"How Hard is the GRE?" is a question many prospective graduate students grapple with. The GRE, or Graduate Record Examinations, is often a requirement for getting into grad school in the US and Canada, and understanding its intricacies is crucial for getting a great GRE score. In this article, we'll delve into the GRE's structure, its scoring methodology and analyze the average scores for top institutions. Additionally, we will provide insights into what makes the test challenging and offer actionable strategies to help you achieve your desired score.

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Article Contents
12 min read

How Hard Is the GRE? The Facts What Makes the GRE Challenging? How Hard is the GRE: The Structure How Is the GRE Scored? Average Matriculant Scores for Top Schools Why Are GRE Scores Scaled? How Hard is the GRE: How to Get a Good GRE Score How Hard is the GRE: How Can I Approach GRE Passages Effectively? Conclusion FAQs

How Hard Is the GRE? The Facts

When discussing the difficulty of the GRE, it's essential to rely on objective data and not just subjective experiences. Here are some factual insights to provide a clearer picture:

  • Test Length and Structure: The GRE is a long exam, lasting approximately 3 hours and 45 minutes, including breaks. It consists of six GRE sections: two Verbal Reasoning, two Quantitative Reasoning, one Analytical Writing, and one unscored research or experimental section. We will discuss this obstacle in more detail later in the article, but for many students, the length and structure of the exam are a huge challenge, requiring sustained concentration. The length and the structure of GRE influence how you study for the GRE and your test-taking strategies as well.
  • Broad Range of Topics: The GRE covers various topics in its Verbal and Quantitative sections. For instance, the Quantitative section tests arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and data analysis. This diversity requires test-takers to be well-versed across several domains. This means that your GRE test prep must be multifaceted and in-depth on many topics.

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  • Comparative Performance: According to ETS, the organization that administers the GRE, the mean scores for the most recent test-takers were 150.2 for Verbal Reasoning and 153.5 for Quantitative Reasoning out of a maximum score of 170 for each. The Analytical Writing section had a mean score of 3.6 out of 6. This shows that many test-takers find sections of the exam challenging, as the mean scores are closer to the midpoint than the maximum.
  • Adaptive Nature: The GRE is section-level adaptive. This means your performance in the first sections determines the second Verbal and Quantitative sections' difficulty. While this can be advantageous for well-prepared students, it can increase the pressure and perceived difficulty for many.
  • Time Pressure: Many test-takers report that time constraint is one of the most challenging aspects of the GRE. On average, you have less than 2 minutes per question in the Verbal and Quantitative sections, which can be daunting, especially for complex problems.
  • Analytical Writing: While many standardized tests focus solely on multiple-choice questions, the GRE includes an Analytical Writing section requiring test-takers to articulate complex ideas clearly and effectively. This adds another layer of challenge to the test.

In essence, the difficulty of the GRE is multifaceted. It's not just the complexity of the questions but the combined impact of its structure, length, adaptive nature, and broad range of topics that make it a rigorous assessment.

What Makes the GRE Challenging?

While we've looked at the objective data about the GRE's difficulty, it's also important to understand the subjective challenges that test-takers commonly face. Delving into these aspects can help potential examinees better prepare for the exam and overcome these hurdles.

  • Diverse Vocabulary: One of the primary challenges in the Verbal Reasoning section is the vast and diverse vocabulary that the GRE tests. Words that are infrequently used in everyday language can often pop up in text completions and sentence equivalence questions, making them tough for those who haven't spent significant time on vocabulary preparation.
  • Complex Reading Passages: The reading comprehension passages aren't just about identifying information. They often require the test-taker to understand nuances, the author's intent, and the underlying assumptions in arguments. Passages can range from scientific discussions to dense literary analyses, requiring a versatile approach to reading.
  • Data Interpretation in Quantitative Section: While many are comfortable with straightforward mathematical problems, the GRE's data interpretation sets – which ask students to analyze data in the form of graphs, charts, and tables – can be time-consuming and tricky.
  • Problem-Solving Under Time Pressure: As mentioned earlier, the GRE doesn't give test-takers the luxury of spending much time on any question. This pressure can make even relatively simple questions seem daunting, especially if a test-taker gets stuck on a particular problem.
  • Analytical Writing Pressure: Crafting coherent, well-argued essays within a strict time frame can be challenging. The pressure to produce two essays quickly can be intense, especially for those unfamiliar with on-the-spot analytical writing.
  • Mental Stamina: Given the test's length, maintaining focus, energy, and a positive attitude throughout the entire duration is a challenge in itself. A minor lapse in concentration can lead to simple mistakes that could be costly regarding scores.
  • High Stakes: For many, the GRE is a crucial part of graduate or business school applications. The knowledge that scores can heavily influence admissions decisions can add a layer of anxiety and pressure, making the test feel even more challenging.

Understanding these challenges is the first step toward effectively addressing them. These hurdles can be overcome with the right strategies, preparation, and mindset, leading to a successful GRE experience.

How Hard is the GRE: The Structure

GRE is not a requirement in every graduate or professional program, but it can be used to offset certain gaps in your grad school resume, especially a low GPA and help you get into your desired grad school with low GPA. But the test’s structure is often what really intimidates students – truly, during your GRE test prep, you are mostly preparing for the unique structure of the test rather than its content. It’s impossible to “learn” and anticipate GRE content – the content is not the challenge – but you must prepare solid test-taking strategies and question-type strategies to do well on the test

So, let’s quickly review the GRE test structure, so we are on the same page. The GRE consists of three main sections:

  1. Analytical Writing: This section consists of two separately timed writing tasks: analyzing an argument and analyzing an issue. It gauges your ability to articulate complex ideas, support ideas with evidence, and maintain a coherent and focused discussion.
  2. Verbal Reasoning: This section assesses your ability to comprehend and evaluate written material, recognize relationships between words and concepts, and analyze and draw conclusions from discourse.
  3. Quantitative Reasoning: Here, the emphasis is on understanding and interpreting quantitative information, solving problems using mathematical principles, and applying basic arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and data analysis.

In addition to these sections, test-takers might encounter an unscored experimental section, which could be either verbal or quantitative. This section does not count towards the final score but is used by ETS for test development purposes.

The GRE is offered in two main formats: the computer-delivered test, which is the more common format, and the paper-delivered test. While the content and the skills tested remain largely the same between the two formats, the number of questions and the time allocated differ slightly.

The structure of the exam is one of the many reasons it is considered a difficult test, so understanding the structure and content of the GRE is the first step towards preparing effectively for the exam. As with any standardized test, familiarity with its format will give you an advantage and help ease any test-day anxiety.

How Is the GRE Scored?

Now that you understand the structure and the common challenges students face taking the GRE, it’s important to understand how the test is scored and what is a good GRE score. Knowing this will not only provide a clearer perspective on where to aim but also highlight the areas where achieving a high score might be more challenging.

  • Analytical Writing: Unlike the other sections, the Analytical Writing section is scored on a scale of 0 to 6, in half-point increments. Essays are assessed by both a human grader and a computerized program, and the final score is the average of the two. If there's a significant discrepancy between the human and computer scores, a second human grader is brought in to evaluate the essay.
  • Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning: Each of these sections is scored on a scale of 130 to 170, in one-point increments. This means the lowest possible score you can receive in either of these sections is 130, and the highest is 170.
  • Total Score: The total score for the GRE is the sum of the Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning scores. This gives a scoring range from 260 to 340. Note that the Analytical Writing score is separate and is not included in this total.
  • Experimental Section: If you encounter an experimental section on your test (as mentioned in the previous section), it will not be scored or affect your overall score. However, you won't know which section is the experimental one while taking the test.
  • Percentile Rank: Along with your scores, you'll also receive a percentile rank, which indicates the percentage of test-takers you performed better than. For instance, if your percentile rank is 90%, it means you did better than 90% of the people who took the test.

It's important to note that while higher scores can enhance your graduate application, many graduate programs consider a holistic view of applicants. This means that other aspects, such as recommendation letters, personal statements, and undergraduate performance, also play a pivotal role in the admission decision.

Average Matriculant Scores for Top Schools

Knowing the average scores of matriculants at top graduate schools can provide a benchmark for your GRE preparation. These averages give prospective students an idea of what score they should aim for to be competitive at their dream institutions.

It's worth noting that these are average scores, and many students with scores both above and below these averages are admitted each year. Additionally, score requirements can vary widely depending on a university's specific program and department.

Why Are GRE Scores Scaled?

Understanding why the GRE scores are scaled can help test-takers grasp the importance and nuances of the scoring mechanism. The GRE's scaled scores aren't just a random measure but are calculated systematically to ensure fairness and accuracy.

  1. Equating Process: The GRE undergoes a process called equating. This means even if you and another test-taker get different sets of questions with varying difficulty levels, the scores are equated to ensure that no test-taker is disadvantaged or benefited because of a slightly easier or harder test version.
  2. Measure of Consistency: The scaled score helps maintain consistency across different test versions. Thus, a score of 160 in Quantitative in one year would represent the same level of proficiency as 160 in another year.
  3. Eliminating Marginal Errors: The adaptive nature of the GRE, where the difficulty of the second section is based on your performance in the first section, can sometimes lead to marginal errors. The scaling process helps minimize these errors, ensuring that your score is the closest representation of your actual performance.
  4. Standardized Benchmarking: Graduate schools receive applications from candidates worldwide. A scaled scoring system allows for a consistent, standardized benchmark, ensuring that scores are comparable regardless of when and where the test was taken.
  5. Holistic Evaluation: The scaling allows admissions committees to assess the skills tested in the GRE, such as critical thinking, analytical writing, and problem-solving, more uniformly. This makes it easier for them to gauge an applicant's readiness for rigorous graduate-level coursework.

How Hard is the GRE: How to Get a Good GRE Score

Achieving a high score on the GRE requires a combination of strategic preparation, understanding the exam's format, and honing specific skills. Here are some actionable tips and strategies to help you succeed on the GRE:

  1. Start Early: Dedicate at least three months for your GRE preparation. An early start provides ample time in grad school application timeline to familiarize yourself with the exam format, work on your weak areas, and take multiple practice tests.
  2. Create a Study Plan: Outline a detailed study plan, breaking down each section of the GRE. Allocate more time to sections you find challenging and regularly revisit topics you've covered to reinforce your understanding.
  3. Vocabulary Building: For the Verbal Reasoning section, start building your vocabulary. Consider using flashcards, mobile apps, or word lists specifically designed for GRE vocabulary. Remember, understanding the context is as important as knowing the meaning.
  4. Practice with Real Tests: The Educational Testing Service (ETS) offers official GRE practice tests. These tests closely mirror the actual GRE experience and provide insights into your performance.
  5. Master Time Management: Each section of the GRE has a time limit. Regularly practicing under timed conditions can help you pace yourself and ensure that you answer every question.
  6. Work on Analytical Writing: For the Analytical Writing section, practice writing essays on various topics. Seek mentors, teachers, or peers' feedback to refine your argumentative skills and writing clarity.
  7. Focus on Comprehension: Instead of rote memorization, focus on understanding concepts, especially for the Quantitative section. This ensures that you can tackle various problems on test day.
  8. Join a GRE Prep Course: Consider joining a GRE prep course or hiring a GRE tutor, either online or offline. These courses and coaches provide structured learning, regular mock tests, and expert guidance, which can be invaluable.
  9. Stay Updated: The GRE occasionally undergoes changes. Regularly visit the official ETS website to stay updated on any modifications to the exam format or content.
  10. Practice Self-Care: Regular breaks during studying, a balanced diet, exercise, and adequate sleep can significantly impact your study effectiveness and exam performance. Mental well-being is as crucial as academic preparation.
  11. Simulate Exam Conditions: A week before the exam, simulate the actual test conditions. Find a quiet place, time yourself, and take the test in one go. This will help reduce anxiety on the actual test day.
  12. Stay Positive: Confidence can significantly boost your performance. Believe in your preparation, stay calm, and approach the test positively.

How Hard is the GRE: How Can I Approach GRE Passages Effectively?

GRE passages, particularly in the Verbal Reasoning section, can be dense and time-consuming. A systematic approach to these passages can help you better understand the content and answer questions more efficiently. Here are some steps and strategies to effectively tackle GRE passages:

  1. Skim Before Diving In: Before reading the passage in-depth, quickly skim through it to get a general idea of its content, structure, and tone. Identify the main argument, any contrasting viewpoints, and the overall purpose of the passage.
  2. Focus on Transition Words: Words like "however," "in contrast," "moreover," and "therefore" can help you identify shifts in arguments, supporting evidence, or the author's stance on a topic. Recognizing these can be pivotal in understanding the overall flow and structure of the passage.
  3. Take Short Notes: As you read, jot down brief notes in the margin or on scratch paper. These notes should focus on the main ideas, arguments, evidence, and the author's opinion. Don't get bogged down in details – keep it concise.
  4. Understand the Question: Before returning to the passage to find an answer, ensure you fully comprehend the question. Some questions might ask about specific details, while others might focus on the overall theme or author's intent.
  5. Predict an Answer: After understanding the question, try to predict an answer before looking at the given options. This ensures that you don't get swayed by any misleading choices.
  6. Eliminate Incorrect Answers: In multiple-choice questions, use the process of elimination. If certain answer choices don't fit the passage's content or tone or seem out of context, eliminate them. This narrows down your options and increases your chances of choosing the correct answer.
  7. Revisit the Passage for Detail-Oriented Questions: For questions that ask about specific details, evidence, or examples, it's essential to revisit the passage. However, ensure you don't waste too much time re-reading large sections. Focus on the relevant part of the passage.
  8. Be Cautious with Extreme Words: Options that have words like "always," "never," "all," or "none" can often be misleading. While they're not always incorrect, approach these choices cautiously and verify them with the passage.
  9. Stay Calm and Keep Pace: If a passage seems particularly challenging, don't panic. Focus on understanding the main idea and move on. Remember, every question is worth the same amount of points, so it's essential to pace yourself and allocate time effectively.
  10. Practice Regularly: The more you practice, the more comfortable you'll become with different types of passages and questions. Over time, you'll identify patterns, familiarize yourself with common question types, and refine your approach to GRE passages.


The GRE might appear formidable at first glance when assessing your verbal, quantitative, and analytical writing skills. However, when you grasp its structure, scoring system, and benchmarks set by elite institutions, you're better equipped for success.

The challenge of the GRE isn't merely its content; it's the very design of the test. It demands you to showcase critical thinking and problem-solving prowess within time constraints. Yet, with every challenge comes an opportunity. Being familiar with the exam's format, practicing regularly, and adopting strategic methods, especially for the denser passages, can elevate your performance.

If you're aiming for top-tier graduate schools, it's vital to not only achieve but surpass the average scores of accepted students. The GRE, though a pain to take, can sometimes even help you get into Ivy League grad school with a low GPA. Remember, while the GRE is challenging, it's just one facet of your graduate application. A standout GRE score, combined with compelling grad school letters of recommendation, a meticulously crafted graduate school statement of purpose, and a strong grad school CV, can significantly boost your admission chances.


1. How hard is the GRE?

The GRE's difficulty varies for individuals based on their preparation and familiarity with the content. It tests not just subject knowledge but also critical thinking, problem-solving, and analytical writing skills, making it a comprehensive assessment.

2. What is the GRE used for?

The GRE (Graduate Record Examination) is a standardized test primarily utilized for admissions to graduate schools and some business schools.

3. How is the GRE scored?

The GRE has three main sections: Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, and Analytical Writing. Both the Verbal and Quantitative sections are scored on a scale of 130 to 170, while the Analytical Writing section is graded on a scale of 0 to 6.

4. How often can I take the GRE?

You can take the GRE once every 21 days, up to five times within any continuous 12-month period.

5. How long are GRE scores valid?

GRE scores remain valid for five years from your test date.

6. What strategies can help me excel in the GRE?

Familiarizing yourself with the exam format, practicing regularly, adopting time management strategies, and using prep courses or study guides can be beneficial for achieving a high score.

7. Is a high GRE score a guaranteed ticket to top-tier graduate schools?

While a high GRE score can enhance your application, top-tier graduate schools weigh other aspects, such as recommendation letters, personal statements, and relevant experiences.

8. How can I approach GRE passages more effectively?

Active reading, summarizing main ideas, understanding the structure of passages, and focusing on comprehension rather than memorization are pivotal strategies for tackling GRE passages effectively.

To your success,

Your friends at BeMo

BeMo Academic Consulting

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