What’s on the GRE?

If you are on the path to graduate school and expect to take the GRE in the immediate future, it’s crucial that you be up-to-date on what, exactly, you’ll face on Test Day. It’s like an endurance sport that requires sustained energy and focus, and just like an endurance sport, you’ll need to train beforehand. Just like a cross-country skier needs ski poles and special boots, you’ll need a special set of skills to master the GRE.

At a high level, the GRE contains two essays, at least two quantitative and two verbal sections, and one experimental or research section. Testing lasts a total of four hours from beginning to end. Let’s explore each section in more detail.

The Quantitative Section

Each quantitative section has approximately 20 questions to complete in 35 minutes, giving you between 1.5 – 2 minutes per question.

  • Quantitative Comparisons
    • Quantitative Comparison (QC) questions ask you to compare two quantities – Quantity A and Quantity B – and to identify the relationship between the two. You’ll likely see about 7-8 of these in each quant section. To master these, be familiar with the answer choices and with shortcut methods that allow you to compare rather than calculate.
  • Problem Solving
    • The most common Problem Solving questions are standard multiple choice questions, with five choices and one correct answer. Variants include questions that ask you to select one or more answer choices from a list of choices (multiple choice all-that-apply) and questions that ask you to enter your answer in a box (numeric entry.) To master PS questions, be familiar with the math foundations that are tested as well as strategies that allow you to approach calculations strategically.

      There are also a handful of Problem Solving questions associated with a set of charts or graphs. These are Data Interpretation Questions. The questions—there will typically be three of them—work like other PS Qs, but it’s important to note that gleaning the information from the graphs is the key to answering these questions.

      On the GRE, you will see all the QCs first, then PS questions. Near the end of the PS questions, you’ll encounter the Data Interpretation questions, presented as a set.

The Verbal Section

Each verbal section has approximately 20 questions to complete in 30 minutes, giving you between 1 – 4 minutes per question, depending on the type.

  • Text Completions
    • Text Completion (TC) questions ask you to fill in the blank to complete sentences. Variations include 1-, 2-, and 3-Blank questions. You’ll encounter approximately six of these in each verbal section, and you should aim to complete each of them at an average of 1 – 1.5 minutes per question. To master these, you’ll need to work on building your vocabulary as well as using context clues from the sentence to make predictions for the blanks.
  • Sentence Equivalence
    • Sentence Equivalence (SE) questions require you to fill in a single blank with two choices that create a complete, coherent sentence while producing sentences that are logically similar in meaning. You will encounter approximately four SE questions in each verbal section, and should aim to complete each of them at an average of 1 minute per question. As with TC questions, you’ll need to work on building your vocabulary and pulling out context clues in order to master SE questions.
  • Reading Comprehension
    • Reading Comprehension (RC) questions come in two formats on the GRE; short passages that are 1 paragraph in length, and long passages that are 2 – 3 paragraphs in length. RC questions require you to read and understand a piece of text and answer questions based on the text. Each verbal section will contain approximately 10 RC questions associated with five different passages, and you should aim to spend an average of 1 – 3 minutes to read a passage and 1 minute per question. RC questions require strategic reading and paraphrasing skills.

      Each Verbal section will start with Text Completions, then you’ll see a block of 4–5 Reading Comp questions, then the block of Sentence Equivalence questions, and you’ll finish up with a second block of RC.

Analytical Writing

The Analytical Writing section tests both your critical thinking and analytical writing skills. You will be scored on your ability to articulate and support ideas as well as analyze and construct arguments.

The Analytical Writing section consists of two separately timed tasks:

  • A 30-minute Issue Essay
    • The Issue task presents an opinion on an issue followed by specific instructions on how to respond. You must evaluate the issue and develop an argument with support for your side of the issue.
  • A 30 Minute Argument Essay
    • The Argument task requires you to analyze and critique an argument. You must evaluate the logical soundness of the argument rather than take a side.

Unscored Sections: Experimental or Research

The unscored, so-called “experimental” section and Research section have no effect on your score. You may see either, but not both, on your test. Let’s talk about them separately for a moment. The unscored section, if you have one on your test, will appear among the scored sections in any order. You will not be able to distinguish it from the scored sections. What does that mean for you as a test taker? You should do your best on all of the Quant and Verbal sections. The Research section is a little different. It will always come at the end of the test and it will always be identified as an unscored section. The test maker may offer you an incentive for completing the section or for performing well on it. So, read the instructions and decide whether you want to take the section. Your score will not be affected either way.

So, why does the GRE include unscored and/or Research sections? It’s because the test maker is testing out new questions. In unscored sections, they’re trying out new items in familiar formats (QC, PS, etc.). In Research sections, the GRE is actually trying out new question formats. A couple of years ago, for example, All-That-Apply Quant questions appeared only in Research sections. Now, they’re part of the test.

Make sure that as you study and prepare for Test Day, you develop an approach and are comfortable with every question type and content area you can master. If you’re comfortable with the content, have a strategic approach, and pace yourself carefully, you’ll meet or exceed your goals on Test Day.