The GRE is a long and important exam that most people spend weeks, if not months, preparing for. But did you know that one of the sections doesn’t actually count toward your final score?
In this article, we go over everything there is to know about the GRE experimental section, including what it is, how it differs from the GRE research section, and how it affects your test prep.
What Is the GRE Experimental Section? Overview
The GRE experimental section is an extra unscored Verbal Reasoning or Quantitative Reasoning section. So instead of having two Verbal sections, you might get three, meaning one of them is an experimental section that won’t actually count toward your score.
Because the GRE experimental section is not marked or indicated in any way on the exam, you won’t know whether the Verbal or Quant section you’re on is just a regular section or the unscored experimental section.
In addition, the GRE experimental section can appear randomly at any time after the Analytical Writing (AW) section (the first section of the GRE). This means you could get this GRE unscored section near the start of the test, in the middle, or even at the very end!
But why even have this extra GRE section if it’s not being scored? The purpose of the GRE experimental section is for ETS (the makers of the GRE) to test the difficulty of questions it plans to use on future tests. This section is unmarked so that ETS can more accurately predict how test takers will do on new questions; it also ensures that these new questions are on par with the difficulty level of current GRE questions.
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How Does It Differ From the GRE Research Section?
The GRE research section is similar to the GRE experimental section in that it’s an unscored Verbal or Quant section used by ETS to test out potential questions in a real test-taking environment.
However, whereas the experimental section is unmarked (meaning you don’t know whether the section you’re on is experimental or not) and can appear randomly, the GRE research section is marked and always appears at the end of the test.
What’s more, the GRE research section is completely optional—you can choose whether or not you want to take it. By contrast, since you don’t know whether a section is experimental or not, you can’t skip any of them!
Who Gets the GRE Experimental Section?
The vast majority of test takers will get either the GRE experimental section or the GRE research section—but never both. This means that most test takers will have six total sections on the GRE:
- One Analytical Writing section (consisting of two essays)
- Two Verbal sections
- Two Quant sections
- One unscored Verbal or Quant section (experimental or research)
Rarely, some lucky people might not get a GRE unscored section (experimental or research), meaning they’d get only five sections in total on the test, all of which would count toward their final GRE scores. This would make their GRE total test time about 30-35 minutes shorter—nice!
How Hard Is the GRE Experimental Section?
The difficulty of the GRE experimental section can vary a lot since ETS is trying out an array of new GRE questions in order to gauge and track how test takers do on them.
Luckily, the experimental section doesn’t count toward your final scores, so how you perform on it doesn’t really matter in the end. (That said, and as we’ll explain more in just a moment, you’ll still want to do your best on this section since you won’t know whether the section you’re on is experimental or not!)
You should also know that although the GRE experimental section can appear at any time after AW, it is not computer-adaptive as are the other (scored) GRE sections. This means that your performance on this extra section will not affect or change the difficulty of questions on any Verbal or Quant sections that come after it.
What Does the GRE Experimental Section Mean for You?
You now know what the GRE experimental section is and how it differs from the GRE research section. So what does all of this information mean for you and your approach to the test?
First off, as you take the GRE, do not try to guess which section is the experimental one. If you get a third Verbal or Quant section, you’ll obviously know that you got an experimental section at some point (possibly the one you’re on now!), but you’ll have no way of knowing for sure which one it was.
Therefore, it’s strongly advised that you treat the entire exam as though every section counts toward your score. Don’t skip any Verbal or Quant sections, even if you’re almost 100% certain you know which one is the experimental one. Worst case scenario, you’ll dramatically lower your GRE score because you skipped an entire scored section!
Ultimately, you need to remember that you can’t identify the GRE experimental section by the difficulty of its questions, since this can vary depending on what kinds of questions ETS is trying out.
On a related note, you already know that you’re most likely going to get an experimental or research section on the GRE, so try your best to not let this stress you out during your test prep. As mentioned above, the best way to approach the test is to just pretend that all sections you get (even if you know you’ve gotten an experimental section at some point) will be scored.
In terms of prep, you don’t really need to change anything about how you study for the GRE.
Nevertheless, you should be prepared to sit for the test a little longer than what you did with your practice tests. This is because most practice tests don’t include an extra Verbal or Quant section to simulate the addition of the experimental section, which you will (very likely!) get on test day.
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Not sure what GRE score you should be aiming for? Check out our in-depth guide to what a good GRE score is and how you can set a goal score based on the programs you’re applying to.