How hard is the GRE?

The GRE is designed to help graduate schools determine which applicants will be a good fit for advanced academic work, and it is used by some of the most competitive programs in the world. Therefore, the questions can pose a steep challenge to your critical thinking skills.

[ RELATED: Average GRE Scores for Top Grad School Programs ]

GRE Difficulty: An Adaptive Test

How difficult your GRE is depends in part on how well you do. The GRE is a Multi-Stage Test, meaning that it adapts to your performance. Take for example the Quantitative sections. Everyone’s first Quantitative section is “medium” difficulty, meaning that it may have some questions that most people get right and some questions only a few people get right, but overall it measures performance in about the 25th to 75th percentile range. Then . . .

  • If you do medium well on this section, your second Quantitative section will also be medium difficulty.
  • If you don’t get many questions correct, then your second Quant section will be much easier.
  • If you ace the first section, you will find your second Quant section is much tougher, including questions designed to differentiate the 95th percentile test taker from the 98th percentile test taker.

The Verbal sections adapt in the same way.

Your GRE Preparation

How hard you find the GRE also depends on your preparation. As with any task, if you don’t know how to do it, it’s impossible or nearly so. However, if you know how to do something, then it’s not so tough. Remember the first time an adult taught you how to tie your shoes? The procedure probably seemed pretty complicated. But you learned how to do it and have been doing it easily ever since.

The GRE tests your ability to reason with college-level vocabulary, analyze dense academic passages for meaning, and apply math knowledge up through plane geometry to solve problems. Thus, test takers who have the requisite knowledge and have honed their critical thinking skills will find most questions very doable and perform well on the test.

The GRE is a standardized test, meaning that the types of questions you will see, the material you will need to know, and the type of reasoning tasks you will need to do are predictable. This predictability means that you can learn to think like the testmakers. Prepare for the test by studying the known range of material tested, practicing with test-like questions, and taking practice tests that simulate the GRE’s adaptive structure.

Your GRE Score Goal

Research the programs to which you plan to apply: What GRE scores are competitive? Then take a GRE practice test. What is your score now?

If your scores are already at or above the scores you need, then you will want to do some studying to make sure you don’t get an unpleasant surprise on Test Day. However, you may not need to commit yourself to a lot of preparation time.

On the other hand, if there is a significant difference between the scores you need and your practice test scores, then you will need to work hard to achieve the scores you want. In this sense, the GRE is a “hard” test—but only because you’re not yet ready to take it. If you practice, the test will become easier.

[ RELATED: How is the GRE scored? ]