GRE Difficulty

Stressed-out man with his hands on his head looking at a computer screen while worrying about the GRE's difficulty.

How Hard Is the GRE Test?

Like other exams at the graduate level, the GRE presents plenty of unique challenges. While much of the test's difficulty is by design, several other factors can affect how well you do on the exam. Details like the test length and time limits, as well as your own study methods and test-taking style can all contribute to the GRE's difficulty.

Exam Format

Computer-Adaptive Test Challenges

Since the GRE is a computer-adaptive test (CAT), your performance determines how challenging the exam is. The difficulty level is the same for each student at the start of the test. From there, the follow-up sections can become harder or easier depending on the number of correct and incorrect answers you give as you progress.

Those who don't understand how a CAT works may become anxious when they notice a sharp spike in difficulty during the exam. Learning about computer-adaptive tests before you take the GRE can reduce some of that stress by helping you realize that getting harder questions means you did well on the previous portion.

Quantitative Reasoning

Complex GRE Math Problems

While each section of the GRE is difficult in its own way, the Quantitative Reasoning section poses a unique challenge for many students. A lot of this section's content covers high school mathematics principles, such as:

  • Geometry
  • Arithmetic
  • Algebra
  • Data Analysis

Some test-takers may have a hard time remembering information about these concepts, which can cause them to struggle with certain prompts. Many Quantitative Reasoning questions are also word problems, meaning they require intense focus and might take extra time to comprehend.

Time Limit

Pacing Each Section

Students often cite the GRE's time limit as one of the main challenges on the exam. At first, three hours and 45 minutes may sound like enough time to finish the test. However, each of the six sections on the GRE has its own strict time limit of around 30 minutes. The added pressure of having to complete the exam in half an hour can make the GRE seem more difficult.


How Hard Is the GRE vs. Other Tests?

Students often compare the GRE difficulty to other grad school tests to determine which one is easiest. While this can give you an idea of what to expect on an exam, it's important to remember that each test comes with its own unique challenges.

In general, most people agree that the GRE is harder than the ACT and SAT but not as difficult as the MCAT or LSAT. Another common comparison is between the GRE vs. GMAT. Since many MBA programs accept both tests, students often wonder which is harder. Ultimately, the answer depends on the test-taker's knowledge, skillset, and career aspirations.

Managing Exam Difficulty

Time Your Practice Tests

One way to build your test-taking speed, stamina, accuracy, and confidence is to add timed GRE practice tests to your study regimen. Consistent use of practice tests can also alleviate any test anxiety you may be feeling, give you a competitive edge, and help you focus on achieving your target score.

Prioritize Easier Questions

GRE test prep allows you to become familiar with the different types of questions you'll encounter on the exam. By implementing good GRE study strategies, you can learn how to quickly identify the most difficult questions, mark them off, and come back to them after tackling the easier prompts. Using this method is a great way to save time and boost your confidence at the start of the exam.

Use Scratch Paper

In most cases, test centers provide scratch paper for students to use while taking the GRE. Although the GRE is a computer-based exam, writing out complex equations and jotting down specific details can help simplify some of the more confusing prompts and word problems. You can also use your scratch paper when:

  • Outlining main ideas for your Analytical Writing essay
  • Writing down key takeaways from Verbal Reasoning questions
  • Performing quick calculations
  • Plugging in numbers and answers for multiple-choice math problems

Slow Down

Because of the time limits, slowing down during the GRE might seem like a bad idea. However, it can prevent you from making unnecessary mistakes that could cost you points and lower your score.

Take a breath and spend the necessary time reading each line. Slowing down is not the same as simply taking your time, though, so be sure to keep a steady pace so you can complete each GRE section in time.

Improve Your Odds

Overcome GRE Difficulty with Practice & Preparation

At the end of the day, the GRE difficulty level depends on how prepared you are for the test. Once you understand the challenges that many test-takers deal with during the exam, you can tailor your study methods to address those common issues. With proper practice and test prep, you can overcome the usual pitfalls of the GRE and be well on your way to success.

Practice Test & Study Resources

Online GRE Test Prep

GRE Study Guide

GRE Sections

GRE Scoring Breakdown