GRE Sections - Overview
The GRE is broken into six sections: a 60-minute writing section consisting of an Argumentative Writing Task and an Issue Writing Task, two 30-minute Verbal Reasoning sections, two 35-minute Quantitative Reasoning sections, and one 30- or 35-minute experimental or research section which can be either quantitative or verbal. The writing section is always first, but the remaining five sections can come in any order. There are optional 1-minute breaks after every section and a 10-minute break after the third section. The computer test lasts about 3 hours and 45 minutes in total, the paper test lasts 3 hours 30 minutes.
The Analytical Writing section is always the first section of the GRE, and consists of two separately timed essay-writing tasks: an Argumentative Writing Task and an Issue Writing Task. The ETS website has a complete list of all the essay prompts for both tasks that may possibly be used for your GRE test; these lists are the best resource for students who are trying to learn about the sort of writing tasks that they will be required to perform during their test. ETS also provides detailed information about how your essays will be scored, with a rationale provided for each scoring level in addition to numerous example essays of differing quality. The essays are judged holistically, so it is important both to write a lengthy essay and to structure it well to clearly and efficienltly convey the complex interpretations of the provided material.
After the Analyitical Writing section, two or three of the remaining sections will test Verbal Reasoning. The Analytical Writing and Verbal Reasoning sections are the main attributes that set the GRE apart from other graduate tests, most notably the GMAT. While the GMAT requires efficient recall and deployment of grammar and spelling rules, the GRE is more comprehensive about its evaluation of English comprehension. If you are adept at learning language or have a diverse undergraduate or professional background, then the GRE is an excellent opportunity to showcase your reasoning abilities.
The Verbal Reasoning sections have three question types: Reading Comprehension, Text Completion, and Sentence Equivalence. Reading comprehension questions present a passage of text and then ask several analytical questions about it. This is fairly similar to the "reading comprehension" passages of other standardized tests, except that the reading material may be much more challenging than what you are used to reading for entertainment, because it is designed to mimic the level of material that you will be expected to digest as a graduate student.
The Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence questions are both different methods to evaluate vocabulary knowledge. Text completion passages are 1-5 sentences long with 1-3 blanks and either three or five answer choices (five if there is only one blank). Students must select the correct answer for every blank, or get the entire question wrong; there is no partial credit.
Sentence Equivalence questions present a sentence with a single blank and a list of vocabulary words. Students must select two vocabulary words that complete the sentence in an equivalent way. It does not matter whether both selections are "synonymous" (and it would be foolish to answer only based on which two words mean the same thing), it is only important that the completed sentence is "equivalent" with both words. These questions require more understanding then merely memorizing vocabulary lists – you must also understand sentence structure and be able to think creatively.
After the Analytical Writing section, two or three of the remaining sections will be Quantitative Reasoning. The Quantitative Reasoning sections of the GRE are generally regarded as less difficult than those of the GMAT, because they test less specific professional knowledge, allow for more personal time management, and because they allow the use of a calculator.
The Quantatative Analysis sections have four question types: Quantitative Comparison Questions, Multiple Choice (select one answer), Multiple Choice (select one or more answers), and Numeric Entry questions. For quantitative comparisons, students must evaluate which of two quantities is greater (or whether they are equal, or whether it is impossible to determine their relationship). These questions are somewhat similar to "data sufficiency" questions on the GMAT, except that in addition to deciding whether the data are sufficient you must also indicate the relationship between the magnitudes of the two quantities. Numeric Entry questions present a text box, into which you must enter the specific value of the correct answer.
The Multiple Choice questions are self-explanitory, but you must be careful to distinguish between questions that have a single correct answer and questions that may have multiple correct answers. The best way to practice making this distinction is to take computer-based practice tests and get comfortable with the computer testing system. Multiple Choice questions that only allow a single answer will have a "bubble" format, where the answer changes if you select a different bubble. Multiple Choice questions that allow multiple answers will have a "checkbox" format that allows multiple selections.
Experimental or Research Section
After the Analytical Writing section, one of the remaining five sections will be an Experimental test section. The five sections can be presented in any order and the Experimental section may be either Verbal Reasoning or Quantitative Reasoning. There is no reason for you to try to figure out which section is the experimental section, because doing so will be a distraction from focusing on the test. The Experimental sections are used to make continuing updates to the test, to gauge the difficulty of test questions, and as a data-collection tool for ETS. If there is a Research section, it will be presented after the completion of the rest of your test, and it will be optional.
The computer-based GRE is adaptive by section for the Quantitative Reasoning and Verbal Reasoning sections, so students who perform well on their first section will "level up" to a more difficult second section. The difficulty of your test is taken into account during the computation of your "scaled score" of 130-170. The writing assignment is not adaptive. The experimental or research section is used to evaluate and measure the difficulty level of future test questions, but does not contribute to the adaptation of your test or to your scaled score.