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Is the GRE Harder than the SAT Exam?
10 Things to Consider

Last Updated On: May 9, 2021

Are you a college graduate looking into graduate school? Then you've taken the SAT and are currently studying for the GRE.

You might be wondering if the GRE is a carbon copy of the SAT since both have a reading, writing, and math section. So, follow along with us as we see how difficult the GRE and SAT are compared to one another.

Is GRE Harder Than SAT?

A hand holding a pencil and shading the SAT answer sheet

Many consider the GRE harder when compared to other standardized assessments like the SAT. The increase in difficulty stems from the challenging reading passages and vocabulary. You'll find that the vocabulary found on this test are obscure words not used in everyday language.

Even the math problems require a higher level of reasoning to answer correctly. Unlike the SAT, which gives you formulas, the GRE requires you to have a solid understanding of basic math skills to answer the hardest GRE math questions.

STEM test takers may find the math portion easy, while non-STEM students may find it difficult. It's not surprising that the test for grad students is more complex than that for high schoolers.

Why Would You Take the GRE & SAT?

Both the GRE and SAT are standardized tests used to assess one's intellectual capabilities as aptitudes for higher learning. Students from a variety of backgrounds have the chance to compete on a level academic playing field [1]. Let's break down the different reasons one would take the GRE and the SAT.

  • SAT - This particular test is used as an entrance test for all universities as a way of measuring a high school student's readiness for college. The uniformity in the test gives admission offices an objective way to compare students from around the country and world. Most colleges require some form of standard test score for attendance.
  • GRE - The Graduate Record Examinations is used by the admissions office in the same way as the SAT. Most business and law schools use your GRE score, along with your previous academic record, to see if you can handle the rigors of advanced academic study. The GRE is taken by hundreds of thousands of students a year.

What's In the SAT?

A person answering multiple GRE answer sheets

Now that we know that high schoolers take the SAT test, let's dive deeper into the different sections of this particular exam.

SAT Reading

You will have 65 minutes to read five passages and to answer a total of 52 questions. These passages are in no particular order, so you are free to skip around and answer questions in whatever order you feel like. There will be various questions such as finding the main idea, comparing passages, finding details, or reading a graph.

You won't be able to memorize formulas or grammar rules as this portion focuses on comprehension skills. The reading section's key takeaway is to put your opinion at the door and focus on only what the passage is saying.

SAT Writing & Language

This a 35 minutes section with 44 multiple choice questions focused on various stylish and grammar topics. While grammar might not be your strong point, you can quickly ace this portion by studying some more common grammar rules and strategies.

To do well on the language questions, focus on what parts of the sentence are changing and use it to answer the question. You can also use the elimination process to rule out wrong answers. English grammar doesn't come naturally and needs to be practiced to be accurately used.

SAT Math

The math portion of the SAT is divided into two sections. The first section is 20 questions, and you won't be able to use a calculator. The next section is almost an hour with 38 questions, and you can use a calculator. Both sections cover the same math concepts, such as algebra, probability, geometry, and trigonometry.

The SAT does list some of the most common formulas at the beginning of each math assessment, but it would be beneficial to have these memorized before going into the assessment. Practice the different types of math questions to do well here.

SAT Essay

The final section of the SAT is the writing. You'll be given 50 minutes to do so. You will get a piece of text that you'll read and write about how the author built an argument in their writing.

To get a good SAT essay score, you'll need to stay objective, write neatly, and use many examples to back your claims. A positive aspect of the SAT essay is that you don't need to know overly specific terms to score high.

 "You can't build up a vocabulary if you never meet any new words. And to meet them you must read. The more you read, the better."

 

- Rudolf Flesch, author and reading expert

What’s In the GRE Test?

A close up picture of an answer sheet being shaded with math problems

Now that we know that individuals looking to go to graduate school take the GRE general test, let's dive deeper into the different sections of the GRE exam and what it tests.

GRE Verbal Section

The verbal reasoning portion of the GRE is a reading-heavy section. It will ask you to comprehend the main points and the meanings of highly dense, academic passages and identify the correct vocabulary word for a particular paragraph or sentence.

The three question types that appear on the GRE are text completion, reading comprehension, sentence equivalence. It would help if you had a good grasp on synonymous and various words to do well on the sentence equivalence portion of the GRE verbal.

GRE Quantitative Reasoning Section

This particular GRE section focuses on basic math that is taught in middle and high school. The four topics you'll see covered are arithmetic, geometry, algebra, and data analysis. GRE test proctors will give you scratch paper and an on-screen calculator with the basic math functions.

The four question types you will get on the test are quantitative comparison, multiple-choice, data interpretation sets, numeric entry. Quantitative comparison questions ask you to compare two separate quantities, such as two cups vs the amount of sugar needed for 30 cookies.

To be able to ace this part of the exam, be sure to check out our GRE math study guide.

GRE Analytical Writing Section

The GRE analytical writing assesses your ability to create clear and compelling paragraphs that have evidence, correct grammar, and a logical flow. You'll be asked to write two essays, one that analyzes an issue, and one that analyzes an argument. All possible prompts are listed on the ETS' GRE website. So you have an idea of what might be asked beforehand.

When writing the essay about an issue, you won't be graded on choosing the 'right' side, but rather how you put together your essay. Was it able to properly support your position? For the argument essay, you are going to be judging the logic of another person's argument. Did they use supporting evidence, and are their conclusions sound?

This is where our GRE analytical writing template might come in handy.

Main Differences Between SAT & GRE

Answer sheet on top of each other with a pencil on a yellow background

Based on the sections of the tests, it seems like the SAT and GRE are pretty similar. They both have reading, math, and an essay section and are used for school admissions. So, what are the key differences between the GRE and SAT?

The Purpose

One of the most surface-level differences between these two tests is their purpose. The SAT is used for undergrad admissions, while the GRE is used for grad admissions. High school juniors and seniors take the SAT, and college-educated individuals are taking the GRE.

They are also the most common standardized test for those purposes. High school seniors will either be taking the SAT or ACT, and college grads will either be taking the GRE or GMAT, depending on their program of choice. You take the GRE when looking into a broader program such as communications, education, etc.

Those looking into specialized programs in business, law, or medicine complete an alternate entrance exam. The SAT is an acceptable exam for all colleges and specialized programs.

The Structure

We've briefly covered the different portions of the test early, but let's take a closer look at the structures of these two exams. A key difference is that the GRE is a computer-delivered test, and the SAT is only available as a paper test. However, the College Board is offering the SAT online, but they still work out some kinks in the program [2].

While the tests cover the same topics, their sections are quite different. The GRE has four parts where the verbal and quantitative portions appear twice with one unscored experimental section.

These GRE sections appear in random order, with the writing portion always coming first. The SAT has five parts which only appear once and always in the same order.

Scoring

These exams use a different set of scales to give you a score. What makes the GRE scores different is that both the Verbal and Quant sections use a scale of 130 to 170, presented in results as separate scores.

With the SAT, the math and reading scores are on a scale of 200 to 800, which are then confined for a total SAT score between 400 and 1600. The national SAT score average sits at 1,002 [3]

The writing parts are the most similar with the GRE writing scale from 0 to 6, and the SAT writing is a scale from 2 to 8.

More Differences

Here are four more differences between these two assessments:

  • Vocab Focus - The GRE focuses a significant portion of its Verbal section on the testing of vocabulary. Two of the question types, text completion and sentence equivalence, require you to have a decent understanding of words and their meaning.
  • Calculator Use - While the SAT only uses calculators for one portion of the math section, the GRE allows you to use an on-screen calculator for all the math. The majority of the GRE math questions can be solved without a computer calculator.
  • Grammar - The SAT tests your grammar through a portion of the test that focuses on questions that test your knowledge of writing mechanics. Differently, you'll see on the GRE that there are no specific grammar questions because it is more focused on testing your understanding of what's written.
  • The Essays - The SAT has test-takers write one essay within 50 minutes that analyzes an argument from a passage. The GRE, on the other hand, has you writing two essays with 30 minutes for each. You'll be analyzing both an issue and an argument.

Recommended Article: How Long Should a GRE Essay Be?

Some Similarities between the GRE and SAT

Close up photo of answering an answer sheet

While each test is unique, they do have some things in common. Here is a list of three similarities between the GRE and SAT:

  • Math Topics - The GRE and SAT math parts cover roughly the same material. Both assessments test skills ranging from middle to high school math. That means you don't need to learn any new math topics to pass the GRE. Both the GRE math and SAT math test algebra, geometry, and data analysis. You have access to a calculator for both.
  • Subject Tests - Through the Educational Testing Service (ETS), both the GRE and SAT offer testing of specific topics. Some colleges require or recommend these additional assessments. These subject tests might be math, history, or English focused. The scores for these tests don't relate to the official GRE or SAT. They make their own score.
  • Reading Comprehension - You may not be surprised to find that both heavily focus on reading and verbal skills. You will get a lot of passages and must determine the correct response. To make a high mark, really focus a lot on that verbal and vocabulary piece for both the GRE and SAT.

"There are no secrets to success. It is the result of preparation, hard-working, and learning from failure."

 

- General Colin Powell

Prepping for an Entrance Exam

Whether you are looking to apply to college or law school, entrance exams are essential. The GMAT, GRE, SAT, and ACT all require some form of preparation.

Here are some tips that can be applied to any of the tests you might be taking:

  • Make Time - Set aside part of your day to prep for test day. Consider taking a challenging class, reviewing vocabulary, or reading non-fiction texts as a way of studying. One way to help make these assessments less challenging is by preparing early. Complete a trial test on the computer to find out your current GRE score.
  • Research The Test - Be confident going in by reviewing the sections and knowing what subjects will show up. We always recommend taking a preliminarily GRE or SAT as a way of familiarizing yourself with the format. Don't let test day be the first time you take the test in full. Many websites on the computer have excellent testing information.

GRE or SAT - Which is More Difficult?

Based on research, interviews, and observation, many consider the GRE a more challenging assessment than SAT. However, a proper study plan will have you feeling confident in no time. If you are considering grad school, you will want to get a GRE math and GRE verbal score that puts you at the top of the incoming class.

This difficult test will require some prep and studying on your part, but many people mark high once they have studied. Both the GRE and SAT can be passed on the first try if one really puts in the time. Remember, it never hurts to ask for help, and you may be surprised by the results.

References:

  1. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/friendly-interest/201904/whats-the-point-standardized-testing
  2. https://digitaltesting.collegeboard.org/about-digital-testing/whats-new
  3. https://reports.collegeboard.org/archive/sat-suite-program-results/2016/class-of-2016-results

About the author

Aria Miller

Aria Miller

Aria had a keen eye for details since she was a small child. It comes as no surprise that she’s chosen to pursue a career as a professional editor. She is very passionate about helping others achieve their full potential, which is one more reason she enjoys helping young people prepare for their exams.

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