Exam Prep

Test Breakdown: What to Expect

The exam is concentrated in three areas of academic focus: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing. According to ETS, the GRE general test “features question types that closely reflect the kind of thinking you’ll do — and the skills you need to succeed — in today’s demanding graduate and business school programs.”

The graphic below illustrates the sections of the exam in terms of specific content, length, and point values; below that you can find a detailed breakdown of each section with what to expect and sample questions:

The Format of the GRE

Format of the GRE, sections broken down with number of questions and point value.

Exam Sections

Verbal Reasoning

Study Guide: International Relations Online Blog
Practice Test: Varsity Tutors

The Verbal Reasoning section is divided into three different academic areas: reading comprehension, text completion, and sentence equivalence.

  • Reading comprehension questions are mostly derived from one paragraph long passages, with a few coming from slightly longer, multi-paragraph passages. Each test includes roughly 10 passages, varying wildly in subject matter, that are typically taken from periodicals. These questions are largely multiple-choice. Here is an example of the format:

    GRE Verbal Reasoning Example Question; Reading Comprehension

    While C, D, or E could be somewhat correct, the most logical and complete response includes both 1. an answer to the critics charge that a pension is reward (and thus not a punishment for crime) and 2. a restatement of the primary logic of the pension in the first place, which is crime prevention.

    Source: ETS GRE Prep – Reading Comprehension

  • Text completion questions are designed to evaluate vocabulary skills. Exam-takers are given sentences with one or two words omitted and then choose relevant terms from a list of three to five words. In some cases, more than one of the choices will technically be grammatically correct; the exam-taker must decide which word creates the most coherent phrase. The following example illustrates this format:

    GRE Verbal Reasoning Example Question; Sentence Completion

    All five choices are grammatically correct, but B) forms the most coherent phrase.

    Source: ETS GRE Prep – Text Completion

  • Sentence equivalence questions are similar to text completion questions, in that they evaluate the exam-taker’s ability to draw conclusions regarding coherent phrasing. For these questions, exam-takers must identify two words from a list of six options that would best complete the sentence provided. The sample question below demonstrates this format:

    GRE Verbal Reasoning Example Question; Sentence Equivalence

    Source: ETS GRE Prep – Sentence Equivalence

Quantitative Reasoning

Study Guide: West Texas A&M University Virtual Math Lab
Practice Test: Varsity Tutors

Designed as a comprehensive test of basic mathematical skills, the Quantitative Reasoning sections cover four areas:

  • Arithmetic questions cover:
    • Integers
    • Factorization
    • Prime numbers
    • Operations
    • Roots
    • Percentages
    • Ratios
    • Decimal values
    • Number line representations
    • Sequences
  • Algebra questions focus on:
    • Operations with exponents
    • Simplification of expressions
    • Functions
    • Equalities and inequalities
    • Linear and quadratic properties
    • Word problems
    • Graphs
    • Intercepts
    • Slopes
  • Geometry questions cover:
    • Lines
    • Measuring shapes (including circles, triangles, and quadrilaterals)
    • Angles
  • Data analysis questions concentrate on:
    • Statistical measurements like:
      • Mean
      • Median
      • Average
      • Range
      • Percentage
    • Interpretations of data in graphs and tables
    • Probabilities
    • Distributions
    • Counting methods

In the Quantitative Reasoning sections there are four types of questions:

  • Quantitative comparison: The exam-taker must choose between two numbers or values and determine if A or B is greater, if both values are equal, or if the comparison cannot be calculated based on the information given.

    GRE Math Section Example Question; Quantitative comparison

    The least prime number greater than 24 is 29; Quantity A is 29. The greatest prime number less than 28 is 23; Quantity B is 23.

    Source: ETS GRE Prep – Quantitative Comparisons

  • Multiple-choice with one answer: Exam-takers choose the correct answer from a list of three to five options.

    GRE Math Section Example Question; Multiple-choice with one answer

    Simplifying this you would get 7x=-28. -28 divided by 7 is -4.

    Source: ETS GRE Prep – Multiple Choice Single Answer

  • Multiple-choice with one or more answers: At least one correct answer is listed below the question, although the total number of correct answers may not be specified and exam-takers must designate all correct options.

    GRE Math Section Example Question; Multiple-choice with one or more answers

    Notice that the product must be negative and that the question has indicated to select both answers.

    Source: ETS GRE Prep – Multiple Choice Multiple Answer

  • Numeric entry: Exam-takers must solve a math problem and then enter an integer, decimal, or fraction into an answer box. No choices are given.

    GRE Math Section Example Question; Numeric entry

    Pens: $0.25 x 18 = $4.50
    Markers: $0.35 x 100 = $35.00
    Total, sum the two above totals: $4.50 + $35.00 = $39.50

    Note: Answers with equivalent decimals are considered correct. In the example above, $39.5 or $39.500 would be accepted.

    Source: ETS GRE Prep – Numeric Entry

Analytical Writing

Study Guide: Magoosh
Practice Test: Sample issue- and argument- based questions are available from ETS

This section contains two questions, also known as “tasks.” The writing exam is not knowledge-based, so there is no right answer. ETS is looking for essays that posit and support a thesis within a logically structured format. You will need to choose two prompts to answer, one from each category “issue” and “argument”:

  • One task focuses on an “issue” of general interest to contemporary society. After reviewing a brief statement or essay, each exam-taker must construct a convincing argument concerning their stance on the issue. Responses are evaluated on the strength of the exam-taker’s supporting arguments. An issue topic might look something like this:

    GRE Analytical Writing, Issue Task Example
    Source: ETS GRE Prep – Issue

  • The other task asks exam-takers to analyze an “argument” presented in a brief paragraph and then to craft a detailed explanation of the “stated and/or unstated assumptions” in the argument. Responses are graded based on the writer’s ability to “evaluate the logical soundness” of the argument, as well as demonstrated critical thinking and reading skills.

    GRE Analytical Writing, Argumentative Task Example
    Source: ETS GRE Prep – Argument

Unscored or Research

This section contains questions that do not count toward the total point value of the exam-taker’s GRE score. Each one is used for ETS research purposes. No pre-test studying is required for the Unscored/Research section.

Exam Scoring

The highest possible GRE score is 340 points. To calculate an exam-taker’s official GRE score on the Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning sections, the raw score (the total number of correctly answered questions in all four sections) is computed into a “scaling score.” Using this scale method, all GRE-takers receive a score on both sections, ranging from 130 to 170.

A third score is assessed for the Analytical Writing section. Both tasks receive scores ranging from 0-3, rounded the the nearest half-point increment, meaning the possible point range for this section is 0 to 6.

According to the most recent data from ETS (2013-14), the average scores among U.S. GRE-takers are as follows:

Average GRE Test Scores, US Test-Takers
Section Average Score
Verbal Reasoning 151.91
Quantitative Reasoning 150.75
Analytical Writing 3.61

Score reports come with percentiles that correspond to each score. The percentile represents the number of test takers who scored lower on this part of the exam — i.e. if your verbal score is 164 and your percentile is listed as 93%, this means you scored better than 93% of students on the verbal reasoning section. Percentiles are recalculated for each exam to account for the slight variations in difficulty across different exams versions. Generally scores correspond to the same percentiles. The following percentiles are averaged from 2013-14 test takers:

Verbal and Quantitative Score Percentiles
Verbal Reasoning Quantitative Reasoning
Point Value Range Percentile of exam-takers (2013-14) Percentile of exam-takers (2013-14)
170 99% 98%
169-165 99-95% 97-91%
164-160 93-84% 89-78%
159-155 81-66% 75-61%
154-150 62-44% 57-41%
149-145 40-24% 37-22%
144-140 21-10% 18-8%
139-135 7-2% 6-2%
134-130 2-0% 2-0%
Analytical Writing Score Percentiles
Analytical Writing Score Percentile of exam-takers (2013-14)
6.0 99%
5.5 97%
5.0 93%
4.5 78%
4.0 54%
3.5 35%
3.0 14%
2.5 6%
2.0 2%
1.5 1%