What Does the GRE Test?


The last thing you want to do is take the GRE without knowing what you will be tested on. It’s like Frodo Baggins in The Lord Of The Rings; he really had no idea what he was signing up for when he agreed to take that all-powerful piece of jewelry to the fires of Mount Doom. But imagine the Fellowship asking him for $205.00 first

Although you can never fully predict the problems you will see on test day, the GRE is a standardized test. That means the content, structure, and scoring process is consistent.

Therefore, if you take the time to learn what the GRE does test and adequately prepare for it, you can walk away from your GRE feeling like the battle against ETS (and perhaps Mordor) has been won.  

In this article we will focus on the two primary measures of the GRE: Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning. We will discuss the scoring process, experimental section, section level adaptiveness, content that will be tested, types of questions to expect, and the skills you will need to have in order to score above the 50th percentile. 

What Does the GRE Test? Analytical Writing

The GRE General Test starts off with an Analytical Writing section that consists of two timed essays before you head into your Verbal and Quantitative measures. We will not be focusing on the essays in this article, but be sure to check out our article, “How to Write a GRE Essay” for a more in-depth description.

GRE Test Structure

MeasureSectionsQuestions per
Time per SectionScore Range
1 Section 2 timed
30 Minutes for each essay, a total of
1 hour
0-6, in half-point
2 Sections20 Questions30 Minutes130-170, in
2 Sections20 Questions35 Minutes130-170, in
Experimental 1 Section
or Verbal) 
20 Questions30 or 35 MinutesNot Scored

Experimental Section 

It is likely you will be given three Verbal sections and two Math sections or three Math sections and two Verbal sections. ETS uses the extra section, known as the Experimental section, to gather data on how difficult a question is.

If the majority of students miss a question, they know it should be classified as “hard.” Your performance on the Experimental section will not affect your score, but you will not know which section is experimental. You must treat all five sections as if they will be scored. 

Section Adaptiveness 

The reason ETS needs to know how difficult questions are is because the GRE is section level adaptive. Every test taker will start off with Verbal and Quantitative questions that are of similar difficulty.

However, how well you perform on your first Verbal section determines how challenging your second Verbal section will be (same for Math). Your Verbal performance will not affect how challenging your math sections are. Hence, experimental section questions go on to become future test questions. 

GRE Scoring

Within a particular GRE section, certain questions are not worth more points than others. Therefore, it is never a good idea to spend too much time on any given problem, especially if it is one you don’t know how to do. Also, there is no penalty for missing a question, so always make sure to at least take a guess before you leave the question blank. 

What does affect your score is whether or not you are able to get the harder second Verbal or Math sections. For example, if two students both answer 32 out of 40 Math questions correctly, but one of the students performed better in the first Math section and therefore got the harder 2nd Math section, they will get an overall higher Quantitative Reasoning score. Hence, when you are preparing for the GRE, you want to try and work towards being able to get the harder Verbal and Math sections on test day. 

What Does the GRE Test? Verbal Reasoning


The Verbal Reasoning measure will test you on your ability to analyze and evaluate written content that varies from one sentence to several paragraphs. This portion of the exam is meant to test your ability to read through complex information (littered with obscure vocabulary) and  determine the relationship between words and concepts. 

Types Of Questions

Roughly half of the questions in the Verbal Reasoning measure will be based off a passage you read and the other half will require you to read and complete an existing sentence, groups of sentences, or paragraphs. Most of the questions are standard multiple-choice where you will select one answer. 

However, there are some questions that will require you to select multiple correct answers (in which case you have to correctly select all of them or no points are awarded), and other questions will require you to select a specific sentence in a passage that best answers the question. 

There are three types of Verbal Reasoning questions:

1. Reading Comprehension – These questions will be based off a passage that can range from one paragraph to several paragraphs in length. They will ask you to analyze a text and reach a conclusion about it, identify an author’s perspective, and to demonstrate an understanding of the structure and function of a part of the text. 

2. Text Completion – Text completion questions will have one to three words omitted from a sentence(s). You will need to select the word(s) or short phrase(s) from the answer choices provided that create a coherent sentence(s). If there is more than one blank, you will need to correctly fill in all blanks in order to receive points (there are no partial points awarded). This is where the GRE will test your knowledge of vocabulary words. 

3. Sentence Equivalence – Similar to Text Completion questions, Sentence Equivalence questions will test you on your ability to reach a conclusion about the meaning of a sentence that has an omitted word. You will need to choose two answer choices that both lead to the sentence having the same meaning. Advanced vocabulary words will appear in these types of questions as well. 


When I think about the Verbal Reasoning measure of the GRE, I picture a McDonalds play pen filled with thousands of colored plastic balls. Imagine I said to dive in and quickly grab all of the green and blue balls in the pen. This would require you to dive into a plethora of plastic balls, but keep your focus only on designated colors. 

In the context of my example, the balls in the playpen are the words on the GRE Verbal section. Everything presented to you will be excessively wordy. It is challenging to sort through all of the words and get to the actual meaning of a passage, sentence, or answer choice.

You must be able to read complex information, focus on what is relevant, and summarize that portion of the text. This will require you to constantly be interpreting and evaluating what you are reading–just like you would constantly be picking up a ball in the playpen and analyzing its color. 

However, attention to detail is also important when it comes to finding the correct answer choices. Answer choices can be 95% correct, but there will be one word in a very long answer choice that makes the answer choice wrong.

You have to analyze every last word in the answer choices and then choose the one that is completely supported by the text. There could also be situations where an answer choice could be true, but the text does not prove it to be true. 

What Does the GRE Test? Quantitative Reasoning


The GRE Quantitative Reasoning section will not test you on advanced math topics such as Calculus. All of the math is representative of what you would have learned in high school  You will be tested on your understanding of elementary mathematical topics such as…

Arithmetic – divisibility, factorization, prime numbers, remainders, even/odd properties, percent, ratio, rate, absolute value, the number line, decimal representation, arithmetic operations, exponents, roots, and sequences of numbers. 

Algebra – operations with exponents, factoring and simplifying algebraic expressions, functions, equations, inequalities, solving linear and quadratic equations, solving systems of equations, word problems, coordinate geometry (including graphs of functions), equations, inequalities, intercepts, and slopes of lines. 

Geometry – parallel and perpendicular lines, circles, triangles (isosceles, equilateral, and 30/60/90 triangles), quadrilaterals, polygons, congruent and similar figures, three-dimensional figures, area, perimeter, volume, Pythagorean theorem, and angle measurement degrees. 

Data Analysis – basic descriptive statistics (mean, median, mode, range, standard deviation, interquartile range, percentiles), interpretation of data in tables and graphs (line graphs, bar graphs, circle graphs, box plots, scatterplots, frequency distributions), elementary probability and distribution, permutations, and Venn diagrams. 

Types of Questions

There are three types of questions on the GRE Math section:

1. Multiple Choice – You will need to choose one answer or multiple answers (the question will specify if you need to choose more than one answer, so please read carefully).

2. Numeric Entry – These questions will require you to fill in your own numeric answer. The question might require an integer, a fraction, or a rounded decimal.

3. Quantitative Comparisons – In my opinion, these are the trickiest of the GRE math problems because their structure is unique to the GRE and therefore can take some getting used to. Quantitative comparison questions will give you two quantities–Quantity A and Quantity B–and sometimes provide you with additional information about them. You will then need to figure out the relationship between the two quantities as follows… 

  1. Quantity A is greater
  2. Quantity B is greater
  3. The two quantities are equal 
  4. The relationship cannot be determined from the information provided


Although there might be several ways to answer a given GRE math problem, in order to be able to answer questions in one and a half minutes, you will need to take the most effective approach first: knowing what that is based off the type of question and information given takes skill. 

Some of the GRE questions are straightforward but there are definitely a handful that are like puzzles. There is something about the problem or answer choices you need to pick up on in order to answer quickly (almost like a little trick to the question).

The quantitative section of the GRE should not be thought of as a math test but a numerical reasoning test. This is often why students who simply study content, but not strategy, have a hard time increasing their scores. 

Many students end up doing unnecessary math on the Quantitative section. Whenever you review any practice questions–and I suggest doing this for the ones you missed and the ones you spent more than 2 minutes on–ask yourself “What is the minimum amount of math I actually have to do to get the right answer?” 

What Does the GRE Test? Summary

In summary, the GRE General Test will have two primary measures: the Verbal and Quantitative Reasoning sections. The Verbal section will test you on your critical reading skills and knowledge of obscure vocabulary words.

The Quantitative sections will test you on your knowledge of arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and data analysis. The math is no more advanced than what you would have learned in high school. 

The GRE is a critical reasoning test. You will need to conquer the strategies that will enable you to take in a large amount of information quickly and draw accurate, yet quick, conclusions about what you observe.

As you prepare for your GRE, simply focusing on the content without learning approach will only increase your score so much. In order to learn strategy, make sure you are using the best GRE prep materials and think about enrolling in a GRE prep class