The GRE sections consist of three main sections, which are scored, and two that are unscored. The GRE is similar to in some ways, as the follow a similar format, although the content and intent of the tests are different. There are some changes coming to the GRE that will be implemented next year. These changes won’t eliminate any of the GRE sections but will reduce the number of questions in each section. If you have to take the GRE to get into your program, your GRE test prep should still include the original long-form style of the GRE as these changes won’t affect your . This article will break down each GRE section by explaining what each section asks, what its intent is, give you sample questions to aid your GRE preparation, and give you other tips for how to ace the GRE.
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The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) has three scored sections:
- Verbal Reasoning
- Analytical Writing
- Quantitative Reasoning
The test also includes two sections that won’t count toward your final scores, but you will still have to complete them. The two unscored sections are:
- A repeat of either the Verbal or Quantitative Reasoning section
- A research section that is used by ETS to improve the test
Want to learn some top strategies you can use when writing your grad school statement of purpose? Watch this video:
Within each of the three main sections are adaptive sub-sections that contain different types of questions based on the section’s intent or purpose. As you can tell from the names, each section tests a different aspect of your knowledge and they all use different methods. For example, the Verbal Reasoning section breaks down into three different sub-sections, which are:
- Text Completion
- Reading Comprehension
- Sentence Equivalence
We’ll explore each of these sections later, but the Verbal Reasoning section is meant to assess your vocabulary, your ability to understand the meaning of words in a specific context, and whether you can understand complex, graduate-level texts and can identify their main points. The other two sections are not divided into separate sub-sections, but use a variety of question types to make the test more challenging.
The Quantitative Reasoning section follows this format. It has three distinct question categories that are spread throughout the test, although not evenly:
- Problem Solving
- Data Interpretation
- Quantitative Comparison
The final section – Analytical Writing – is exactly what it sounds like, in that it is the most writing-heavy section. You will have to produce two mini essays based on specific prompts. But each sub-section has a different purpose, as you will have to either:
- Analyze an Argument
- Analyze an Issue
As most other standardized tests, such as the LSAT or the MCAT, the GRE is timed, and you will typically have 30-35 minutes to answer questions in each sub-section, which puts the length of the GRE at just under four hours, similar to . However, as we mentioned, the GRE is about to get shorter. The new test is supposed to take only two hours to complete, which is a move by ETS to restore the relevance of the GRE to graduate school admissions, as it has dropped in both popularity and use.
- Unfairly privileged people who can afford
- Does not accurately predict the success of those who take the test
After these studies came out, many graduate schools, from the most elite, such as and to the , dropped the test from its graduate school admissions requirements. Many people have applauded the move, but ETS has responded by shortening the test, and arguing that the inequality that prevents students from affording has nothing to do with the test itself.
For now, as we’ve given you the broad strokes of the GRE sections, we can explore them more in-depth, and point out ways that you can improve your timing, your test strategy and what you need to look out for in each test.
Number of Sub-Sections: 2
Time Limit: 30 minutes
Score Scale: 0-6 (lowest to highest)
- Critical thinking
- Writing skills
- Analytical skills
As a potential graduate student this section might be the easiest for you. Every undergraduate has spent their four years learning and mastering these skills by producing countless essays. But if writing and comprehension are not your strongest suits, and you have trouble formulating an argument, and defending or supporting it, then you should try a few writing exercises to practice.
Analyze an Issue
The question format of the Analyze an Issue sub-section is very short, but it can be intimidating in its brevity. You are only given a short prompt or statement, and a paragraph providing instructions; that’s it. There is no word limit as you only have 30 minutes to write the essay, but you shouldn’t take the opportunity to write whatever you want. You have to structure the essay properly and organize it in a way that makes sense to you and your reader.
One way to practice for the Analyze an Issue section is to write a rough draft of any of the essays and statements you’ll need to submit with your graduate school application. You can borrow the format of the Analyze an Issue section – responding to a prompt – and write a , or a personal statement that tries to follow the same structure, in that you:
- State a clear position
- Support and defend your position with logical arguments
- Use clear, coherent language
- Organize your argument logically
How to Study for the Analyze an Issue Section
You can take a prompt from the ETS website to practice and to see how the sample responses are scored and evaluated by GRE evaluators so you know what you have to include in your essay and what you have to leave out. What makes writing this essay even more challenging is that you have to complete it on the ETS proprietary word processor, which has a few important features (cut/paste, undo, and insert text), but you won’t have spell-check or grammar-check tools, so you need to be careful and review the essay thoroughly for mistakes before you submit it.
Another important way to prepare for this section is by dividing the time allotted among the most important points that you should cover. For example:
- 5-10 minutes formulating your position
- 10-15 minutes writing the essay
- 4-5 minutes revising the essay
Broken down like that, you can see that you don’t have a lot of time to write, which is the main challenge of a test like the GRE – producing excellent work in a short amount of time. You don’t have to follow this exact timetable, but you should give yourself time limits for how long you spend on each section so you cover all the important points of the exercise.
Analyze an Argument
The Analyze an Argument section is a little different than the Issue section, as it tests your comprehension and analytical skills more than your writing skills, because you will have to take apart an argument using your own general knowledge about various topics. You won’t have to produce an essay, but read one, and then, demonstrate through a written response that:
- You understood what the author was saying
- You can point to specific arguments made by the author
- You can invalidate the arguments using evidence and your own analysis
A tricky part of the Argument section is that you also have to make assumptions about the author’s argument, and relate how those assumptions disprove what the author is saying. This means that you have to consider things that are not written within the question or prompt but are still related to the subject you are analyzing.
For example, you may be given a prompt discussing the points used by someone applying for a bank loan (current business environment, market share, projected earnings, etc.). In your response you would have to consider not only what is written in the prompt, but outside variables, such as bank loan defaults, best business practices, and interest rates that are related to the topic, directly or indirectly.
However, this does not mean that you need to study these subjects, simply that you should make a habit during your GRE prep of reading as much as you can about different subjects in newspapers, magazines, blogs, essays, and academic journals. Remembering even the smallest fact related to a general topic can help give your response the nuance and subtlety that ETS readers are looking for in your response. This kind of preparation is also key to as you should have at least generalized knowledge about current events and recent, important legal decisions.
How to Study for the Analyze an Argument Section
The Argument section uses different types of prompts, which will ask different things and ask you to approach each response differently. There are eight different types of prompts that will follow the essay or writing sample. If you have the time, you can explore each of the eight prompts with a writing sample to practice addressing the points raised by each, but you can also focus strictly on one to build-up the analytical skills you’ll need to properly respond to any of them.
This is because building up your critical thinking skills is essential to acing this section. The more you are able to follow a line of reasoning, look for and identify key pieces of evidence, and present your arguments in a cogent and understandable way, the better you’ll be able to respond effectively to any of the eight prompts.
Sample “Analyze an Issue” Prompts
“Globalization has both positive and negative effects on cultures around the world. Analyze the impact of globalization on cultural diversity and heritage, and discuss whether the positives outweigh the negatives.”
“The concept of a 'universal basic income' has gained attention as a potential solution to income inequality and unemployment. Discuss the advantages and challenges of implementing a universal basic income policy.”
Increasing urbanization has led to environmental degradation in many cities. Analyze the relationship between urban development and environmental sustainability, and propose strategies to mitigate the negative impact.
Sample Answer for Prompt #2
Poverty remains a persistent challenge everywhere but the concept of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) has the potential to transform society. The idea is simple, but the effects could be far-reaching. This financial safety net could alleviate poverty, but also increase social cohesion and people’s overall well-being. Thousands could escape the cycle of inter-generational poverty and the dream of a more equitable society could be reached.
UBI involves granting every citizen a regular unconditional cash payment, regardless of their socioeconomic background. Its critics say that a basic income will disincentivize people to work. I would make the argument that it would let people contribute to society in a way more meaningful and fulfilling to them, then something they are forced to do to make a living.
The Finnish UBI experiment showcased that although the increase in employment was limited, participants experienced improved well-being and reduced financial stress. This underscores UBI's potential to enhance people's lives, aligning with my belief in the program's positive influence.
The concept of UBI also resonates with me because it could be a way to address other poverty-related issues like homelessness. Although not the same as UBI, Salt Lake City's free housing program, which offers permanent, rent-free housing to the unhoused has nearly eliminated chronic homelessness in the city. This program has had the added effect of cultivating more empathy and compassion among citizens.
Alternately, Salt Lake City’s free housing program and UBI pose challenges. Implementing both of these programs on a large scale requires careful financial planning. While the potential increase in taxes is a concern, it is essential to weigh this against the positive impacts on poverty reduction and overall societal harmony.
Although challenges exist, the advantages, as demonstrated by the Finnish experiment and the free housing program in Salt Lake City, are undeniable. I am convinced that UBI can alleviate poverty, foster social cohesion, and uplift individuals' well-being. As we collectively strive for a more equitable and compassionate world, UBI stands as a tangible step towards realizing these aspirations.
Number of Sub-Sections: 3
Time Limit: 30 minutes for each sub-section
Score Scale: 130-170 (lowest to highest)
Verbal Reasoning is another text-heavy section, but instead of making you analyze and formulate arguments, you will have to read passages and either:
- Complete a sentence by choosing the correct word
- Complete sentences by choosing two or more correct words
- Choose an answer that best summarizes a sentence or passage
This GRE section is one you can definitely study for in a traditional way, meaning you’ll have to learn and memorize the definitions of words. But you should also focus on reviewing and analyzing different texts, as this section does require you to also identify parts of an argument, how they all relate to each other, and what, fundamentally, is the author’s point or thesis.
The question formats are different for each sub-section. In the Reading Comprehension sub-section, you’ll be given:
- A short, one-paragraph passage
- A follow-up question
- A list of answers to choose from
This sub-section is where you’ll also use your analytical and comprehension skills to figure out how to choose the correct answer. You have to be able to understand an author’s argument, but, as with the Analyze an Argument sub-section in Analytical Writing, you also have to be able to understand what is implied by the author’s text, as well as what’s explicitly written.
But since there are so many variations on the text used, and the questions being asked you will also have to be able to:
- Recognize any secondary or supplementary arguments an author is making
- Distinguish between arguments the author supports strongly and arguments they are less passionate about
- Connect the various arguments within a passage to understand their relation to one another.
How to Study for Reading Comprehension
Fortunately, the prep you do for the Analyze an Argument sub-section will also be useful here. You should prepare for the Reading Comprehension sub-section by mining all the graduate-level texts you can find for the words used, as well as the structure and composition they use for their arguments. The texts you should read could be the same – scholarly articles, position papers, opinion essays, long-form reporting articles.
Sample Reading Comprehension Question
"Many species of birds migrate thousands of miles every year, traversing vast landscapes to reach their breeding and wintering grounds. These impressive journeys have long fascinated scientists and bird enthusiasts alike. One bird that stands out in this regard is the Arctic Tern, known for its incredible annual migration.
Arctic Terns breed in the Arctic regions during the short summer months, taking advantage of the abundant food supply. As winter approaches, they begin an astonishing journey to their wintering grounds in the Antarctic. This journey covers a distance of up to 44,000 miles, making the Arctic Tern's migration the longest recorded migration of any bird.
What's even more remarkable is the route they take. Instead of flying directly between the Arctic and Antarctic, Arctic Terns follow a zigzagging route that takes advantage of prevailing wind patterns and ocean currents. This indirect route helps them conserve energy and find food along the way. Additionally, they experience almost continuous daylight for the duration of their journey, which may contribute to their ability to stay on course."
Which of the following is NOT mentioned as a reason why Arctic Terns follow an indirect migration route?
A) To conserve energy.
B) To take advantage of wind patterns and ocean currents.
C) To find food along the way.
D) To avoid predators.
E) To experience continuous daylight.
Based on the information in the passage, why do Arctic Terns migrate to the Antarctic for the winter?
A) To find food during the winter months.
B) To escape the harsh conditions of the Arctic.
C) To take advantage of continuous daylight.
D) To breed in the warmer climate.
E) To follow a specific migration pattern.
Text Completion might seem easy on the surface (they’re basically fill-in-the-blanks questions), but you have to be aware of a few subtleties. This sub-section has two distinct question types, which are:
- Multiple choice/single answer
- Multiple choice/more than one answer
The way it works is that you’ll be given a short, three-or-five sentence passage with either a single missing word, or multiple missing words that have multiple answers for each empty space. We’ll give you sample questions to see what we mean, but where the difficulty lies in the text completion section is that there will only be slight differences between the multiple-choice words and phrases.
All of the words might make sense to complete the passage, grammatically, but within the context of the question and the passage’s argument might be incorrect. That’s why you have to pay close attention to the author’s intent in the passage, understand their tone and overall message, and understand the other words being used to choose the word that fits best in that context. Some questions will be easier than others, but regardless, you should pay close attention to the entire passage, and not just the list of words and answers.
How to Study for Text Completion
If you don’t already do them, you can prepare by doing a lot of crossword puzzles, which is a good way to increase your vocabulary anyway. The discipline and rigidness of crossword puzzles will also make you guess less and try harder to find the right answer the first time or with very little effort. You can also try to create a list of words, their category (verbs, adverbs, nouns) and their definition or write them down on flashcards to be able to read and recall everything about them, just by looking at it.
Sample Text Completion Questions
The Sentence Equivalence sub-section is where you usually have to find the right word(s) to complete a single sentence rather than an entire passage. You also have to word sentences differently from each other, which tests your vocabulary and whether you can express ideas in various ways. Again, this sounds easy, but with the clock ticking and seeing words you’ve never seen before, it can be difficult for even the strongest students. Here, each word matters. You need to be able to discern how specific words and phrases (“moreover”, “besides”, “equally important”, “although”) either:
- Change the direction of the author’s narrative
- Introduces something new to the sentence
- Modifies what was said before or after
The question format is simple. You are given a single sentence, and a list of six words. However, you might be asked to find two words that fit instead of one, which, depending on how you look at it, makes it easier or harder. That’s why we talked about all the small differences that you have to notice to be able to pick two words from a list of words that all look the same and could each “fit” into the sentence if this wasn’t a test.
How to Prepare for Sentence Equivalence
Coming into the Sentence equivalence with an outsized vocabulary is the best way to get a . That takes years to develop and hopefully, being a university graduate, you have. But if you want to be doubly prepared for this GRE section so you can complete it faster and spend more time writing the essay or figuring out the maths problems in the Quantitative Reasoning section, the best way to prepare for this section is by being an active reader.
You should read material (long-form articles in major magazines, feature or personal essays by well-known writers, trade journals, technical reviews, research summaries) online and whenever you find a word you don’t know or understand, Goole it right away. Write down the definition immediately on a piece of paper so you can remember and reference it later. This is a more high-tech way than doing it with a pen, paper and a dictionary, but if that’s your style, you can do it that way too.
Sample Sentence Equivalence Questions
Number of Questions: 20 questions
Time Limit: 35 minutes for each sub-section
Score Scale: 130 to 170 (lowest to highest)
The math portion of the GRE may be the most difficult for some, depending on your academic background. But you’ll see more words than numbers, and to put your mind at ease even more, there is no calculus, trigonometry or having to create or solve mathematical proofs in this GRE section. You’ll have to have some understanding of algebra and geometry, which is taught in high school, but if you’re rusty, you can and should prepare.
This GRE section is divided into different question types, rather than different sections. The question types are:
- Quantitative comparison (you’ll have to compare how two separate quantities relate)
- Data interpretation sets (you’ll be given tables, graphs, charts and asked to answer questions about them)
But the question formats can range from:
- Multiple-choice with a single answer
- Multiple-choice with many answers
- Numeric entry (you have to calculate a numerical answer and insert it the provided space)
Any of the question formats can apply to the question types, but only the Quantitative Comparison question have the same list of answer and use only one type of question. The other questions type can split off into various formats, which you’ll find on your practice tests. You may be asked to solve a problem that is either multiple-choice or numeric entry, and the same applies to Data Interpretation.
These questions are multiple choice, but always have the same choices, since all you have to do is measure the relationship between two separate quantities. You most likely won’t need your calculator for these questions, as most of them come in the format of word problems (but, sometimes they are expressed mathematically in algebra equations), but more important in this section is to think mathematically to be able to find the right answer.
The answer choices are always:
- Quantity A is greater.
- Quantity B is greater.
- The two quantities are equal.
- The relationship cannot be determined from the information given.
So even if it is a word problem, you have to break the problem down into individual variables and plug them into a formula or equation that agrees with your choice and disagrees with the rest of the four answer choices. But since this may take too much time, you can also just take the information as presented, and find the relationships among them guided by the various symbols that link them (the less-than <, greater than >, equal to =). You can also substitute some of the letter values with numbers, if that helps you figure out how calculate them properly.
Problem-solving questions on the GRE can divide into various types, some of which are more familiar than others. Do you remember any of the word problem, arithmetic questions on the like “if Train A departs the station at 12:45, and Train B is supposed to arrive at 1:05....”? If you do then you should expect to find those questions, along with a few variations, such as numeric entry and multiple-choice questions with several answers on the GRE. There are also problem-solving questions where you’ll have to interpret and analyze different data sets presented in the form of graphs, charts and tables.
Gathering and then interpreting data is one of the most crucial and foundational skills you’ll need as a graduate student, which is why the QR section has data interpretation sets and questions. These questions will test whether you can accurately read and draw conclusions or form assumptions based on data displayed in several formats, from tables, graphs, and charts. You’ll either have to enter a numeric value to answer this question, or choose a correct answer from a list of answers related to the information displayed. You should prepare by reading sample questions so you can build upon the analytical and interpretation skills you have, while also learning more about what each of these data sets represents.
How to Prepare for the Quantitative Reasoning Section
The Quantitative Reasoning section will test your hard math skills meaning the things that all students are taught in high school, such as beginner-level statistics (averages, mean, median), geometry (parallels, triangles, planes) and algebra (basic linear equations, relations, and functions). If these are not your strongest areas, you can hire a to help you focus specifically on developing your math skills, which will be important to the GRE. If you can’t hire a tutor, then you should use ETS’s prep materials and strategies specifically designed for the Quantitative Reasoning section to find out which strategy to use and for which question type.
Sample Quantitative Reasoning Questions
Question #1 - Data Interpretation
Refer to the table below and answer the question.
If a customer buys 2 apples, 3 bananas, and 4 oranges, what is the total cost?
Sample Multiple Choice Problem-Solving Questions
1. How many GRE sections are there?
For now, there are three main GRE sections, but there are two unscored sections that you also have to complete. ETS plans on reducing the number of questions in each section, although they will keep the number of sections on the test.
2. What are the skills/knowledge the GRE tests?
Each of the three GRE sections is supposed to assess your knowledge in several areas from your reading, comprehension, analytical skills and vocabulary in the Verbal Reasoning section, to your writing, communication and ability to make arguments in the Analytical Writing section. The Quantitative Reasoning section focuses on your arithmetic, data analysis, and problem-solving skills.
3. Which is the hardest GRE section?
The hardest GRE section is different for everyone, but, in general, every section is meant to be difficult even for the brightest students. But the hardest part of the GRE is that its timed, which makes trying to do anything difficult.
4. How many questions are there in each GRE section?
The exact number of questions for each section varies from test to test, but only Verbal and Quantitative Reasoning have a range of questions from between 20-27 per section. The Analytical Writing section is made up of two sections that are writing-based and do not have typical multiple-choice answers.
5. What is a good GRE score?
There are multiple ways to calculate your GRE score, either separately for each section, or a scaled score representing your performance in all three sections, and a percentile score that compares your performance to all the other test-takers. A good GRE score also depends on what score you need, but generally for each section you should aim for anywhere between 153-160 with 170 being a perfect score for Verbal and Quantitative Reasoning. Analytical Writing is scored differently and uses a 0-6 range, with 6 being the highest. Getting a perfect score on the AW section is possible, but anywhere between a 4 or 5 is exceptional.
6. How can I prepare for the GRE?
You can prepare for the GRE by tackling each GRE section individually and timing yourself for each section. You should create a study schedule to find out how much time you need to study (total study hours in the triple digits has been shown to correlate to a high score) but you should also take a diagnostic test to figure all this out. You should also read actively and create lists and flashcards of important words, and formulas that you’ll need to remember to answer the questions.
7. How long does the GRE take?
8. Should I take the GRE?
If you must submit GRE scores to get into your program, then yes. However, now, both Ivy Leage graduate schools as well as the have either dropped the GRE requirement or made it optional. If you take anything away from this article it should be that the GRE is not easy, and requires at least a few months of preparation. If you don’t have to take the GRE and the programs you are interested in do not require it, you should spend the time before applying on more important, and required supporting materials, such as your , , a , or getting good .