The GRE is the only exam standing between you and your dream graduate school. It’s not only natural to wonder how hard it will be. It’s useful.
That’s why we spent hours researching what students say about the GRE and how hard it really is. We’ll walk you through our conclusions below.
How Difficult is the GRE Test?
According to most test-takers, the GRE isn’t hard if you’ve done your fair share during high school. To give you a more accurate answer, let’s compare the GRE to other standardized tests.
When compared to the ACT or SAT, the GRE is more difficult.
What makes it more difficult is mostly the fact that questions have very tricky wording. We’ll talk about this more in a minute.
But we can also compare the difficulty level between the GRE and the MCAT, GMAT, or LSAT. Then the GRE turns out to be the less difficult test overall.
Mostly, this is because the GRE is a more general test that requires no specialized knowledge. Again, if you’ve studied during school and done your test prep, you should have no problem nailing the exam.
What Makes It So Hard?
There are a few crucial factors that make the GRE harder than some other standardized tests. These factors usually don’t have to do much with the content of the test, rather the way it’s structured and organized.
1. Tricky Wording
Most test-takers complain about the tricky wording of the questions, especially in the quantitative reasoning part of the test. While math is tough as it is, complicated words and sentence structure make it even worse.
Each question is structured to throw you off the scent and make you choose the wrong answer. That's why you should analyze each question very carefully before answering.
2. The Time Constraint
The time limit is the second factor that makes the GRE hard. The ETS expects you to be a mental runner that can win the race in under 3 hours and 45 minutes.
The time is divided between the three sections that make up the GRE:
- Quantitative reasoning section - 35 minutes per section
- Verbal reasoning section - 30 minutes per section
- Analytical writing section - 30 minutes per task
You won’t have a lot of time to spend thinking about the exam questions. For the most part, you’ll have to know the right answer right from the bat.
Here’s the good news: for some test-takers, this time constraint is actually a good thing! If you had more time, you’d probably lose focus and start to make mistakes.
3. Complex Vocabulary
The verbal reasoning part of the GRE will test your vocabulary. About half of this section is dedicated to words that might be quite strange and unfamiliar.
There are three ways in which verbal reasoning tests your vocab:
- Reading comprehension
- Text completion
- Sentence equivalence
Your vocabulary skills will become most obvious in the two last types of questions. You’ll be asked to fill in the blanks with the most appropriate word or phrase. In the case of sentence equivalence, you’ll also have to identify words with similar meanings.
Prepare for this section by reviewing sample questions offered by the ETS or practice questions you can find in prep books. We recommend this because it’s usually always the same set of most common GRE words that appear on the test. If you go through the questions several times, you’ll eventually become familiar with all of them.
4. Difficult Math Section
Usually, test-takers find the quantitative reasoning section to be the most challenging. The reason for that is that you’ll have to solve advanced math problems as well as the more basic ones.
You can expect four things in this part of the exam:
- Data analysis
The test questions will test everything that falls under high school math but in a more complex way.
Here’s how one test-taker described it :
“I found the math questions counter-intuitive, which was annoying.”
Another one agreed:
“Math is similar to SAT math, but difficulty scales as you get questions right. They're not hard (nothing beyond algebra or geometry), just tricky.”
Again, it seems like tricky wording is the number one reason students have problems with math on the GRE. That’s why you have to dedicate some time to question analysis — what’s really being asked of you?
5. The GRE Is a Computer-adaptive Test
As most students view it, the GRE actually punishes you for giving the right answers. It becomes more difficult as you give more right answers. This means you could start great but end up struggling with each question as you progress.
How To Make The GRE Easier
You don’t have to say goodbye to your dream programs and scores just yet. There are three things that make up for the ones we’ve just mentioned and make the test easier. Make good use of them while taking the test.
1. Multiple-choice Allows For Guessing
Much like other standardized tests, the GRE consists entirely of multiple-choice questions that allow for some guessing, but should you guess on the GRE?
GRE questions have more than one correct answer. To get the maximum number of points, you need to tick them all. But even getting one answer right is a huge advantage if you don’t really know the answer, right?
What this means for you: Don’t give up when you encounter a question you’re not sure about.
Instead, choose the answer that makes the most sense, and you just might earn yourself an extra point. There’s also no penalty for wrong answers, so you aren’t endangering your GRE score.
2. The Proof Is In the Text
Reading comprehension questions must be objectively true, which means you can usually find the answer right in the text.
What this means for you: Go over the text a few times. Read it and analyze it carefully. You could find a sentence that directly answers a question.
3. You Don’t Have to Nail the Entire Test
Lucky for you, most graduate programs are only interested in one or two sections of the GRE that directly relate to your studies. Usually, they’ll look at your scores in either the verbal reasoning or quantitative reasoning sections. Writing is becoming increasingly less important to many graduate schools.
What this means for you: During your GRE practice, focus less on writing and more on practicing for the other two exam sections. And worry less about nailing the entire test.
Determine If the GRE Test Will be Difficult For You
While we can go on and on about everything that makes the GRE hard — or easy, you’re the only one who can really tell if this test will be hard for you.
Here’s what to consider:
- Your ability to solve a standardized test — i.e., are you a good test-taker?
- Your GPA — i.e., how much effort you put into studying during high school
- Your time management skills — i.e., will you be able to organize your time well?
How Much Time Have You Put Into Your GRE Prep?
Most students study for about 20 hours a week if they’re aiming for a high GRE score. Most of them also start their prep 6 months in advance. However, there are no strict rules about how long should you study for GRE. It depends on your current level of knowledge.
What’s Your Baseline — and Your Target Score?
Your baseline is the score you’d get if you were taking the GRE today. It’s important to determine your current GRE score because it will help you understand just how much you need to study to feel prepared on the test day.
But each student should also determine his target score early on. Think of it this way — your baseline tells you where you are today, and your target goal tells you where you want to be by the end of your prep.
Here’s how to determine and use each:
- Determine your baseline by taking a practice test.
When you solve a GRE practice test, you get a score based on how many questions you got right. It’s better to define your baseline based on this score than by how well you did in high school.
- Analyze your graduate school programs.
Each grad school has its requirements. First, look for the minimum cut-off scores. This will tell you how many points you need to get to even be considered by your chosen graduate program. Next, search for the average scores that students who get admitted usually have. This should be your target score.
- Write it down.
Write both of these scores down and use them to plan your study schedule. Maybe it would be useful to remind yourself of how the GRE sections are scored, too:
- Quantitative and verbal reasoning are scored on a 130-170 scale in 1-point increments
- Analytical writing is scored on a 0-6 scale in half-point increments
Useful Strategies for Taking the GRE
Here are 5 strategies to help you nail the GRE.
- Find out what to study.
The test-makers, Educational Testing Service (ETS), offer an overview of the structure  of the GRE, which will come in handy while you plan your study schedule. Here, you’ll find out exactly what questions to expect on the actual GRE as well as what skills will be tested.
- Don’t dwell on questions for too long.
Students usually make the mistake of dwelling on a single question for too long, even if they know that they don’t know the answer. But you shouldn’t.
You’ll have approximately 1.5 minutes to answer all the questions in the GRE verbal and quant section. Why spend more on just one question and waste valuable time?
- Give it your best shot.
If you don’t have all the answers, take a guess. All the questions are multiple-choice, except for the two essays. But, even in that case, you can get a pretty good idea of the correct answer by simply going through the writing prompt once more.
- Read each question carefully.
Sometimes, the questions contain hints that could help you pinpoint the correct answers. Don’t waste this opportunity!
- Check your answers.
By the end of the test, you'll probably be as tired as a construction worker in late July. Still, take the time to go through each question again. You’d be surprised how often students simply tick the wrong answer.
How To Prepare To Ace the Exam
Before you take the GRE, take the time to go through all the necessary preparations.
- Tackle the analytical writing section before the actual GRE.
If you’re like most applicants, your biggest struggle on the exam will be the essay. On the exam, you’ll have to write two separate essays based on two separate essay prompts.
Instead of writing the essay for the first time on your exam — while you’re under pressure — find practice essays online and practice writing beforehand.
- Brush up on your English.
No, we aren’t insulting your language skills. We’re just saying it’s a good idea to practice complex English vocab because this is exactly what the GRE will test.
- Use additional resources and materials.
You don’t have to study from your GRE prep books. For most students, it’s better to study by solving practice tests, digital quizzes, or even with a friend. Find a strategy that works best for you.
- Hone your critical thinking skills.
While the quant section might test your critical thinking more directly, these skills will actually come in handy during the entire test. For example, they’ll help you choose the right synonym in sentence equivalence tasks.
- Take practice tests.
Last but not least, become familiar with the GRE ahead of time by taking practice tests. Find the best GRE practice tests that simulate real-life conditions if possible, i.e. tests that adapt your questions and measure your time.
How Hard Is The GRE? Final Thoughts
The GRE isn’t as hard as many students think. However, there are factors that make it somewhat difficult — time constraints, tricky wording of the questions, advanced math, and complex vocabulary words.
But there are also some factors that make the exam easier for the students, such as multiple-choice questions and the fact that universities usually aren’t interested in the entire test.
The key is in being aware of the challenges and mitigating circumstances early on. This way, you’ll know just how to prepare and rock your GRE.