“I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like, and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.”Bilbo Baggins, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring
For those of you who are familiar with my articles, you know I am constantly comparing the GRE to movies–particularly The Lord of The Rings. I chose this quote to introduce the GRE Math section because I feel it epitomizes the style of ETS’ (the makers of the GRE) written math questions.
“What math is on the GRE?” is a question many a student has asked and a question not all of us know the answer as well as we would like on test day.
In this article, we will discuss all things GRE Math, from the scoring and timing to the types of questions administered. You will come to see that the math itself is not very advanced.
However, it is how the questions are worded that makes conquering the GRE Quantitative Measure challenging. At the end of the day, it is a Quantitative Reasoning test, not a math test. You must be able to quickly take in information and reason your way to the correct answer.
GRE Math Section Scoring
There are two graded Quantitative sections on the GRE. Both sections will consist of twenty questions and you will have thirty five minutes per section. Your performance on the two sections will determine your score ranging from 130-170, in one-point increments.
The reason I use the term “graded sections” is because you could have a third Math section–known as the Experimental section. ETS uses this section to determine the difficulty level of future test questions. Although the Experimental section is not scored, you will not know which one it is. If you receive three Quantitative sections, treat each one as if it will be scored.
Your first Math section will be of medium difficulty level. The difficulty level of your second Math section will be determined by how many questions you got correct in your first Math section.
Always try to aim for getting the harder second Quantitative section, as this could increase your overall score. For example, if two students both got thirty-three out of the forty math questions correct, but one student received the harder second math section, that student will have an overall higher Quantitative score.
One of the primary concerns for test-takers is whether or not they will have access to a calculator on the GRE Math measure. I am here to ease your stress with a “Yes.” You will have access to a calculator! With that said, you cannot bring in your own calculator. The calculator you will be able to use will be on the computer and it has very limited functionality. You only want to use the calculator when completely necessary because it is more time consuming than anything. In other words, it is just not worth using for most problems.
As you study for the GRE Math sections, do not rely on your calculator. Download the GRE calculator app and only use it when you have to in order to compute large numbers. Force yourself to get good at performing arithmetic by hand.
What Math is on the GRE?
The math that appears on the GRE Quantitative section is reflective of what a student would have learned in high school. Therefore, no knowledge of pre-calculus, calculus, or advanced statistics is necessary. The good news is everything you will be studying for the Math section should feel like a review or re-learn versus seeing concepts for the first time. The bad news is, although there are no advanced math concepts tested on the GRE, the questions will still be challenging.
The GRE Quantitative measure will test you on your knowledge of arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and data analysis. That might not seem like much, but there are many topics under those four categories. Essentially, you will need to know a little bit about a lot.
The specific content is as follows…
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 degree 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.
It will be essential to have a solid understanding of mathematical formulas and feel comfortable implementing them. As you take the time to memorize the necessary formulas, be sure to reflect on why the formula is structured the way that it is.
For example, ETS has been known to write questions describing a shape, such as a right circular cylinder, that has a missing top or bottom. If the shape is said to have a missing piece, that could change the formula a bit.
If I wanted to take the volume of a right circular cylinder that has an open top, I would not need to change the volume formula. However, if I was finding the surface area of the cylinder, I would need to make adjustments to the surface area formula. You will need to know how to tweak the formulas accordingly if necessary.
Types of Questions
Some of the GRE Math questions will be straightforward. However, many of them will have some kind of trick that will allow you to solve the problem in 1.5 minutes. For all of the following types of problems, you want to take the problem and answer choices (if provided) in as a whole and think “What is it about this problem that will allow me to solve it efficiently?”
There are three types of questions on the GRE Math section: multiple choice, numeric entry, and quantitative comparison.
Multiple Choice: The multiple choice will be your general problem solving questions and could require one correct answer or multiple correct answers. If you are to choose more than one answer choice, the question will make that explicit and the answer choices, A – E, will be displayed in boxes rather than ovals. The majority of questions will be multiple choice.
Numeric Entry: There will be some questions that require you to type in your own answer choice and the question will specify how they want it written (as an integer, fraction, rounded decimal, or in a particular unit such as feet, cm, etc.).
Quantitative Comparison: The Quantitative comparison questions will always have the same structure. You will be given two quantities–Quantity A and Quantity B. You might only be given the quantities, but you also could be provided with some additional information about them. The question will ask you to determine the relationship between the two quantities as follows:
- Quantity A is greater
- Quantity B is greater
- The two quantities are equal
- The relationship cannot be determined from the information provided
Tips for Success
As mentioned, understanding the wording of the GRE math questions will likely be more challenging than the math itself and you will want to stay on a 1.5 minute-per-question pace. Hence, knowing the most efficient way to approach the problem is essential. It is likely many questions can be answered in multiple ways, but those test-takers scoring in the top percentile are able to choose the best way quickly.
While utilizing the best GRE prep courses is definitely the first step in the right direction of preparing for the test, I highly advise you have a journal for where you will keep an “error log.”
Anytime you miss a practice problem question, or you spend more than three minutes answering a question, you should re-work that question (several times) in a notebook. However, reworking problems is not enough. You need to reflect on why you missed the question to begin with. Here are some things you should ponder and write out in your notebook…
- What type of Question is this–multiple choice (one answer or multiple answers), numeric entry, or quatitative comparison?
- What content is being tested? Prime numbers, exponents, translation word problems?
- What was my mistake? Did I misread the question? Did I not understand the question? Did I not know the formula or make a computation error? Did I solve for the wrong variable?
- Did I fall for a common “trap” and if so, what was it? The question said x was an integer less than three. Did I not consider that x could be zero?
- What is the bare-minimum amount of math I have to do to actually get this question right? Did I solve for x when I really just needed to see if x was a positive number?
100 test-takers can miss a question for 100 different reasons. If you keep track of the reasons why you are missing questions, it is less likely you will continue to make those same mistakes.
Best GRE Math Prep Books
There are three tiers to mastering the GRE Math section. The first two tiers are learning and drilling content. You must be fully confident with arithmetic, formulas, algebra, and more. You will not have the time to ponder what a particular formula is on the GRE or think about how to solve for a variable.
The questions will be tricky enough to where your time will need to go towards understanding the question and figuring out what math you are supposed to do. Once you identify this, you cannot hesitate with how to actually do it. The third tier is to master test-taking strategies that will enable you to answer tricky questions in 1.5 minutes.
You can check out our list of the best GRE prep books (which we recommend you do) as well as take note of our recommended text book categories below.
If you have been out of school for a while, or math was never your strength, I recommend Kaplan’s GRE Math Workbook. This book does a wonderful job breaking down math content in an easy-to-follow manner without oversimplifying concepts.
Once you have learned the math content that appears on the GRE, you want to work through a plethora of math problems in order to practice what you have learned. You know what they say: practice makes perfect. As mentioned, you want to be able to use formulas, fractions, and variables with ease. I highly recommend Manhattan Preps 5 Lbs. Book of GRE Practice Problems.
Once you are fully comfortable with the math concepts that appear on the GRE, you will need to get comfortable the ETS quantitative questions. They write their questions with a level of intricacy that no other company can truly mimic. It is by working through official GRE questions that you will be able to learn strategies that will give you the quantitative reasoning skills you will need on test day. It is essential that you purchase the ETS Official GRE Quantitative Reasoning Guide.
What Math Is on the GRE? Summary
In summary, your GRE will consist of two Math sections that will each give you thirty-five minutes to answer twenty questions. Your score will range from 130-170, in one-point increments.
Your performance on the first Math section will determine the difficulty level of your second math section. You always want to try and get the harder second math sections because it will be challenging to score in the top percentile if you don’t.
The math itself is not meant to be any more advanced than what we all learned in high school. The questions will stem from arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and data analysis concepts. However, the questions will have tricky wording and you will need to be strategic in how you answer them if you want to finish on time.