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Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few years, chances are you wouldn’t have missed the news about the latest GRE test pattern change. On August 1st, 2011, the GRE test had undergone a huge makeover. For anyone who took the GRE test prior to that or is planning to take the test in the near future, this means a lot of significant changes.

Fret not, however, as you don’t have to investigate those changes yourself. Whether you are a first timer or a repeater, knowing the new GRE test format would help you learn not only about the test, but also about yourself: your strengths, and weaknesses. Here’s a brief summary of the changes, followed by a holistic assessment of the new GRE exam.

The new GRE test has increased in length, from about 3 hours to about 4 hours. However, this increase in overall time allows for a little more time per question on both Quantitative and Verbal sections. You should hence plan to set aside at least 4 hours for the test, even during practice sessions.  Sitting continuously for four hours looking at the bright monitor screen is easier said than done, so it would really help if you have some real test-like experience before your actual test. This can help you get used to the pace, pressure and fast switching between subjects.

What does the new GRE test format look like?

The new GRE is composed of two Analytical Writing Assessment Responses (30 minutes each), two Quantitative Ability sections (20 questions and 35 minutes each) and two Verbal Ability sections (20 questions and 30 minutes each). It also contains an unidentified Experimental Section which can either be a Verbal Ability section or a Quantitative Ability section. What makes this section horrible is that you don’t know which section is really experimental because it is totally random.

The general new GRE test format looks like this:

Section # Section Type # Questions Time Scored?
1 Analytical Writing Assessment 2 essays 30 minutes each Yes
2 Verbal Ability #1 or Quantitative Ability #1(order varies at random) 20 30 minutes Yes
3 20 35 minutes Yes
10  Minutes Break
4 Verbal Ability #2 or Quantitative Ability #2 (same order as Sections #2 and #3) 20 30 minutes Yes
5 20 35 minutes Yes
6 Unscored Experimental Section (will be of same type as Section #2) 20 30 or 35 minutes No
7 Unscored Research Section Varies Varies No

The new GRE is composed of two Analytical Writing Assessment Responses (30 minutes each), two 20-question Verbal Ability sections (30 minutes each), and two 20-question Quantitative Ability sections (35 minutes each). In addition to these five sections, an unidentified Experimental section (either Quantitative or Verbal) can show up on your exam that doesn’t count toward your score. Do NOT waste any time trying to identify which section is the experimental section! It is impossible to identify. You could spend this time solving a question or two.

Occasionally, there may be an identified optional research section (but not if there is an Experimental section). But irrespective of all this, the Analytical Writing section always appears first no matter what, so you need to practice taking the essays before you begin practice tests. Skipping off the AWA section on practice tests is a horrible idea, and you should know why.

Taking a four-hour exam can be quite tiresome and exhausting, so it’s not only important to do a lot practice, but also to take full-length computer-based practice tests, just to make sure your eyes are trained to reading on a computer screen for longer periods.

Sounds intimidating?

Well, there is good news. The actual content tested on the GRE is more or less unaltered, but the way that knowledge is tested is new.

Changes to the Verbal Section:

There are noticeably numerous changes to the Verbal section on the GRE. Prior to the revision, the Verbal section of the GRE had 30 questions to be answered in 30 minutes. Question types include reading comprehension, analogies, antonyms and sentence completion. The Revised GRE now contains two verbal sections of 20 questions each, with 30 minutes per section. The questions types also have undergone a major overhaul.

Each Verbal section consists of:

  • 6 text completion questions
  • 4 sentence equivalence questions
  • 10 reading comprehension questions

#1 There are no Antonyms and Analogies on the new GRE

The Antonyms and Analogies are notoriously vocabulary-dependent questions and they have been removed from the test. These questions not only required you to remember word definitions but also map relationships between those words. If you hate rote vocabulary then this is definitely a sign of relief. The new GRE is still vocabulary dependent but is only tested on questions with enough context. The new GRE requires a contextual understanding of words. Knowing pure definitions will not get you a great score! So, you will need to spend considerable amount of your prep time learning vocabulary.

#2 A new question type has been introduced: Sentence Equivalence

If you are aware of the earlier GRE test format, then you should know that the sentence equivalence questions are more or less similar to text/sentence completion questions, but have quite a few important differences.

A sentence equivalence question has:

  • 1 sentence
  • 1 blank
  • 6 answers to choose from
  • You must choose 2 answer choices

The official instructions for this question type are too vague: “Select the two answer choices that, when used to complete the sentence, fit the meaning of the sentence as a whole and produce completed sentences that are alike in meaning.”

Confused? Well, don’t be. It just means you have to identify two answer choices from the give six choices that give the sentence the same meaning. I want you to understand that when two words fit into the same sentence and still give the same meaning, then they have to be synonyms, right? Exactly my point. Most of the time, the two answer choices will be near-synonyms and your strategy to answer sentence equivalence questions on the GRE is to look for near-synonym pairs in the answer choices but more difficult questions will probably be less straightforward than that.

The test writers always make sure that each sentence equivalence question has enough context so you’ll have some help figuring out what words do and don’t fit in the sentence.

#3 A question type has been modified: Text Completion

On the new GRE, the sentence completion question type has undergone a lot of subtle changes and since been called as Text Completion. Again, the good news here is the overall question scenario hasn’t changed much – you are shown a single paragraph with varying length (anywhere between one and six sentences) with up to three blank spaces. Your job is to read through the context in the passage and figure out which words in the answer choices best fit in the blanks.

These questions now will have varying number of answer choices. Just like the old test, questions with only one blank will have five answer choices while questions with two or three blanks will have three answer choices per blank in the question and you only have to choose one answer choice for each blank that best fits those blanks. Now, here comes the tricky thing about Text Completion on the new GRE. Okay! So you must be thinking, ‘I can just guess on these questions in case I get confused’. Well, guess what, guessing on the GRE just got a lot harder! There are 27 possible combinations of answers to choose from for a three blank text completion and you will only be given credit for this question type if all answer choices you mark are correct. There is no partial credit!

A text completion question has

  • A short passage with 1-5 sentences
  • The passage will have 1-3 blanks
  • There will be 3 answer choices per blank, or 5 answer choices if there’s only one blank
  • There will be one correct answer for each blank in the question
  • There is no partial credit. All answer choices you mark must be correct to get credit for this question

#4 Enhanced emphasis on Reading Comprehension

The reading comprehension question type has an increased emphasis on the new GRE. Out of the 20 questions in each verbal section, close to 10 questions are reading comprehension, which means about half of your verbal score comes from RC (including Critical Reasoning). That’s how important this question type is.

There are 3 types of questions you’ll have to answer on the reading comprehension. The passages can be academic or non-academic and are drawn from books and journals about science, humanities, arts, politics and everyday life issues, too. The passages will vary from 1 – 5 paragraphs in length.

  • Multiple-choice Questions; Choose 1 answer: These are your average, multiple choice questions with 5 answer choices.
  • Multiple-choice Questions; Choose 1 or more answers: Here, you’ll have 3 answer choices, and you’ll have to choose every correct answer, which could be one, two or all three of them. No partial credit is awarded, either!
  • Select-in-Passage: This is a totally new sub question type, unique to the GRE. You’ll have to click on a sentence in the passage that answers the question.

How do these changes affect you?

First of all, a four hour test tires not only your body, but also your mind. It is quite common for students to lose their focus during the last 30-60 minutes of the test and score lesser than they otherwise would. This happens quite frequently, because your mind, unless trained, is not capable of concentrating on something for four hours straight. So, unless you start practicing today, you cannot sit through the GRE with a peaceful mind.

Second, getting used to a new setting or a new format, takes some time. It also requires passion, perseverance, and practice from your end, if you would like to master the test.

With respect to the Verbal section and especially the Reading Comprehension section, you will have to peruse a lot of quality reading material in the days to come, if you want to master the vocabulary, while getting used to reading long content in general. We usually recommend our students to regularly read the following newspapers and magazines:

By making it a point to update yourself everyday with new content and new vocabulary, you will soon improve your verbal score by leaps and bounds, in a matter of weeks. Also, you can use a timer or a stopwatch to see how long you take to read an article or a new item, and see if you are improving over time or not.

Changes to the Quantitative Section:

The Quantitative Reasoning section on the GRE tests you on basic high school mathematics and reasoning skills, and how you can apply your math skills to real-life scenarios. But overall, the GRE has laid more emphasis on Number Properties and Word Problems while deemphasized topics such as Statistics and Probability. Let us have a closer look at the new quantitative section, and see what type of questions it has got.

Each Quantitative section consists of:

  • 8-9 quantitative comparisons questions
  • 8-9 problem solving questions
  • 3-4 data interpretation questions

Here, take a closer look at four types of quantitative questions:

  • Quantitative Comparison
  • Single Choice
  • Multiple Choice
  • Numeric Entry

#1 Enhanced emphasis on Quantitative Comparison

The quantitative comparison is a new question type that the GRE throws at you. These questions are not like standard math problems you’ll find on a common standardized test and the fact that they are so unique to the GRE makes them look strange at first.

Out of the 20 questions in each math section, 8 – 9 questions are quantitative comparison questions, which means about half of your math score comes from QC. That’s how important this question type is.

The quantitative comparison problems on the GRE consist of a short question and two columns labeled A and B. Each column contains an expression or a number. You have to compare Quantity A with Quantity B and decide whether A or B is greater, if they are equal, or if the relationship between A and B cannot be determined from the provided information. One advantage of Quantitative Comparisons is that the answer choices never change. Your answer choices will always be:

  1. The quantity in column A is greater.
  2. The quantity in column B is greater.
  3. The two quantities are equal.
  4. The relationship cannot be determined from the information given.

Since these answer choices won’t change at all, you should memorize them so that you don’t have to waste precious time reading them all over again on test day.

Although there aren’t much differences between this type of questions and usual quantitative questions, many students mistake comparison for calculation. You don’t always have to compute or calculate in order to compare two values. For example, it doesn’t require a calculator to tell whether 2 * (5134) is greater or lesser than 3 * (5134). Though questions on the GRE aren’t this straightforward and simple, you get the point, right? Your job is to just compare and find out whether one of the given two values is greater than, equal to, or less than the other.

A Quantitative Comparison question has

  • A short question or context with 1 or 2 sentences.
  • Two comparable quantities that are derivatives of the given question/context
  • Four answer choices to select from: greater, equal, lesser, cannot be determined.

#2 A question type has been continued: Single Choice Question

The single choice question is probably the question type that is most known among the test takers. These are the typical multiple choice questions that you have been facing all through your schooling. In this type of question, you get one question and five answers choices to choose the right answer from.

A Single Choice Question has

  • A short question
  • Five options to choose from
  • Only one of the answer options is right.

#3 Another question type has been continued: Multiple Choice Question

After the simple looking single choice questions, you will come across these dangerous trap-filled questions. In these questions, you will need to choose every answer choice that’s correct – all given answer choices can be correct too. A question may or may not specify the number of choices to select, so you’ll have to be careful to read the question thoroughly. No partial credit will be given, so you must choose every correct answer!

A Multiple Choice Question has

  • A short question
  • 4 to 6 options to choose from
  • One or more of the answer options can be right.

#4 A new question type has been introduced: Numeric Entry

Numeric Entry type questions are relatively very new on the GRE. It is where you are required to actually enter (type in) the answer to a given question, instead of selecting the most appropriate answer from the given options. Numeric Entry questions can sometimes seem tricky, and most students go wrong here, because it is easier to choose from a given set of answer options than to enter the solution. But since the GRE features an on-screen calculator for the math section, you can and hence, should make full use of it. Most questions don’t require complex numbers or calculations, so using a calculator would be beneficial, though not entirely necessary.

Another reason to use the calculator for the numeric entry questions, is that the calculator has a Transfer Display option, which transfers the answer obtained on the calculator screen, to the answer box given in the question. This avoids any and all typing errors, and you will hence enter an accurate number.

A Numeric Entry Question has

  • A short question with 3 to 5 sentences
  • A text box to enter the answer in

One important thing to note here, is that the computer accepts all equivalent forms of an answer, as long as they numerically mean the same. For example, if the answer to a question is 2.5, then 5/2, 25/10, 10/4 etc., will all be treated as right answers by the computer. So, in order to save time, you don’t have to simplify fractions to the least possible numerical forms. You can simple enter the fraction, or decimal number you obtained, and it will be the right answer.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I Skip Questions and Go Back Later?

The GRE allows you to skip questions if you want to. This is but one of the most underused features of the GRE. Many students, given the amount of anxiety they go through during the test, forget the fact that they are limited by time. They keep on combating that one challenging question, while they could easily use that time to finish off a couple of easy ones.

With this new Mark and Skip feature, you can mark a question you would like to come back to, and carry on with the remaining questions. Once you have finished off a few questions, or the entire section, you can always come back to the skipped questions, and spend quality time on them, without having to worry about time.

Is There Negative Marking for Wrong Answers?

There is a lot of noise and rumor on the internet that ETS will be introducing a negative marking system on the GRE in 2014. To know the truth behind this, we approached ETS, and they debunked this rumor and confirmed that the GRE format will remain as is in 2014. So, you can safely say that there won’t be any penalties or negative marks for wrong answers on the GRE, at least in the near future.

Is the GRE Computer Adaptive?

The GRE is a computer adaptive test, which means that the test adapts accordingly, based on your performance. The level of difficulty of a particular section depends on how well you performed on the previous section. The first section, however, will be of average difficulty level. For example, the first math section will be of average difficulty. If you did a brilliant job on that section, the next quant section will be a lot more difficult. If you did not do well on the first math section, the second one will be a lot easier. So, the difficulty level keeps varying during the test, based on your performance.

How Does the Adaptive Nature Within a Section Work?

While the level of difficulty changes from one section to the other, there is no adaptive nature within a particular section. Which means, every single question in a section is equally difficult, and thereby equally important, and there are no differences inside a section. What this means to you, is that you should give equal weightage in terms of time, to every single question. Since every questions bears the same marks, you can skip off a question or two, if you find them too hard to solve within the time limit.

Does GRE Provide an On Screen Calculator?

The GRE provides an on screen calculator for the math section. But this calculator is different from what you would normally expect. There are a few things that you need to know about the calculator on the GRE. First of all, it can display only eight characters. If a calculation is more complex than that, and he result is more than eight characters long, then the calculator shows you an error message, and more than just a few invaluable seconds of your time are wasted.

The on screen calculator is a very useful tool when it comes to solving numeric entry questions. The calculator has a Transfer Display button, which when clicked transfers the answer obtained on the calculator screen, to the answer box given in the question. This not only saves you the time spent on typing numbers again, but it also avoids errors, and you will hence enter an accurate number.

How do these changes affect you?

The Verbal and Quantitative sections are each scored from 130 to 170 in one-point increments, with an average score of about 150 on each. The old GRE exam reported scores ranging from 200 to 800 in ten-point increments. The Analytical Writing Assessment is scored from 0 to 6. If you were one of the unlucky individuals to take the GRE before this change, your score must be in the old GRE format but it is still valid (the GRE scores are valid for 5 years). To convert your old score which was out of 1600 to the new GRE score format, download this score conversion pdf right now and do it yourself.

Your understanding of the new GRE format is the key that can unlock your true scoring potential, since knowing the pattern helps you gauge for what comes next in the exam, so you can avoid unnecessary mistakes. That’s why we recommend you to take at least three GRE practice test before the real one.

Hope this guide helped you find out what has changed on the GRE and what hasn’t, and what you should do about it.

So, what do you think about the new test format? Do you think the GRE got easier or harder? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section.

3 Comments to “GRE Test Format: The Anatomy Of The New GRE That You Need To Know”

  1. Harshavardhan says: Reply to Harshavardhan


    Is this a new update after the revision in August, 2011?

  2. SamCaron says: Reply to SamCaron

    Am well informed, thanks for such a profound clarification

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