GRE Difficulty – How Difficult Is The GRE Really?

by Emmanuel Carita
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GRE Difficulty – How Difficult Is The GRE Really

How difficult is the GRE? It’s a question that often comes up with regards to the standardized test, particularly in relation to the very similar GMAT. Candidates for this test often worry about its difficulty when prepping for it, and while it’s true that the GRE is no easy test, there are ways to mitigate its difficulty and ensure that you get the best score possible.

In this guide, we cover everything you need to know about the difficulty of the GRE. Also check out our separate in-depth guide on the difficulty of the GRE math.

What Is The GRE?

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is a standardized test employed by grad and business schools to assess the suitability of applicants to their programs. It is computer-based and assesses your command of data analysis, college-level vocabulary, algebra, arithmetic and geometry.

Is The GRE Considered Difficult?

The difficulty of the GRE is often considered to be higher than most standardized tests because it requires a slightly different mindset in order to tackle it. It requires the ability to critically think (even on Quant-style questions) and a broad vocabulary that tests like the GMAT don’t really need. This can lead to the perception that the GRE is harder than the GMAT.

Is The GRE Harder Than The GMAT?

This is not a question with a straightforward yes/no answer, unfortunately. Although the more advanced vocabulary needed for the GRE leads many to conclude that it’s the more difficult test, the fact is that the Quant questions found on the GMAT tend to be tougher.

It’s really a question, then, of where your strengths lie. If you’re a non-native speaker with strong mathematical skills, you’ll likely prefer the GMAT. On the other hand, a native speaker with a broad vocabulary and weaker math skills will probably find the GRE easier.

Check out our in-depth guide comparing the difficulty of the GMAT and GRE.

Why Should I Take The GRE Over The GMAT?

When it comes to thinking about which test you should take, it’s really a question of your endgame. What kind of course are you looking to apply for? Consequently, which test better supports your chances of getting a place on that course?

The GMAT is undoubtedly more popular, but it’s also more expensive – and may not be right for all candidates. It’s also much more widely respected by many more business schools and MBA programs. What does this mean for you? If your goal is to get into a good business school, you should undoubtedly prioritize the GMAT over its less established cousin.

However, it may be the case that you’re either not focusing on business school, or you’re potentially interested but would prefer not to focus exclusively on that. If that’s the case, it might be worth taking the GRE instead. It’s less specialized and, consequently, leaves your options open for other post-grad courses. If doing an English lit course, for instance, a strong score on the Verbal Reasoning section of the GRE might stand you in good stead.

Ultimately, however, it’s very much a personal choice. Check out our in-depth guide on whether the GMAT or the GRE is the better test for you.

What You Should Know About the Difficulty of the GRE
What You Should Know About the Difficulty of the GRE

Difficulty of the GRE: What Makes The GRE Difficult?

There are several factors that we need to take into account when considering the GRE difficulty. Here are a number of the aspects that contribute to its supposed toughness.

It Necessitates A Robust Knowledge Of Math

Math may not have seemed so challenging when sitting your SATs in high school, but that was off the back of years of regular math classes. The GRE requires a solid knowledge of basic math, algebra and geometry – but it may have been years since you studied those things when you come to sit the GRE.

It’s probably a good idea, then, to get your math skills up to speed before sitting the GRE. The test’s Quantitative Reasoning section requires you to have a robust understanding of tables, graphs, algebra, geometry, and basic arithmetic. Although an onscreen calculator is available for certain sections of the GRE (in contrast to the GMAT), it’s still a good idea to make sure that you’re not totally reliant on it and can mentally math out any problem possible to do so.

How Can I Prep For This? 

If it’s been a while, brush up on mental arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and table/graph reading. There are plenty of elementary math sites out there that can help you get to grips with the basics again.

There’s Plenty Of Difficult Vocabulary

One thing that definitely contributes to the GRE vs. GMAT difficulty debate is the vocabulary level of the former. An entire half of the Verbal Reasoning section of the GRE is devoted to esoteric and obscure vocabulary pitched at a college-student level, making this section (and the test in general) particularly challenging for non-native speakers.

The questions to which this applies are ‘fill-in-the-blank’ type questions, so although not as challenging as simply writing your own synonyms in, the Verbal Reasoning section is nevertheless a tough nut to crack.

How Can I Prep For This?

A good way of getting ready for the GRE’s advanced vocabulary is to read plenty of publications pitched at those with a higher vocabulary level, such as The New Yorker or the Washington Post. In addition, the GRE often recycles the vocabulary used, so doing plenty of practice tests and making flashcards for more difficult words can help. Be sure to review these weekly; if you cannot remember the meanings of any of these words, promote them to a ‘daily’ pile until you remember them, at which point they can be relegated back to the ‘weekly’ pile.

The Wording Of The Questions Can Be Tricky

The GRE likes to keep you on your toes by giving you questions that are deceptively worded; rash candidates who don’t read things properly are therefore likely to select the wrong answer without thinking it over.

This rewards careful reading and ensuring that you have a full understanding of the question before attempting to answer it. This goes double for the Quantitative Reasoning section of the test, where these types of question are particularly ubiquitous. Because of this, people perceive the GRE’s difficulty to be higher than it is.

How Can I Prep For This?

The best preparation for this is, naturally, preparation! Do plenty of practice tests before the real thing, ensuring that you get a feel for these types of questions and that you can readily spot their tricky wording. While for some it may seem like a good idea to take the GRE without studying, we strongly advise against doing so.

The AWA Section Is Difficult

The AWA section of the GRE is considered more difficult than comparable sections in other tests because it tasks you with completing two essays, rather than the usual one. One of the essays asks that you take a position on a particular argument and then support your position with evidence; the second requires you to critique an argument and support your critique accordingly.

The AWA section can be particularly intimidating because not only does it require that you write two fairly lengthy essays, but it only gives you thirty minutes for each one. This can be mentally taxing for even the most able of candidates, and is a particular strain on non-native candidates.

How Can I Prep For This?  

It’s a good idea to look at top answers for both kinds of essays and see what they did write and why. Structure and clarity are the most important things, and the markers will value these much more than perfect spelling and grammar (although these don’t hurt).

You should also check out the marking rubrics for both kinds of essay, as these can help prepare you for what’s to come and help you ensure that your essays are in line with what’s expected.

Time Is Tight

As with any standardized test, the GRE has a time limit. The GRE also isn’t the kind of test that you can expect to finish with half an hour to spare and sit back; you’ll have to manage your time efficiently if you are to get everything finished. On the other hand, however, it’s important that you don’t rush through the test and leave questions unanswered or with incorrect answers as a result.

Aside from the AWA section (which is, you’ll recall, 2 essays split across 2 30-minute sections), you’ll have between 1:30 and 2:00 to answer each question in the test. As some of these questions are multi-part, this really isn’t a lot of time, and time management is crucial.

How Can I Prep For This?

This one is simply a case of practice making perfect! Squeeze in as many practice tests as you can and make sure that you are strict with your observation of time limits. Try to time yourself on a question-by-question basis and identify which questions take you longer to answer than others. You can then develop techniques to speed up your answering process for this; for instance, if it’s Quant questions that are tripping you up, work on the relevant math skill to ensure that you’re answering as quickly as you can.

After a while, you’ll develop a rhythm and you’ll be able to unconsciously keep time without the need for clock-watching.

It’s Computerized (And Section-Level Adaptive)  

Something that may throw off takers of traditional tests is the fact that the GRE is generally done on computer – with all the advantages (and disadvantages) of that format. Certain strategies simply aren’t possible when answering questions on a computer screen, e.g. making notes directly on the paper or crossing out answers you’ve eliminated. This can increase the difficulty of the GRE for those who are not used to computerized tests.

On top of this, apart from the AWA section, the test is section-level adaptive. What does this mean? It means that the test responds dynamically to your performance in the first sections of the Verbal and Quant Reasoning sections. The better you do in the first sections of each, the more difficult the following sections will be. This can lead to a lot of time-wasting trying to figure out how well you did on the previous section(s), or worse – trying to game the system by underperforming on the first sections.

How Can I Prep For This?

ETS, the people behind the test, have online tests that mimic exactly the format of the actual GRE. These will prepare you for the format of the test and the differences it has compared to an offline test.

When it comes to section-level adaptive parts of the test: the best advice is simply to forget about it. Second-guessing yourself achieves nothing but wasting precious time – and trying to game the system to get an easier second section is simply counter-productive.

Difficulty Of The GRE: What’s Not So Hard About It?

Although it may all sound very gloomy, the fact is that the GRE is not all that difficult provided you prep for it accordingly, and you go in with the right mentality.

On top of that: some aspects of the GRE simply aren’t that bad. Let’s take a look at those parts that won’t have you waking up in a cold sweat.

There’s Often Only One Section That Matters

Though taken as a whole the GRE can be quite intimidating, the reality is that for you, there may only be one section that’s important.

Why is this? It depends very much on your reason for taking the GRE in the first place, but it could be that you’ll only really be interested in doing well on the Quant or Verbal sections, and that the AWA section doesn’t matter at all. If you’re applying for a literature course, for example, chances are that they don’t care about your math skills; conversely, if applying for an MBA, the admissions officers may only be looking at your Quant score.

Because of this, it’s worth doing a little research ahead of time and making sure that you focus on the sections that are going to matter to you and your admission prospects.

It’s Multiple Choice

The AWA section aside, every question on the GRE is multiple choice. While this doesn’t give you carte blanche to simply guess every answer, it does mean that in those situations where you’re not sure of the answer, you can at the very least make an educated guess. Above all, do not leave it blank!

While the multiple-choice nature of the questions doesn’t necessarily lower the GRE difficulty, it does make it a little more manageable than it might first appear.

You Don’t Need Advanced Math Skills

Good news for those worrying about the Quant section – you don’t need anything better than basic high-school math in order to do well on that part. There is no advanced math, such as calculus or trigonometry, required at all.

The concepts most likely to crop up in the Quant section include algebra, arithmetic, geometry, and reading graphs and tables. This is all stuff you’d have done at school, so at worst you’ll simply need to brush up on these skills (as we mentioned before). What’s more, you’ll have an onscreen calculator during the Quant section, meaning that you won’t even need to perform mental arithmetic.

Reading Comprehension Questions Have An Objectively Correct Answer

In Reading Comprehension questions, you’ll read a passage and then answer several questions about that passage. While this can sound intimidating (especially to ESL candidates), the fact is that the right answer can always be found in the text, and so there are no answers that require you to infer meaning or go with an answer that’s subjective or unclear. The right answer is right there – it’s just a matter of finding it.

There’s A Lot Of Overlapping Skills You Already Have

The good news for those worried about the difficulty of the GRE is that a lot of the skills tested are things that you’ll already have learned. We all did basic math in school (algebra, arithmetic, geometry, etc.) and at worst, it simply means brushing up on those skills prior to walking into that test room.

Similarly, essay-writing techniques are something that we all necessarily pick up in high school, and those techniques – addressing an argument or critique, giving your own position, and then substantiating that position with supporting arguments and evidence – are something that you’ll retain for a long time. Even if it’s been a while, it’s a case of reviewing those skills rather than learning them from scratch.


While the GRE can seem extremely intimidating to a lot of candidates, the fact is that you already have a lot of the skills you need in order to do well on the test. This applies even if those skills are rusty – remember that it’s easier to ride a bike after 15 years than it is to learn from scratch.

Furthermore, it’s possible to get in plenty of practice for those sections that you’re not confident about. There are online tests available, and it’s easy to find free online resources for brushing up on your math and essay-writing skills. There are also plenty of forums out there packed with people who’ve taken the GRE multiple times, and who are more than happy to share their expertise with potential candidates. By taking advantage of all of these resources and your own innate skills, you can maximize your chances of acing the GRE.

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