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).

Improve your GRE score with Magoosh.

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:

GRE Prep App

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

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43 Responses to How Hard is the GRE?

  1. Deblina Jha April 12, 2018 at 3:42 am #

    Thank you for sharing.My students are taking GRE Classes.I will tell them about this article and Keep on posting

  2. Kalaimagal February 24, 2017 at 1:07 am #

    Hi Chris

    I had been through a few of your videos for GRE prep for beginners ,which where quiet usefull in garnering the required information.What article or book would you recommend me ,as I am not confident enough with my verbal & AWA as with the Quants. It would be of great help.


    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert February 24, 2017 at 2:11 am #

      For those with access to Magoosh Premium, I recommend going to our main verbal, AWA videos and math videos in sequential order, once you’ve finished the introductory videos. And of course, we also have full archives of helpful material for math, verbal, and AWA here on the blog.

      If you’re not sure where to start in those archives, try these three introductory posts:

      How to Study for GMAT Math

      Introduction to GMAT Verbal

      GMAT AWA Strategies

  3. Preethi August 24, 2016 at 12:11 pm #

    Hello Chris,
    I want to start my GRE preparation ASAP and I came across Magoosh One Month Study Schedule. I would like to know whether enrolling for this course would be beneficial to me as I am new to this test and I have got to prepare from scratch.
    PS: I guess I am weak in both quant and verbal.

    Hoping for an early reply.
    Thank you.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert August 24, 2016 at 6:51 pm #

      Hi Preethi,

      If you sign up for Magoosh, you’ll get access to high quality test materials written by experts with decades of GRE experience, easy-to-access lesson videos and questions on your computer so you can practice and study anytime anyplace, and a wealth of resources that prepare you for everything you’ll see on test day.

      Magoosh is extremely comprehensive and provides a lot of information about everything from strategy, to approaches to learning and more, and in the way that a personal tutor would. Our lessons start from the beginning, and teach you everything you need to know about the GRE, so you’ll definitely benefit from the program! We also offer all our premium users email access to our student help team: they’re there to answer specific questions throughout the course of study and offer guidance if you get stuck. 🙂

      You don’t have to take my word for it, though! You can check out our testimonial page to hear from students who have benefited from Magoosh. And you can sign up for a seven day free trial to see if you think that Magoosh might work for you 🙂

  4. Anshul August 23, 2016 at 3:56 pm #

    How are the sections scored ? supposedly i scored 7/20 in one verbal section and 10/20 in other verbal section, would my final verbal score read 147/170 ?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert August 24, 2016 at 10:29 am #

      Hi Anshul,

      Within each section, all questions contribute equally to your raw score, which is the number of questions you answered correctly. Your raw score is then converted to a scaled score through equating. Here’s what ETS has to say about “equating”:

      “The equating process accounts for minor variations in difficulty among the different test editions as well as the differences in difficulty introduced by the section-level adaptation. Thus a given scaled score for a particular measure reflects the same level of performance regardless of which second section was selected and when the test was taken.”

      Many students assume the raw to equated score conversion will simply mean mapping the raw score onto this new scale, but the process is not so transparent. You indicated that you got a total of 17 correct , which is a raw score of 17/40. This does not mean that your scaled score should be 147, however. I have seem as much as +/-5 point difference between the approximation (adding raw score to the 130-170 scale) and the actual equated scale. This is because of the relative difficulty of the questions you got and how they scale according to average difficulty.

      I hope that helps! 🙂

  5. Nirajan August 10, 2016 at 1:19 am #

    I’m finding Manhattan verbal quite tough, actually very tough. I’ve read your strong recommendation for this book where you told that almost all others fall into the category of bad books. I would like you to recommend the most apt one after manhattan taking into consideration that I felt Manhattan was quite tough.
    P. S. : Have I used the preposition – ‘for’ correctly?
    Thank you

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert August 10, 2016 at 1:11 pm #

      Hi Nirajan,

      First, you used the word “for” correctly! 🙂

      Next, the best resource is the Official Guide. After that, we recommend Magoosh materials and Manhattan’s materials. Beyond that, many materials fail to capture the GRE’s style very well, and your best bet is to get good reading practice and learn vocabulary. You would be better off reading in The Economist, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, etc. to master complex structure and be comfortable with hard vocabulary rather than looking for a perfect GRE resource. Good luck! 🙂

  6. Fan Cao July 14, 2016 at 12:37 pm #

    Is Magoosh easier or harder than the real GRE(both in Q and V)? What is the possible distribution of very hard, hard, medium and easy questions in both tests?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert July 20, 2016 at 3:14 am #

      Hi Fan Cao,

      Excellent question! We work hard to make our content as similar to the actual test as possible. The more that students use Magoosh and take the test, the more information we receive on how accurate our material is. Many students who took the test told us that our questions and their difficulty level matched what they saw on the real test. So, you can expect Magoosh easy questions to be like easy questions on the actual exam, and Magoosh very difficult questions to be like very difficult questions on the actual exam.

      In terms of distribution of difficulty levels, it’s really hard to say. This is because of the test’s adaptivity: if you do well on the first section, you’ll see more hard questions in the second section than you would if you had done poorly on the first section. In the first section, however, you can expect to see a couple or a few hard questions. However, since ETS keeps their algorithms for determining the difficulty-level distribution secret, I can’t say for sure how many questions of each difficulty level you’ll see.

      I hope that helps at least a little!

  7. Srinivas February 12, 2016 at 6:48 am #

    Hello !!

    I have already taken GRE once and i feel it was tough for me since i hardly scored 291 .I’m planning to try another shot in the month of August this year. I’m planning to choose 6 Month study plan from GRE magoosh. I feel down on confidence , after getting the score. Kindly suggest will 6 month preparation will be good enough to give me the confidence i require to face the exam.


    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert February 13, 2016 at 1:56 am #

      Hi Srinivas,

      6 months is definitely enough time to gain confidence and skills to dominate the GRE! It is frustrating to start at a score lower than what you want, but now you have a very accurate baseline and you know where your weaknesses are, meaning your further study will be very effective. Don’t feel down–many students get a lower-than-expected first score and go on to retake the GRE and do well. You can do this! 🙂

  8. Emmanuel January 10, 2016 at 2:16 am #

    Please can someone who had a third class in Diploma Degree and a PASS in his first Degree be eligible to write GRE? THANKS

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert January 27, 2016 at 3:21 pm #

      Hi Emmanuel,

      Good question! Anyone who wishes to prepare for and take the GRE is eligible–there is no minimum requirement to take the exam. It is a time and financial commitment to take the GRE, but anyone looking to enter US universities will very likely have to do it! Whether or not your applicant profile will be accepted by universities is a different question, and you’ll have to do a lot more research to really get the answer to that. 🙂

  9. Hassan Abdin October 27, 2015 at 6:05 am #

    How would you rate a 158/170 score

  10. mkc October 5, 2015 at 7:57 am #


    I feel good about Manhattan’s 500 essential words. I just completed studying these flashcards and tested numerous times. I get above 95% correct answers. I do not have time to study other 500 advanced words as I have to prepare for math and also complete Magoosh video lessons. Is it good enough to get the verbal score of 145-150?

  11. Achyut September 5, 2015 at 5:40 am #

    Hey Chris,
    A small doubt.
    Do the words we study in our Magoosh e book and other books appear on the test day ?
    What’s the probability of occurrence?

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele September 8, 2015 at 2:55 pm #

      That’s a great question, and I really wish I could answer accurately. But really, nobody can, even the test writers themselves. The words in the ebook–we hope–are the ones most likely to show up test day. Manhattan will claim the same; Kaplan will claim the same; indeed any with a word list will probably claim the same.

      What happens is that you end up getting lists that often have very similar words. My advice is to study those lists in which you think the definition is the clearest and in which the example sentences–and don’t use a word list without example sentences!–do a good job of making the word memorable.

      By learning about 1,000-1,500 words, you will likely recognize, out of the words you didn’t know before prepping, about 50% of those words. Again, much of that can change depending on whether you get the more difficult section and the specific questions that you happen to get test day.

      Hope that helps!

  12. Dniel June 10, 2015 at 3:01 am #

    so i just finished my degree and i applied for a Masters program of which am to write the GRE test, i hear it’s pretty though. i checked some sample questions online and they are very tricky, i was shocked to have scored 2 out of 10 from the first 10 questions i tried solving… i tried a few times and i scored 4 out of 10. that has been my highest after the 2 attempts. i really want materials so i can pass one time… i plan to write in 3 months time.

  13. DGrant May 19, 2015 at 3:30 pm #

    I graduated from college 10 years ago. I tried some of the math in a GRE study guide and did horribly. I have also been studying vocab flash cards. Does anyone have any suggestions on making a good score because I am scared out of my mind. Thanks

  14. D Grant May 19, 2015 at 3:21 pm #

    I graduated from college 10 years ago. I tried studying the math in the GRE study guides and I am doing horribly. I also started using the vocab flash cards. Can anyone give me any pointers? Thanks

    • Sean June 18, 2015 at 10:53 am #

      Mr. Grant,

      I am weeks away from taking the test and being a head-injured patient in 2001, I can tell you my speed of processing has diminished some. My advice to you is to read your math book slowly, don’t rush. This has greatly improved my math skills and I am now confident I’ll do well on test day. Good luck


  15. Naresh May 2, 2015 at 1:31 am #

    i dont know any thing about GRE,i am a stater of this exam can u please tell me how to prepare for GRE , and if any coaching is needed

    • Rita Neumann
      Rita Kreig May 4, 2015 at 3:47 pm #

      Hi Naresh,

      Welcome to the world of GRE prep! 🙂 I’d definitely recommend studying for the test (I certainly needed to)! There are a lot of different ways to do so, including online prep like Magoosh GRE, books, and in-person classes. To learn more about the test and what a typical study schedule would look like, I’d recommend starting with our eBooks and Study Schedules.

      Good luck with your prep!

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


    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 :)).

  17. 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 🙂

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

    you should have said hyperbola and hyperbole 😛 😀 🙂

    • 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 ;).

  19. 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:

      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 🙂


  20. 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 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:

      Good luck!

  21. 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!

  22. 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,

    • 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:

  23. 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.


  24. 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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