Preparing to take the GRE exam goes beyond targeting scores or GRE percentiles and choosing between target schools. The GRE test format is tough – you need to prepare yourself to have discipline and focus during the actual exam. The best way to do this is to mimic real GRE conditions, which includes simulating the actual exam questions and timing. (Achievable GRE’s Practice Exam feature does this automatically).
The GRE exam is 3 hours and 45 minutes long, and consists of six GRE sections – five scored, one unscored. Exam takers always start with the Analytical Writing section (aka the “GRE essay”). This will then be followed, in random order, by two Verbal Reasoning sections, two Quantitative Reasoning sections, and the unscored experimental section.
|Measure||Number of Questions||Allotted Time|
|Analytical Writing (One section with two separately timed tasks)||One “Analyze an Issue” task and one “Analyze an Argument” task||30 minutes per task|
|Verbal Reasoning (Two sections)||20 questions per section||30 minutes per section|
|Quantitative Reasoning (Two sections)||20 questions per section||35 minutes per section|
In addition to the core test sections of the GRE, you will spend a bit of time getting started, taking a break, etc. Below is an example of how the above allotments could translate into an actual test day.
|Task||Time||# of Questions|
|Biographical Information||+/- 10 minutes||–|
|Issue Essay||30 minutes||1|
|Argument Essay||30 minutes||1|
|Verbal Reasoning (2 sections)||30 minutes per section||20 each section|
|Quantitative Reasoning (2 sections)||30 minutes per section||20 each section|
|Experimental Section||30 to 35 minutes||Varies|
|1 Break||10 minutes||–|
|Possible Research section||Optional||Depends|
|Select Schools/Programs||5 minutes||Up to 4|
|Accept Scores||1 minute||–|
|Receive Scores||1 minute||–|
Using an effective timing strategy will serve you well for the GRE, especially the Quantitative section. The key rule? If you decide to attempt a problem, and you don’t arrive at a solution within three minutes, you must force yourself to make an educated guess based on the work you’ve done thus far and move on.
Setting this 3-minute limit should help prevent you from spending (or wasting) too much time on a single question. How long is the GRE? Long. There’s a lot of ground to cover. You need to keep up a good pace over the course of the exam to ensure you’re not rushing through your last few questions and missing things you would have been able to answer with enough time.
One small additional trick: practice mental arithmetic so that you can avoid using the clunky GRE calculator as much as possible.
The GRE format typically divides people into those that have trouble with the Quantitative section and those that have trouble with the other two. While the Quantitative section definitely gets the most attention and therefore preparation from students, the Analytical Writing section is often the one where students run out of time. This is especially true for non-native English speakers.
The first essay will ask you to take a position on an issue and support that idea with evidence. The second essay will ask you to critique the weaknesses in a given argument. Your compositions should be relevant and concise, and you should use outlines to ensure that you and stay on task throughout the essay. Make a point of practicing building an outline with an intro, three supporting paragraphs, and conclusion within five minutes for each essay type – that will give you twenty five minutes to complete the essay.
Additionally, you can become more comfortable with topic prompts with the help of the published lists from ETS:
Practicing with those topics will give you the closest experience possible to the actual GRE test format.
Each section is 30 minutes and 20 questions, which means you need to average 90 seconds per question.
The key to beating the GRE format is proper pacing and a calm demeanor. To ensure you’re familiar with the pace and rhythm of the actual exam, you should mimic the same timing and structure when taking GRE practice tests. Familiarity will help loosen some of those nerves. This is why we time our practice exam feature at Achievable – it helps you be as prepared as possible for the exam.