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. However, it’s still possible to do well. 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 test—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 to reassure when faced with a 400-word passage on some obscure topic 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 and stylistic; the vocabulary esoteric and 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, scoring a ‘6’ is hard, even for confident writers (only a tiny percent of AWA essays are awarded a perfect ‘6’).

Is the GRE hard? (I mean, really hard.)

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 enough studying. The GRE test is a competitive exam. To score in the top 20%, you can miss up to a dozen questions on either Verbal or Quant.

Here’s 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. You do not have to answer every question correctly to score well.

So, don’t be discouraged. Instead, be inspired!

How difficult is the GRE? 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). People need to study for the GRE for different lengths of time–what worked for a friend may not work for you.
  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! And, if you’d like to study on your phone, you can find this post along with many additional resources (video lessons, practice questions, study guides, and more) in our GRE Prep App:

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  • Chris Lele

    Chris Lele is the Principal Curriculum Manager (and vocabulary wizard) at Magoosh. Chris graduated from UCLA with a BA in Psychology and has 20 years of experience in the test prep industry. He's been quoted as a subject expert in many publications, including US News, GMAC, and Business Because. In his time at Magoosh, Chris has taught countless students how to tackle the GRE, GMAT, SAT, ACT, MCAT (CARS), and LSAT exams with confidence. Some of his students have even gone on to get near-perfect scores. You can find Chris on YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook!