You’re considering taking the GRE exam and would like to know, “What is on the GRE?”
With unique question types and uncommon answer formats, it’s important to familiarize yourself in depth with the three distinct GRE sections: Verbal Reasoning (V), Quantitative Reasoning (Q), and Analytical Writing (AW). In total, the GRE contains six sections, one of them unscored. The Verbal and Quantitative portions contain two sections a piece. We’ll go into a breakdown of each GRE section and thoroughly answer the question: “What does the GRE consist of?”
How many questions are on the GRE?
On test day, you will encounter 82 scored questions but will likely need to complete 102 total questions due to an experimental or research section. The experimental section has the following attributes:
- Does not count toward your final scores
- Can appear at any time after the Analytical Writing section
- Is not section-level adaptive
- Question difficulty can vary immensely
As a result of these characteristics, it is not recommended that test takers attempt to guess which section is the experimental one during the exam. Let’s take a look at the GRE section breakdown and question types below.
The Verbal Reasoning portion of the GRE exam contains two scored sections of 20 questions each. Compared to the GMAT Verbal Reasoning section, the GRE Verbal Reasoning section is more exhaustive about its evaluation of English comprehension with an additional focus on vocabulary. There are three types of Verbal Reasoning questions: Text Completion, Sentence Equivalence, and Reading Comprehension.
Text completion questions are 1-5 sentences in length and contain 1-3 blanks along with three or five answer choices. GRE exam takers must choose the correct vocabulary word for every blank to receive credit; unfortunately, there is no partial credit. See the sample question taken from the ETS website (creators of the GRE) below.
Remember all Text Completion questions are worth the same point amount regardless of the number of blanks in the question. From a strategy standpoint, don’t get too hung up on a lengthy text completion question. Move on and mark the question for review on a second pass.
Like Text Completion, Sentence Equivalence questions demand intensive vocabulary knowledge. Yet, this style of GRE question is unique in that it asks test takers to select two out of six vocab words that complete the sentence in an equivalent way. Note, it does not matter whether both selections are “synonymous”. In fact, you should be on the lookout for traps laid by the exam writers tempting you to choose synonymous words when they don’t actually complete the sentence in an equivalent way. Also similar to Text Completion, you must choose both correct answer choices to receive credit.
Reading Comprehension questions contain a passage of text followed by several analytical questions about it. You may be familiar with this style of question from past standardized exacts such as the SAT or ACT. However, these passages will be significantly more challenging as they are designed to mirror graduate level publication material. Specifically, you may be asked to:
- Infer missing information
- Draw conclusions
- Identify author’s assumptions
- Distinguish major points from minor points
GRE test takers should prepare for passages from a wide variety of subjects. For example, if you’re planning to attend graduate school in the biomedical sciences, you may be adept at analyzing medical journal abstracts but find The New York Times Book Review nearly incomprehensible. The best way to improve your GRE Reading Comprehension score is to become a voracious reader and analyze challenging passages outside your comfort zone.
Like the Verbal Reasoning section, the GRE Quantitative Reasoning section contains two scored sections of 20 questions each. This section focuses on high school level math and covers arithmetic, algebra, data analysis, and geometry. While you’ll have access to an on-screen calculator, you should learn to use it sparingly and rely on mental math shortcuts for the majority of the Quantitative Reasoning questions. Before reviewing the basic math concepts and geometry formulas you may have long forgotten, it is important to familiarize yourself with the five distinct question types:
- Quantitative Comparison
- Numeric Entry
- Multiple Choice – One Answer
- Multiple Choice – One or More Answers
- Data Interpretation Sets
The Quantitative Comparison question type is what makes the quantitative component of the GRE distinct from those of other standardized exams. GRE test takers must determine which of two quantities is greater (or if the two quantities are equal or if it is impossible to know). While it is somewhat similar to the “Data Sufficiency” style questions found on the GMAT, Quantitative Comparison questions require students to indicate the relationship between the magnitudes of two quantities in addition to determining the presence of sufficient data.
GRE exam takers will face approximately 14-16 Quantitative Comparison questions in total (or 7-8 per section), which can take the form of equations, integers, inequalities, or diagrams. When I first began studying for this question style, I’d frequently remark to myself, “this question seems random and dumb!” However, I soon came to learn that the most important thing to keep in mind for Quantitative Comparison questions is to realize there is a specific concept being tested, and it is our job as test takers to identify that concept and apply it correctly. For example, is the question trying to test you on a particular geometry rule or factoring method? It is easy to get bogged down in the strange presentation style of this type of question. You should not lose sight of the fact that your first job is to hypothesize what the exam writers are trying to test you on before attempting to determine the answer.
Although it’s widely accepted by most students that the GMAT Quantitative Reasoning section is more challenging than that of the GRE’s, GRE exam takers must contend with one other question style not found on the GMAT – numeric entry. Fortunately, you are likely to see only about 4 Numeric Entry questions in total (or 2 per section). The instructions are clear: you will come up with your own answer and enter it in the blank. Generally, you should rely on mental math shortcuts and learn to save time by refraining from heavy on-screen calculator usage. However, Numeric Entry style questions may require use of the calculator for precise answer entry if required by the question.
Multiple Choice – One Answer
This is your typical standardized exam math question with five answer choices and one correct answer. You can expect to complete about 20 Multiple Choice – One Answer questions in total (or around 10 per section). Note, for the One Answer questions you will see each answer choice indicated by an oval. I recommend students begin practicing with this style of question as they reacquaint themselves with the fundamental math concepts found on the GRE.
Multiple Choice – One or More Answers
You will know you’ve encountered a One or More Answers style question when you see square boxes next to the answer choices in a “checkbox” format. The Quantitative Reasoning section contains around 4 Multiple Choice – One or More Answers type questions in total (or about 2 per section). GRE test takers should be prepared for a wide array of answer choices. Some questions will contain fewer than five answer choices and some more than five. Also, the question may ask you to select a specific number of choices or all correct answers. Seems like a lot of variation? As my high school AP Chemistry teacher used to exhort – read the question, read the question, read the question!
Data Interpretation Sets
Now, for all the aspiring data scientists (or data visualization addicts) out there, this section is for you. Data Interpretation Sets contain about 3 consecutive questions pertaining to a particular set of data. You must bear in mind that Data Interpretation Sets may contain Numeric Entry or multiple-choice questions (both types). Additionally, you should not incorporate any specific outside knowledge (beyond everyday facts) and strictly use the data presented to answer the question. Aside from plenty of practice questions, one way to improve your score on Data Interpretation Sets is by frequently analyzing charts and infographics such as those found in The Economist.
Analytical Writing (AW)
GRE exam takers must complete 2 essay questions: “Analyze an Issue” and “Analyze an Argument”. As a first step, students should peruse the complete list of all essay prompts for both tasks on the ETS (makers of the GRE) website. For the “Analyze an Issue” essay, you can examine multiple angles and state how you agree or disagree accordingly in a structured, convincing manner. On the other hand, for the “Analyze an Argument” essay, you are primarily concerned with addressing the logic and soundness of an author’s argument. Be on the lookout for any cursory or unfounded assumptions made by the author. For both essays, I suggest the following:
- Spend up to 5 minutes constructing a thoughtful outline
- Present counterarguments and then successfully weaken them
GRE Section Order and Breaks
Unlike the GMAT, GRE test takers do not have the ability to customize the section order on their exam. On the GRE exam, the Analytical Writing section will always come first. However, the next five sections may come in any order. Also, don’t forget there is an Experimental or Research section that will not count toward your scores.
How long is the GRE?
GRE test takers will spend 3 hours and 45 minutes completing their exam. Whether you are taking the GRE in-person or at-home, you will have one 10-minute break following the third section and one-minute breaks between all other sections . The table below outlines a potential exam day scenario:
Next Steps: GRE Sections
By now you should have a good understanding about the structure and format of the GRE exam. If you decide to pursue graduate studies and need to take the GRE, I recommend that you come up with a target GRE score based on the reported averages of the programs you’re interested in attending. Once you have a goal in mind, you can choose the appropriate study plan and determine what GRE study materials you’ll need on your path to exam success.