The Skinny On The Adaptive GRE

You may have heard that the Revised GRE is adaptive. But what exactly does this mean? Now, if you’ve studied for the old GRE, you may already have some preconceived notions about “adaptiveness.” Of course, if you are taking the test for the first time you are a blank slate, at least on this issue. Either way, the Revised GRE is adaptive in way that is very different from any other test before it, so listen up: the following information can potentially affect your score in a big way.

The Adaptive Nature of the Revised GRE

On the old GRE, the test adapted within each section. The computer would assume that every test taker was equal and would start with a mid-range question. If the test taker answered a few questions correctly, the test would become progressively difficult. And if the test taker answered the questions incorrectly, the test would become easier.

The old algorithm is slightly more nuanced than this, but really the details, at this point, are moot. We only care about the revised GRE.

The Revised GRE adapts between sections

A salient difference between the old and revised GRE is that the revised GRE has two sections for math and two sections verbal. The old exam had one section for each.

That the revised GRE has two sections for each subject is significant – this allowed ETS to make the test make the test adapt between sections.

There is no adaptation within section

The section adaptation is the only adaptation that happens on the new GRE. What this means is that the questions do not change depending on whether you answer them correctly. You can think of it this way – each section is static. Your performance on the first section will determine whether you get an easy section or a difficult section. The easy section is static and the difficult section is static. Again, this means the questions in the section do not change. You could miss the first ten and question 11 will still be question 11. You could work backwards from the last question, nailing all of them, and question 11 is still question 11.

The level of difficulty of questions is random

Even though a section is static it doesn’t mean that, theoretically, it couldn’t become progressively harder. After all, this is what the old old GRE, meaning the paper-based 1990 GRE was like. However, there is no order of difficulty on the Revised GRE. The first question can be the hardest and the last question the easiest. Most likely, the first and last question will be medium ones.

Each question is weighted the same

Do not spend 5 minutes trying to answer the question in which four circles are wedged inside some octagon (actually, that would make an interesting question – but another time!). Each question is weighed the same. So the question that gives you the radius and asks for the area, which should take no more than 15 seconds, is worth the same as the one about the monstrous polygon.

Can you let up at the end?

Again, each question is weighted the same – and the computer hasn’t “figured you out” the way it supposedly did with the old GRE. Your score is based on how many questions you miss. The point here is that you do not reach a certain level in which the computer “thinks” you are doing very well (à la the old GRE). So do not slack off at the end, thinking you answered most questions correctly and now you’re set.

The only reason I even mention this – as it is counterintuitive – is because many are still operating under the conception of the old GRE, in which you could, at least somewhat, slack off at the end without hurting your score too much.


  • The Revised GRE does not adapt within a section, only between sections
  • Each question is weighted the same
  • Difficult questions and easy questions are randomly mixed throughout the section

This post was written by Chris Lele, GRE Expert at Magoosh GRE Prep, and originally posted here.


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