In the previous piece unpacking GRE preparation, I discussed a broad, big-picture method—self-regulated learning (SRL)—as an effective approach for organizing your studying. In this piece, and subsequent articles in the series, I’ll be providing a closer look at each section—Quantitative Reasoning, Verbal Reasoning, and Analytical Writing—along with tips and strategies to master their respective content. This piece represents an examination of how the GRE Quantitative Reasoning (QR) section is structured. Subsequent articles will provide even more in-depth explorations of these aspects elucidated in this piece.
Like any academic task, the GRE’s Quantitative Reasoning (QR) section can be viewed, conceptualized, and elucidated from a number of vantage points. Another way to think about this is to ask, what are the dimensions that describe the QR section? My perspective is that all tests of academic ability or achievement can be conceptualized in terms of three primary dimensions: (a) content, (b) items, and (c) format. Content refers to the knowledge and skills of interest, while Items refers to how assessment of these knowledge and skills is manifested in the questions’ structure. Format refers to how the items are organized and presented to the test-taker during testing. Fortunately, Educational Testing Service (ETS) is quite transparent about both of these testing dimensions. ETS outlines the following content domains and item types:
Probability & Statistics.
Quantitative Comparison (QC) Items;
Multiple-Choice Items — Select One Answer Choice (MC-SOA);
Multiple-Choice Items — Select One or More Answer Choices (MC-SOMA);
Numeric Entry (NE) Items.
Data Interpretation Set Questions.
In order to perform your best, you will need to develop a strong understanding of these dimensions—particularly, content and item types—during your GRE preparation. This article presents an overview of each QR content type and item type, providing a framework and language for you to utilize when structuring your own GRE studying.
Four Quantitative Reasoning Content Domains
As was previously mentioned, content refers to the specific skills and knowledge that the items seek to measure. The GRE’s QR section aims to tap the following four skill/knowledge areas: (a) Arithmetic; (b) Algebra; (c) Geometry; (d) Statistics & Probability (sometimes also called “Data Analysis”). The following sections list the major specific areas subsumed within each of these four overarching domains. For some content areas, examples are provided in either via parenthetical text to the right or a graphic below.
Mathematical Symbols (!, factorial);
Other Mathematics Terminology (decimal "places" system")
Mathematical Operations (order of operations, PEMDAS);
Properties of Integers;
Exponent & Root rules (any #^ 0 power = 1; e.g., 250 = 1);
Percentages & Fractions;
Ratios (Pi is the ratio of circles’ circumference to diameter)
Factoring & Simplifying Algebraic Expressions;
Linear Equations (2x + 1 = 7x);
Linear Inequalities (uses an inequality-type sign [<, >, <, >]; e.g., 4x + 1 ≤ 7);
Quadratic Equations (ax2 + bx + c = 0);
Circles (C = pi * d);
Triangles (e.g., “30°-60°-90°”)
Area & Perimeter (For triangle, Area = b x h / 2);
Pythagorean Theorem (For cubic shape, internal diagonal line: d^2 = W^2 + L^2 + H^2)
Statistics & Probability
Central Tendency-Related Statistics (Mean, median, mode;
Graphs, Plots, & Charts (e.g., Boxplot)
Sets, Lists, & Sequences (A B: The set of elements that are in both set A and set B);
Compound Event Probability;
Independent Event Probability;
Permutations & Combinations (nPr = n! / (n – r)! ;n = # choices, r = # we’re choosing).
4 Types of Quantitative Reasoning Section Items
This section of the article describes the types of questions in the QR section. I briefly want to note that my use of the term, “items,” is interchangeable with “problems” and “questions.” As was alluded to in the first post on the topic of the GRE, the QR section contains four specific item types: (i) Quantitative Comparison, (ii) Multiple Choice—Select One Answer, (iii) Multiple Choice—Select One or More Answers, and Numeric Entry Items. Notably, each of these item types is used in the GRE to test each of the four knowledge/skill areas—arithmetic, algebra, geometry, Probability & Statistic—discussed above.
Quantitative Comparison Items
QC Item Testing Algebra Skill
QC Item Testing Geometry Knowledge
Multiple Choice—Select One Answer (MC-SOA) Items
Unlike the QC items, MC-SOA items—and the other two item types subsequently discussed, for that matter—do not have an identical format or answer options. However, they are quite straightforward in the sense that you only have to select one answer choice.
MC-SOA Item Testing Statistics & Probability Skills
MC-SOA Item Testing Arithmetic Skills
Multiple Choice—Select One or More Answers (MC-SOMA) Items
MC-SOMA-formatted items, arguably, can be the most difficult type of GRE Quantitative Reasoning question since they are much more open ended than WC or MC-SOA items. In some MC-SOMA items, the number of choices you need to make is specified—e.g., “which two of the following…”. However, some may be very open-ended, not specifying a number you should select. Here is an example of that type:
As a general guideline, this is the item type—if any—that you may want to just make your best educated guess about instead of performing time-intensive calculations for each potential answer option. Remember these two points: (a) each Quantitative Reasoning section item is worth the same number of points regardless of its difficulty and (b) there is no penalty (i.e., points subtracted) for incorrect answers, so don’t leave any unanswered.
Numeric Entry (NE) Items
NE items are characterized by being very open-ended, even more so than MC-MSOA items. These questions always require a numerical response and include either one box (for non-fraction answers) or two boxes (for fractions—one box for the numerator, one for the denominator) for enter your answer. Below are examples of each of those types of NE items:
Format of Quantitative Reasoning Section Items
Finally, it is worth pointing out that GRE QR items appear either as discrete (i.e., single, standalone) items, or in a small group of related items, called a data interpretation set. Notably, data interpretation set items very often are asked in reference to one visual figure, such as a bar graph. Here's an example of 3 items belonging to one data interpretation set:
How To Integrate This Information
This article presented a lot of information, which is , ultimately, only as useful as the degree that it is applied to one's GRE preparation. In the first post, I discussed the utility of taking a self-regulated learning (SRL) approach to structuring one's studying. Integration of the information presented in this article—the content areas being assessed and the type of questions used—into an SRL framework is the key to making your GRE prep as productive as possible.
A simple way to implement this system is to pick a content domain-item type combination (e.g., Quantitative Comparison questions assessing geometry knowledge) and first spend some time learning the material (key facts, formulas, approaches. This would be the Forethought phase of SRL. Secondly, during the Performance Phase move on to completing a pool of this kind of practice items, while taking note when difficulties pop up that you want to improve upon during your next "round" of studying. Finally in the Self-Reflection phase, do a more comprehensive evaluation of how you performed, and finalize your list of areas you are still finding challenging. This information will directly help you target your weaknesses while in the planning portion of the next cycle's Forethought phase.