How the GRE Differs from the SAT

Written by Rich Carriero, Next Step Test Preparation, for, February 2014

If you're just starting to investigate the GRE exam, one thing you've probably heard is that the GRE is really just a more advanced form of the SAT. There's certainly no denying the similarities. Both tests are produced by the same company: ETS. Both test approximately the same math concepts as well as many of the same verbal skills. So does that mean that if you did well on the SAT, you can just wing the GRE? Not necessarily. While many tenets of good test prep do apply to both tests (actually to most standardized tests that are out there) there are a number of facets to the GRE that are unique. This article details a few of the most salient distinctions.


(1) No wrong answer penalty!

On the SAT you lose 1/4 of a point for each question you answer incorrectly. SAT students are rightly counseled to omit questions on which they can eliminate no answer choices. On the GRE, however, since there is no wrong answer penalty, you should answer every question. On quantitative comparison questions you have at worst a 1 in 4 chance of getting the question right.

(2) Computerized format

The GRE is an adaptive test delivered on a computer. It's not as adaptive as the GMAT, which adapts one question at a time and doesn't allow you to go back, but skipping around is much more cumbersome than on a paper and pencil test. Your reading speed is likely to be slower and your scratch work will have to be done on scrap paper rather than in any test booklet. On the plus side, the GRE is delivered nearly every day so you won't be taking the test at the same time as 2 million other students and there won't be nearly as much commotion at the test center.

(3) You can't bring a calculator

That's not to say there isn't one. The onscreen calculator on the GRE is a four function (plus square roots) that appears on the screen when you click on an icon. It's slow to use and has far less functionality than your own calculator so you might want to consider answering more questions by hand.

(4) Journal level reading passages

SAT reading passages are equivalent to what you would expect in the textbooks of 101 level undergraduate courses. GRE passages, on the other hand, are adapted from the published works of scholars written for other scholars. They are dense reading laden with jargon and heavy duty vocabulary. If reading isn't your strong point, it's a good idea to practice with advanced material like the New York Times, Economist or the New England Journal of Medicine in advance of the test.

(5) Logical reading and writing

The GRE has a number of logical reasoning questions. These questions are comprised of short passages with single questions. The questions focus on logic and the elements of argumentation. You'll need to study up on your various assumption types in advance. The argument essay is essentially a logical reasoning question in essay form. You have a short argument and your job is to critique its logical flaws and weaknesses in a full essay.

Chances are if you did well at the SAT, you may do equally well on the GRE but you shouldn't take it for granted. At the bare minimum you should learn the structure of the test; study your vocabulary, math concepts and logic; and take a few practice tests. If you find yourself surprised by the difficulty of the GRE, you should then consider outside help like a class or, even better, private tutoring.

Learn More About Taking the GRE

About the Author: Rich Carriero has been a standardized test prep teacher and tutor since 1999. In addition to his position as Academic Manager for Next Step Test Preparation’s GRE tutor and GMAT tutor programs, he is also a freelance writer.

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