I definitely come from the procrastinate-and-then-cram-the-night-before-or-even-the-morning-of-the-test school of studying. It’s how I survived high school. And college. And law school. And grad school. And work. Okay, it’s how I do almost everything. But when it comes to preparing for a test like the GRE, studying in smaller sessions over a longer period of time IS better. You give your brain a chance to dredge up and sort and apply the information without any cues from the material before, which is what the real exam is like.
It’s pretty easy to think of ways to study vocab for five minutes. As long as you have the words with you, working on one or two for a couple minutes is no problem. (By the way, you should definitely start doing that if you aren’t already.) But how do you improve your math skills in five minutes?
Do One Problem
Students fight me on this, saying that it’s not worth getting started if you don’t have time to study a whole bunch. I’m sorry to say, they’re wrong. Keep a set of problems with you, whether you print them out or just tear them out of your books. (Sacrilege! I know! But the point of those books is to up your score, not to look beautiful on the shelf.) In five minutes, you can do a problem and look over the answer. But the benefits don’t stop there, because when you’ve done only one problem, your brain has time to process it and think about it. You’ll be working on it still, even when you aren’t trying to. It sticks with you in a different way. Because you’ve done only one problem, you don’t get to rely on anything that came before it to prop you up – you have to really know what you’re doing.
Review One Problem
Sometimes during a study session there will be a few problems that really bug you. Maybe that’s because you thought you should have gotten them right. Maybe it’s because you still don’t understand the explanation. Maybe they seem to contradict something you thought you learned in another problem.
These are the problems that are perfect for their own five-minute review session. Look them up on a forum and read some explanations and conversation. Discuss them with a friend. Give them a try on your own again. Try to explain the problem to yourself (or someone else). Whatever you do, coming back to the problem on its own with a fresh pair of eyes may help really cement something into place that was loose before.
Practice Your Arithmetic
Maybe your days are more exciting than mine, but I bet you still find yourself sitting around sometimes. Whether you’re waiting for a meeting to start, waiting for a meeting to end, waiting for your dinner to cook, or just watching TV, there is probably a five-minute period in the day where your mind wanders. (Think of how many times you check your phone in a day. What if you spent all that time doing math?)
Just practicing your arithmetic really pays off. I’m not a phone person, but I’m sure there are apps for your phone that let you do just that. Or, get out the old paper and pen. Filling in your multiplication tables, listing out prime numbers, practicing division and multiplication shortcuts, and manipulating fractions can all help you get more comfortable and faster with numbers. I know the exam has a calculator, but a comfort and facility with numbers will help you recognize patterns and shortcuts.
Drill Your Rules
No calculator can overcome a lack of knowing the mathematical rules. Knowing the rules doesn’t take genius abilities or even great reasoning powers; it just takes practice. So if you aren’t rock solid comfortable on the rules of fractions, exponents, triangles, and the like, five minutes is a great time to practice them in drill form. Memorizing the exponent rules is nice, but using them enough that you know how to use them when they show up is even better.
I’ve written a lot “ and you’ve read a lot “ about timing already, but I want to address something that I’ve been hearing lately from students particularly those who have been studying for a while and are really struggling to make progress on practice tests.
My best timing was on my very first practice test
I’ve spoken with a few students lately who’ve told me that they felt more comfortable with the timing before they started studying all of this stuff. How is that possible?
Actually, it’s fairly common. Here’s what happens: on your first practice test (before or shortly after you started studying), you know what you don’t know and so it’s much easier to let go of the too-hard questions. Once you start studying, you’ll see something and think, Oh, I studied that! I can get this one! But it turns out that one is still too hard only, this time, you won’t let go when you should. Do that a few times and the whole situation snowballs: you realize you’re behind on time, you start to panic and rush, that causes careless mistakes. Then you get stuck on another because you feel like you’re getting a bunch wrong so you don’t want to get this one wrong too now you’re wasting even more time, and then the section ends with a bunch of guesses or even blank questions.
I’m fine with OG / untimed / with shorter problem sets
I’m sure it’s no surprise to you that you’re better when the timer isn’t ticking. We all are. Unfortunately, the real test is timed, so our untimed performance doesn’t matter. Lots of people also discover that everything’s fine when doing sets out of the Official Guide, especially shorter problem sets. This, again, is to be expected “ it’s easier to keep track of your global time for 5 or 10 questions rather than 37 or 41.
So what do I do?
One of the highly touted features of the Revised GRE is the ability of students to navigate freely within a test section. While the old GRE was (and the GMAT is) a Computer Adaptive Test, which required students to complete the test without skipping a question, the Revised GRE is a Section Adaptive Test, which allows students to skip questions and analyze the overall section on a review screen. But, as great as this feature sounds, you shouldn’t skip around. On the GRE time is extremely valuable. Time spent hunting for an easy question is time wasted.
That is not to say the review screen isn’t a boon; it can be. Pacing is an extremely important part of GRE strategy, and the review screen can help you with that.
By test day, you should have an idea of how much time you will spend on each question. Here are some good guidelines for how much time you can afford on each problem type: