GRE Exam Format (Here's Everything You Should Know)

William Cohen
Published by William Cohen
Last Updated On: December 18, 2021

Once you’ve decided to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), an important step is getting familiarized with the GRE test format.

There are two kinds of GRE — GRE General Test and GRE Subject Test. The GRE General Test can be taken as a computer-based test or as a paper-based test.

I’ve also taken the GRE test myself, and I’ve helped thousands of students get ready for it. Today, I’ll talk about everything you should know concerning the GRE format.

GRE General Test Format

The GRE syllabus underwent a change in 2011, and the revised GRE exam pattern was introduced.

Compared to the old GRE format, the exam is now divided into the general and subject exams.

The General GRE test format has six sections, with a break after the third one.

“You get a one-minute break after each section, except for the third section, where you get a scheduled break of ten minutes. This adds up to a total of 3 hours and 45 minutes.” - Chegg, YouTube Channel

The test covers three sections [1]:

  • Analytical Writing
  • Verbal Reasoning
  • Quantitative Reasoning

Here’s what you should know about each section.

1. Analytical Writing

A person writing notes

The GRE analytical writing section consists of two separately timed tasks:

  • Analyze an issue
  • Analyze an argument

The candidates are given 30 minutes per analytical writing assessment. In analyze an issue task, the candidate is given a statement about a certain topic and is expected to analyze it. The goal is to critically express thoughts about a topic in writing.

In analyzing an argument task, the candidate is given a passage. Their task is to analyze the argument and express its strong and weak points.

Contrary to analyze an issue, the candidate shouldn’t express their opinion here but critique the argument presented.

The analytical writing section of the GRE aims to check the test takers ability to:

  • Clearly present complex ideas and arguments
  • Logically examine the supporting evidence
  • Express ideas in a logical manner
  • Demonstrate writing skills in a coherent discussion

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2. Verbal Reasoning

A man writing on his notebook

The verbal reasoning section is made up of two sections, and each is 30 minutes long.

The verbal section tests the candidate’s ability to:

  • Draw conclusions from incomplete data
  • Distinguish between major and minor key details
  • Summarize text
  • Distinguish between literal and figurative meaning
  • Understand the author’s intent
  • Understand the relationship between the entire text and parts of the text

Verbal reasoning has several formats [2].

1. Reading Comprehension

Reading comprehension has three kinds of questions:

  • Multiple choice questions — Choose one answer out of five options.
  • Multiple choice questions — Choose one or more answers, i.e., all the correct answers.
  • Select-in-passage — Choose a sentence in a passage that fits a specific description best.

2. Text Completion

Text completion part of the verbal reasoning section is a passage that has one to five sentences, with one to three blanks.

You’ll be given three answers for each blank, or five answers if there’s one single blank.

For each blank, there’s only one correct answer.

3. Sentence Equivalence Questions

You’ll have one sentence, one blank space, and six answer choices in the GRE sentence equivalence part.

You have to choose two answer choices that fit the sentence best.

Note: There are no points for partially correct answers.

3. Quantitative Reasoning Section

Answering an examination

The GRE quantitative reasoning is made up of two sections. Each section has 20 questions and is 35 minutes long.

The math section aims to assess the applicants’:

  • Knowledge and understanding of high school mathematical concepts
  • Mathematical ability
  • Ability to use mathematical formulas to solve a problem

Questions that the quantitative reasoning section has can be mathematical or real-life scenarios.

Some questions are also word problems, in which the applicant has to change the word problem into a quantitative one and solve it.

The quant section has several types of questions:

  • Quantitative comparison questions — You’ll be asked to compare quantities A and B and choose which of the four statements describes the comparison.
  • Multi-choice questions — Select one answer choice from five options.
  • Multi-choice questions — Select one or more answer choices from the list of answer choices. The questions may but may not specify how many answers you have to choose.
  • Numeric entry questions — You can have two options here:
    • Enter the answer as an integer or a decimal in one answer box.
    • Enter the answer as a fraction in two boxes.
  • Data interpretation — Can be multiple choice or numeric entry.

Computer Delivered Test vs. Paper Test Format

A student answering on paper and a student in front of a computer

Educational Testing Service (ETS) offers a computer-based GRE, and in a test center where that’s not an option, a paper-based GRE.

However, the GRE exam pattern for these two tests is slightly different:

  • The GRE computer-based exam is 3 hours and 45 minutes long, while the paper GRE is 3 hours and 30 minutes long.
  • Paper GRE doesn’t have reading comprehension.
  • The number of verbal reasoning and quantitative questions on the paper GRE is 25, while the computer-based test has 20 questions.

Another difference is that you can use the on-screen calculator in the computer exam, but you’ll be provided with one if you are taking the paper test.

In both exams, you can skip questions, go back and change answers, and choose which question to answer first.

Also, you have to answer questions in the analytical writing section first and then verbal and quantitative reasoning in both exams.

GRE Subject Tests Format

GRE subject exams are only delivered in paper format and don’t have any separately timed GRE sections.

There are six subject tests available.

1. Biology

Biology has around 190 multiple choice questions, and each question has five choices.

Questions are based on field and lab studies, diagrams, or experiment results.

Biology test has three areas:

  • Organism biology
  • Cellular and molecular biology
  • Ecology and evolution

Apart from total GRE scores, you’ll get a sub-score in each of these areas.

2. Chemistry

Laboratory glassware

The chemistry test has 130 multiple choice questions spread over four sections:

  • Analytical chemistry – 15%
  • Inorganic chemistry – 25%
  • Organic chemistry – 30%
  • Physical chemistry – 30%

You’ll be given a periodic table and a table containing values of various physical constants.

You won’t need any calculators nor logarithm tablets.

Note: There are interrelationships between the fields, so a few questions can test more than one chemistry field.

3. Literature in English

Standing open books

Literature in English has about 230 questions on the following topics:

  • Novel
  • Drama
  • Poetry
  • Essay
  • Criticism
  • Biography
  • Short story
  • The history of language
  • Literary theory

Questions are based on a work presented in its entirety or an extract.

The test has two groups:

  • Factual questions — The candidate needs to identify literary and critical movements characteristics, identify the author, or determine the period when the work was composed.
  • Analytical questions — The candidate must read the text perceptively and examine the passage given for forms, structure, and literary techniques.

4. Mathematics

Mathematics subject test has 66 multiple choice questions, which cover the topics taught at undergraduate levels, such as:

  • Calculus 50%
  • Linear, abstract, elementary algebra 25%
  • Other mathematical aspects 25%

5. Physics

Newton's cradle

Physics has around 100 questions. Each of these questions is given five answer choices. The questions are based on diagrams, graphs, and physical situation descriptions.

The test uses the International System (SI) of units.

Physics test includes these topics:

  • Classical mechanics - 20%
  • Electromagnetism - 18%
  • Optics and wave phenomena - 9%
  • Thermodynamics and statistical mechanics - 10%
  • Quantum mechanics - 12%
  • Atomic physics - 10%
  • Special relativity - 6%
  • Laboratory methods - 6%
  • Specialized topics - 9%

6. Psychology

A student shading an answer sheet

The psychology test has 205 multi-choice questions. The applicant has to select only one.

Stimulus material, such as experiment description, or a graph, serves as the basis for questions.

To answer a question, the applicant may need to know factual information, apply principles, draw conclusions from data, and analyze relationships.

The test has six subscores:

  1. Biological: 17–21%
  2. Cognitive: 17–24%
  3. Social: 12–14%
  4. Developmental: 12–14%
  5. Clinical: 15–19%
  6. Measurement/Methodology/Other: 15–19%

GRE Format: Final Thoughts

I’ve talked about both computer-based and paper-based exams as well as the general and subject exam patterns.

No matter which of these you’re taking, my advice is to study as many sample questions as you can to avoid giving wrong answers.

If you’re taking a general exam, pay attention to the GRE questions in the math section and verbal section, as the difficulty level can vary.

If you’re taking a subject test, study the subject you’re taking closely.

Don’t worry about the research section, as it doesn’t contribute to the final score.

Finally, get acquainted with the exam pattern in the past few years to know what to expect on the test day.


  1. https://www.ets.org/gre/revised_general/about/structure/
  2. https://www.ets.org/gre/revised_general/about/content/verbal_reasoning

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