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How Hard is the GRE?

How hard is the GRE? Simply put, the GRE can be a very difficult test, especially if you’ve been out of school for a while. Typically this tends to hold true more for the math section than for the verbal or the AWA. So let’s break it down by section.

 

How hard is GRE math?

The truth is as soon as you leave college, the likelihood of using math diminishes drastically. Fifteen years into a career in which working with numbers is about as germane as knowing world capitals, you may be flummoxed to define what an integer is. Compounding the rusty math-brain syndrome is the fact that the GRE math is different from the math you probably did in college; it is much like the math you did in junior year of high school. Even then, it is much trickier than anything you ever saw in your algebra class. Throw in the high-pressure testing environment and it is understandable why the mere mention of GRE prep can fill one with utter dread.

 

How hard is GRE verbal?

Believe it or not, your verbal brain will continue to expand throughout your adult life, as you read more and are exposed to different kinds of people. Indeed, ETS—the creators of the GRE—have released evidence to support this: verbal score continues to rise, on average, the older one is (one can argue that there is a slight confound here since the number of PH.D. students—they too must take the GRE—tend to be older. Thus there is a selection bias).

Of course the above hardly serves as a reassurance once many are faced with a 400-word passage on the use of or a Text Completion that asks you to distinguish between ‘extenuating’ and ‘corroborating.’ The simple fact is that the GRE verbal is very hard, even for Ph.D. candidates. The writing is dense, stylistic; the vocabulary is esoteric, daunting.

 

How hard is GRE Writing?

Neither essay in the GRE writing section is particularly difficult. The real difficulty for many stems from rusty writing skills (it may be years–or even decades!-since the last five-paragraph essay), or the simple fact that some never properly learned how to write a five-paragraph essay. Whether you fall into that group or not, trying to score a ‘6’ is hard, even for confident writers (only a tiny percent of AWA essays are awarded a perfect ‘6’).

 

Is the GRE really that hard?

This is not a post to dissuade; this is actually a post to inspire. Since even if you don’t know the difference between a parabola and a hyperbole (one belongs in math, the other in verbal), you can still do very well on the GRE—with lots of study.

And it is also a test where you are competing against others. You do not have to answer every question correctly to score well. Scoring in the top 20% allows you to miss many a dozen questions on either the Verbal or the Quant section. Another way of looking at it, just as you struggle on a very difficult three-blank Text Completion, or a probability question involving the combinations formula, so too do 99% of the students taking the test.

 

Keep the following points in mind:

1. Give yourself plenty of time to prep (do not make the GRE a more stressful experience than it needs to be).
2. Learn how to study for the GRE (this blog is a helpful resource to get you started)
3. Improvement will come gradually. At times you will plateau for a while. So remember—be patient.

To find out more about specifics of the test, check out the Ultimate GRE Guide!

About the Author

Chris Lele has been helping students excel on the GRE, GMAT, and SAT for the last 10 years. He is the Lead Content Developer and Tutor for Magoosh. His favorite food is wasabi-flavored almonds. Follow him on Google+!

18 Responses to How Hard is the GRE?

  1. banu June 9, 2014 at 8:30 am #

    Hi,

    Is it possible to prepare for GRE in 20days?..but I have to start from basics:(

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele June 11, 2014 at 10:31 am #

      Hi Banu,

      It is possible in that brief time to improve quite a bit–given you use the right materials and study diligently and effectively. You may even surprise yourself :)

      And always remember–there is nothing wrong with retaking the GRE (except for the cost :)).

  2. Nisarg April 30, 2014 at 3:25 am #

    Hi chris

    Is there any ratio of easy to medium to difficult questions in gre??how many difficult questions can we expect in both the section?

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele April 30, 2014 at 1:42 pm #

      That is a great question–and one I don’t think there is a straightforward answer to. ETS most likely has a very complex algorithm, one that weighs the percent of students who answered any question. At that point, the distinction between “easy”, “medium”, “difficult” is blurred.

      That said, it seems that the medium section has some difficult questions, a few easy ones, but mostly medium ones. The most difficult section has a couple of very difficult questions–the likes of which don’t show up in any other section. The exact proportion of such questions probably differs per test.

      Hope that at least somewhat answers your question :)

  3. Adam April 1, 2014 at 1:55 pm #

    you should have said hyperbola and hyperbole :P :D :)

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele April 2, 2014 at 11:50 am #

      yeah, good point. Lost a little bit of the humor :).

      I’ll change it; just don’t accuse me of plagiarism ;).

  4. yjasz March 4, 2014 at 3:56 pm #

    Hey Keith,

    I will have to take the GRE’s but I am so petrified because I am a horrible test taker. I barely made it out of college and just overall don’t feel smart enough to place in the 60th or more percentile that most of the graduate programs require. Also, I looked into some form of GRE tutoring but it’s so expensive. Do you have any suggestions or recommendations?

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele March 5, 2014 at 10:17 am #

      Hey Yjasz,

      No need to be petrified :). We’ve had students who have put in the hard work and gone up by nearly 30 points total on the test (that’s like 30 percentile to 75 percentile). Check out our testimonials page:

      http://gre.magoosh.com/testimonials

      And Magoosh only costs $99. I’m not usually so heavy-handed in hawking our product :), but it seems that it could really help you crush that 60-percentile.

      And feel free to pepper me with questions :)

      Chris

  5. Keith January 17, 2014 at 12:04 pm #

    I got an 1150 on my SAT math/verbal in high school (about 60th percentile) and graduated cum laude from college. The grad school I want to go to requires a 900 on the GRE math/verbal and they said under the revised test I just need to get above 40th percentile. Do I really need to study for it that much?

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele January 23, 2014 at 10:40 am #

      Hi Keith,

      It sounds like you should be able to score above 40th percentile on the GRE. The easiest way to find out is to download the powerprep test from the gre.org website. Take the test to see how you score. If you are anywhere above the 50th percentile, I’d say you don’t really need to prep. If you are in the 40th percentile, you may want to prep a little, just to be safe.

      You could also take the online “paper-based” test to get a rough sense of how you would score:

      http://www.ets.org/s/gre/pdf/practice_book_GRE_pb_revised_general_test.pdf

      Good luck!

  6. chip June 25, 2013 at 6:46 pm #

    Hi Chris,

    What is the main difference between studying for 90 days and studying for 6 months? Which should be the basis for choosing between the two durations, aside from time constraints?

    Thank you.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele June 27, 2013 at 11:35 am #

      Really, the main difference between those two plans is the amount of time. For some, the extra three months won’t make that much of a difference. But if your baseline vocab is poor or your math skills rusty from years of neglect, those extra three months allow your brain more time to process all the information.

      If you are already scoring very competitively (160+) than those three months may make very little difference, if any difference at all. Oftentimes, the issue isn’t so much knowledge base as pacing and carefulness. Learning not to misread questions or spend too much time on any one question, won’t require three extra months.

      Hope that helps!

  7. Ankur March 12, 2013 at 2:35 am #

    Hi Chris,

    I am about to write GRE within 2months. Can you please let me know the important topics to be covered in GRE prep for getting a good score of above 305? I am worried about verbal section. I could improve easily in maths. Would Good vocab and grammar be enough to serve my purpose of getting an AWE- wait for it – SOME score in verbal section? :) Thanks in advance.

    Best regards,
    Ankur

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele March 12, 2013 at 1:24 pm #

      Hi Ankur,

      I think a great place for you to start is our vocabulary ebook and our general ebook (verbal part). You should be able to go through these in an afternoon. At that point, you’ll ever a pretty good idea about a general path to help you get to 305, and above.

      Of course, I’m sure you’ll have more questions at that point, so ask away :).

      For now here are the links to the two ebooks:

      http://magoosh.resources.s3.amazonaws.com/Magoosh-GRE-Vocab-eBook.pdf
      http://magoosh.com/gre/gre-ebook/

  8. Shrunkala February 23, 2013 at 4:45 pm #

    Hi Chris,

    I am planning to take my GRE exam next month. But my vocab is not at all improving. I have Manhattan 8 books. And recently purchased New Manhattan 5lb. I am working on your verbal practice and manhattan book. Daily i study manhattan word list, i finished 500 essential words, now studying advanced words. I feel somewhat blank… Can you please suggest me in what way i can improve vocab.

    Shrunkala

  9. shakhawat February 23, 2013 at 6:30 am #

    Hello chris,

    Thanks for your great posts.can you please let me know how can I get the promotion code to give free manhattan & princeton tests.Is there any package in magoosh only for practice tests?

    • Chris Lele
      Chris February 25, 2013 at 1:29 pm #

      Hi Shakhawat,

      Actually, the only way to get access is to buy the books. With the MGRE, you need only buy one of their books (which is about $15), so you are getting a good deal considering all the practice content.

      Best of luck!


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