The GRE – A Detailed Summary

By Ryan Stallard

The GRE, or Graduate Records Examination, is the most commonly requested test for prospective graduate students. It has both General and Subject versions.  In this article, we will look at the format of the General Test.


The GRE is divided into three main parts with a possible Experimental Section:


Number of Sections

Questions per Section

Time per

Time per Question (minutes:seconds)
1. Analytical Writing





2. Verbal Reasoning





3. Quantitative Reasoning





4. Experimental



30 or 35

1:30 or 1:45


The Analytical Writing Section

The Analytical Writing Section consists of two different essay tasks.  The first one is the Issue task.  This is a standard essay task where you are given a statement, and you have to choose whether you agree with it or not.  The key to doing well in this section is being able to support your reasons with concrete examples.  Try to stay away from words like “could” or “possibly” when backing up your points. (I’ve seen too many essays that say things like “if x happens, then y, which could lead to z.  Z is bad so we should avoid anything that could cause x”.  This is not terribly persuasive.)  Instead, give real-world examples or facts to bolster your argument.

The second task is the Analyze an Argument task. Here, you are given an argument someone else has made.  For this task, your job is NOT to state your own opinion.  Instead, you need to figure out the assumptions the argument relies upon, decide if they are unfounded, and, if they are, write what’s wrong with them and, optionally, how they could be fixed.  Don’t worry, the argument will contain many logical flaws, so you should be able to identify at least 3 to write your essay.

Make a Choice

For the Issue task, it crucial that you CHOOSE a position and make that choice obvious.  This may seem like a no-brainer, but it is VERY common for students to try to play both sides and give reasons for and against the given statement without making it clear which side they agree with.  The essay is not a mystery novel, so don’t make the grader have to work hard to figure out what your position is.

A Note about English

The GRE is computer-based and has basic word processing features such as Cut, Copy, Paste, and Select and Drag.  However, you do NOT have access to spell-check, so while it is good to try to avoid an essay full of 3-letter words, it is more important that you spell what you do use correctly.  The same goes for grammar: try to use various sentence constructions, but do not do so by sacrificing clarity or using constructions incorrectly.

It is essential that you dedicate time for proofreading: no matter how good your English is, you WILL make mistakes, and you will want to have time to fix them.

The Verbal Reasoning Section

The Verbal Reasoning section is composed of three different question types: Reading Comprehension, Text Completion, and Sentence Equivalence.

Reading Comprehension questions follow the standard read a passage and answer questions about it.  They test your ability to identify the main idea, find information contained in the passage, infer based on that information, and be able to identify what purpose sentences serve in the passage.  The passages are academic in nature and pull from diverse fields such as art, history, biology, and astronomy, among others.

Text Completion questions are basically fill-in-the-blanks. There can be 1 to 3 blanks in each question and there is no partial credit: if you miss one blank the entire question is wrong.  One-blank questions have five answer choices and three-blank questions have three answer choices for each blank.  To do well in this section, you must identify the key words that determine the context and connotation of each blank and pick the corresponding answer choice that matches the keywords in meaning and tone.

Sentence Equivalence questions are a unique question type.  You are given 1 blank with six answer choices.  The trick here is that you have to pick two answer choices that can fill the blank and don’t change the meaning of the sentence.  There are many strategies and techniques you can use for this question type that will dramatically increase your chances of selecting the right answers.

The Importance of Vocabulary

The GRE Verbal is  a test of Vocabulary, so it is important to know as much high-level English vocabulary as possible.  This means knowing more than just the most common definition of each word, but its second and third meanings as well.  It is also important to pay attention to a word’s connotation, how negative or positive it is.

The Quantitative Reasoning Section

The Quantitative Reasoning section is composed of two question types: Quantitative Comparison and Problem Solving.

Quantitative Comparison questions are composed of a mathematical expression or paragraph that gives information on the problem, as well as two quantities A and B.  Your job is to determine whether A is greater, B is greater, they equal each other, or there is not enough information (you get two of the preceding three choices depending on the values used).

The Problem Solving questions are your typical given some information, calculate the value.  They can be multiple choice or numeric entry.  In numeric entry, you have to provide, as a decimal or fraction, the answer you calculated.

What Math You Need to Know

The Quantitative Section cover four different areas of math: Arithmetic, Algebra, Data Analysis, and Geometry.  Complex numbers, Calculus, and Trigonometry are NOT covered.

Calculator Usage

The GRE does allow you to use a calculator.  However, you cannot use your own.  They provide a simple four-function calculator with parentheses and the ability to do square roots.  That’s it.  Thus, it is important not to rely too heavily on the GRE calculator.  In fact, you should NOT use the calculator for about 80% of the problems in a section (16 problems out of 20).  If you find yourself using the calculator for more than this, consider strengthening your basic math skills and learning techniques for quickly breaking down problems (Seeking English math teachers excel at teaching these).

The Experimental Section

The Experimental Section is an unscored section that appears just like a normal Quantitative or Verbal Reasoning section.  You will not know until test day if you have it, and because it is indistinguishable from the other sections, it is important that you do your best on all sections.


GRE Scoring in a nutshell:

  • Each task in the Analytical Writing section receives its own score. The two scores are averaged together to give you your final score from 0-6 in half-point increments.
  • Both the Verbal and Quantitative Reasoning sections are scored from 130 to 170. They are often added together to give a score from 260 to 340.
    (Many graduate schools will request a combined score of 300.)
  • GRE scoring is based on the normal Standard Distribution curve. This means that 68% of the people that take the test score between 143 and 159, with a mean of 151.

Section Adaptive

The GRE is section adaptive.  The means that the difficulty of the second section in each area (Quantitative or Verbal) will be determined by how well you do on the first section.  This is why you can go back to questions in the same section, but once you finish a section you cannot return to it. The first section will be a mix of difficulties, while the second section will be easy, medium, or hard depending on your performance on the first section.

In Summary

The GRE may be a difficult part of the graduate admissions process, especially if you are taking it years after your undergraduate degree, but with some basic review and a lot of practice, it is not insurmountable.  If you have any questions about the format or material covered by the GRE, or would like to find out more about the techniques and strategies you can use to improve your score, please contact us.

Ryan Stallard is a Tutor at Seeking English and freelance writer with extensive knowledge of test prep, having taught it full time for over a year.