How Hard Is the GRE Exam, Really?

It’s natural to wonder about the actual difficulty of taking the GRE, if you’re planning on going on to grad school. Find out the specific hurdles you need to overcome so you can do your best.

If you’re determined to go on to graduate school, you most likely need to take the GRE General Test beforehand. Most grad schools and business use this standardized General Record Examination to determine whether you deserve a spot in their graduate program.

So, just how hard is the GRE, really? It’s obviously different from one test-taker to the next. That’s why some people get into the top 90th percentile, while others score way below average.

Still, you may have a better idea of what you’re facing by preparing for the GRE properly. A good GRE prep course is virtually mandatory these days, and you may want a course with plenty of full-length practice tests.

Time Pressure

Like many standardized tests, there are time limits in place for the various sections of the GRE. If you’re easily flustered by time pressure, you may have a problem.

With the Analytical Writing section, you have 2 essays to write with 30 minutes available for each essay.

The Verbal Reasoning portion has 2 sections, with 20 questions per section. You then have 30 minutes per section. That’s about 1.5 minutes per question, on average.

You also have 2 sections with Quantitative Reasoning, and you also have 20 questions for each section. This time, you have 35 minutes per section. That’s an average of 1 minute and 45 seconds per question.

You even have unscored sections as well, and these have their own time limits.

Some find this stressful, as they may feel that they don’t have enough time to answer each question. Others may be bogged down by a single question, which keeps them from answering the rest of the questions in the section.

So, what can you do to prepare for this? The best way to get ready is to go through practice tests to develop your time management for the GRE. It’s best that you try full-length practice tests as well, you can mentally prepare for the time limits as you go through the lengthy exam.

You need to learn to relax, so that you don’t feel overly pressured once you take the actual test. If you’re calm and collected, you’re better able to answer correctly within the time limits.

Computer Adaptive Testing

One feature of the GRE that you don’t normally encounter in school is that it’s computer adaptive. That means, the questions get harder along the way when you answer the earlier questions correctly.

For example, let’s say you did very well with the first section of Verbal Reasoning. That means the questions in the second section will be harder. If you answered most of the questions wrong in the first section, the questions in the second section will be comparatively easier.

The first thing you need to remind yourself not to obsess about your performance during the first section. Some test-takers tend to try to gauge the relative difficulty level of the second section to estimate how they did in the first section. When they find the second section too easy, they worry that they didn’t do too well in the first section.

Never mind about that. That way, you can just focus on the questions you need to answer within the time limit, in the section you’re currently at.

You can, again, familiarize yourself with the format by using online practice tests that offer computer adaptive features. This should help you get used to this kind of format.

How Hard is Analytical Writing?

You need to complete 2 essays inside an hour, and you get a score within the 0 to 6 range. The Analytical Writing always comes first in the test. The other sections (Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning) may appear in any order afterwards.

The first essay requires you to “Analyze an Issue”, which means you’re to support or oppose an idea, depending on the evidence you present. The second essay requires you to “Analyze an Argument”. This time, you have to categorize an argument and explain its weaknesses.

To do well here, you first need to learn how to write coherent essays. You also have to be analytical when you present your case, meaning you have to support ideas using actual evidence.

You can learn this through reading proper essays so you’re able to learn the proper structure for essays. Then you need to practice writing those essays. You especially have to learn to write quickly enough so you can finish an essay in 30 minutes. You don’t have all day.

It’s best if you get into the habit of making an outline first. Start with the main idea, perhaps 3 points of evidence to support your thesis, and then a conclusion to wrap things up.

Also, practice taking the opposite view of an argument, so that you can learn how to propose an opposing argument.

Verbal Reasoning

Let’s say this comes next. You’ll face a vocabulary section, testing whether you know the meaning of a certain word. You may be asked to find a synonym or an antonym, or use the right word in a sentence with a blank.

This isn’t always easy, because the GRE vocabulary words are somewhat obscure and may not be often used in general conversations. It’s for this reason that even native English speakers don’t find this section overly easy. These words tend to appear more in published articles and books, so you have an advantage if you like to read a lot.

You can prepare for this section by studying the words listed by the ETS (the Educational Testing Service, which administers the test). These are the words that ETS wants you to learn beforehand.

Of course, you can really prepare for this test by developing a reading habit. You can also use creative ways of enhancing your vocabulary, such as by using flashcards or by taking care to use the special words in your correspondence. You may even want to try using them in regular conversations—it can be funny to others, but it’s a fun way to learn new words.

Quantitative Reasoning

The QR is actually all about math, and a lot people in the US find this more difficult than the Verbal Reasoning section. It’s especially true if you’re taking the GRE for a graduate program that doesn’t involve a lot of math.

The good news is that you’re not actually required to take advanced college level math. Instead, the coverage is limited to high school math. So, if your undergraduate program was in Literature or History, you don’t have to worry that the Engineering students have an unfair advantage.

The bad news is that you may have forgotten all about your high school math once you got into your undergraduate program. That means you have to get back on the saddle and relearn those math topics you’ve forgotten.

It’s like going back to the past, but if you were able to graduate from high school, you should be able to relearn these subjects. Concentrate on the basics and fundamentals of algebra, geometry, and statistics. Be sure you relearn how to obtain information through graphs and tables.

Find your old high school math books and relearn the basic concepts. This is especially true for geometry. Be sure you memorize the old, familiar equations like the area of a triangle and the circumference of a circle.

If you have a firm understanding of the fundamentals, you should be able to handle whatever comes your way in the QR section of the GRE.


Your best bet to doing well with the GRE is a good prep course, so you can study the relevant materials in a more disciplined manner. The prep course should be comprehensive, and it should tackle all the sections of the GRE. However, there are prep courses which may focus more on a particular section of the GRE.

It’s particularly crucial that you go through a lot of full-length practice tests. These tests are diagnostic, so they can pinpoint the areas of the GRE in which you still need help. That way, you can adjust your study plans and focus more on these areas.

You also can get used to the format, so that the real GRE won’t come as much as a shock. You know what’s expected of you when you’re required to write an essay, when you need to use a vocabulary word, or when you’re required to make sense of tables and graphs.

Leave enough time for study, but make sure you take care of your health. Get some rest and have a good night’s sleep. Wake up early so you don’t have to hurry. Eat your breakfast. Arrive plenty of time ahead for the test.

Take a deep breath, and stop worrying. If you prepared properly, you should feel confident instead!