If you are applying to a graduate school program, then you will probably need to take the GRE test to complete your application.

Graduate programs are a big step up from undergraduate (more difficult, more intense, more expensive per class), so does that mean the entry exam for graduate school, the GRE, will be more difficult?

Is the GRE hard? How can you get ready for it?

The answer is more complicated than you might think.

Let’s get into it.

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How Hard is the GRE?

First of all, the GRE is long. The test will take about 4 hours to complete.

There are two verbal sections (30 minutes each), two quantitative sections (35 minutes each), two analytical essays (30 minutes each), and one mystery, experimental section (could be verbal or quantitative).

When was the last time you had to concentrate intensely for 4 hours? The GRE test experience is difficult just because of the length and mental strain.

The GRE Quantitative Section Isn’t So Hard

The GRE Quantitative Section Isn’t So Hard

The math on the GRE isn’t difficult material. You won’t be test on calculus or advanced statistics, or anything more advanced than high school math.

The math questions on the GRE come from four subjects: Arithmetic, Algebra, Geometry, and Data Analysis.

The GRE blog at Magoosh summarizes the math on the GRE like this:

GRE Arithmetic Topics

  • Properties and types of integers
    • Divisibility
    • Factorization
    • Prime numbers
    • Remainders
    • Odd and even integers
  • Arithmetic operations
  • Exponents and roots
  • Estimation
  • Percent
  • Ratio
  • Rate
  • Absolute value
  • The number line
  • Decimal representation
  • Sequences of numbers

GRE Algebra Topics

  • Operations with exponents
  • Factoring and simplifying algebraic expressions
  • Relations
  • Functions
  • Equations
  • Inequalities
  • Solving linear and quadratic equations and inequalities
  • Solving simultaneous equations and inequalities
  • Setting up equations to solve word problems
  • Coordinate geometry
    • Graphs of functions
    • Equations and inequalities
    • Intercepts and slopes of lines

GRE Geometry Topics

  • Parallel and perpendicular lines
  • Circles
  • Triangles
    • Isosceles triangles
    • Equilateral triangles
    • 30°-60°-90° triangles
  • Quadrilaterals
  • Other polygons
  • Congruent and similar figures
  • Three-dimensional figures
  • Area
  • Perimeter
  • Volume
  • The Pythagorean theorem
  • Angle measurement in degrees

GRE Data Analysis Topics

  • Basic descriptive statistics
    • Mean
    • Median
    • Mode
    • Range
    • Standard deviation
    • Interquartile range
    • Quartiles and percentiles
  • Interpretation of data in tables and graphs
    • Line graphs
    • Bar graphs
    • Circle graphs
    • Boxplots
    • Scatterplots and frequency distributions
  • Elementary probability
    • Probabilities of compound events and independent events
  • Conditional probability
  • Random variables and probability distributions
    • Normal distributions
  • Counting methods
    • Combinations
    • Permutations
    • Venn diagrams.

You probably covered most of this material in high school math.

The difficult part of the quantitative section on the GRE is figuring out what the question is asking. The more difficult questions are phrased indirectly and confusingly, so understanding the question intent can be challenging.

The best way to get better at the math questions on the GRE is to practice, practice, practice.

The 7 day free trial of Magoosh’s GRE prep program includes thousands of practice questions and several full length GRE practice tests, so you might want to check it out.

The GRE Verbal Section is Tricky

The GRE Verbal Section is Tricky

The vocabulary used in the GRE verbal section is significantly higher level than what you saw on the SAT or ACT tests. The test is trying to separate out graduate school applicants, so it assumes you already have a bachelor’s degree and that you are well read.

The ETS recommends that you read higher level publications to get ready for the GRE verbal section. They specifically list:

  • The New York Times
  • The Guardian
  • The Wall Street Journal Asia
  • The Economist
  • Scientific American
  • London Review of Books

Understanding the vocabulary is helpful, but the most important skill in getting a good GRE verbal score is being able to quickly recognize the meaning and intent of the question and the possible answers.

Again, the best way to get better at the verbal section is to practice, practice, practice.

The GRE Analytical Section is Very Challenging

When is the last time you wrote a formal 5 paragraph essay?

Was it university? High school?

Writing the Analyze an Issue and Analyze an Argument essays is not technically challenging.

You will be graded on:

  • The clarity of your argument and your main points
  • The organization and structure of your essay
  • How well you support your argument with logical, persuasive points

If you are worried about the GRE essays, then check out this long and thorough guide put together by CrunchPrep. It includes more than 70 tips and common mistakes to avoid while completing the GRE analytical section.

How Hard is the GRE? (A Video from Kaplan)

If the GRE is So Hard, How Should You Prepare?

The GRE is difficult, but you can improve your score drastically through preparation and study. Here is three quick tips for improving your GRE score.

Purchase a GRE Prep Course and Complete It

Is the GRE Hard - How Can You Prepare

There are several great online and in-person GRE prep programs you can take that will improve your score.

These programs will teach you the best test taking strategies for the GRE and typically provide you with study materials (practice tests, practice questions, etc).

The whole experience is pretty thorough, so completing one of these programs might be all the help you need for getting a good GRE score.

The online programs below offer free trials of their products, so you can test them out before buying anything.

Magoosh GRE Prep – 7 Day Free Trial

Dominate the GRE – Free GRE Session

The Economist – GRE Tutor – 7 Day Free Trial

Barron’s – GRE Test Prep – Free Basic GRE Prep Account

The Princeton Review – GRE Test Prep – Free GRE Practice Test

Manhattan Prep – Free GRE Practice Test

You might also be interested in our article comparing Magoosh and Kaplan’s GRE prep services.

Take All the Practice GRE Tests You Can Find

The more practice tests you can take, the faster and more confidently you can answer the questions on the GRE.

The test only has a limited number of question types, so practicing these questions will significantly improve your score.

The ETS offers a practice GRE test as well as most of the GRE prep providers above.

Take the GRE Test Early So You Can Retest if Needed

You can take the GRE multiple times. If your first attempt doesn’t get you the score you need, then you can take it again.

Make sure you plan enough time before your grad school application is due to have the opportunity to retake the GRE, if you need to.


Is the GRE hard? Yeah, it’s meant to be.

The purpose of the test is to separate applicants to grad school (who are typically more skilled and more ambitious than the general population). If you weren’t smart and ambitious, then you wouldn’t be applying to grad school in the first place.

Even though the GRE is difficult, you have ever opportunity to get a great score.

There are tons of study materials available for the test. Millions of students have taken the test before, so the material on the test is well known and the strategies for getting a good score have been thoroughly tested.

Make use of the resources available to you and spend the time on test prep. If you put the work into preparing for the GRE, you won’t regret it.

The Princeton Review