How hard is the GRE? Hard… but it can be made easier if you are willing to put in the time to properly study. Notice I did not say made “easy” but “easier.” Also take note that I did not simply say “study” but “properly study.”
The first part of this article will go into depth about the various aspects that make the GRE challenging. The second part of this article will discuss how you can properly prepare for the challenge.
The GRE General Exam is never going to feel easy. The test is structured so that even the top scoring test-takers walk away feeling as if they just went into standardized test-prep battle. Below are the various aspects to the GRE that make it difficult.
Odds are, your undergraduate degree required either a lot of reading and writing or a lot of math. Rarely is it ever both. This is one of the primary reasons the GRE is challenging. The exam tests students on so many concepts, it is likely they feel very unprepared for half of the test. Therefore, students start preparing for the exam by having to rebuild their reading or math skills and then learn how to maneuver through the tricky wording of GRE questions. The amount of content people feel they need to learn can be intimidating.
The Verbal sections of the GRE have three types of questions: Text Completion, Sentence Equivalence, and Reading Comprehension. All three types of questions will require critical reading skills and a knowledge of advanced vocabulary words. You must be able to read quickly and efficiently. There will be a lot of words to get through; the sentences are long and the answer choices sometimes even longer. It is imperative you can read and figure out what information will actually be important.
I have said it before and I will say it again: the math portion of the GRE requires you to “know a little about a lot.” Although the exam will not test you on more advanced math concepts such as trigonometry or calculus, it will test you on a wide variety of algebra, geometry, and data analysis topics. It is imperative you are comfortable with math terminology, performing arithmetic by hand, reading charts/graphs, and have the formulas you will be using throughout the sections memorized.
The GRE General Exam will start with the Analytical Writing section where you will be given one hour to write two essays (you are allowed to spend 30 minutes on each one). The Verbal sections will each be 30 minutes long and have 20 questions. The Math sections will also have 20 questions but you will be given 35 minutes per section. This pacing gives test-takers less than two minutes to read each question and answer it. Also, if you are in the Verbal section you will have even less time because you must read the passages.
It is challenging to not only answer every question in this time frame, but work quickly without making little mistakes. ETS, the creators of the GRE, anticipate how test-takers might make an error in their math or misread a question and create answer choices accordingly. Furthermore, the exam is three hours and 45 minutes. That is a long time to maintain focus without getting mentally fatigued.
The GRE General Exam is “section adaptive.” This means how well you performed in your first Verbal section will determine the difficulty level of your second Verbal section (same goes for Math). However, the amount of questions you got right in the Verbal sections will not determine the difficulty level of the Math sections.
The GRE is section adaptive because it creates a wider range of scores. It will be easier to score in the top percentile if you are able to master the harder Math and Verbal sections. As I mentioned earlier, this is one of the reasons the GRE will never feel easy. Even if you are doing well, the algorithm is going to ensure more challenging content comes your way.
As a GRE instructor, I can honestly say the inability to create a study plan and stick to it is one of the primary reasons students either back out of their GRE or do not reach their target score. Most of those preparing for their GRE are trying to balance school, work, a family, or a combination of all three and study at the same time: it is hard.
The best way to ensure you have a study schedule is to plan one out as opposed to saying “I want to study five hours this week.” On Sunday nights, take out your planner, or online calendar, and block off your study time for the upcoming week. Make sure this is a time you will be alert and in a quiet setting. Then, treat this time as if you have to clock into work–you cannot be late and you cannot leave early.
Now that you have the time set aside to study, you will want to make sure you are studying with the best GRE prep books on the market. Often, we tend to trust the GRE books created by big test-prep companies because we have heard of them before. However, what makes a GRE prep book worthwhile is the amount of effective strategy tips it provides and the accuracy of their practice questions compared to those written by ETS. It is important the questions are not too easy or too difficult (as many are) and that they are written in the same style as official GRE questions.
No matter what, you will want to purchase The Official GRE Guides by ETS. The practice problems in these books are the only ones on the market that have been written by the same people writing the GRE.
I would also highly recommend using Manhattan Prep’s Strategy Guides that will take you through solid test-taking approaches along with their 5 Lb. Book of GRE Practice Problems. When combined, you will be given the necessary tools to strategically approach the GRE, on top of an abundance of practice problems to perfect those skills.
One of the most important ways to prepare for the GRE’s difficulty level is to take full-length practice GRE exams. This will be a way for you to track your progress and see how close you are to your target score. Also, taking full-length practice GRE exams will help you build the mental endurance you will need in order to be successful on test day.
There are several companies that offer practice GRE exams (click here for our article on Best GRE Practice Tests), but the most important will be the four POWERPREP exams offered by ETS. These can be purchased on your ETS account, so if you have not created one yet you will want to do so.
The first two POWERPREP exams are free but do not come with explanations to problems or a graded Analytical Writing (AW) section. The second two POWERPREP exams each cost $40 and explanations are provided along with an AW score.
If you are on a three month study plan, I suggest you take one exam every month. I always have my students take their last POWERPREP a week before their actual GRE and I advise them to save the fourth POWERPREP just in case they end up taking the GRE again. No matter how long you will be studying for your test, space the POWERPREP exams out accordingly. As I said, you want to use them to track your progress, so you should not be taking them close together.
Furthermore, the most valuable aspect of taking a full-length GRE is reviewing your missed questions. Everytime you schedule yourself to take a full-length GRE on your calendar, make sure you set aside time to review the test within 48 hours. If you wait too long, it will be hard to remember how you approached questions. Keep a journal or a notebook where you can record your mistakes and rework problems.
I understand that not everyone has the budget, or schedule, to enroll in a GRE prep course. If you do not, that is totally fine. However, if you do, classes can be extremely beneficial. They provide you the opportunity to ask questions to an instructor and will give you the structure you might need to stay on track with studying.
Also, there are quite a bit of self-paced online courses that are more affordable than instructor-led classes that can be highly effective. These options will provide flexibility for those who cannot commit to a weekly scheduled class. It is important you do your research in order to find a course that will be best for you. For more details on the best GRE prep courses, check out this article.
Despite the fact the answer to the question “how hard is the GRE?” is that the test is hard, there are steps you can take to make the exam easier. First, it is important you understand what makes the GRE challenging such as the content tested and the pacing of the test. Then, you will want to adequately prepare for the GRE by creating a study schedule and utilizing the proper books and practice exams. Overall, if you are thoughtful about how you study for your exam, you will be able to optimize your GRE score.