How Difficult is the GRE? | Comparison to Other Standardized Tests

Tests, evaluations, assessments, and examinations often come with a certain level of difficulty. The more advanced they are, the harder you can assume they will be. This is why it makes perfect sense that a lot of people ask the question, ‘how difficult is the GRE?’ before they even plan to schedule their test appointment.

be fully prepared for the gre

With the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) being a key requirement in many graduate school programs, you can expect it to be challenging. Besides, it’s supposed to assess just how ready you are for a higher level of education which will surely be more demanding and taxing. Because of this, it should be expected that it will really put your skills and knowledge to the test.

But how hard is the GRE really? It’s important to find the answer to this question if you want to fully prepare for the exam. By having an idea just how difficult the exam would be, you’ll be pushed further to be more thorough in your prep efforts.

Creating a good GRE study plan would be a great start. Our reviews of GRE prep books here will also take you farther as it will help you learn which areas to cover and what the test questions are like with practice tests and answer explanations. If you prefer having more accountable then check out these online class reviews to help you prepare for the GRE as well.

To help you better gauge the GRE difficulty levels, here are a few points that test-takers and GRE experts alike are saying about the exam.

How Hard is The GRE EXAM? 7 Points that Can Help You Assess Its Difficulty

The difficulty level of any exam can be very hard to quantify as not everyone has the same strengths, weaknesses, and experiences. This is why assessing "is the GRE is difficult?" can be a very subjective topic.

However, it’s not impossible to demonstrate how challenging it can be if you’ll consider a few things. So to help you get a good idea whether you’ll be able to crack this test without breaking a sweat or not, we’ve rounded up a few points below. Check them out and you can surely get a better understanding of what this exam is really like.

1. The GRE is an adaptive test.

the gre is an adaptive test

One of the first things that you have to know about the GRE is that it’s an adaptive test.

Two out of the three GRE sections are divided further into two portions. The first part is a regular exam while the second one is adjusted according to your performance in the first part, with both being multiple choice.

This means that if you did well on the first part of the section, the questions on the second part will be harder and more challenging.

With the use of this technique, test-takers are certainly tested according to their knowledge and abilities. And even if you intentionally try to do badly on the first part of the Verbal and Quantitative Reasoning sections, you still can’t rig the exam to your favor. You’ll still get a lower GRE score if you did badly on the exam as ETS also has a unique scoring system that uses the process of equating. Because of this, you can be scored according to your skills.

Because of its adaptive nature, you should expect that the GRE will always be challenging for you. It might not necessarily be difficult in this regard but there’s a likelihood that you’ll take a harder exam than others. In any case, it would be best to prepare really well for the exam if you want to get the best scores.

2. Most test-takers classifies the GRE as a ‘tricky’ exam more than a ‘difficult’ one.

If you’ll look up blogs, forums, and various websites wherein people share their experiences about the GRE, you’ll find that a lot of them say that the GRE isn’t necessarily hard if you’ll really think about it. It’s more tricky than anything because it is made to be such.

As reading comprehension is one of the things that they test in the GRE, it shouldn’t be surprising that its questions are quite tricky. The phrasing of the questions could throw you for a loop so it’s recommended that you read the questions at least twice before trying to answer it. This is especially applicable to the Quantitative Reasoning section as the GRE math questions can feel extra intimidating with tricky phrasing.

it's crucial for you to go through many gre example questions

When taking the GRE, prepare yourself to come across with questions that will need you to use logic and analysis to fully comprehend what is being asked.

The Quant section isn’t necessarily filled with hard math questions but the way they are phrased will make them a bit overwhelming. If you take advantage of practice questions  you can improve your GRE score by quite a bit. Even taking just one practice test will pay dividends.

This is why it's crucial for you to go through many GRE example questions that are at the same caliber of the actual exam. By getting yourself familiar with how the exam asks its questions, you’ll be used to analyzing and processing what they’re trying to get to. This will also help you can become better equipped to handle thorny test questions.

3. Remember that it’s a standardized test.

Another good point to raise when answering the question, ‘is the GRE hard?’ is the fact that it’s a standardized test. By being a standardized exam, it’s rather predictable. There’s really no need to look high and low just to find out what is on the GRE. You can easily learn this information from the guides released by the ETS and the people who already took the exam.

Sure, you won’t necessarily take the same exact test questions as were used last year but you can still expect them to be on the same vein as the ones asked previously. This is why it’s possible to fully prepare for the GRE because there are accurate details that can really give you a good idea about what the exam is like.

Aside from its predictability, the fact that the GRE is a standardized exam guarantee that it’s a rather universal exam, especially the General test. This means that it’s made to be understood by students and professionals from all sorts of specializations. It’s made to be understood by engineers and literature majors alike. It’s not too technical that you’ll be completely lost in a question if you didn’t major in that area.

gre is a standardized test

Things are different for the Subject tests, however. Those exams are more specific and technical in nature that they’ll really test your knowledge and skills in a specific area of study.

This is why it’s only really recommended to be taken by those who are gunning for a program that is focused on the said subject.

4. Like any other test, the GRE will prove to be difficult if you’re not prepared to take it.

While the exam is all about assessing your skills and capabilities, it doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to prepare for the GRE the best way you can. Getting a good GRE score can give you a competitive edge in the program you’re applying for so it can really be beneficial for you to do well in this test.

Ample preparation can also help make the exam less daunting and difficult for you. If you know what and how to answer in the test, you won’t necessarily find it hard.

Luckily, as mentioned above, this is a standardized test so you can easily learn how to study for the GRE

You can also use practice tests like the ETS PowerPrep to help you get used to the GRE format and in answering test questions that are similar to the actual exam. As this product is from the same makers of the GRE, you can count on it to be nearly identical and just as challenging as the real deal.

There are lots of other top-notch GRE study materials that you can use to further boost your chances of getting a great GRE score. With some research, you’ll be able to learn more ways how to fully get ready for this major exam.

flashcards are highly recommended for preparing an exam

Flashcards are always highly recommended if you need a boost in the vocabulary area. You can also find lots of sites offering GRE Question of the Day sample questions.

These two can make the preparation process a lot easier to digest and process, so they might come in handy to a lot of folks. Aside from study tools, you should also make sure to look up the most useful GRE tips. 

You’ll be able to find ‘hacks’ that can help you become more effective and efficient in preparing for and answering the actual exam.

5. Compared to the ACT and SAT, the GRE is quantifiably more difficult. Compared to other graduate exams like the GMAT, MCAT, and LSAT, the GRE is less difficult.

According to some experts, if you’ll compare the GRE to the other standardized tests available, it can be easier and harder depending on which exam it’s going to be pitted against and your personal experience.

For example, it’s your first time taking a graduate-level standardized test and the only standardized tests you’ve taken before are the ACTs and SATs that one normally takes in high school. The GRE will certainly be more difficult than these exams - look here for the SAT and GRE comparison.The coverage alone will be more complex and advanced than what was covered in high school and college-level tests. 

If you’ve already tried out other graduate school exams like the MCAT, GMAT, and LSAT, the GRE General test shouldn’t be too hard for you anymore. Due to the specific nature of the other exams, they can be more difficult and taxing for a lot of test-takers. The GRE Subject tests can still be considered relatively difficult, though, so you might need to look into more information about those tests as well.

6. You have some freedom in how to answer the exam.

The the GRE test format is very straightforward. The first section is the Analytical Writing section, followed by the Verbal Reasoning, and finally the Quantitative Reasoning section, but you don’t necessarily have to answer the exam the same way.

you have some freedom in how to answer the exam

You actually have the flexibility to go over the parts that you’re confident with and you know you can answer quickly to help you save time. Every section has a limited allotted time, so it’s best to answer the test questions efficiently.

Unlike other computer-delivered tests, you can opt to skip the first parts of the exam if you feel like answering the other sections of the GRE first.

This exam features a review screen where you’ll find an overview of the exam. It’s also where your progress is displayed, so if you opted to answer certain sections first, this page will help you keep track of the parts you already did.

This set up gives you a good amount of freedom to handle the exam the way you want to. Experts tend to recommend taking advantage of this feature but cautions that it might also create an unnecessary time crunch as well. It’s totally up to you how you want to effectively go about answering the GRE, though, but this feature offers to make the process simpler and more manageable.

7. You can always re-take the exams to get better results.

While this fact might not really help you assess the difficulty level of the GRE, it can help ease some of your stress. If you’re not too confident that you’ll get the best scores on your first take, you can re-take the exam again. You’re allowed to take up to 5 times within 12 months and you can take it once every 21 days.

As for your scores, you have the option to cancel it or not send them in. The ETS ScoreSelect® option will also let you select which scores to send to your designated recipient, making it easier for you to control your grad school application process.

What’s a good GRE score, you might be wondering? The answer here depends largely on the program you’re eyeing and the school you want to get into. If you want to get into a top school, you should aim to get higher scores. If you want to apply for scholarships and financial aids, you will also need to get high scores.

Those who got into the top universities got 324 to 332 points while the perfect score is at 340. The average GRE scores range is at around 300 to 305 which translates to about 150-152 for both the Quantitative and Verbal Reasoning sections.

What Makes the GRE Difficult for Test-Takers

Now that you have a good idea whether you’ll find the GRE difficult or not, you might also want to learn about the reasons why some people find this exam a toughie. This list might just be able to help you find where you will need to focus on and align your preparation efforts properly to get the best results.

Complex Vocabulary

complex vocabulary can make gre difficult

A lot of test takers found the GRE Verbal Reasoning portion to be quite brutal. The words used in the exam are not your average daily jargon so it can be quite tough for many.

As the test is also crafted to be tricky, using context clues might not be enough to power through this section of the exam.

This is why it’s crucial that you brush up on your vocabulary skills when preparing for the GRE. It might not feel like its necessary since you already got yourself a degree and all but believe us when we say that having a limited vocab can be your downfall in this exam.

Core Math Section

As mentioned above, the GRE is not packed with hard math problems. In fact, they’re the stuff you studied in the seventh or eighth grade. What makes the Quantitative Reasoning portion a pain in the neck for some people is the fact that it has been a while since they last encountered the concepts in the test. This is why brushing up on your basic math is necessary if you want to get good scores.

Aside from the actual concepts, the test also includes tricky math problems. Like what we’ve said before, the questions for the math section is phrased in a tricky and complex manner for test takers. They can be quite confusing so it’s highly recommended that you read these questions thoroughly before answering.

Time Pressure

You’re only allowed to answer the GRE within 3 hours and 45 minutes. While it only has 3 sections, there are lots of questions that you have to answer. You’ll mostly only get a minute for each question in the Quantitative and Verbal Reasoning sections while you only have an hour to answer two essay prompts for the Analytical Writing section of the GRE. Combined with the tricky questions, the test can really be a bit overwhelming and writing two essays in a short amount of time can be straining and tiring.

Tricky Questions

questions can get tricky

We’ve mentioned this portion before but we feel like it’s worth emphasizing that GRE questions can get quite tricky. This can certainly make them feel more difficult than what they really are.

To help you tackle this challenge, however, you can always opt to use the GRE PowerPrep materials. These sample questions are made and offered by ETS so you can be sure that it will be similar to the actual exam questions

Challenging Essay Questions

A lot of test-takers will also tell you how tough the GRE writing section is. Essays, in general, can be quite tricky for a lot of people and it’s the exact case for this exam. The difficulty mostly lies in the kind of argument and points you’ll raise in your essay. Even if you know how to write well, its content should be sound and compelling for you to get high marks. Sometimes it’s just hard to decide how to pursue a good train of thought while under pressure, so this section can really be a challenge for many as well.


While it is hard to quantify just how hard the GRE can really be, it’s safe to say that it has a certain difficulty level that will require you to get ready for it in order to get good scores. The best GRE prep books, materials, and other tools can help you go a long way in this regard. Preparation is the key so don't be afraid to take a practice test or two to get some GRE practice. Also, don’t forget to create a ‘My GRE account’ on the ETS website to help you get started on your journey.

Leonard Haggin

I created this site to help students like you learn from the experiences my team had learned during our extensive academic careers. I am now studying Law at Stanford, but I also make time to write articles here in order to help all you fellow students advance in your academic careers and beyond. I hope our efforts on Study Prep Lounge will arm you with the knowledge you need to overcome whatever trial or test you find in front of you.

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 1 comments