Trevor Klee Reviewed By: Trevor Klee
Authored By: Dave Evangelisti
How hard is the GRE?

How hard is the GRE?  In short, it can be very challenging.

In this guide, we will show you what makes the GRE hard and how to best prepare for it.

Summary: Learn about the difficulty of the GRE and how to prepare. For more help, consider a best online GRE prep course.

What is the GRE?

The GRE, or Graduate Record Examination, is an advanced test used for both graduate school programs and business school programs. It is a multiple-choice exam and is taken on the computer with standard exam questions designed to measure several types of quantitative reasoning.

The GRE is used for many graduate or business school applications in a similar way that the ACT or SAT is used for undergraduate college applicants. Getting a top score on the GRE is a great way to set yourself apart from the other candidates. 

How Hard is the GRE for Average Students?

The GRE is typically considered more difficult compared to the ACT or SAT. The trick to the GRE is that it has more challenging vocabulary and reading sections.

In addition, the majority of the math problems require higher-level reasoning or have more complicated wording - the math problems on the GRE test your critical thinking more than they challenge your actual arithmetic skills.

However, the GRE is less difficult than more specialized exams like the MCAT. The MCAT requires students to have more specific knowledge that they may have learned in undergrad like chemistry or biology. 

If you are looking for some resources to prepare for this exam, review our best GRE prep courses to find the right course for you. 

What Makes the GRE Hard?

In a nutshell, the GRE is challenging because it requires students to think critically and is not as cut and dry as other exams you may have taken in the past. 

Ultimately, average students will find that the GRE is a little trickier than the SAT or ACT but may be more manageable once they discover the tricks to solving its problems. Whether it’s harder depends on your current knowledge of vocabulary and critical thinking skills. Let’s go over the specific difficulties you might encounter as you take the GRE.

What Makes the GRE Hard?

  • Difficult Vocabulary
  • Challenging Wording
  • Time Factors
  • Two Essays
  • Critical Thinking Aspect

Difficult Vocabulary

Much of the GRE’s difficulty lies in its advanced vocabulary. Sophisticated words are used not only for the language-focused portions of the test but across all of its problems and essay prompts. In addition, many questions ask test takers to fill in words or sets of words in blanks, challenging their sentence construction and critical thinking along with their raw knowledge of higher vocabulary.

This will require that students brush up on their advanced English words, and it may be a particularly challenging obstacle for ESL students.

Challenging Wording

While the vocabulary choices are difficult in and of themselves, many of the questions are made even harder because of the way in which the questions are worded. Rather than speaking plainly, many GRE questions require you to use your logical analysis skills to locate the correct answer, unraveling the question before solving it. Not only does this slow you down, but it requires you to use multiple sections of your brain at once.

It’s easy to be tripped up or tricked by the wording of certain questions, resulting in a wrong answer even if you actually had the knowledge needed to solve the problem. Overcoming this difficulty requires students to practice the GRE extensively. Eventually, you can train your brain to understand the tricks unique to the GRE and untangle the questions efficiently.

Time Factors

Each section of the GRE is timed - this causes a lot of trouble for students. So much of the GRE’s difficulty comes from understanding the questions before you answer them, many first-timers will spend lots of their precious time on specific questions. This can lead to lower scores and students feeling they were not prepared for the exam. 

Practicing the GRE and learning how to quickly digest and answer each question is the key to earning a high score on the exam.

Two Essays

The GRE is different from several other standardized tests in that it requires you to write two essays in a single hour. In addition, you aren’t allowed to “bank” time between the essays; you get 30 minutes per essay regardless of whether you finish the first one faster.

This can be particularly intimidating for many, especially if they’re naturally slow writers. GRE test-takers will need to sharpen their writing skills and learn to develop and express an opinion in mere minutes. Practice, again, makes perfect.

What’s on the GRE?

The GRE can be thought of as similar to the SAT and ACT exams to a certain degree, although the focus is more on quantitative reasoning and verbal reasoning. Most GRE tests measure algebra, basic arithmetic, geometry, data analysis, and college-level vocabulary. Many of the questions will be designed to analyze your ability to think critically and problem solve.

There are three scores on the GRE:

  • Analytical writing
  • Verbal reasoning
  • Quantitative reasoning

Each score corresponds to a unique section on the GRE. Other GRE tests may include an unscored or research section depending on the exact examination and your program.

The analytical writing section contains one argument essay and one issue essay, allowing students 30 minutes to write each piece or 60 minutes total. It is worth noting that a lot of programs do not even look at the writing portion of the GRE. Students should still strive to do well on this section, but it is not the end of the world if you do not get a top score on this section. 

The verbal reasoning section contains six text completion questions, four sentence equivalence questions, and ten reading comprehension questions. This totals 20 questions overall, and this test is administered in 60 minutes across two 30 minute sections.

Finally, the quantitative reasoning section features 7 to 8 quantitative comparison questions and 12 to 13 problem-solving questions for 20 questions total. This section is delivered over 70 minutes in two 35 minute sessions.

What is a Good GRE Score?

The quantitative reasoning and verbal reasoning sections are both scored from 130 to 170 points. The mean scores for both of these sections are 151 and 153, respectively.

Meanwhile, the analytical writing section is scored from 0 to 6, in 0.5 point increments. This section’s mean score is 4.0.

As a result, a “good” GRE score is theoretically any score above these averages. Scores higher than 151, 153, and 4.0 guarantee that you’ve scored higher than the majority of students who take the GRE. This makes it more likely that you’ll be accepted into the college program of your choice.

GRE Score Report

However, the vast majority of graduate and business school programs have GRE score thresholds that all applicants must meet to be considered for acceptance. This minimum score threshold is usually around the average but maybe higher or lower depending on the rigor of the program.

Thus, getting a GRE score higher than the minimum score threshold needed for your program is the real target. Since most graduate programs are quite competitive, it’s important that you make yourself stand out from your fellow students. Getting a score higher than most others is one of the best ways to make your application more attractive to college admissions teams.

How Can You Prepare for the GRE?

The GRE can be difficult for many, but there are ways to prepare for the exam and make it less intimidating when you finally sit down. Let’s go over the best ways to prepare for the GRE.

To prepare for the GRE, check out these resources:

Give Yourself Time

The GRE can be taken five times over 12 months, with that time frame starting from when you first take the exam. This gives you lots of time to practice for the test both before your first attempt and between subsequent attempts.

It’s a good idea to give yourself ample time to study for this exam. If you are able to dedicate most of your day to studying, you may be able to get away with 1 month of studying. 

If you are still in school or working a full-time job, you may need to budget more time to study for this exam. 

GRE Sample Tests and Practice

Overall, preparing for the GRE is best accomplished from extensive practice. Fortunately, there are plenty of GRE practice tests you can find online.

You can either take a general practice test that covers all the sections or a more specialized practice exam that focuses on one of the sections. It all depends on what skills you need to shore up.

Get a Baseline Score

You should take the full-length GRE practice test anyway, as well as try to re-create the conditions of the test as best as you can. This can give you an idea of your baseline score and a target number to chase.

For instance, if you take the a GRE practice test, and find that you struggle with the quantitative reasoning section, you may want to spend extra study time on that section. A practice test is a great tool to use to find out what you know, and what you do not know. 

Practice on the Computer

Finally, the GRE is taken entirely on the computer, not with a pencil and paper like most standardized tests. It’s a good idea to practice the GRE under the same restrictions. Get used to using a calculator for your arithmetic needs and become comfortable typing, especially for the essay sections when time will be of the essence.

GRE Prep Course

If you are not a fan of self-studying, you should consider a GRE prep course. A prep course is a great tool to ensure you have all of the materials you need in order to get a good score. Most prep courses come with a score guarantee and include practice questions, practice exams, lecture materials, and more. 

You can find a list of some of the best GRE prep courses to see which course best fits your needs. 

All in all, the GRE is a difficult endeavor for many. However, it is far from unconquerable and can be overcome or mastered with the right practice and preparation beforehand. Good luck! 


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