Brittny B. Stringfield

GRE vs SAT: Top 5 Key Differences

gre vs sat top 5 key differences

If you are preparing to apply for grad school and find yourself yet again facing another standardized test, you might be wondering just how different (or alike) the SAT and GRE are. Keep reading as we discuss GRE vs SAT – the difference (and a couple of similarities) between the most common standardized tests. We’ll also discuss how difficult each test is in comparison to the other.

What are the differences between GRE vs. SAT?

1. Purpose

One of the major, and perhaps most obvious, ways that the GRE and SAT are different is the purpose for each exam. The purpose of the SAT is to evaluate a high schooler’s aptitude for college while the GRE is used primarily by graduate schools of applied science, business, and sometimes law as an entrance exam that measures one’s abstract thinking.

2. Sections

Despite the fact that both the SAT and GRE are designed to measure your math, vocabulary, reading comprehension, and writing skills, the GRE and SAT individual sections vary significantly.

The GRE test content consists of three topics: Analytical Writing, Verbal Reasoning, and Quantitative Reasoning. There are six sections on the test:

  • Analytical Writing (one section with two separately timed tasks) – 30 minutes per task
  • Verbal Reasoning (two sections) – 20 questions per section, 30 minutes per section
  • Quantitative Reasoning (two sections) – 20 questions per section, 35 minutes per section
  • Experimental Section or Research Section – Verbal or Quantitative Reasoning, 20 questions per section, 30 to 35 minutes per section

Test-takers get either the research section or the experimental section but not both. The experimental section is unmarked and random, so it must be completed. Contrarily, if there is a Research section instead, it will be presented as the last section of your test, it will be identified, and it will be optional. The purpose of the Experimental and Research sections is to test out potential future GRE questions.

Note that because there is one unscored section on the test (either Experimental or Research), only five of the six sections will actually count towards your final score.

Improve your GRE score with Magoosh.

The SAT includes two main topics: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and Math. This breaks down into four sections:

  • Reading: One 65-minute section
  • Writing: One 35-minute section
  • Two Math Sections: One 25-minute section (no calculator) and one 55-minute section (calculator allowed)
  • NOTE: As of June 2021, the College Board no longer offers the optional SAT essay. Only students in select states will have access if they’re taking the SAT through the SAT School Day program.

GRE vs. SAT Sections

In comparison to the SAT, the GRE will have some familiar albeit often more difficult questions. Like the SAT’s Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Section, the Verbal Reasoning sections on the GRE will test your comprehension and reasoning skills. However, unlike the SAT, the GRE doesn’t have a section dedicated to the actual mechanics of writing (e.g., grammar and punctuation). Instead, the GRE tests your ability to establish a coherent, logical argument.

In general, the GRE Quantitative Reasoning sections and SAT Math sections test on the same topics, except the GRE tests more basic math concepts and has a heavier focus on geometry than the SAT. The SAT Math has a reputation of being a bit more complex, testing on trigonometry and other upper-level math topics in addition to what is already on GRE. Another difference is that, as a computerized test, the GRE offers an on-screen calculator that can be used at any time. For the SAT, which is currently delivered on paper, test-takers have a physical calculator that can only be used on the section that allows calculator use.

Since the Essay on the SAT is no longer widely offered, the GRE Analytical Writing is another difference between GRE vs. SAT. The Analytical Writing section on the GRE does not test your knowledge of specific content, rather it tests your ability to articulate and support complex ideas, develop and evaluate arguments, and sustain a focused and logical discussion.

3. Duration

Another difference between SAT vs. GRE is the duration. In total, the GRE takes approximately three hours and 45 minutes. The SAT is slightly shorter, with a duration of approximately three hours.

4. Order

On the GRE, the Analytical Writing section always comes first; however, the remaining sections can appear in any order. An unscored Experimental or Research Verbal or Quantitative Reasoning section may be included. So, instead of having two Verbal or Quantitative sections, you might get three of one or the other, of which one section won’t actually count toward your score.

Unlike the GRE, the SAT sections always appear in the same order. Occasionally, there is a 20-minute experimental section delivered to randomly selected groups of students who take the SAT. These questions appear as the “fifth section” on the test, just after the calculator Math section.

Learn all about the GRE in our other blog post!

5. Scoring

Finally, the GRE and SAT are scored using completely different scales.

Both of the GRE Verbal and Quantitative Reasoning sections use the same scale of 130 (lowest score) to 170 (highest score) in one-point increments. It is more common to present each section score separately rather than aggregating both scores together for a combined score. The Analytical Writing section from 0 – 6 in half-point increments.

On the SAT, each section is scored using a scale of 200 (lowest score) to 800 (highest score). The Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing scores are combined to produce a total SAT score on a scale of 400-1600 in 10-point increments.

Digital vs. Paper Format

As a computerized test, the GRE uses adaptive testing which allows the computer to select the difficulty of sections for test-takers based on their performance on the prior section. For example, if you get a Verbal section that has medium-difficulty questions and you do well, your next section will be more difficult; if your answers reveal that you found the section to be too difficult, your next section will be less difficult. Within each section, all questions contribute equally to the final score. Right now, the SAT is disseminated as a paper test, so adaptive testing isn’t an option; however, the digital SAT is slated to debut in 2024 and will allow for adaptive testing.

Despite the differences in the scoring between GRE vs. SAT, there are a few commonalities in how both tests are scored. To determine the section scores for both tests, the raw score for each section is calculated based on the number of questions correctly answered. Then, the raw scores are converted to the respective scaled scores which adjusts for variations in test difficulty. Also, neither test penalizes you for guessing.

For more information on how the two exams are scored, check out our posts on GRE score range and SAT scores.

Is the GRE harder than the SAT?

When comparing SAT vs. GRE difficulty, realistically, there is no one “correct” answer to this question, as some test-takers that are stronger in certain areas may find one test easier than the other. That said, the general consensus is that compared to the SAT, the GRE is, overall, more difficult.

Although the math on the GRE is generally lower-level compared to the math found on the SAT, some students taking the GRE may be far removed from certain math concepts that they haven’t used since that dreaded Algebra II class years ago. Also, the math on the GRE can often be a bit trickier than the math on the SAT, with trap answers and convoluted wording that requires a high level of reasoning and logic to decipher.

Additionally, the GRE uses more difficult, often obscure vocabulary and verbose passages that can be intimidating even for most English-fluent students. Lastly, the unpredictability of the GRE sections can make it slightly more difficult to prepare for than the SAT which has sections in the same order every time.

A Final Word on GRE vs. SAT

While there are several similarities between GRE vs. SAT, the tests are markedly different. The tests have very different testing and scoring formats. Further, the GRE is more unpredictable than the SAT and is entirely computerized, although this will change in the near future for the SAT.

That said, it is common for people to find all standardized tests intimidating. If you recall that you struggled with the general nature of standardized testing (e.g. time management, test-taking strategies, managing anxiety, etc.) when taking the SAT, then you’ll likely run into the same struggles as you begin to prepare for the GRE.

BUT the ghost of SAT past doesn’t have to haunt your future GRE experience. The best way to overcome the “test day jitters” is to arm yourself with all of the tools you need to be successful. Magoosh offers a wealth of resources to prepare you for test day. Use these resources to prepare so that you know exactly what to expect on test day!


  • Brittny B. Stringfield

    Brittny is a Test Prep Expert at Magoosh with almost a decade of experience in test prep and tutoring. Throughout her tutoring and test prep career, Brittny has helped hundreds of students seeking to improve their scores on the SAT, ACT, GRE, and GMAT reach their goals. Brittny also taught business and healthcare courses at a technical college for seven years and was the recipient of the 2016 Instructor of the Year for the Technical College System of Georgia. Outside of her test prep career, Brittny works in population health in Atlanta, Georgia and runs a non-profit 501(c)3 organization dedicated to mentoring college-aged students. Brittny graduated summa cum laude with her B.S. in Nuclear Medicine with a minor in psychology from Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia and earned her MBA and MHA from Georgia State University. Come join Brittny and the Magoosh team on Youtube, Facebook, and Instagram, or connect with her via LinkedIn!

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