GRE test structure


In a previous blog post, we had explained how the GRE has been undergoing major changes after 2010. In this blog, we shall talk about the current GRE test structure and its implications on you, the test taker.

The GRE revised General Test is a standardised test used by graduate programmes including STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics), management programmes and others in the United States and other universities around the world.

Before you start your GRE preparation, it is essential that you know a few important things:

  1. What the GRE test is all about
  2. GRE test structure
  3. How the GRE algorithm works
  4. How the GRE scores your performance

We shall cover the above aspects in this blog and the next.


  1. What is the GRE test all about?

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE), is a test that is developed by Education Testing Services (ETS) and administered by Prometric (a wholly owned subsidiary of ETS). This test is considered by various STEM and non-STEM graduate programmes (such as MS and PhD) as a part of their admission process.

The GRE is now also being considered by various graduate management programmes for their admission process as well. Therefore, if you intend to pursue an MBA from a global B-school, you can consider GRE as an option apart from GMAT (as long as the B-school accepts both).

An important point to note – while GRE indeed tests your verbal, quantitative and writing skills, its main objective is to assess your your analytical and logical capabilities – a necessity for all graduate Masters / Doctoral programmes. Thus, all the sections of the test are designed to challenge you on these skills.

  1. GRE Test Structure

In the GRE you shall encounter the following sections:

  1. Analytical Writing – 2 essay tasks (30 minutes each)
  2. 2 scored Verbal Reasoning sections (30 minutes each)
  3. 2 scored Quantitative Reasoning sections (35 minutes each)
  4. 1 unscored section – could be either verbal or quantitative (30/35 minutes)
  5. 1 Research section (might appear, duration differs)

While the test always begins with the analytical writing tasks and ends with the research section (in case you get it), the verbal, quant and unscored sections can appear in any order.

1. GRE Test Structure: GRE Analytical Writing Section

Objective of the section: To measure your ability to apply critical thinking and to communicate your ideas

Task: 2 Essays –

  • A 30-minute essay on ‘Analyse an Issue’

As the name suggests, this task is used to analyse your critical thinking ability when applied to an issue – a general topic. Each task shall have an issue, for e.g. a topic on the negative impact of technology on human beings. This shall be followed by a set of instructions to write the essay response that could be on the extent to which you agree or disagree. You shall be expected to analyse, take a stand and provide suggestions.

A few sample instruction sets:

Write a response in which you discuss the extent to which you agree or disagree with the statement and explain your reasoning for the position you take. In developing and supporting your position, you should consider ways in which the statement might or might not hold true and explain how these considerations shape your position.

Write a response in which you discuss which view more closely aligns with your own position and explain your reasoning for the position you take. In developing and supporting your position, you should address both of the views presented.

  • A 30-minute essay on ‘Analyse an Argument’

The analytical writing prompt shall consist of an argument. You are supposed to analyse the line of reasoning, evidences used, structure, unstated assumptions, logical fallacies and present a critique. There are fixed templates that you need to follow (shall be explained in details in later blogs) while you respond to an ‘analyse an argument’ prompt in GRE.

A few sample instruction sets:

Write a response in which you discuss what specific evidence is needed to evaluate the argument and explain how the evidence would weaken or strengthen the argument.

Write a response in which you discuss what questions would need to be answered in order to decide whether the advice and the argument on which it is based are reasonable. Be sure to explain how the answers to these questions would help to evaluate the advice.

Analytical Writing Scoring: A single combined score on a scale of 0 to 6 with 0.5 increments (You can get a 6, 5.5, 5, 4.5, 4, 3.5 and so on).

Is GRE Analytical Writing section important? While some technical and management programmes might pay more importance to Verbal and Quantitative Reasoning scores as compared to Analytical Writing, they would still expect you to score beyond a certain threshold. We recommend that you score 4 or above out of 6 on AWA to be considered by good graduate programmes.

Another important thing to be noted is that GRE sends your Analytical Writing responses to your score recipient universities. Therefore, a combination of bad GRE analytical writing score and good Statement of Purpose/ application essays might cast doubts on the candidate. The programmes can use the analytical writing tone, style and quality to compare with your application essays.

2. GRE Test Structure: Two GRE Quantitative Sections

Objective of the section: To measure your ability to analyse numerical data.

In GRE you shall encounter 2 scored quantitative sections

Each Section consists of: 20 Questions

Duration of each section: 35 Minutes

The GRE is a computer based test. However, the test is sectional adaptive. This means that your performance on the first GRE quantitative section shall determine the level of questions in the second GRE quantitative section. However, within each section, the questions are non-adaptive and you can scroll back and forth. The first section shall try to assess your mathematical aptitude at a broad level. The second quantitative section shall try to accurately determine your Quantitative aptitude on a scale of 130 to 170.

The GRE tests your basic high school (class 9-10) mathematical knowledge on the following topics:

  1. Algebra – Operations with exponents; factoring and simplifying algebraic expressions; relations, functions, equations and inequalities; solving linear and quadratic equations and inequalities; solving simultaneous equations and inequalities; setting up equations to solve word problems; and coordinate geometry, including graphs of functions, equations and inequalities, intercepts and slopes of lines.
  2. Arithmetic – Properties and types of integers, such as divisibility, factorisation, prime numbers, remainders and odd and even integers; arithmetic operations, exponents and roots; and concepts such as estimation, percent, ratio, rate, absolute value, the number line, decimal representation and sequences of numbers
  3. Geometry – Parallel and perpendicular lines, circles, triangles, quadrilaterals, other polygons, congruent and similar figures, three-dimensional figures, area, perimeter, volume, the Pythagorean theorem and angle measurement in degrees, set, permutation and combination and probability.
  4. Data Analysis & Interpretation – Basic descriptive statistics, interpretation of data in tables and graphs, elementary probability, random variables and probability distributions, combinations and permutations and Venn diagrams.

Quantitative Reasoning Scoring: The score in GRE quantitative Reasoning section is in the range of 130 to 170. i.e. Even if you get all your questions incorrect, you shall get a 130 on the GRE quant section. A 170 on the GRE quantitative on the other hand shall get you a 98 percentile score.

Is GRE Quantitative score important? Yes, it is one of the most important areas on the GRE. Many technical masters programmes assign high weighage to the GRE Quantitative Reasoning score.

3. GRE Test Structure: Two GRE Verbal Sections

Objective of the section: To measure your ability to read and understand written English passages, to evaluate reasoning arguments, analyse relationships among words and concepts, relationship among component parts of sentences.

In GRE you shall encounter 2 scored verbal sections

Each Section consists of: 20 Questions

Duration of each section: 30 Minutes

GRE Verbal sections on three broad types of question:

  1. Text Completion – This question type includes sentences consisting of one, two or three blanks. You need to understand the context and choose appropriate words that suit the context. If text completion question has one blank, you need to choose a word from 5 choices. For two or three blank text completion questions, you need to choose from three words per blank.
  2. Reading Comprehension – Study a passage and respond to questions asked on the passages. Reading Comprehension questions also include critical reasoning questions.
  3. Sentence Equivalence – This question type includes a sentence with a single blank. You need to choose two words from six options. These two words should communicate

Verbal Reasoning Scoring: The verbal section is scored on a scale of 130-170 (similar to quantitative). A 169 or a 170 gets you a 99 percentile on verbal.

Is GRE Verbal Reasoning score important? Yes. Many programmes look for a decent score in verbal.

Stay tuned for our next blog that talks about how the GRE scoring system works.

4. GRE Test Structure: Unscored GRE section (can be a Verbal or Quantitative Section)

You shall encounter an unscored Verbal or Quantitative Reasoning section on the GRE. However, you shall not be able to distinguish the unscored section from the scored ones. Therefore, you might come across 3 verbal sections and 2 quant sections or 2 verbal sections and 3 quantitative sections in total out of which only 2 verbal and 2 quant sections will be scored.

Why does this section exist?

The unscored section consists of questions that shall be used in future tests. GRE benchmarks candidates’ performance in unscored questions in the section against the performance of students in scored sections. This helps ETS assess the levels and worthiness of the questions for future purposes.

5. GRE Test Structure: Research Section

You might encounter a research section on the GRE. This will always at the end of the test and will be clearly classified as unscored. The questions in the section help ETS generate research information.

So get set go for your test prep and now that you are familiar with the structure, hope you score well in your coveted exam.


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