GRE Quantitative Section: Breaking Down the Test

Breaking Down the GRE Quantitative Section 

Every GRE test taker will face two scored quantitative sections of 20 questions each, receiving a score between 130 and 170. The GRE quantitative section largely covers topics from pre-algebra math classes, so if it’s been awhile since you’ve taken high school math, you may want to brush up on your basics!

Just as with the verbal section of the GRE, the GRE quantitative section is “adaptive-by-section.” What this means is every test taker sees an “average” difficulty first section—essentially, a section on which ETS (the company that makes the test) expects a 150 scorer to get half the questions right. Depending on your performance on the first quantitative section, the second section scales to meet you—if you performed better than ETS expects an “average” test taker to perform, then the second section is harder. If you performed below their expectations, the second section is easier. Many students ask if it’s better to do poorly on the first section in order to receive an easier second section. The answer is absolutely not. Do not try and game the scoring metric on the test—too much of how your raw score is calculated remains unknown to make such a gamble worthwhile.

Note: it is relatively easier to improve your scores in the GRE quantitative section than in the GRE verbal reasoning section. Reading skills take a long time to develop and improve, while math questions can be solved by memorizing and applying formulas. The math questions tend to be a combination of “knowing what do” with “knowing how to do.” Be sure to look for clues that indicate when to use certain tactics.

The quantitative section uses three question types—problem solving, quantitative comparison, and numeric entry—to test your knowledge of three broad fields of mathematics: arithmetic, algebra, and geometry. Let’s look at each of these:

Types of Questions in the GRE Quantitative Section

1. Problem Solving is the style of question you probably have the most familiarity with. These typically have 5 answers (called A through E) and you are to select the correct one. Less frequently, these will ask you to select all answer choices that apply. This is very similar to how the SAT and ACT structure their math questions

2. Quantitative Comparison (or “QuantComp”), on the other hand, is probably unfamiliar to most test takers. The test presents two quantities, A and B, and the test taker needs to assess which is greater. The four answers are always the same: (A) A is greater (B) B is greater (C) the two quantities are equal and (D) there is not enough information to determine which is greater. Because the answer choices are always the same, it is absolutely worth practicing these questions extensively before taking the test. Be sure to note when the answer is D as opposed to A, B, or C.

3. Numeric Entry questions are in one way very similar to problem solving: you’ll be given a situation you need to evaluate for a solution. The crucial difference between numeric entry and problem solving, however, is that numeric entry questions lack answer choices. Instead, test-takers input a value into a box. There is only one correct answer, though the test will accept numerous different responses as correct. What does this mean? If the solution to a question is “4” the test will accept 8/2 or 4/1 or 12/3. All of these are the same as four – in other words, if the solution to a question is a fraction, you do not need to reduce.

Types of Mathematics in the GRE Quantitative Section

1. Algebra on the GRE quantitative section includes all of the following: evaluating algebraic expressions (solving for x), word problems, systems of equations, functions, and sequences. It’s worth spending a while going through each of these to evaluate your strengths and weaknesses.

2. Arithmetic probably has the broadest range of question types, though it is tested about as frequently as algebra is. Categories of questions within arithmetic include percents, percent change, ratios, rates, probability, permutations and combinations, properties of integers, number theory, exponents and roots, fractions and decimals, mean, median, mode, and standard deviation. A lot of preparation for this section involves knowing not only how to solve each of these question types, but how to recognize which methods need to implemented.

3. Geometry questions in the GRE quantitative section are less common than algebra and arithmetic questions, but they still cover quite a range. You’re expected to know triangles (right, equilateral, isosceles), circles, quadrilaterals, regular polygons, lines, coordinate geometry, and solid geometry (cubes, cylinders, and rectangular prisms). It’s a lot to learn, but the test doesn’t probe too deeply into really sophisticated geometry.

Anyone preparing to take the GRE should take at least a couple of hours (though a couple weeks is recommended) to familiarize themselves with the subjects the GRE tests. While it largely overlaps with the material on the SAT, GRE tests more advanced algebraic and arithmetic concepts than the SAT does. Because so many of the subjects require basic memorization of formula and processes, it’s unquestionably worth a few dollar investment to get a decent prep book to prepare for the exam.

Zack Baldwin is a GRE expert and senior tutor at Next Step Test Prep.


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