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Basics: GRE® Question Types

Verbal Section

The verbal section has three basic question types. Two focus primarily on vocabulary, the third on reading comprehension.

Text completion questions give test-takers a sentence missing one, two or three words. Test-takers must choose words that best fill in the blanks. Answer choices will be presented independently for each blank. There is not partial credit so to gain credit for a question, all blanks must be solved correctly. To answer these problems, you'll have to draw on your understanding of the words' meaning, plus your ability to read context clues in the sentence.

For sentence equivalence questions, the test taker must select two words that could each fill the same single blank in a sentence such that the sentence would have the same meaning using either selection.

For reading comprehension, a short passage (400-600 words) appears on the left half of the screen and a question about it on the right. As you answer, the passage remains and you're prompted with another question, typically 3 to 5 overall. You might be asked for big-picture information like the main point, primary purpose, or author's attitude; for specific details about a small excerpt; or to make an inference based on statements in the passage. The good news is, everything you need to answer the questions will be right in front of you, in the passage.

Math Section

The GRE®'s math section tests four broad areas: arithmetic, algebra, geometry and data analysis. Questions are typically at the high school level, though some test-takers see college-introductory-level probability or statistics problems. But that also means that for many test-takers, it's been years since learning the material. The questions are also often phrased in a tricky way and hard to understand.

There are 3 basic problem types:

In problem solving questions, you're presented with a math problem and five potential answers. Solving the problem might involve computing a number, manipulating an equation, analyzing a geometric figure, or some other math skill.  Data analysis problems give you a graph or chart, then ask several questions about the information it contains. Typically, you'll just need to look closely at the figure to come up with your answer, though some problems do require simple computation. For these questions, the answer choices may be presented in 3 different ways.  Along with the standard 5-choice multiple choice question where you will choose a single correct answer from a list of 5 choices, you may be asked to calculate a numerical answer and enter it into a box (instead of selecting an answer from a list of choices), or select all correct answers from a list of up to 7 choices wherein more than one answer can be correct. As with the verbal questions with more than one correct answer, there is no partial credit given on these questions.

Quantitative comparisons give you some background information about a problem then present two statements, one in column A and the other in column B. The statements might be anything from a simple number to a complicated word problem. Using the facts given, you'll need to decide which column is larger. You’ll have the same 4 choices throughout: A means A is larger; B means B is larger; C means the two are equal; D indicates you don't have enough information to determine the relationship.

Analytical Writing Section

The analytical writing section, presents you with two different types of prompts. Each of the essays is graded by two readers, who assign a score from 0 to 6. These 4 results are averaged and rounded to the nearest half point to get your score. The readers will evaluate your essay as a whole, looking for a clear point of view, excellent organization, support for the given point of view, and a clear, articulate style of writing. Spelling and grammar aren't explicitly considered, but if neglected can make for a confusing essay and bias the reader against you. Most grad programs are less concerned with your analytical writing score than the personal statement or statement of purpose you’ll submit with your application. But an unusually low essay score can raise red flags with admissions committees.

The two types of prompts:

For the analysis of an issue prompt, you'll be given a quote or other statement and asked to analyze it and either agree or disagree.  You will also receive specific instructions on what to consider in your response. When constructing your answer, be sure to follow the given instructions. Make your argument clearly and support it with relevant examples. While it might be tempting to argue both sides of the issue, it's usually best to take a firm stand one way or the other while acknowledging the issue’s complexity. The prompt calls for the classic 5 paragraph essay: An introductory paragraph setting out your point of view; 2 to 3 body paragraphs presenting concrete examples supporting your argument; and a concluding paragraph to summarize that argument. Good transitions are also important, to make the essay flow better and its structure clear. You’ll have 30 minutes to answer this prompt.

Analysis of an argument requires a very different type of essay. The prompt presents you with a short, 4 to 8 sentence argument and asks you to analyze and critique the argument. Rather than take a stand, you'll need to be an objective observer. The argument is typically poorly reasoned, lacking convincing evidence, and relies on questionable assumptions and logic. You'll need to break it down, analyze its structure and evidence, and criticize the reasoning used. Don't debate the issue at stake or take a position. A good essay will analyze the argument and state its flaws in an introductory paragraph; present each of its major problems in a separate body paragraph; then summarize your critique in a concluding paragraph. As with analysis of an issue, transitions between paragraphs are important to a clear, smoothly-flowing essay. You’ll have 30 minutes to answer this prompt.

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