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GRE Format | What is on the GRE?

GRE Test Format

If you’re new to the test, this is your introduction to what is on the GRE. What are the GRE sections you’re going to face? How does the overall GRE test format change from test to test?

You have questions, and we have answers.

What is the GRE format?

The GRE consists of two AWA Essay sections (30 min each), 2 Verbal sections (30 min each), 2 Math sections (35 min each), and one experimental section, which can be either Verbal or Math.

  1. AWA Essay 1: 30 min
  2. AWA Essay 2: 30 min
  3. Verbal (30 min) or Math (35 min) or Experimental
  4. Verbal (30 min) or Math (35 min) or Experimental
  5. Verbal (30 min) or Math (35 min) or Experimental
  6. Verbal (30 min) or Math (35 min) or Experimental
  7. Verbal (30 min) or Math (35 min) or Experimental

On the GRE, you will always get two scored Math sections, two scored Verbal sections, and one Experimental (unscored Math or Verbal) section, but the order varies. You can get two math or two verbal sections in a row. Conceivably, with the experimental section, you could get three of the same type of GRE section, though, based on raw probability, this would not be very likely to happen.

The Verbal and Math sections will have 20 questions each if you are taking the computer-based exam.

If you’re taking the paper-based exam, it will be 25 questions per section.


Are all of the questions multiple choice?

No. There are a variety of question types you’ll have to familiarize yourself with.

For Verbal: Text Completion, Sentence Equivalence, Paragraph Argument, and Reading Comprehension.
For Math: Numeric Entry, Quantitative Comparison, Multiple Answer, and some regular old Multiple Choice too.

Head over to the Math and Verbal sections to read more about each of the question types. Don’t worry, they’re not as intimidating as the lists above make them look!

What exactly is the GRE section that is experimental?

The experimental GRE section does not count towards your score. The folks over at ETS—those are the guys (and gals) who actually write the questions—need to “test” future questions. What better sample pool than the very students who’ve prepped to take the GRE.

But here’s the rub: to ensure that the experimental section validly measures performance, ETS has to make sure you don’t know which section is the experimental section. Only once you’ve finished the test will you know whether the experimental section was a verbal section or a math section.

In other words, if you received three math sections, then one was the experimental section. It could have been the very first section you saw, it could be the very last section. There really is no way of knowing. And remember: never assume that a section is the experimental section on it just because there is some weird geometric shape on one question. Or if you slack off, thinking, Hey, it’s just the experimental section, you will be severely penalized in case you are mistaken.

More information on the experimental section here.


How does the computer adaptiveness of the GRE work?

You may have heard that the test becomes more difficult based on whether you answer a question correctly. This is actually not true—at least for the new GRE (it was true on the old version of the GRE, meaning pre-August 2011).

That doesn’t mean the new GRE is not an adaptive test. However, instead of adapting from question to question, the new GRE adapts only between sections: it is “section adaptive”. Everybody starts off with a medium section, and, depending on how they do, are given either an easy, medium, or hard section.

For instance, if you do well in the first math section, your second math section will be difficult. If you do not do well on the first math section, your second math section will be easy. As to what constitutes “well”, the GRE algorithm is a little vague. But if you only miss a few questions on a section, you will get a difficult section for your second section. There is also a medium-difficulty section for those who do moderately well.

By getting the easy section, you limit how high you can score. In other words, not doing well on the first verbal section precludes a perfect or near perfect verbal score. Likewise, getting to the difficult section ensures that you can’t score below a certain point. So let’s say I get the difficult verbal section (meaning I did well on the first verbal section) and miss every question. I would still get above a 130 (the lowest possible score) in verbal–though nobody, save for ETS, knows what my exact score would be.

what's on the GRE sections

Can I skip questions?

Yes, you can skip questions and go back to them later, time permitting, within the section you’re working on. Any website, or source that says otherwise, is relying on the old GRE format. The only thing you can’t do is go back (or forward) to a section you’re not currently working on, but within a section, you have free reign.

The number of questions you can skip is unlimited. Of course, skipping every question would not make much sense. Skipping tough questions, on the other hand, and returning to them later makes sense for a couple of reasons. First, doing so allows you more time on easy and medium questions. Because, each question is worth the same value, you don’t want to waste three minutes on a difficult question.

Secondly, your brain is sometimes better at processing information the second time around, even if the interval is as little as a few minutes. Conversely, not “letting go” of a question tends to result in tunnel vision, which occurs when we keep reading the same sentence over and over again, becoming only more confused with each reading. This can happen to you a lot on the GRE.

Skipping can be a great strategy – something I describe at length in the math and verbal pacing sections.


How easy is it to scroll within a GRE section?

The good news is that the scroll section is easy to use. So get rid of that feeling of dread that the GRE will somehow “forget” that you skipped a question and not let you go back to it. To see how easy it is to get comfortable with this feature, simply take the Powerprep II test, and scroll away.


Are all GRE questions worth the same amount of points?

This is probably one of the most mind-blowing– if such a word can be applied to the GRE— aspects of the test: each question is worth the same number of points. That’s right the confusingly worded question from the reading comprehension passage on subatomic particles is worth the same number of points as the one-blank Text Completion with easy vocab in the answer choices.

This fact heavily influences how you will approach the exam. To get a better sense of this have a look below at the questions on pacing on the verbal and math sections.


Do I get penalized for wrong answers on the GRE?

The SAT– a test almost every college bound students ends up taking at some point– penalizes for incorrect answers. As a result–or so my theory goes– everyone is petrified when it comes to guessing on a standardized test. So I’ll say it clearly: There is no penalty for guessing incorrectly on the GRE. I should also add the corollary: Do not leave any question unanswered, even if that means totally guessing.


Do the questions get more difficult as I progress through GRE sections?

This principle applies to other standardized tests, notably the SAT. It does not, however, relate to the GRE. The only caveat is on the Text Completions and the Quantitative Comparison questions, in which the first question is generally the easiest and the last question the hardest. Knowing what to expect in terms of difficulty will help you make good judgments when it comes to skipping or pacing. Ultimately, focusing on doing well on every question you attempt is the best approach.


Introduction to the GRE
Studying for the GRE
GRE Test Format
GRE Verbal Reasoning
GRE Quantitative Reasoning
GRE Analytical Writing
Test Day
GRE Scoring
Revised GRE vs. Old GRE vs. GMAT vs. LSAT vs. SAT
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