What’s covered in the GRE math section is no secret, but that doesn’t make it easier to tackle. Many students applying to graduate programs haven’t taken a math class in a while; in fact, unless you’re going to school for math, it’s probably been years since you did math in an academic setting. And even if you are pursuing a graduate degree in math, you probably haven’t touched the topics covered on this test for years!
The material covered in the GRE math section is a strange blend of algebra, geometry, number theory, and advanced counting (yes, that’s actually a real thing). In this post, we’ll cover what’s on the test, what to study, and how to prep.
GRE Math Topics and Types
The material in the GRE math section can generally be divided into four distinct groups: arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and data analysis.
- Arithmetic: This category consists primarily of questions covering number properties, fractions/rates/percentages, divisibility and primes, arithmetic operations, and exponents/roots. Many students find the easy questions in this area very easy and the hard questions extremely difficult—sometimes among the most difficult on the test. Prime number theory in particular can cause problems for students.
- Algebra: These problems cover algebraic properties, functions, rates and ratios, single- and double-variable word problems, and sequences. Most students are familiar with the basics of this section, but they often need a refresher on the advanced content. Transforming word problems into equations is a particular focus of questions in this category.
- Geometry: This topic includes two- and three-dimensional geometry, coordinate geometry, and mixed geometry. It focuses primarily on triangles, then circles, then other polygons, and questions in this area often include algebra as a secondary topic. Most students learned this material early in high school, so it might be a challenge to recall all of it.
- Data Analysis: Questions in this category cover a fairly wide range—no pun intended—of concepts. The one-off problems typically deal with mean/median/mode, probability, combinatorics, and some slightly more advanced statistics concepts, such as normal distributions. Each Quant section also contains 4-5 problems that ask students to analyze a given chart or graph and sometimes to do math with data pulled from that figure; percent change in particular is a favorite topic of these questions.
If you don’t recognize many of these topics, it might be worth doing some intensive review even before you take a practice or diagnostic test. Take a moment to go through the list above and make a list of topics where you think you need a refresh. Many of them are easy to review using online or free resources, such as Khan Academy or YouTube. For more in-depth instruction, our excellent GRE tutors can help.
If you can’t easily identify your weaknesses by looking at the list of concepts, work through a couple of practice sections to get a clearer picture of where you need targeted review.
GRE Math Question Types
Each of the math topics mentioned above can be tested in several ways. The GRE math section has three primary question-types that testers should be aware of:
- Multiple Choice: These are your standard, boring test questions. Students will choose from five options, and questions can cover any of the topics laid out earlier. Your usual elimination and plug-in tactics work well here. To spice things up, each Quant section will include 1-2 MC questions that allow for more than one answer selection, with students being instructed to select all choices that are correct. This subtype feels scarier, but don’t worry—most of the usual approaches still work just fine!
- Numeric Entry: These questions have no answer choices; instead, students will bubble the answer they calculate directly into a blank box. As you might expect, these problems can be tough: plug-ins typically don’t work as well as they do on MC questions, and your options for checking your answer are limited. You’ll need to be confident in your calculation or find a clever way to check your answer to be sure.
- Quantitative Comparison: These are the strangest questions on the test. Instead of simply asking you to evaluate an equation or complete a series of concrete calculations, these problems ask whether you have enough information to determine which of two given quantities is greater. This is the question-type that most students are the least familiar with, so we spend a good deal of time on these questions in session.
The question-types listed above may seem very different, but you’ll be surprised by how many techniques they have in common. In order to ace the GRE, testers need to know not only what’s covered in the GRE math section but also how to tackle each problem-type.
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