The GRE Test 2020-2021: Everything You Need to Know

Student with cap - Guide to everything you need to know about the GRE - Magoosh Original image by Syda Productions

The GRE test (Graduate Record Examination) is a computer-based standardized exam many American graduate programs require in the admissions process. The GRE exam comprises six sections and takes 3 hours and 45 minutes to complete. In those six sections, you can expect to see Verbal, Quantitative, and Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA) sections. To learn all about GRE exam topics and how to approach them (as well as all about the GRE test itself), watch the video below and read on for Magoosh’s official guide to the GRE!

Table of Contents

Chapter 1: What is the GRE Test? - image by Magoosh

What is the GRE Test?

Let’s start out with some GRE basics. You’d think that knowing the GRE’s full name would give you some clue to what the test itself is. But what does GRE actually mean? It stands for “Graduate Record Examination.” That could be almost anything!

To clarify: the GRE test is an exam that American universities, including master’s and doctoral programs, use to evaluate candidates. However, individual universities do not offer the GRE as an entrance exam. Instead, the Educational Testing Service (ETS), an independent organization, writes and administers the test. Admissions committees (adcoms) then use an applicant’s GRE scores, most often in combination with other factors such as undergraduate GPA, letters of recommendation, and personal statements, to evaluate the candidate’s admissions file.

If you’re thinking about applying to a graduate program, it’s important to find out as soon as possible whether it requires applicants to submit GRE scores for admission. Not only will this give you a better idea of the school’s requirements, but it will also help you pin down your GRE test date and register for the exam.

When is the GRE Exam Offered?

The GRE exam is offered almost every day of the year. (Not on Sundays or national holidays, though! If you have a full-time job, Saturday is probably your best bet.) However, there’s a big caveat to that: seats at test centers fill up fast on GRE test dates, so it may not be available to you every day of the year. That’s why you should register for the exam as soon as you know you want to take it, bearing in mind deadlines for the programs to which you’re applying.

If you’re taking the paper-based GRE exam (rare, but it still happens), it’s so important to schedule your test date as soon as you know you’ll be taking the GRE. Why? Because there are only two GRE test dates a year FOR PAPER-BASED TESTS. You can take it in February or November—but that’s it.

Can you retake the GRE?

Yes, but there are strict rules about when you can retake it. No more than once every 21 days, no more than five times a year. Basically, if you think you may want to retake the GRE exam, it’s all the more important to register right away. Consider the application schedules of the schools to which you’re applying and plan accordingly.

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chapter 2: what does the gre exam evaluate?

What Does the GRE Exam Evaluate?

Now that you know how important it is to register early (super important!), let’s look at an overview of the GRE general test. What is the GRE test like? Although it’s broken down into six sections, the GRE only tests you in three areas: Verbal, Quantitative Reasoning, and the Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA).

If you’re wondering what’s on the GRE, what to expect on the GRE exam, or even what is the GRE like?, basically think of it as the SAT, but harder. The GRE test setup is pretty similar to the SAT’s.

The Verbal Reasoning section is similar to the SAT’s equivalent. It includes some text completion questions, critical reading, and sentence equivalence. That last type of question—sentence equivalence—is unique to the GRE exam. It asks you to fill in a blank in a sentence with two separate words, with the aim of creating two sentences that have the same meaning. For that, you’ll need to brush up on synonyms.

The Quantitative Reasoning section is a series of math questions that rely on nothing more than high-school-level mathematics. Don’t start celebrating yet, though: that doesn’t mean the questions are easy. The scope of questions includes algebra, geometry, statistics, and other high school level subjects. It does not include trigonometry or calculus. There’s no need to memorize sine and cosine or integrals and derivatives. Like Verbal, there are three main question types: problem solving, quantitative comparison, and numeric entry. Quantitative comparison asks you to compare two quantities and figure out which one is larger.

Finally, the Analytical Writing Assessment requires you to write two essays. One is an “argument” essay, in which you are given an argument someone else has made, and you write about what more you need to know to evaluate the argument. The second type is an “issue” essay, in which you take a position and make an argument of your own about a specific issue.

All About the GRE Test and Timing

The total length of the GRE exam is about 3 hours and 45 minutes. That’s a long time! How does it break down? Take a look:

  • Analytical Writing Assessment: This section takes one hour, split into two 30-minute tasks.
  • Quantitative Reasoning: This is split into two sections, each 35 minutes long, with 20 questions per section.
  • Verbal Reasoning: This area is also split into two sections, each 30 minutes long, with 20 questions per section.

There is an additional unscored research section that the GRE uses for its own purposes. This could be either a Verbal or a Quantitative Reasoning section. You will not know which section is experimental. Definitely do not try to guess!

There is a 10-minute break following your third section of Quantitative or Verbal. You will receive quantitative and verbal sections in a random order, but, once you have completed three sections, you will be given your 10-minute break.

All About GRE Scoring

The GRE is scored on a 130–170 point scale for both the Verbal and Quantitative Reasoning sections. That means, even if you get all answers wrong, you’ll get 130 points per section! Don’t get too excited, though: that’s true for everyone else who takes the test, too.

The writing section is scored on a different scale: 0–6, in half-point increments. So, while you can’t get a 0 on the other two sections, you can get a 0 on the writing section.

So, what GRE score is considered strong? That’s a tough question. Exam score standards vary considerably, which you can see in this list of scores for top university programs in the United States.

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Chapter 3: gre vs gmat

All About the GRE vs GMAT

In recent years, some business schools have begun to accept the GRE as a replacement for the GMAT. (To clarify, only business schools use the GMAT. Choosing between the GRE exam vs the GMAT really only applies if you’re a business school candidate.) Both tests have Verbal and Quantitative sections.

So why might you prefer to take the GRE exam?

Well, if you’re very strong in verbal skills but weaker on math, the GRE is probably your better bet. GMAT math is much harder than GRE math.

If you’re stronger in math than verbal, you still might want to consider taking the GRE, depending on your skill set. GMAT verbal isn’t necessarily easier than GRE verbal, but it is more focused on grammar and identifying errors than the GRE is. So if you’re strong in math and vocabulary, the GRE still might be the way to go.

Finally, if you’re strong in math and better at grammar than vocabulary, the GMAT is probably a good test for you.

However, it really doesn’t matter what test you’ll do better on if your target programs don’t accept the scores!

Which Business Schools Accept the GRE?

Several top business schools (think Harvard and Stanford) have begun to accept GRE scores in place of GMAT scores. However, not all programs do.

The universities in the following table all accept GRE scores as part of the application to their MBA programs. The program rankings are from US News & World Report’s 2019 Best Business Schools Rankings.

Take a look below to see which b-school programs accept both GRE and GMAT scores. Some schools only accept the GRE for particular tracks, so check the admissions pages of the programs you’re applying to before registering!

MBA Programs That Accept the GRE

RankUniversity Name
#1University of Pennsylvania (Wharton)
Philadelphia, PA
#2Stanford University
Stanford, CA
#3Harvard University
Boston, MA
#3Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Sloan)
Cambridge, MA
#3University of Chicago (Booth)
Chicago, IL
#6Columbia University
New York, NY
#6Northwestern University (Kellogg)
Evanston, IL
#6University of California—​Berkeley (Haas)
Berkeley, CA
#9Yale University
New Haven, CT
#10Duke University (Fuqua)
Durham, NC
#10University of Michigan—​Ann Arbor (Ross)
Ann Arbor, MI
#12Dartmouth University (Tuck)
Hanover, NH
#12New York University (Stern)
New York, NY
#12University of Virginia (Darden)
Charlottesville, VA
#15Cornell University (Johnson)
Ithaca, NY
#16University of California—​Los Angeles (Anderson)
Los Angeles, CA
#17Carnegie Mellon University (Tepper)
Pittsburgh, PA
#17University of Southern California (Marshall)
Los Angeles, CA
#19University of North Carolina—​Chapel Hill (Kenan-​Flagler)
Chapel Hill, NC
#19University of Texas—​Austin (McCombs)
Austin, TX
#21Emory University (Goizueta)
Atlanta, GA
#21Indiana University (Kelley)
Bloomington, IN
#21University of Washington (Foster)
Seattle, WA
#24Georgetown University (McDonough)
Washington, DC
#25University of Florida (Warrington)
Gainesville, FL
#26Rice University (Jones)
Houston, TX
#26University of Notre Dame (Mendoza)
Notre Dame, IN
#27Washington University in St. Louis (Olin)
St. Louis, MO
#29Georgia Institute of Technology (Scheller)
Atlanta, GA
#29Vanderbilt University (Owen)
Nashville, TN
#31Ohio State University (Fisher)
Columbus, OH
#32Brigham Young University (Marriott)
Provo, UT
#33Arizona State University (Carey)
Tempe, AZ
#33Pennsylvania State University—​University Park (Smeal)
University Park, PA
#35University of Minnesota—​Twin Cities (Carlson)
Minneapolis, MN
#35University of Wisconsin—​Madison
Madison, WI
#37University of Georgia (Terry)
Athens, GA
#38Michigan State University (Broad)
East Lansing, MI
#38University of Texas—​Dallas
Richardson, TX
#40Texas A&M University—​College Station (Mays)
College Station, TX
#40University of Maryland—​College Park (Smith)
College Park, MD
#40University of Rochester (Simon)
Rochester, NY
#43Boston College (Carroll)
Chestnut Hill, MA
#43Southern Methodist University (Cox)
Dallas, TX
#43University of California—​Irvine (Merage)
Irvine, CA

#43University of Pittsburgh (Katz)
Pittsburgh, PA
#47Iowa State University
Ames, IA
#47University of California—​Davis
Davis, CA
#47University of Illinois—​Urbana-​Champaign
Champaign, IL
#50Boston University (Questrom)
Boston, MA
#50University of Alabama (Manderson)
Tuscaloosa, AL
#52University of Arizona (Eller)
Tucson, AZ
#54College of William and Mary (Mason)
Williamsburg, VA
#54University of Tennessee—​Knoxville (Haslam)
Knoxville, TN
#54University of Utah (Eccles)
Salt Lake City, UT
#57Baylor University (Hankamer)
Waco, TX
#58Northeastern University
Boston, MA
#58Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey—​Newark and New Brunswick
Newark, NJ
#58University of Oklahoma (Price)
Norman, OK
#61George Washington University (Washington DC)
#61Texas Christian University (Neeley)
Fort Worth, TX
#63Babson College (Olin)
Babson Park, MA
#63Fordham University (Gabelli)
New York, NY
#65Tulane University (Freeman)
New Orleans, LA
#66University at Buffalo—​SUNY
Buffalo, NY
#67University of Kentucky (Gatton)
Lexington, KY
#69Auburn University (Harbert)
Auburn, AL
#69Louisiana State University—​Baton Rouge (Ourso)
Baton Rouge, LA
#69University of California—​San Diego (Rady)
San Diego, CA
#69University of Missouri (Trulaske)
Columbia, MO
#74Case Western Reserve University (Weatherhead)
Cleveland, OH
#74Pepperdine University (Graziadio)
Malibu, CA
#74Purdue University—​West Lafayette (Krannert)
West Lafayette, IN
#74University of Massachusetts—​Amherst (Isenberg)
Amherst, MA
#74University of South Carolina (Moore)
Columbia, SC
#79Florida State University
Tallahassee, FL
#79University of Colorado—​Boulder (Leeds)
Boulder, CO
#79University of Connecticut
Storrs, CT
#79Stevens Institute of Technology
Hoboken, NJ
#84Drexel University (LeBow)
Philadelphia, PA
#85Chapman University (Argyros)
Orange, CA
#85North Carolina State University (Poole)
Raleigh, NC
#87University of Arkansas--Fayetteville (Walton)
Fayetteville, AR
#87University of Louisville
Louisville, KY
#87Binghamton University—​SUNY
Binghamton, NY

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chapter 4: gre test scores

GRE Test Scores

Before you take the GRE, it’s important to familiarize yourself with GRE test scores: how you’ll be evaluated and what your score means in context.

This is all the more important because at first, the GRE scoring scale may seem pretty arbitrary. After all, who has ever been graded on a test from 130-170?

Well, if you’re taking the GRE exam…you will be, along with thousands upon thousands of other test-takers who have been graded using the same range.

Improve your GRE score with Magoosh.

And, just to clarify, both these scales apply to the Verbal section and Math section, so, technically, the GRE is out of 340. However, few (if any) programs will care about your composite score, and instead will look at your GRE test scores on both multiple-choice sections, usually giving one much more significance (depending on your field).

Now: how do you know if you have a good GRE score?

GRE Score Percentiles

Always look at your percentile ranking. That is, when you receive a score report, you will also receive a number indicating the percent of people you scored better than (in the chart below, look to the right of the score for the percentile rank).

If you score in the top 90% in both Math and Verbal, then you are a competitive candidate, even at competitive schools. Period. Less competitive schools may only require 50%. So, look at your percentile rankings.

But, if you scored below 30% in any section, then you may want to seriously consider taking the test again. Doing so is by no means the end of the world.

With that in mind, here are some percentile tables to help you translate your GRE practice test scores into GRE percentiles (percentiles from the official GRE exam will be on your score report).

Click here to convert your Verbal score to a percentile

GRE Exam Score Percentiles: Verbal

ScorePercentileScore Percentile

Click here to convert your Quant score to a percentile

GRE Exam Score Percentiles: Quantitative

ScorePercentileScore Percentile

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chapter 5: who takes the gre test

Who Takes the GRE Test?

Future graduate students, that’s who. Graduate programs use the GRE as an admissions metric for Master’s and Doctoral programs. This applies almost across the board, from the sciences to the humanities. And yes, you have to take all the sections, no matter what program you’re applying to (although STEM programs will usually not care much about your Verbal score, while humanities programs rarely worry about your Quant score).

Are there exceptions to this? Of course: medical school (MCAT), law school (LSAT) and sometimes (but, as we’ve already seen, not always) business school (GMAT).

To sum it up:

  • If you’re applying to a Master’s or Doctoral program in the Arts, Sciences, or Humanities, you probably need to take the GRE.
  • If you’re applying to medical or law school, you almost definitely don’t need to take the GRE.
  • If you’re applying to business school, you might need or want to take the GRE—see the section above comparing the GRE and the GMAT.

While we’re here, let’s address two frequently asked questions about the GRE:

1) What are the criteria for eligibility for the GRE?
There aren’t any. A 12-year-old could take the GRE exam if she wanted (I wouldn’t recommend it, but she technically could). You can take it in college, after college—it’s really up to you, though there are a few factors to take into consideration.

Actually, while there aren’t any eligibility requirements for GRE per se, there are a few things that can make you ineligible to take the exam:

  • If you’ve taken the exam five times within the last year, you’ll have to wait to take it again.
  • You’ll have to wait at least 21 days between GRE exams before retaking the test.
  • You’ll need a valid form of ID.

But that’s pretty much it.

2) Do you need your passport to take the GRE if you’re an international student?
Good question! YES. If you are not a U.S. citizen and you’re taking the exam in the United States, you’ll need your passport at GRE sign-in. You’ll also need it if you’re taking the GRE exam at an international location. Don’t forget it on test day!

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chapter 6: gre test prep

GRE Test Prep

Do you have to prep for the GRE? No, you don’t have to.

Should you prepare for the GRE? Yes!

Even if you’re a person who uses words like punctiliously fluently in everyday life and, as Gilbert and Sullivan say, is brimming full of facts about the square of the hypotenuse, you’ll still need to familiarize yourself with the instructions, work on your timing, and generally get used to the test format.

How Hard is the GRE Test?

Are you trying to trick me with this question? Because I get it all the time, and the answer is the same as it is to “How long is a piece of string?”

The answer is…it depends!

More specifically, when you’re wondering what to expect from the GRE…well, it depends on you. What did you study in college? How long ago were your classes? What are your strengths? Your weaknesses? Have you prepared for the GRE exam? How? Have you taken any practice tests?

If you’re really going to push me for an answer…it’s definitely harder than the SAT and ACT. If you are weak in math, it is easier than the GMAT. As for the MCAT and the LSAT…? Apples and oranges. Let’s not even go there.

How Long Should I Study for the GRE?

That, too, depends on you. What’s your target score? What did you study at college? How long ago were your classes? (Okay, don’t worry—I won’t repeat the whole spiel—but you get the idea!)

The best way to figure out how long you’ll need to study for the GRE is to take a diagnostic test: a practice test that you use to “diagnose” your strengths and weaknesses. Then, you’ll have some idea of how much work you need to do before the official exam.

Check out the study schedules below and cross-reference them with your calendar. Be honest about your commitments: it’s totally fine if your five-hour Netflix Sundays are non-negotiable, but factor that into your study time. There’s nothing worse than watching Netflix feeling guilty that you should be studying for the GRE exam. More importantly, you need to be realistic about how much time you have to know how much you’ll be able to accomplish. Magoosh’s quiz, How Long Should I Study for the GRE, can also help give you an idea of your study needs!

How to Study for the GRE Exam

When it comes to studying for the GRE test, you have a few options: books, classes, a tutor, or online prep. While we’re obviously a little biased, there are definite pros and cons to each option. Here’s our take on each, and other resources to guide your GRE studies.

GRE Books

GRE Books

If you’re a self-starter with lots of energy and motivation, working with GRE books can be a good option. They’re inexpensive, and you can follow them at your own pace. On the other hand, without having taken the test or studied it, it can be hard to determine which books will actually equip you for test day (Chris shares some thoughts on this over it the Best GRE Books post). Also, just following a book straight through may not be the best option for you if you have particular weaknesses you need to address, as almost everyone does, and need special guidance.

With all of that said, Magoosh has an eBook you can get for free here, and an affordable paperback GRE Prep book that you can buy on Amazon. Both are excellent! We also have some advice on how to set up your GRE study schedule.

GRE Classes

GRE Classes

GRE classes can be a good option if you need motivation, if you have a compressed timeframe, or if you want to have an expert explain the test to you in person. On the other hand, they can be expensive, may not fit your schedule or be easily accessible from your location, and you’ll need to do some research to find reputable classes.

GRE Tutors

GRE Tutors

An excellent option for those who need extra motivation, want personalized study plans and support, and/or are looking to address particular problem areas. Tutors will normally be more expensive than classes, because you’re paying for one-on-one time. The biggest issue here is finding someone qualified—not just because he or she scored well on the GRE exam, but also because of strong tutoring skills (and these are different than teaching skills needed for a large group).

Online GRE Test Prep

Online GRE Test Prep

Online GRE test prep, in a lot of ways, offers the best of all worlds. Lots of materials—often more than any one book could ever provide—practice on computers (after all, the GRE is a computer-based test); and some level of personalization. Online test prep lets you go at your own pace, but provides a clearer, and often more tailored, path forward than books do. Good online GRE prep will also be transparent, letting you know what you can expect from the program and having the data (and testimonials) to back their claims up.

The wrong kind of practice can harm your GRE performance, sometimes significantly. When you’re looking for GRE prep, you want to make sure that the program has:

  1. Practice questions that mirror exactly what you’ll see on test day
  2. Lots of practice, including full-length GRE practice tests
  3. Detailed answers and explanations for every problem, ensuring that you understand how to answer similar questions correctly
  4. Access to experts to help answer any questions you may have and guide your practice when necessary
  5. A proven track record (or even a score guarantee) of helping students improve their GRE scores significantly

As you can see, the quality of questions and explanations are two of the most important factors in choosing a program. There is no point in practicing problems that are unlike what you’ll see on test day, and there is no point in practicing even the most test-like problems if you don’t understand the solutions.

Magoosh provides all of the above, and if you’re not yet ready to dive in, no problem—let some happy Magooshers tell you why they recommend Magoosh GRE prep.

To start, students love that we know how to help boost your scores. In 2017 alone, Magoosh has helped GRE students raise their scores an average of 7.3 points. That’s even more than our 6-point score improvement guarantee! Students also love our video explanations, which offer step-by-step instructions for how to answer every single question in our GRE prep.

At the end of the day, you’ll need to evaluate what works best for you based on what you need to improve (Verbal? Math?), how long it’s been since you dealt with GRE-type materials, and how familiar you already are with the best practices for the GRE.

GRE Practice Questions and Practice Tests

There are two key components to finding the best online GRE practice that apply to every possible way you might choose to study for the exam:

  1. Practice Questions
  2. Full-Length Practice Tests

When you’re choosing your GRE program of study, those are the materials you’re going to rely on most, and so those are the materials you need to evaluate first.

You’ll rely on these resources most because they’re the best way to improve your score and guide the direction of your studies. That’s in addition to giving you important information about how you’re doing along the way, and how close you are to achieving your goals!

Constantly evaluating your progress with practice tests—I’m talking about once a week—is vital to see what you need to practice. And practice questions are the key to, well, practicing!

GRE Study Schedules

All About GRE Study Schedules

The final step to your study success will be creating the perfect GRE study schedule for you. We have several free, expert-crafted schedules that you can adapt to your own needs. Whether you have one week or six months, we have a plan that can help get your GRE score where you want to be.

Again, the key to success here involves being honest about how much time you have, where you are now, and the scores you’re aiming for; for more advice, check out Making the Most of Magoosh GRE Study Schedules.

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chapter 7: gre awa section

The GRE AWA Section

Ah, the Analytical Writing Assessment. The dragon you must slay before you can get to the rest of the GRE test. If the thought of writing an essay for a standardized test is giving you high-school flashbacks, don’t worry! The AWA, just like those mythical dragons, can be mastered…with the right tools.

Many people give the AWA short shrift—after all, it is not included in the 260–340 score range. However, a very low writing score could hurt your chances of getting accepted to many graduate programs. So, it is important, even if you have to take a little time out from your busy GRE prep schedule, to do just enough practice for this.

AWA Scoring

The AWA is scored on a scale from 0.0 to 6.0, in 0.5 increments. While very few people are able to get a perfect 6, most graduate programs aren’t too concerned about your score, as long as you are able to get a 4.0 and above. Of course, you know best whether your graduate program falls into that range. Are you looking to go to journalism school? Well, then anything less than a 5.0 is problematic. Looking to do computer science or engineering? For most programs, a 4.0 should be sufficient.

A 4.0 translates to roughly the 50% mark. Basically, you are able to write two essays, 30 minutes each, better than half of the essay applicants. To get to this level should be your goal. If your program requires at least a 4.5, which some do, you will then be only 0.5 off.

The Two AWA Essays: Issue and Argument

The AWA is always the first section on the GRE exam. And while a lot of test-takers think of it as the GRE essay, it’s actually the GRE essays. That’s right: two.

Yes, the AWA is not just one long, taxing essay but two, relatively long, taxing essays. For the first essay, you will have to take a side on a complex issue and craft a 4–6 paragraph essay, offering supporting examples and logic to support your position. This is the Issue statement, and, for most, is usually the more difficult of the two essays. One awesome thing about the Issue essay? ETS has released their pool of possible Issue topics—great for studying, because you know that the Issue you’ll see on test day has to be among these.

The next essay is called the Argument. Instead of having to argue your own position, the way you must do on the Issue task, you must criticize someone else’s argument. This someone else happens to be the GRE test-writers. But don’t worry—they are not going to ask you to challenge an essay written on Marxist theory. The arguments are always based on real-world, straightforward examples. Better yet, the arguments are usually filled with gaping logical holes that make it relatively easy for you to take apart the argument (don’t worry, the logical skills you employ on the critical reasoning questions in the Verbal section are far more nuanced). More good news! There’s also a pool of possible Argument topics.

How to Ace AWA

So what does it take to get a 4.0? Well, for both the Issue and the Argument task, you will want to write an essay that is each of the following:

  • Well-structured: The essay should have an Intro, Body Paragraphs and Conclusion. Your intro should end with a clearly defined thesis, so the person reading your essay knows what you are trying to prove.
  • Well-reasoned: For the Issue paragraphs, your body paragraphs should contain examples, either actual or hypothetical, that cogently defend your position. For the Argument task, you convincingly show why the argument is weak.
  • Well-expressed: The GRE wants to get a sense of how well you write. And by write, I mean, do you use relatively sophisticated speech? Do you vary up your sentences? Do grammar issues interfere with your expression?

Together, the three points will give the GRE reader an overall impression (what they call a holistic approach) of your writing ability. Again, this score will be based on a scale from 0.0 – 6.0.

As you can see, you’ll need to adapt your strategy for each essay. For more on how to do this, here are our Top 5 Strategies for the GRE Argument Essay as well as an AWA Argument Sample Essay Breakdown. Contrast this with AWA Issue Strategies and a Mock AWA Issue Essay to see exactly how differently you’ll need to approach each of these topics!

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chapter 8: gre math

The GRE Math Section

What Makes Math on the GRE Test Different?

As you learn more about GRE math, you’ll notice that it’s different from what you’d see on just any old math test. In the first place, ETS (the test-maker) doesn’t even use the term “math.” Instead, it’s “Quantitative Reasoning.”

That title alone gives us a big clue about exactly what content’s being tested—or rather, how it’s tested—on the GRE exam.

How the GRE Tests Math

Above all, GRE math is set up as a reasoning test. This means that, in terms of content, you don’t have to worry about advanced calculus, trigonometry, geometric proofs, or really anything that you studied past the third year of high school.

Ah, yes: There’s the issue. For most of us applying to grad school, high school was, well, a little while ago. So you may need to refresh your memory of the basics before you go on to study how the GRE uses them to test your reasoning. You can expect to see questions about:

  • Basic geometric properties (circles, triangles, quadrilaterals, etc.)
  • Integer properties
  • Exponents and roots
  • Word problems (including rate questions and probability)

We go into greater detail about the distribution of math content in our article What Kind of Math is on the GRE? Breakdown of Quant Concepts by Frequency.

So don’t worry on this front. There’s nothing particularly advanced about the content on GRE Quant. You will need to brush up on math formulas, but luckily, we can help you out! Check out the Magoosh GRE Math Formula eBook to review what you need to know about the GRE, print out the Math Formula Cheat Sheet for easy reference, and try the practice problems below.

GRE Math Sample Questions: Word Problems

For more sample word problems, try this quantitative comparison practice question or this multiple choice question!

GRE Math Sample Questions: Numeric Entry

For more, try out this algebra question!

The Format of the Quantitative Reasoning Test

The GRE math section breaks down into two categories (Problem Solving and Quantitative Comparison).

Circular chart showing problem solving 35 minutes, quantitative comparison 35 minutes - magoosh

Let’s start with Problem Solving, which has three problem types, and you’ve probably only seen two of them before.

  1. Multiple Choice Questions: The good old standby of high school teachers around the nation, multiple choice questions crop up in the problem solving section of the GRE exam.
  2. Multiple Answer Questions are a neat or nasty twist on multiple choice questions, depending on how you feel about Quant. On these problems, more than one choice can be correct.
  3. Numeric Entry Questions are, to be fair, similar to what you probably saw on high school tests, with the exception that here, nobody wants you to show your work. You solve the problem and type the number in.

Quantitative Comparison (QC) questions are different beasts altogether. QC questions ask you to compare two columns, A and B, and decide which is bigger. The tough part here is that columns A and B don’t contain numbers like “4” and “5.” (Wouldn’t that be nice?) Instead, you can expect to see anything from equations to exponents to angle measurements in those columns: QC questions test the same concepts as problem solving, just in a different form.

You’ll have 35 minutes for each of the two sections, which contain 20 questions each. Yep—that’s just over a minute per problem. But it is possible to answer all the questions in both sections (hopefully correctly) within that time frame; it’ll just take lots of GRE practice tests…and some clever strategizing.

GRE Math Strategies

There’s more to solving questions on the GRE Math test than just cranking through the math. Yes, that’s definitely one way to answer these questions—but it’s not always the most efficient. Given the GRE exam’s time constraints, you always want to strive for efficiency as much as accuracy!

So how can you approach GRE Quant problems? The first thing to realize is that the questions are intentionally confusing. So are the answer choices. This isn’t because the test is trying to trick you, but it is checking to see if you fall into common trap—those answer choices will be waiting right there.

It’s important to be prepared for confusing problems (and know how to approach them), because if you come across a seemingly simple problem, guess what? It’s probably not. Knowing this already gives you a leg up on GRE Quant.

To master GRE quant, check out GRE Math Basics: Quick Tips. Then come back, because there are two major strategies that can help you out on the GRE:

Estimation and Approximation

Estimation and Approximation

This strategy, which you may also have heard referred to as “ballparking,” is pretty much what it sounds like. The key to using it effectively, though, is to use mental math. A lot of test-takers are so relieved to see that on-screen calculator that they use it even when mental math would be a lot faster. Try out a sample GRE quant problem using estimation to see how much more efficient this technique can be.

Plugging In

Plugging In

Alternately known as “backsolving,” this strategy uses the answer choices to help you solve the problem. After all, the answer(s) have to be in there somewhere, right? (Note that this is not an option that will work for numerical entry! It works slightly differently for quantitative comparison questions, too.)

You can plug in when the answer choices are numbers and there are variables in the question stem. Start with answer choice C so that you can eliminate at least three answers in one go. If plugging C into the question stem gives you a number that’s too big, you’ll know that D and E are also not going to work.

Ready to give plugging in a try? Check out this GRE practice problem with answer and explanations that recap when you can plug in. Then, hone your skills even further with the GRE Math Review Quiz on plugging in!

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chapter 9 gre verbal

The GRE Verbal Section

The GRE Verbal test’s reputation tends to precede it. To answer one of the most common questions: yes, GRE Verbal does require knowledge of a lot of vocabulary, and a lot of complex vocabulary, at that.

However, it’s not a pure vocabulary test. In addition to knowing what all those words mean, you’ll need to be able to evaluate their meanings in context, looking at longer passages, shorter passages, logic problems, and English grammar. So what to know about the GRE verbal section? Take a look.

GRE Verbal Test: How Important Is Vocabulary?

In one simple word: very. But it’s only important in that you need to know what the words mean. Are you rolling your eyes at the obviousness of this? When you’re done, know that previous versions of the test also tested antonyms and analogies. In contrast, the GRE currently emphasizes the use of complex vocabulary in context.

Other GRE Verbal Content

In addition to vocabulary, it’ll also help your GRE Verbal score if you have:

You’ll see why these are helpful skillsets as we take a look at…

GRE Verbal Question Types

There are four main GRE Verbal question types. On test day, you can expect to see the following question types:

  • Text Completion questions will be fill-in-the-blank sentences…with the added twist that they can contain between one and three blanks. As with all questions on the GRE exam, no partial credit is awarded.
  • Sentence Equivalence are the half-sibling of Text Completions. These sentences only have one blank, but two correct answers. We will discuss these and Text Completion questions in more detail below.
  • Reading Comprehension questions will test your comprehension of various dense, often philosophical texts of different lengths (usually 100-450 words long). The texts can be from any field, including science, literature, and, yes, philosophy. The questions can ask about anything from overall comprehension of the text to the GRE Verbal section’s favorite topic, vocabulary.
  • Paragraph Argument

Here’s what you’ll see on test day: The GRE Verbal section begins with text completions, then mixes in the other question types as you go along.

Click here for the complete breakdown of each question

Take a look at the tables below for a more complete breakdown, and check out GRE Verbal Section Question Types Breakdown for some takeaways about this mix.

Text Completion

Question TypeNumber of Questions
Single Blank2 questions
Double Blank2 questions
Triple Blank2 questions
*NoteThe 2nd question in the pair is the more difficult of the two.

Reading Comprehension

Medium Reading Passage#7 - 9/10
Paragraph Argument#11
Short Reading Passage#12 - 13
*NoteThe medium and short passage will, on one of the verbal sections you see, be condensed into a very long reading passage.

Sentence Equivalence

QuestionsQuestion Numbers
Sentence Equivalence#14 - 17
*NoteQuestions don't increase in difficulty as you go along.

Reading Comprehension (Again)

Passage TypeQuestion Numbers
Short Reading Passage#18 - 19
Paragraph Argument#20
*NoteThis is an approximation. Sometimes the order is switched.


GRE Verbal Practice Problems: Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence

For more sample problems, try this Sentence Equivalence practice problem or another double-blank Text Completion practice problem!

GRE Verbal Practice Problems: Reading Comprehension

Click here for another Reading Comprehension practice problem!

GRE Verbal Strategies

With all of that in mind, there’s an important strategy that you should apply to almost all GRE Verbal questions. Let’s take a look at those before going into greater detail about how you can address each question type individually.

First, know that you can’t trust the answer choices. Just like in Quant, one (or more) of them will be right, yes—but the wrong ones are there because they’re tempting. For better or for worse, you’ll never have to narrow down your answer choices to supercilious and banana. It’ll be more like supercilious and arrogant.

What does that mean for you as a test-taker? Don’t look at the answer choices until you have to. Come up with your best answer to the question stem, then find the answer that’s closest. Be especially wary of words that “sound” right. ETS (the test-maker) definitely knows what sounds right—but isn’t—because thousands of test-takers choose those answers every year.

Strategies for Different GRE Verbal Question Types

That’s a good start. But what else can you do to boost your Verbal score and study smarter (rather than harder)?

If you haven’t guessed by now, you’ll need to know your vocabulary. But there are lots of ways to learn these words, some more helpful than others. Check out How to Study Vocabulary for the Revised GRE for the most effective (and efficient) ways to improve your vocab.

For those long, dense reading comprehension passages, you’ll need to stay active: check out Active Reading Strategies for the GRE. There are a few other winning strategies that will also come in handy; you can check them out here.

To get a better grasp of Sentence Equivalence questions, check out the different forms these items may take. Finally, it’s only logical (sorry!) to focus your logic studies on the types of reasoning questions that the GRE actually tests. We have you covered there, too, with Types of Critical Reasoning Questions on the Revised GRE.

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GRE Test Chapter 10 - image by Magoosh

GRE 2020

How hard is the GRE 2020? If you’ve been worrying about GRE 2020 changes (or even worse, a new GRE format in 2020!), it’s time to set your mind at ease: recent GRE experiences in 2020 are the same as they’ve been for the past few years. There has been no recent GRE test format change or changes to the GRE exam. That means that instead of prepping for GRE test changes, you can focus on mastering the overall GRE test pattern instead.

What else do you need to know if you’re taking the GRE in 2020? Finding out when is the GRE in 2020 (and setting your personal deadlines) is an important first step. Setting aside a chunk of money will also be important—if you’re wondering, “How much is the GRE test in 2020?” as of this writing, the registration fee is $205 in most places.

If your exam was canceled due to COVID-19, check out our GRE at home and GRE prep during COVID-19 posts to learn about your options for taking the GRE.

GRE Test Takeaways and Next Steps

What is the GRE exam all about? Now you know. Congrats! You’ve reached the end of this GRE test guide! Give yourself a pat on the back for learning all the GRE basics and trying your hand at some GRE-level practice.

Now that you know all about the GRE test, what’s the next step? Take that all-important free GRE test as a diagnostic here on our Magoosh GRE blog at no cost, or sign up for a free 7-day trial of Magoosh GRE and get started practicing! As you go forward, plan on taking plenty of practice tests, including the official GRE guide full-length tests.

Still want more content? Head over to our GRE FAQ to get your burning questions answered or check out the GRE eBook to read our top blog posts on all things GRE.

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P.S. Ready to improve your GRE score? Get started today.

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6 Responses to The GRE Test 2020-2021: Everything You Need to Know

  1. Abhi Bhagat August 9, 2019 at 12:33 pm #

    The median house value in Butlerville has fallen significantly in the last few months. Nonetheless, the number of homes sold has been at its lowest level in seven years.

    in option C why will a person living in butterville buy a house there?

    • David Recine
      David Recine August 13, 2019 at 9:26 am #

      C explains why people living in Butlerville would NOT buy a house there. It may also explain why people outside of Butlerville would not move to Butlerville to buy a house or try to invest in Butlerville’s housing market. An area with a bad economy is unappealing to people who want to relocate or invest, and the bad economy also makes it difficult for local people to buy a house.

  2. Georgia July 7, 2018 at 10:09 am #

    Hi Rachel

    Not sure if you are still taking comments on this post, but regarding the question about the semicircle with an area of xn. I haven’t done math in nearly 10 years and will probably not need a great score since I’m applying to humanities programmes, so this is the kind of question I would definitely skip or only guess at. However, I did try and make a stab at finding the diameter of the circle in terms of relation to the semicircle’s area, but what I don’t understand is that the area is given xn, yet all the calculations that follow seem to only be working with x. Forgive me if this is a nonsensical question, but why does the n completely disappear from the equations?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert July 11, 2018 at 10:16 am #

      Hi Georgia,

      First, it’s great that you are attempting these types of questions! While this might a good candidate for a question to skip if you aren’t looking for a high quant score, it’s the type of question that will stretch your mathematical reasoning and improve your general math skills 🙂 We try to answer all of the questions on our blog, but sometimes it takes us a while to get through them all!

      It looks like there is a typo in this question! I looked at it closely, and I think that Chris meant to put “pi” instead of “n” in the question. The explanation uses “pi*x” as the area of the semicircle. So, this is definitely not a nonsensical question! It looks like we made a little mistake here, and we love it when our readers point them out so that we can correct them in a timely manner! I’m going to send this to our content improvement team to get a second pair of eyes on it and hopefully fix the problem! =)

  3. Gustavo July 3, 2018 at 4:36 pm #

    GRE Quantitative Practice: Answers & Explanations
    #2, Why is one of the answers “E”

    Apparently, If X= 1

    4 < E value = 19 < 10

    or is anything I am missing?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert July 19, 2018 at 10:37 am #

      You are correct that if x = 1, e isn’t the answer. But although your calculations are correct, you’re missing the fact that x doesn’t have to equal 1. As long as there are some values for x in which answer E would be correct, then answer E could be the length of the third side, with the right value plugged in for x. In contrast, answers B and D don’t satisfy the inequality, no matter which values you plug in.

Magoosh blog comment policy: To create the best experience for our readers, we will only approve comments that are relevant to the article, general enough to be helpful to other students, concise, and well-written! 😄 Due to the high volume of comments across all of our blogs, we cannot promise that all comments will receive responses from our instructors.

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