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How Hard is the GRE? Here’s Everything You Need to Know

How hard is the GRE?

Are you thinking about pursuing higher education?

Some professions expect or require advanced degrees, while others benefit from additional training and education.

Graduate studies can be a great way to increase your professional knowledge and expertise.

But what exactly is needed to start a graduate program? For most schools, it is demonstrating a base level of knowledge on the Graduate Record Examination, or GRE.

What is the GRE?

The GRE is a standardized entrance test used by graduate schools to gauge an applicant’s ability to be successful in their program.

The test is developed and administered by the non-profit Educational Testing Service, ETS.

For more than 60 years, ETS has provided assessments in the areas of higher education, teacher licensure, English as a second language, and others.

“We strive to provide innovative and meaningful measurement solutions that improve teaching and learning, expand educational opportunities, and inform policy,” says ETS.

What exams are required for graduate schools?

If you plan to pursue education beyond a four-year bachelor’s degree, you will most likely be required to take a standardized entrance exam.

The GRE is the most widely accepted entrance exam, but some programs require other or additional measurements of your potential as a student.

  • GRE: The Graduate Record Examination is required for most graduate programs in the liberal arts, science, and math areas of study. Business and law schools are also increasingly accepting it. Joint degree programs often require the GRE, depending on the area of study.
  • GMAT: The Graduate Management Admission Test is used by businesses schools and MBA (Master’s in Business Administration) programs.
  • LSAT: The Law School Admission Testing Program is used by law schools.
  • MCAT: The Medical College Admission Test is used by medical schools.
  • DAT: The Dental Admission Testing Program is used by dental programs.
  • PCAT: The Pharmacy College Admission Test is used for pharmacy programs.
  • OAT: The Optometry Admission Testing Program is used for optometry programs.
  • TOEFL: The Test of English as a Foreign Language is often used by a variety of schools to make sure that international, non-native English-speaking students have sufficient language skills to be successful in a graduate-level program. It is most often required in addition to one of the other admissions tests listed above.

Before you decide which test you need to take, it is important to research the program to which you are applying to make sure that you take the appropriate test.

At $200+ per test (not to mention all the time and expense of studying and study aids), taking unnecessary tests can be both costly and time-consuming.

What basic skills do I need to know for the GRE?

The GRE is organized into 3 main sections: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing.

Rather than testing specialized knowledge, the GRE measures your ability to do well across academic skills and disciplines.

It provides admissions committees with a picture of your potential to do well in any higher-level education program.

Verbal reasoning:

This is where you’ll have the chance to show how well you do with vocabulary and reading comprehension. According to the GRE’s study resources, sample questions include:

  • Analyzing and drawing conclusions from discourse
  • Reason from incomplete data
  • Identify author’s assumptions and/or perspective
  • Understand multiple levels of meaning (literal, figurative, author’s intent)
  • Select important points
  • Distinguish major from minor or relevant points
  • Summarize text
  • Understand the structure of a text
  • Understand the meaning of words, sentences, and entire texts
  • Understand relationships among words and among concepts

Quantitative reasoning:

This section gives test-takers the opportunity to demonstrate their mathematical and numbers related prowess.

The GRE study resources highlight the following types of questions:

  • Understand, interpret, and analyze quantitative information
  • Solve problems using mathematical models
  • Apply basic skills and elementary concepts of arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and data analysis

Test-takers are able to use an on-screen calculator for the computer test or a provided calculator for the paper test.

Analytical Writing:

This section includes actual writing production by the test-taker.

The GRE recommends that writers focus on:

  • Articulating complex ideas clearly and effectively
  • Supporting ideas with relevant reasons and examples
  • Examining claims and accompanying evidence
  • Sustaining a well-focused, coherent discussion
  • Controlling the elements of standard written English

GRE Scoring 

Once you have taken the GRE, you will have the option to receive your preliminary score at the test center.

Happy with your scores?

  • The GRE will send them to the schools you have designated, including the option to send to additional schools later for a fee.

Want to try again later? You can opt to not send your scores to any schools and register to take the test again at a later date after more studying and preparation.

The GRE is scored in individual sections.

  • Verbal reasoning: 130-170, in 1 point increments
  • Quantitative reasoning: 130-170, in 1 point increments
  • Analytical writing: 0-6, in half-point increments

Scores are generally valid for 5 years.

You will be able to have your GRE scores officially reported to any schools you designate at any point during that time.

After 5 years, you will need to retake the test to get current scores.

What makes the GRE hard?

The GRE is generally considered to be more challenging than entrance exams for undergraduate programs, such as the ACT or SAT.

This makes sense because those taking the GRE have already been through an undergraduate program and are expected to know more than someone just entering college.

Listed below are some of the most difficult parts of the test and tips on how to overcome these challenges.

Weird Wording: When Karen read the first question of her GRE test, she knew that she was in trouble. A great student with a 4.0 all through undergraduate school, Karen never cracked a book before the exam. She didn’t think she needed to.

  • On test day, Karen realized that one of the things that makes the GRE difficult is the wording of the questions.

If she had taken the time to ‘test prep’ and study the way that the test publishing company phrases their inquiries, she would have scored a lot higher.

Tense Timing: The same can be said for preparing for the time constraints of taking the GRE. If you divide the test questions by the time allotted, you get an average of one minute and 30 seconds. That is not much time to come up with an answer.

This is another difficulty that can be overcome with practice. Other tips for breaking the tension when it comes to time include:

  • Skipping the tough questions and coming back later.
  • Write your intro and conclusion last since it’s the body of your written response that really counts.
  • Focus on reading more than vocabulary. You’ll need more time to comprehend reading passages, so don’t spend more time on deciphering words than needed.

Difficult Vocabulary: Vocabulary is commonly cited as the most challenging part of the verbal reasoning and the GRE in general.

If English is not your native language, you’ll need even more study time.

  • Most of the words included in the verbal reasoning portion of the test are higher-level terms that are not used in everyday conversations.

The same can be said of the math section.

  • Strong math students often have no trouble with the actual calculations required, but struggle with reading the questions/determining what they are asking.

Fortunately, there are ways to study and learn new words.

  • Pick up a study deck of GRE vocabulary words and try to incorporate them into your language and speech as much as possible.
  • Learn to decipher vocabulary so that you can decode new words as you come into contact with them. One way to do this is by studying root words, prefixes, and suffixes so that you can learn to analyze word parts.
  • When learning new words, try these two tricks: visualization and word mapping.

With visualization, you imagine the word in motion.

  • For example, the GRE vocabulary word ‘abstain’ means to refrain from doing something that one enjoys.
  • When trying to remember the meaning, you could close your eyes and picture yourself abstaining from something—like pushing away a piece of cake at the dinner table.

As you see the picture, also see the word. Similarly, you can map out scenes on paper, drawing the image instead of just thinking of it.

Challenging Math: The Quantitative reasoning section requires knowledge across a variety of math subject areas.

STEM majors or those in math-heavy fields often fair well on this section. Liberal arts majors or those who haven’t taken a math class in a while usually need more study time.

Other tips for making this section a little more painless include:

  • Make sure you understand the question. Many of the errors made on the GRE happen because the test taker didn’t fully understand what was being grasped.
  • Memorize basic formulas ahead of time. Unlike the SAT, the GRE provides none. You will have to come equipped with this knowledge.
  • The GRE measures overall ability, not specialized knowledge or skills. This is where a study book and practice tests can really help you feel confident going into the math portion of the test.

Timed Writing: In the Analytical Writing section, you will be asked to write two essays within a 30-minute time limit. If you are not a fast or confident writer, this section is the most likely to cause you anxiety going into the exam.

  • Since there’s no way to know what ‘task’ you’ll be writing about, you have to make sure that you can write about anything by using a step-by-step process.

Some tips for acing this portion include:

  • Only address the topic at hand. It’s easy to get side-tracked and get caught up writing about something else. Get into the habit of periodically going back and making sure that you’re ‘on topic.’
  • Pick one side, only one side. Many of the GRE writing tasks ask you to give a response in which you take a stance and support (or not) a claim like the one below.

Claim: Educational advisors have the responsibility of discouraging students from entering fields with few employment opportunities.

When structuring your response, you must be ‘for’ or ‘against’, not in between. Many test takers make the mistake of including information on both sides.

This makes for a weak answer. Instead, only include information that supports your stance on the claim.

  • Write from experience. If you don’t have personal experience with the issue, then include some kind of real-world example or case study. This will make your response stronger.

It is important for test-takers to remember that when taking the GRE, they most likely have more education and life experience than they did when they took the ACT or SAT.

They may have also mastered some helpful study strategies that help them prepare better for the exam.

Adding the strategies listed above will help you bypass the test’s difficulties and secure a satisfactory score.

How to boost your confidence and abilities in all sections? Practice, practice, practice.

This means practicing in an actual timed, test-like environment.

Of course, you should work hard at each section, but don’t let anxiety about any single part of the test get in your way of doing your best.

How to study for the GRE? 

One of the most important things that test-takers can do is familiarize themselves with the types of questions they will see on the GRE.

  • ETS provides sample questions, paper tests, and even computer-based practice tests on their GRE resources website.

Study aids and practice tests are available at a variety of retailers.

  • You can find study flashcards, practice tests, answer explanations, and review guides for the skills needed in each section.
  • No matter how you study best, there is a study aid that will help you perform your very best on the GRE.

It is worth noting that the computer version of the GRE is adaptive, meaning that the difficulty of questions will increase the better you do as you take the test.

Don’t worry – your score will reflect the increased difficulty of the questions.

  • But it can be intimidating for test-takers who start to see questions that are increasingly complex.

If you can take a practice computer test to get a feel for this type of testing, it can do a lot to boost your confidence on test day.

Test-taking strategies for the GRE

  • Skip questions but make sure you come back to them.

The GRE allows test-takers to skip over questions they may not know and come back to them later.

You can also review and change your answers before submitting your test. The test is multiple choice so if you are really stumped, take your best guess.

  • Keep track of the time.

The GRE is a timed test and you are penalized for unanswered questions. This means that you need to stay focused on completion, as well as accuracy.

Don’t get stuck on one question. If you can’t figure out the right answer, move on and come back to the question later.

  • Read each question carefully.

The verbal and quantitative reasoning sections include modified questions that, at first glance, appear similar to questions you have already seen on the test.

But they may not actually be the same and often have completely different answers.

“Even if a question appears to be similar to a question you have already seen, it may, in fact, be different and have a different answer,” says the GRE. “Pay careful attention to the wording of each question.”

  • Focus on the question in front of you.

The increasing difficulty that comes with a computer-adaptive test can psych some test-takers out.

They spend more time analyzing the level of the questions that they see to guess how well they are doing than actually answering questions.

Focus and answer the question in front of you, without thinking about how your overall performance is doing.

You’ll find out at the end of the test anyway, so there is no sense in spending time worrying about it during the exam.

  • Be physically prepared for the test.

No, this doesn’t mean that you’ll need to run a sub-7:00 mile or be able to do 100 pushups.

But getting a full night’s sleep and eating a healthy, nourishing breakfast before test time can help you focus and do your best. Simply feeling your best on test day will help you perform your best.

Conclusion: How hard is the GRE?

Overall, the GRE is considered a challenging, but not insurmountable, entrance exam.

After doing well on the GRE, potential graduate school applicants go on to engage in higher-level thinking and study, becoming experts in their field.

Understandably, the level of potential that schools want to see demonstrated on a standardized test is high.

How can you make the GRE easier? Preparation and knowing helpful test-taking strategies can do a lot to help you succeed.