The GRE Quantitative section tests four areas of high schoolmath: Arithmetic, Algebra, Geometry, and Data Analysis. Not all four are tested equally. Some of these concepts come up more often, and some tend to be more difficult. The frequency and difficulty of the “Big Four” on the GRE is probably similar to what’s seen in official practice tests. After all, ETS has a reputation to maintain as a test prep provider, not just as a test maker. So an analysis of the official practice tests should give you a good idea of what to expect on the real exam.
Five official practice tests are available from ETS.
- 2 in PowerPrep II, Version 2.2 Software
- 2 in The Official Guide to the GRE, 2nd Ed.
- 1 in The Practice Book for the Paper-based GRE, 2nd Ed. (PDF)
Here’s how to figure out how much of each major math type you’ll likely see in GRE Quant, as well as how difficult each type will probably be. (Don’t worry. I’ve done all the steps for you.)
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- Classify each practice test question as arithmetic, algebra, geometry, or data analysis. Some questions fit more than one category. Use the list of math concepts in the official Introduction to the Quantitative Reasoning as a guide. Solution explanations, when offered, may help you see what sort of math a question requires.
- Calculate the percentage of questions in each of the four main GRE math types.
- Rank each question by the percentage of test takers who answered correctly when the question appeared on a real exam. Only The Official Guide and the Practice Book report this info. Graph the distributions for each major math concept using percentile groups (deciles or quartiles).
- Analyze the peaks in each distribution. A peak to the right of the 50th percentile is a pile of questions that over half of test takers got right. Conversely, a peak to the left of the 50th percentile is a pile of questions that over half of test takers got wrong.
I completed these steps using the Official Guide and the Practice Book—150 questions in all—so concept frequency (Steps 1, 2) and concept difficulty (Steps 3, 4) are based on the same pool of questions.
Frequency of the Four Main GRE Quant Concepts
The vast majority of GRE Math questions will probably represent algebra, arithmetic, or data analysis, leaving geometry to shape just a small minority.
Of course, the “Big Four” are big, broad categories of math. For instance, data analysis includes 4 topics—statistics, data interpretation, probability, and counting—which together yield about 20 distinct subtopics. Some of these more specific types of math can be linked to some of the more difficult questions.
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Difficulty of the Four Main GRE Quant Concepts
Arithmetic questions skew toward the easier end of the difficulty spectrum. About 2 in 3 were answered correctly by over half of test takers. Percents and number properties (also found in harder questions) were the most common topics.
Unsurprisingly, algebra problems skew toward the harder end of the spectrum. About 1 in 2 were answered incorrectly by a majority of test takers. Exponent operations came up most often in these tough questions.
Data analysis questions also tend to challenge most GRE examinees. Here again about 1 in 2 questions were answered incorrectly by a majority of test takers. Data interpretation, statistics, and probability were the top three topics.
Geometry problems follow a pretty even distribution of difficulty. The tougher problems tended to feature triangles—but likely only because a lot of the geometry questions do.
When you’re preparing for GRE Quantitative, keep these frequency and difficulty data in mind. Be glad for the easier arithmetic questions, but also pay attention to how you’re doing on the more difficult ones. Algebra problems should sit high on your list of prep priorities given their tendency to stump lots of examinees. The same goes for data analysis questions, particularly ones that test statistics and probability. Make the weaknesses of most test takers your strengths and you’ll up your chances of earning a top score.