Disclaimer: I don’t like the GRE. Much like the SAT and ACT, I think that its pedagogical value is dubious at best. What it really measures is how much time, energy, and money you can put into preparing for the exam. That all being said, it is still a reality for many when applying to various grad programs. When I set out to prepare for the exam guidance was hard to find so I wanted to write this for someone who was in my shoes four months ago.

What Is The GRE

The GRE is a standardized test published by ETS and used internationally as a metric in graduate school admissions. On the whole, you can think of the GRE as a slightly harder SAT.

Test Breakdown

The GRE is composed of 7 parts:

  • An essay where you must analyze an issue (30 min)
  • An essay where you must analyze an argument (30 min)
  • Two sections of verbal questions that contain 20 questions each (30 or 35 min per section)
  • Two sections of quantitative questions that contain 20 questions each (30 or 35 min per section)
  • An experimental section of either verbal or quantitative (35 min)

All told its is somewhere between a three and four hour experience.

Test Layout

The test has two possible layouts:

Layout 1

  • Issue Essay (30 min)
  • Argument Essay (30 min)
  • Verbal Section (35 min)
  • Quantitative Section (30 min)
  • Verbal Section (35 min)
  • Quantitative Section (30 min)
  • Verbal Section (35 min)

Layout 2

  • Issue Essay (30 min)
  • Argument Essay (30 min)
  • Quantitative Section (35 min)
  • Verbal Section (30 min)
  • Quantitative Section (35 min)
  • Verbal Section (30 min)
  • Quantitative Section (35 min)

As you can see, both test layouts start with the essay section and then branch into verbal or quantitative. Whichever type you get first will have three sections because one of the sections will be the experimental section. The experimental section isn’t factored into your score and used for ETS R&D. There is no way to tell which section is the experimental section. As such, you should assume that every section is a regular section.

Okay but what is the test like?

Quantitative

The content covered in the quant section is as follows:

  • Arithmetic
  • Algebra
  • Geometry
  • Data interpretation

The GRE throws a few curveballs to make these topics tricky. However, I would say that that the quantitative section is only a bit harder than the SAT or ACT math sections.

Verbal

The types of questions in the verbal section are as follows:

  • Sentence completion
  • Sentence equivalence
  • Reading comprehension

These sections are much harder than the SAT or ACT verbal sections. The passages are more complex and the vocab is sophisticated.

Adaptive Scoring

The test is scored out of a sum of 340 points. You can earn up to 170 points in both the quant and verbal sections. The GRE is adaptive. This means that how well you do on the first section of both the quantitative and verbal will dictate what type of section (easy, medium, or hard) you will have for the second quantitative and verbal section respectively. Greg MAT has a great video breaking this down, but the gist of it is this:

  • For the second verbal section getting a medium or hard section adds a bonus to your verbal score
    • There is more of a bonus for the hard section than the medium section
  • For the second quantitative section there is no bonus for getting a medium or hard section
  • For both quantitative and verbal getting an easy second section applies a penalty to your score

How To Prepare For The GRE

There is no “right” way to prepare to the GRE. Friends of mine took a mock practice test once walked into the test and crushed it. Other people I know spent months studying to get the scores they wanted. What I can tell you is what worked for me and what resources I know that are out there.

GRE Prep Services

I’m sure more exist, but these are the ones that I am familiar with. Vince has a page on his website reviewing Magoosh. I think he makes valid points, but I would take it with a grain of salt because at the end of the day he is selling his own product.

I myself used Magoosh based off of a singular recommendation from another student at my school. I only saw Vince’s page much much later. Overall, I think he makes good points. That being said, I’d still pay for the service again. I was mainly concerned with strengthening my quant score and I found the Magoosh content easy to follow and tailored to GRE-esk questions. Moreover, each practice question had an associated video and write up that explained how to solve the question. This was huge for me. Having a video explanation proverbially hold my hand made it a lot easier for me to understand the content and not get overwhelmed. I created over 200 math flash cards for this exam. I don’t think I would’ve done that if it weren’t for the video based explanations.

That all being said, I didn’t use Magoosh at all for the verbal section because I didn’t need it. So if you need test prep resources for the verbal section I don’t have any helpful information. I do know that the Magoosh verbal questions are simply GRE-eske questions and in the verbal section having an approximation is not as good as the real thing.

Free Test Prep

You can totally prepare for this test for free. All three services listed above have a bunch of great public facing content. Moreover, Vince has a great webpage on how to study for the math section. Within that section, he has linked every concept to a Kahn Academy video. A huge portion of GregMAT’s content is on YouTube. His website has a nice organization to the videos. Additionally, the most crucial piece of test prep is the two free GRE exams that are distributed by ETS: Power Prep I and II.

General Resource Sites

  • r/GRE
    • A good place to go to get questions answered about the experience and ask for solutions to specific test prep questions. Be warned, there are posters on the site who showboat. (e.g. I got a V: 168 Q: 169 what do I need to do to get better).
  • GregMat
    • Lots of free and useful videos on his website
  • Vince Kotchian
    • Free vocab prep and study plans

A List of Helpful Resources That I Found

Closing Thoughts

Regardless of how you learn, make sure that you spend time sitting down with sample questions and a blank sheet in front of you. Following along with a solution isn’t the same as doing it yourself. Lastly, be sure to take both Power Prep Tests. The GRE is a test of endurance as well as knowledge. The two Power Prep Tests are the only way to prepare for that.