How Difficult Is the GRE?

By Rachel Shapiro Updated February 08, 2021

As test-takers start preparing for the GRE, there’s one common question they ask: just how difficult is the GRE? If you’ve signed up for the GRE and you’re wondering how hard it is, read on to learn what you can expect from this standardized test.

How Difficult is the GRE Overall?

The difficulty level of the GRE depends on your skillset. For example, let’s say you’re a liberal arts major and haven’t taken a math class in years. In this case, you may find the Quantitative section difficult. Or, if you’re a STEM major and haven’t taken many English classes, you may find the Verbal section to be harder. Plus, if you’ve been out of school for a while, you may not have written a five-paragraph essay in years. In this case, you might find the Analytical Writing section to be tough.

Another thing that makes the GRE difficult is the fact that it’s computer adaptive. Every test-taker’s first Verbal and Quantitative sections feature medium-level difficulty questions. If you do well on this section, your second section will have more difficult questions. If you do poorly on the first section, you’ll end up with an easier second section. However, if you have an easier second section, your scaled score might end up being lower than someone who had a tougher section.

The best way to determine how difficult the GRE will be for you is to do practice tests. These tests will show you the areas you need to focus on while studying.

The GRE’s Difficulty Level Compared to Other Standardized Tests

To understand how difficult the GRE is, it’s helpful to compare it to other standardized tests. The GRE is considered to be more difficult than the SAT and the ACT. This is because the GRE has tougher vocabulary words. The reading passages also require higher-level comprehension. The Quantitative section on the GRE is also considered more difficult. While you’re tested on similar math concepts on all three tests, the questions on the GRE often have trickier wording. They require higher-level reasoning skills.

On the other hand, the GRE is considered to be less difficult than other graduate exams, like the LSAT, MCAT, or GMAT. This is because these tests require more specialized knowledge. The math questions are also thought to be harder on the GMAT and MCAT.

What Makes the GRE Hard for Test-Takers

When test-takers are asked about what makes the GRE difficult, there are a few common things they mention. Here’s what to look out for on the test.

Tricky Questioning Wording

One of the things that makes the GRE difficult is its tricky question wording. You’ll find this tricky wording in both the Verbal and Quant sections. However, it’s more prevalent in the Quant section. Even though the math concepts tested aren’t too advanced, the logic you need to use to read and solve the problems makes them more difficult.

Complex Vocabulary

One of the skills tested in the Verbal section is your vocabulary knowledge. In these questions, you’ll be given a sentence with a blank in it. You’ll have to choose two words from a question bank that both fit into the sentence. The words also have to give the sentence a similar meaning.

The complex vocabulary words used in this section trip up some test-takers. The best way to prepare for this section is to read up on common vocabulary words tested on the GRE and study them carefully.

Writing Two Essays

The GRE begins with two back-to-back essays. One is an issue essay and the other is an argument essay. You get 30 minutes for each essay. For some test-takers, this doesn’t feel like enough time to construct two well-written essays with a logical flow and evidence-based arguments.

Solid Math Knowledge Needed

Some of the concepts tested on the Quantitative section include algebra, arithmetic skills, geometry, and data analysis. While the GRE doesn’t test you on anything too advanced, you will need a solid base of math knowledge. If it has been years since you last took a math class, this can be difficult.

Time Constraints

The GRE’s time constraints are one of the things test-takers struggle with the most. You’ll get 20 minutes for the Verbal section and 35 minutes for the Quantitative section. These sections feature 20 questions each.

If you’re not careful, you can easily spend too long on one tough question. Then, you may end up not having time banked to finish the section. This is why practicing is so crucial. Doing practice tests helps you see how long you have on each section.

What Makes the GRE Easier for Test-Takers

It’s not all bad news when it comes to the difficulty level of the GRE. There are a few things that make the test a bit easier.

Only a Few Question Types

The GRE only uses a handful of question types for its Verbal and Quant sections. For the Verbal section, the question types are text completion, reading comprehension, and sentence equivalence questions. For the Quant section, the question types are numeric entry questions, quantitative comparison, multiple choice with one answer, and multiple choice with multiple answers.

Since there are just a few question types, it’s easy to devote a lot of study time to each one. There are also different strategies you can employ for each type of question.

No Advanced Math Knowledge Needed

The GRE doesn’t test you on advanced math concepts like calculus and trigonometry. You just need to know algebra, geometry, data analysis, and arithmetic. Plus, you’ll have a calculator available so you won’t have to do any addition, subtraction, division, or multiplication by hand.

Plenty of Study Materials Available

There are tons of study materials available to help you with every aspect of the GRE. You’ll find both online courses and physical study materials, like textbooks. Through these courses and textbooks, you can learn the best ways to ace the test from experts.

The Best Ways to Prepare for the GRE

While the GRE is a difficult test, there’s a way to make it easier for yourself: preparing for it. The more familiar you are with the test format and the type of questions you’ll encounter, the simpler the test will be. Here are some of the best ways to prepare.

Get a Baseline Score

When you start preparing for the GRE, one of the first things you should do is get a baseline score. You can get this score by doing a practice test online. ETS offers two free practice tests on their website. Like the real GRE, these tests are computer-adaptive and 3 hours and 45 minutes long. Getting a baseline score will show you what subjects you need to study the most.

Online and In-Person Courses

GRE prep courses are filled with useful study materials. You’ll find both online courses and courses with a mix of online lessons and in-person classes. In the online courses, you’ll get access to thousands of practice questions. You’ll get to try a few practice tests. Plus, you’ll get lessons on all of the concepts taught in the GRE.

If you like a guided approach to learning, an in-person class could be a good choice for you. With in-person classes, you’ll get to work with an instructor and ask them questions. You’ll also get helpful homework assignments. Whether you choose to do online or in-person, a prep course is a good way to learn about the GRE from teachers who have studied the test extensively.


If you think you’d benefit from more one-on-one help with your GRE studying, give tutoring a try. With a tutor, you’ll be able to customize your lesson plan and focus on the areas you feel you need the most improvement on. A tutor will also give you useful test-taking strategies.

Practice, Practice, Practice

In the weeks leading up to the GRE, practice as much as you can. Do practice questions, math drills, vocabulary lessons, and practice tests. The more you practice, the more prepared you’ll be for any curveballs thrown to you on test day. You’ll understand more about how GRE questions are written. Questions that would have once felt obscure will now feel familiar. With the GRE, practice truly does make perfect.

Summing Up

While the GRE can be a difficult exam, there are many ways to make it easier for yourself. Spend time studying every aspect of the test. Also, brush up on your math, vocabulary, and essay writing skills. Being prepared is the best way to turn the GRE from a difficult exam to one you feel ready to tackle.