Is the GRE Hard? – Here Is All You Need to Know

by Maximilian Claessens
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Is the GRE Hard - Here Is All You Need to Know

Is the GRE hard? Many people would say that it is. But with the right preparation and tips to pass the GRE, many candidates will find that the exam isn’t quite as tough as it’s often made out to be.

By achieving a thorough understanding of the format, timing, and question types to be found on the GRE, as well as making using of tips to pass the GRE, any candidate stands an excellent chance of getting the result they want.

What Is The GRE?

‘GRE’ stands for ‘Graduate Record Examination’. It’s a standardized exam used by business and grad schools to assess the eligibility of potential candidates. The test comprises several multiple-choice questions, and tests your ability across four skillsets: analytical writing, quantitative reasoning, verbal reasoning and critical thinking.

How Is The GRE Structured?

It takes around three hours and forty-five minutes to complete the GRE in its entirety. The test is divided into six sections, and there is a 10-minute break between each one.

Task TypeTime PermittedNumber of Questions
Analytical Writing (1 section, 2 tasks)30 minutes per task2 – 1 “Analyze an Argument” question and 1 “Analyze an Issue” question
Verbal Reasoning (2 sections)30 minutes per section40 (20 per section)
Quantitative Reasoning (2 sections)35 minutes per section40 (20 per section)
Unscored/Research SectionVariesVaries

The GRE always opens with the Analytical Writing section. The other sections may appear in any order – including the unscored portions. Because of this, it’s important to treat every section as if they are included in your score.

Section-Adaptive Levels 

Two parts of the GRE – the Quantitative and Verbal Reasoning sections – are section-adaptive. This means that the first section of each will be pitched at an average difficulty, and the second section will respond to your answers and adapt accordingly. Thus, if you have strong scores in the first section, the second section will be correspondingly more difficult.

Design Features Of The GRE

  • Mark and review questions, allowing you to quickly return to them later.
  • Return to questions and edit them later (within the same section).
  • Preview and review questions within a section.
  • Use an onscreen calculator (Quant only).

Is The GRE More Difficult Than The GMAT?

When answering the question “is the GRE more difficult than the GMAT?” it’s important to take into account the specific sections of the two tests. Each has similar sections but there is some variation between the difficulty of those sections within the GMAT and the GRE. Let’s look at the relative difficulty of each section.

Quantitative Reasoning Sections Of The GMAT And GRE

Is the GRE math hard? It was once the case that the Quant section of the GMAT was more difficult than that of the GRE, but this has since changed, with the GRE becoming progressively more difficult. It’s now estimated that the Quant sections of the two tests are about equal in terms of difficulty.

At their core, the math tested in the Quant sections of both tests is high-school level. There is no high-level math such as calculus or trigonometry, and with enough preparation anybody ought to be able to do well.

One significant difference between the two Quant sections is the GRE Quant section permits the use of an onscreen calculator, while the GMAT one does not. Though this leads most people to assume that the GRE Quant section is easier, the fact is that you don’t really need an onscreen calculator to perform any of the necessary calculations, and so the GRE calculator is something of a trap.

Verbal Reasoning Sections Of The GMAT And GRE

 There are many similarities between the GMAT and GRE’s Verbal Reasoning sections, but also some impactful differences. One of the biggest is the GRE’s focus on vocabulary and semantics – something that the GMAT doesn’t really have.

The GMAT is more interested in critical reasoning and the ability to apply logic, and so is considered by many to have the easier of the two Verbal Reasoning sections. This is particularly true for non-native speakers, who generally don’t have as broad of a vocabulary as native speakers in the first place.

Both tests have questions that focus exclusively on the correct use of grammar. Ironically, this feature can make the tests easier for non-native speakers, who typically focus on English grammar to a much greater extent than native speakers (who intuitively grasp grammar but may not have as much formal education on the topic).

Analytical Writing Assessment Sections Of The GMAT And GRE

The AWA sections of both tests are very similar; they both ask you to write long-form essays, they both draw from a wide pool of potential questions, and you have 30 minutes in which to complete one essay. The main difference is that you have to complete two essays in the GRE, as opposed to the single essay of the GMAT.

Both essay sections test your ability to think critically, analyze and criticize arguments, and write fluidly and clearly. Non-native speakers may find the AWA in either test particularly difficult because English isn’t their first language. Because of this, the AWA sections of the GMAT and GRE are often used by admissions officers to quickly assess the quality of a candidate’s English.

Which Is More Difficult: The GRE or the GMAT?

The two tests are quite similar in many regards, but because of the emphasis on vocabulary found in the Verbal Reasoning section of the GRE, it’s often claimed that this is the more difficult of the two tests. This is definitely the case for non-native speakers, who will find this stress on obscure words and language to be particularly taxing.

Tips To Pass The GRE

Despite its perceived difficulty, the GRE is still eminently passable, and it’s quite possible to get a good mark on the test. Here are some tips to make sure that your GRE assessment is plain sailing.

15 Tips to Pass the GRE and Get a Great Score
15 Tips to Pass the GRE and Get a Great Score

Be Prepared To Invest A Lot Of Prep Time

One of the best tips to pass the GRE is that there is no quick fix. There’s no guide that’s going to magically make you ace the test (not even this guide!). The fact of the matter is that in order to do well on the GRE, you’re going to have to knuckle down and practice, practice, practice. It’s important that you accept this early on, and get to preparing as well as you can.

Get Used To Questions With Multiple Blanks

One type of question that will crop up frequently on the GRE is the ‘multi-blank’ question, where you’ll have to complete a sentence that has more than one missing word or phrase.

Though these are ostensibly more difficult than single-blank questions, the fact of the matter is that you’re often provided with more context on a multi-blank question that will guide you towards the correct answer. Furthermore, the answers to some blanks will reveal some or all of the other answers. Simply take it one blank at a time, and you’ll soon find the pieces falling into place.

Make Good Use Of The ‘Mark And Review’ Feature

As previously mentioned, the GRE offers a feature called ‘mark and review’. This allows you to temporarily skip a question you’re having trouble with and quickly return to it later. You mark multiple questions for review, and you can access a table at any time that provides an overview of your progress in that section.

One of the worst things you can do in a time-sensitive examination like the GRE is to get hung up on a question you can’t answer. At the very best, you’re wasting time. At worst you’ll frustrate yourself and negatively affect your chances of answering other questions correctly.

That’s why it’s important to know when to leave a question for the moment and move on. You can always come back to it later, and the ‘mark and review’ function makes it very easy to do so.

Familiarize Yourself With GRE Question Formats

Is the GRE difficult? It’s significantly less difficult if you have a thorough understanding of how GRE questions are framed and worded. That’s why it’s a great idea to memorize the types of directions used in each section, as well as understand the phrasing and wording typically used to pose questions. This saves time and is a great way for non-natives to speed up their test-taking time.

Use The Process Of Elimination For Sentence Equivalence Questions

Sentence equivalence questions ask you to complete a sentence in such a way that it has the same meaning (but not the same wording) as another. In order to do this, you must choose one of two words from a drop-down menu.

It’s often more constructive to figure out which word doesn’t fit in this context. By referring to the original sentence, it’s quite often possible to quickly figure out which words do and don’t make sense. By eliminating answers that are definitely wrong, you can quickly figure out which ones are right.

Establish Word Tone For Vocabulary Questions

For many people who think the answer to the question “is the GRE hard?” is “yes”, it’s often the dense and difficult vocabulary that makes this the case. That’s why it’s a good idea to focus on word tone rather than the actual words themselves. What does this mean? It means thinking about whether words have generally positive or negative meanings. For instance, “passionate” and “emotional” have roughly the same meaning, but the former has much more positive connotations than the latter. You can often figure out from context which one makes more sense, which can help you answer questions quickly and more efficiently than if you’re trying to figure out the exact meaning of every word.

Make Sure You Answer Every Question

Is the GRE math hard? It gets harder if you don’t make sure to answer every single question (and not just in the Quant section). Some questions will have multiple sub-sections, and there is no partial credit given in the GRE. That means it’s important that you answer every question and sub-question – even if you’re not 100% sure of the answer. If you’re running low on time and have a few questions left unanswered, make an educated guess. A potentially wrong answer is better than no answer at all.

Get The Easy Questions Out Of The Way

A great tip to pass the GRE is to eliminate easy questions first. You can get these questions out of the way quickly and build up your confidence, only addressing the more difficult questions when you’re ready. That way, you can ensure that you have plenty of time left to answer them, but you’re also in a great state of mind to tackle them without becoming disheartened.

Map The Passage On Reading Comprehension Questions

It’s crucial to remember that whether reading comprehension questions involve medieval French mead recipes or a history of Brazilian soccer, they’re all there to test one thing – your ability to recognize themes and ideas.

This means that you don’t need to be a historian, philosopher or anything else to answer a GRE reading comprehension question. You simply need to map the passage by taking note of the main idea, how the passage is structured, any arguments made, and who is making said arguments. This will encourage you to engage your active reading skills, and will make answering reading comp questions quicker.

Also bear in mind that GRE reading comprehension questions require no knowledge beyond what is in the passage, and require no real-world knowledge. If it’s not in the passage, it’s not relevant.

Establish A Pace And Stick To It

Just as on the GMAT, time is tight on the GRE, so you need to pace your answers to make sure that you fit everything in. Excluding the AWA section, you’ll have roughly 1:30 to 1:45 to answer a single question – not a lot of time at all, particularly given that some questions have multiple parts.

In order to prepare for this, make sure that you stick to the time limit whenever you take a practice test. This will ensure that you get into a good rhythm and are fully accustomed to the time constraints of the test before you set foot in the examination room.

Don’t Waste Time Calculating On Quantitative Comparison Questions

Certain Quant questions will ask you to compare two quantities. When asking the question “is the GRE math hard?” it’s probably necessary to see whether or not you’re answering Quant questions efficiently. For Quantitative Comparison questions, the values are irrelevant and do not need to be calculated – you need only to understand the relationship between the two values. The four possible answers are the same each time:

  • Quantity A is greater than Quantity B
  • Quantity B is greater than Quantity A
  • Quantity A is equal to Quantity B
  • There is insufficient data to compare Quantity A to Quantity B

The answer to the question can always be found without calculating anything, so don’t bother wasting time trying to do so.

Use Your Scratch Paper As Much And As Often As Necessary

Is the GRE harder than the GMAT? Not if you make judicious use of your scratch paper to take notes whenever necessary. You have a functionally unlimited supply of scratch paper upon which you can write notes and make calculations; if you run out, simply ask the administrator for more. These notes/calculations can speed up your question response time considerably, so make good use of them!

Re-Read Your AWA Answers for Typos/Grammar Mistakes

This may be a little tricky to do due to time constraints, but if you do have time it’s a good reason to read back over your essays in order to check for any typos or grammatical errors. AWA answers are graded on clarity of language, so if it’s possible to correct a few mistakes before finishing, it’s worth doing.

Use Concrete Numbers For Problem Solving Questions

Problem Solving questions will quite often give you abstract information with variables rather than set values – for instance, ‘a>b’. It can be helpful to insert concrete numbers into these equations when attempting to answer the questions, as actual numbers are more tangible and easier to work with than abstracts. Keep the numbers as small as possible and use integers – it seems obvious, but there’s no need to complicate things with decimals.

Take The 10-Minute Breaks

It’s crucial that you take every opportunity you get to decompress and unwind a little. The 10-minute breaks between sections are there for a reason – make use of them and take your mind off the test for a minute. Nothing is more detrimental to your chances of success than burning out, so as tips to pass the GRE go, this is one of the better ones.


Is the GRE difficult? Many people would say “yes”, but as with any standardized test it’s simply a matter of becoming accustomed to the pace and format of the examination, and preparing for it accordingly. The more preparation time you put into it, and the more familiar you are with question formats and general tendencies, the better a chance you’ll have of passing.

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