If you are at the beginning of your GRE prep journey, it’s important to understand the structure of the test and to be equipped with the right strategies for navigating each section. In this article, we’ll overview the delivery structure of the exam and provide powerful GRE tips to help you earn your best possible score on test day.
Structure of the GRE exam
The GRE (Graduate Record Examination) comprises six sections:
The first section, the Analytical Writing measure, has two tasks timed at thirty minutes each. The first task asks you to “analyze and issue” by taking a position on a brief statement. For this task, you will have to construct your own argument in support of your position.
The second task asks you to “analyze an argument,” providing you with a short paragraph in which an author supports their own position on an issue. For this task, you will not construct your own argument but critique the argument in the prompt, identifying the assumptions and facts upon which it relies for strength and validity.
Each writing task will be scored on a range from 0 to 6 in half-point increments, both by a person and by a program, with the two scores being averaged. If the scores given by the person and by the program are significantly different, another person will take the place of the program, and the two human-generated scores will be averaged. (This person/program scoring approach is the same as on the GMAT). Once each of the two tasks has its averaged score, those two scores are in turn averaged into your final Analytical Writing score.
Sections two through six are the Quantitative Reasoning and Verbal Reasoning measures. Each section has twenty questions, but the Quant sections are timed at thirty-five minutes each, while the Verbal sections are timed at just thirty minutes each. While ETS (Educational Testing Service, the administrators of the GRE) maintains that the sections can appear in any order, the official practice tests on their website and the experience of thousands of test-takers indicate that these sections will always alternate types (Q-V-Q-V-Q or V-Q-V-Q-V).
Only two sections of each type (two Quant and two Verbal) count towards your score. For whichever type has three sections, one of those sections is experimental and unscored. This section exists for ETS to check the validity of new content for future administrations of the GRE. There is no safe way to recognize the experimental section or distinguish it from its scored counterparts; you need to treat every section as if it counts.
Similarities Between GMAT and GRE Exams
Like the GMAT, the GRE is adaptive, but on a much lower-resolution scale. While the GMAT adapts on a question-by-question basis, the GRE only adapts the difficulty of the second (scored) section of each type (Quant and Verbal) based on your performance on the first (scored) section of that type, which is always of medium difficulty. ETS has not released information on how many different degrees of difficulty exist for the second sections, but the official practice tests provided on the ETS website have three possibilities for each second section: an easier one, a medium one, and a harder one.
Both the Quantitative Reasoning and Verbal Reasoning measures are scored on a scale from 130 to 170. Unlike the GMAT, the GRE does not combine the Quant and Verbal scores into some overall score or report percentiles for test-takers’ combined scores out of 340 (the sum of the scores for the Quant and Verbal sections). Percentiles are only provided for the independent Quant and Verbal scores out of 170, as well as for the Analytical Writing measure. Here are up-to-date GRE scoring percentiles:
Structural Difference Between The GMAT and The GRE
A main structural difference between the GMAT and the GRE is the GRE’s feature of section navigation. While the current GMAT does not allow test-takers to navigate a section or return to any previously-encountered questions on the section, the GRE has a navigation screen for each Quant and Verbal section, accessible via a “review” button in the top-right corner of the test. However, in the GMAT Focus Edition, a new feature was added which allows test-takers to bookmark and review questions and change up to three answers in each section.
This screen shows you the status of each question in the section. If you haven’t seen a question yet, it will be labeled “not encountered.” If you have seen a question but not answered it, it will be labeled “not answered.” As you can see on question 4 of this section (highlighted above), a question may also be labeled “incomplete” if it has multiple parts and only some of these parts are completed (this is possible on most of the vocabulary-based questions on Verbal sections).
You should never actually leave a question “incomplete” or altogether “unanswered” before moving on, even if you mark it for review. When you toggle the “mark” button (right next to the “review” button in the top right), always fully answer the question before moving on. Even a random answer is better than no answer at all. [Note: the label “Section 2 of 5” indicates a total of five sections rather than six because the practice tests do not include an experimental section. Also, you can toggle between showing and hiding the time remaining for the section. This feature is on the real GRE as well.]
The navigation feature represents an exploitable opportunity for GRE-takers. Since both the Quant and Verbal sections have consistent internal structures, you can choose which questions to work through first and which questions to leave until the end. For more info on these “internal structures,” stay tuned for upcoming articles.
On the Verbal sections, you can choose whether to do reading comprehension questions or vocabulary questions first. On the Quant sections, you can begin with all the quantitative comparisons questions or leave them until the end. You can also specifically target the data interpretation questions early on if that suits you. Some test-takers will benefit from getting their least favorite questions out of the way and then speeding through the easy stuff. Other test-takers might like to knock out the easy questions first in order to know exactly how much time they’ll have to complete the harder ones. You can figure out what’s best for you personally on your way through the GRE prep process, and the insights of a private GRE tutor can be of great value here
Thanks for reading our GRE tips regarding structure, scoring, and strategy. As this series of articles continues, we’ll break down the independently to help you understand the structure and content of each section type.
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Contributor: Elijah Mize (Apex Focus Tutoring Instructor)