How Difficult is the Math on the GRE? – Full Overview

by Maximilian Claessens
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How Difficult is the Math on the GRE - Full Overview

How difficult is the math on the GRE? It’s a question that crops up time and time again, particularly given the importance accorded to the Quantitative Reasoning section of the test by many business school and postgraduate admissions officers. It’s also important to have an idea of its difficulty when considering preparation for GRE math, as this will affect how much time you put into prepping.

There’s no easy answer to the question of GRE math difficulty; the fact of the matter is that it’s affected by many factors, including your ability, your level of preparedness, and the fact that the Quant section itself is section-adaptive (we’ll get to this later).

Let’s take a look at the difficulty of math on the GRE. Also check out our guide on the overall difficulty of the GRE and the difficulty levels of GRE and GMAT compared.

How Much Math Is On The GRE?

There is primarily one section of the GRE that deals with math – the Quantitative Reasoning section.

The Quantitative Reasoning section revolves entirely around math, and is designed to assess your ability in several areas, chiefly:

  • Quantitative reasoning and problem-solving abilities;
  • Your grasp of basic mathematical concepts like arithmetic and algebra;
  • General elementary mathematical skills.

Math Topics On The GRE

As mentioned, the math on the GRE is very much based around elementary math. This means that you’re not going to encounter any math that you wouldn’t have covered in high school. Note that this is not a license not to study for the GRE; you will most likely still need to brush up on these skills even if you’re pretty confident in your abilities!

Let’s take a more in-depth look at the type of math you’re likely to find on the GRE.

Math Topics on the GRE - An Overview
Math Topics on the GRE – An Overview

Arithmetic

Basic arithmetic is a big part of the Quant section of the GRE. During the section you can expect to encounter:

  • Integers: their properties, odd/even integers, divisibility, prime numbers, factorization, and remainders.
  • Arithmetic operations, roots and exponents.
  • Arithmetic concepts such as ratio, rate, mean/median/mode, the number line, absolute value, number sequencing, decimal representation, percentages, and estimations.

Algebra

You’ll need a solid grasp of basic algebra concepts, including:

  • Simplifying/factoring algebra equations.
  • Using exponents in operations.
  • Linear and quadratic inequalities and equations.
  • Simultaneous inequalities and equations.
  • Geometry coordination, including inequalities and equations, graphs of function, slopes of lines and intercepts.
  • Solving word problems with equations.
  • Functions, relations, inequalities and equations.

Data Analysis

You’ll be expected to analyze data quickly and efficiently. This includes testing such concepts as:

  • Using methods of counting such as Venn diagrams, permutations and combinations.
  • Conditional probabilities.
  • Reading and interpreting data found in a variety of graphs and tables, including (but not limited to) box- and scatterplots, bar/line graphs, and frequency distributions.
  • Using basic descriptive statistics such as range (including interquartile); mean, median and mode; quartiles; and percentiles.
  • Basic probability, including probabilities of independent and compound events.
  • Random variables and distributions of probability, including normal distributions.

Geometry

A great many geometrical concepts are typically tested, including (but not limited to):

  • Circles
  • Quadrilaterals
  • Perpendicular and parallel lines
  • Triangles of all descriptions
  • Polygons not listed above
  • 3D figures
  • Congruent figures and similar
  • Volume
  • Area
  • Perimeter
  • Angle measurement using degrees
  • Pythagoras Theorem
  • Volume

All of the math concepts that you’ll come across are, as previously mentioned, pitched at a level no higher than standard high school math. There is no calculus, trigonometry, or any other kind of advanced math.

Mathematical Conventions, Terminology And Symbols

The math on the GRE, unless otherwise noted, follows general mathematical conventions and uses standard terminology and symbols. A number line’s positive direction follows from left to right, prime numbers are always of a value greater than one, and all distances are non-negative. If non-standard notation is ever used for any reason, it will be explicitly noted in the question.

Several mathematical assumptions are made in addition to the above:

  • Figures are assumed to lie in a plane unless otherwise noted.
  • Geometric figures are not necessarily to scale.
  • All numbers are real numbers.
  • Geometric lines depicted as straight are assumed to be straight.
  • Points on lines are in the same order as shown.
  • Geometric objects are in the same relative position as depicted.
  • Geometric questions should be answered using geometric principles; you should not attempt to ‘eyeball’ it.
  • Coordinate systems (like x/y planes and number lines) and data presented in graphics (such as graphs) are drawn to scale and can be treated accordingly. 

Types Of Questions In The Quantitative Reasoning Section Of The GRE

There are four types of questions to be found in the Quant section of the GRE. Let’s take a look at each type of question in detail.

Quantitative Comparison

In these types of questions, you’ll be asked to compare two quantities (A and B) and reach one of four conclusions:

  • Quantity A is greater than quantity B.
  • Quantity B is greater than quantity A.
  • The two quantities are equal.
  • There is insufficient data to reach a conclusion either way.

Tips For The Quantitative Comparison Section

  • Familiarize Yourself With The Answer Options. Quant Comparison questions always have the same four answers, so get to know them. This goes double for the last one, which seems to the unwary as if it wouldn’t get used often, but in fact does.
  • Don’t forget: geometric shapes are not necessarily to scale. Use only the geometric information you are presented with; do not attempt to figure out lengths or angles by eye. If any values are not given, use the values that you do have to figure them out.
  • Simplify comparisons. If both of the values are expressed using the same mathematical concept (e.g. algebraic or arithmetic) then try to simplify the values in order to make establishing a relationship between them easier.
  • Don’t waste time on unnecessary calculations. Estimate, transform or simplify one or both values as and when needed in order to save time and answer the question as quickly as possible.
  • Put numbers into algebraic equations. Use as many kinds of numbers as are necessary (positive, negative, zero, integers, fractions, decimals) to understand the relationship between the two values, but remember not to waste time on superfluous calculations.

Multiple Choice Questions (Select One Answer Only)

There are two kinds of Quant multiple choice questions; this type gives you a selection of five possible answers, from which you choose only one.

Tips For Single-Answer Multiple Choice Questions

  • Examine each potential answer carefully. In addition to ruling out incorrect answers quickly, you may also be able to establish a relationship between the potential answers that will help you to find the answer more quickly. It’s also sometimes a good idea to swap out values in equations or inequalities in order to see if they still work; this method, however, is quite time-consuming, so it’s very much a judgment call.
  • Remember that the answer is always present. If you’ve somehow reached a different conclusion independently, then your conclusion is, necessarily, incorrect. Carefully re-read the problem and potential answers, and recalculate if necessary.
  • For approximations, figure out how accurate your approximation needs to be. It may sometimes be the case that you need to calculate everything but the final value exactly, which will require a little more effort. However, in other questions, a rough estimation will suffice, and you needn’t spend a long time on precise computations.

Multiple Choice Questions (Select Multiple Answers)  

These questions are similar to the previous type, with the exception being that you’ll need to select more than one answer. The number of choices may be specified within the problem, or you may need to decide by yourself.

Tips For Multi-Answer Multiple Choice Questions

  • Don’t engage in complex calculations unless necessary. Sometimes numerical patterns can be identified in the problem (or in the potential answers); make use of these to avoid having to perform unnecessary computations.
  • Establish whether or not you need to choose a specific number of answers, or all answers that apply. If choosing all answers that apply, bear in mind that there may only be one answer that applies. Carefully consider all of the potential answers and use the process of elimination to choose the ones that apply.
  • Some questions have conditions that limit the potential values of answers. In this case, it can be helpful to determine the maximum and minimum possible values, in order to more quickly eliminate incorrect answers.   

Numeric Entry Questions

In these questions, you will input an integer or decimal value in a single box – or a fraction in two separate boxes – rather than selecting from multiple answers.

Tips For Numeric Entry Questions

  • Round your answer to the nearest degree of accuracy (when necessary). If you’re asked to round to the nearest integer, for instance, round up or down accordingly if you have a decimal value. If you need to make intermediate calculations, do not round anything up or down until you have your final value. If you are not asked to round your answer up or down, provide it as it is.
  • Answer the question that is asked. This sounds obvious, but it’s easy to slip up under pressure and give the answer in the wrong format (for instance, answering with a decimal when an integer is required). Pay particular attention to the units of measurements used (yards vs. meters, for instance).
  • Doublecheck your answer against the problem once finished. It pays to make sure that your answer is consistent with the question asked, and that you’ve used the best possible computations when arriving at that answer. Is it possible to use different calculations to check your answer? If such calculations give you a different answer, chances are you’ve made a mistake.

Data Interpretation Questions

Data interpretation questions are presented in a group and refer to a single source of data such as a table or graph. You are asked to interpret or analyze the given data; the questions may be numeric entry or multiple choice (of both single- and multi-choice varieties).

Tips For Data Interpretation Questions

  • Quickly compare quantities in bar and line graphs, whether by sight or calculation. This will give you a quick overview of the varying values used and the relationships between them, which will in turn contextualize the data and help you to answer the question(s).
  • Briefly scan the presented data. Similarly to the above, this will contextualize information and give you a better shot at answering the questions quickly.
  • Use your own math skills, basic general knowledge (like days in the week, months in the year etc.) and the presented data to answer questions. Do not use your own real-world knowledge (beyond the aforementioned simple general knowledge) to attempt to answer questions; everything you need is already contained within the question (again, beyond basic everyday knowledge).

Math On The GRE: General Problem-Solving Advice

While the above advice is useful for tackling specific math topics on the GRE, it’s worth bearing in mind some general advice for mathematical problem-solving.

Make Sure You Understand The Problem

It’s rather difficult to solve a problem if you do not first understand the problem. With that in mind:

  • Some of the information provided may be given in the form of quantities. These quantities may be expressed in mathematical equations, words, or a combination of the two.
  • Quantitative data may also be put forward in coordinate systems, geometric figures or data presentations (graphs, tables, etc.).
  • Information may also be presented in the form of definitions or conditions (like equations or inequalities). These conditions can also be presented in word formats that require translations into inequalities or conditions.

It’s important that, in addition to understanding the problem, you understand what you need to do in order to solve the problem. What calculations will be necessary? What quantities will need to be found before you can solve the problem? Once you’ve established this information, you’ll be in a position to correctly answer the question.

Devise And Implement A Strategy For Solving The Question  

Simply understanding a math problem on the GRE is not enough to solve it; you may know the conditions, quantities and unknown factors involved, but this in of itself does not equip you to correctly answer the question. In order to up your GRE math scores by answering the question correctly, you need to figure out which mathematical facts in the problem you need to use, and when/how to use them. For this, you need to devise a strategy.

There are a great many strategies that can be used to solve a math problem, and enumerating them all here would be beyond the scope of this article. It is important, however, that you develop a mental library of such problem-solving approaches that you can employ at any time, speeding up your answering process and making it more likely that you’ll correctly answer the question.

Once you’ve decided upon your chosen strategy, implement it and follow it through to its logical conclusion. That said, be flexible; if your chosen strategy isn’t working, don’t stubbornly stick to your guns at the expense of correctly solving the problem. Re-evaluate and, if necessary, switch to a new strategy.

Check Your Answer

This sounds obvious, but in the heat of the moment and the pressure of the test environment, it’s easy to get flustered and rush things. It’s important that you hold your horses and check things over before moving on.

When it comes to the math on the GRE, there are a few things you should do to check your answers:

  • Have you responded to the question that was asked? Sounds obvious, again, but it can be easy to use values that were not asked for, or get off-track during the course of your calculations.
  • Did you make any mathematical errors in the course of arriving at your solution? Briefly re-check the calculations you used to arrive at your chosen answer. If an algebraic equation is part of the problem, check your answer by plugging it into the equation. Failing that, check each step of the solution you used to make sure you haven’t made any mistakes.
  • Does your answer make sense in the context of the question? Check your answer against basic mathematic facts. The area of a geometric shape must be positive, for example, and the probability of an event must be somewhere between 0 and 1 (inclusive). If your answer is not consistent with basic elements of math, check and try again.

Conclusion

What is the difficulty of the math on the GRE? It’s certainly not easy, that’s for sure – but if you take the right steps, study the math topics on the GRE and make sure that you engage in sufficient preparation for GRE math, then you should be ready to take it on and make sure that you get the best possible score.

Though it does seem like there’s a lot that you need to prep for (and a lot of dormant mathematical knowledge that you’ll need to dredge up), the fact is that you don’t need anything beyond high-school level math. This means that most teenagers are equipped to pass the math on the GRE. It’s just a matter of reactivating that math knowledge, and making the most of it. Good luck, and may you get the best math score on the GRE possible!

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