Of course, I certainly was NOT trying to discourage them. I used that statement to illustrate that geometry questions are often a type of quantitative question that can feel immensely frustrating! You know what shape you have, you know what quantity the question wants, but you have no idea how to solve for that quantity.
This is what I meant when I said you’ll never know how to answer these questions. That “leap” to the correct answer is impossible. You can’t get to the answer in one step, but that’s all right: you’re not supposed to!
(An important aside: if you’ve read my post regarding calculation v. principle on the GRE, you should be aware that I am discussing the calculation heavy geometry questions in this post.)
The efficient, effective approach to a calculation-based geometry question is NOT to try and jump to the final answer, but instead to simply move to the next “piece”. For example, let’s say a geometry question gives me an isosceles triangle with two angles equaling x. I don’t know what x is, and I don’t know how to use it to find the answer to the question. But I DO know that the third angle is 180-2x.
That’s the game. Find the next little piece. And the piece after that. And the piece after that. Let’s see an example.
The correct response to this problem is “Bu-whah??? I know nothing about the large circle!”
But you do know the area of the smaller circle. What piece will that give you? Ok, you say, area gives me the radius. A = pi*r^2, so pi = pi*r^2, so r^2 = 1, so r = 1. Done, and let’s put that in the diagram.
From a psychological perspective, this is a fascinating phenomenon. Somehow, while a part of us thought we were reading happily along, another part was off somewhere else—ruminating on some joke we recently heard, fretting about an upcoming assignment, or planning dinner.
But whatever it is in the mind that allows us to basically be just wrong about the contents of our own thoughts (to believe we’re learning about mating practices of chimpanzees but really be hankering for spaghetti carbonara), one thing that’s certain is we can’t have this happen while we’re tackling a long reading passage in the Verbal section of the GRE on Test Day. Spacing out may be fine to varying degrees in the course of everyday life, but it can’t happen during the GRE.
Fortunately, there are some tricks and strategies you can learn now to help prevent this type of thing from happening, and to improve your overall comprehension of reading passages. The main goal, remember, is not to know the entire passage by heart—but rather to have a solid grasp of two basic things: first, the purpose and structure of the passage; second, where to find certain details in the passage should you encounter a question about them. Here are three tips to help you accomplish this:
Tip 1: Put yourself in the author’s shoes. GRE passages are often culled from, or imitations of, genuine texts from scientific, literary, or historical publications. What that means is that someone spent time and energy crafting the argument you see before you. Someone had a real-live thought, opinion, or belief that he or she wanted other people to know, and sat down in front of a keyboard and carefully deliberated about how best to convey this idea to a non-expert reader. By imagining this person’s motivations, you can often end up with a much more vivid picture of the content and purpose of the passage. What is the principal idea the author is trying to get across? If you were the author, how would you express these ideas? Visualizing a real person typing real ideas onto a real computer screen is a great way of plucking abstract notions from the ether and dragging them down to earth.
Tip 2: Engage emotionally. If someone asked you comprehension questions about what happened in the gripping last season of Breaking Bad, you would have no problem picking out the right answer. Why? Because human beings remember better things they actually care about. When something matters to us, our brain is more active, forming neural pathways that you can draw from in subsequent memory tasks. The more you can bring yourself to care about the content of the passage, the stronger your activation signal will be, and the clearer your mental picture. Many people find science passages particularly daunting, and immediately zone out at the sight of words like “electrochemical” and “tectonic.” If you imagine, though, some epic drama taking place between, say, the earth’s molten core and the hardened outer crust above it, you may find that previously yawn-worthy topics take on a certain pizzazz.
Tip 3. Know what NOT to read. The trickiest part of the GRE is timing. Many people feel like they’d have no trouble getting all the answers if they only had enough time. Unfortunately, given these temporal limitations, our job is rather to read as efficiently and effectively as possible—so get good at knowing what not to read. When you see a list of complicated terms, make a note of where it is, but just say No to laboring over each of its tiny details. See an in-depth description of some tangential topic? Just say No—and make a note of where it is. Come across a lengthy aside that seems unrelated the main idea? Again: say No. You don’t have time to get bogged down in these details. Sure—if a question comes up about them, you’ll know where to look. But for now, you’re reading Big Picture.
Overall, then, the key to your success is going to be about striking the perfect balance. Engage deeply the text, but don’t get too sucked in. The more you can cultivate these strategies as you practice, the better off you’re going to be when facing those initially unnerving—but ultimately conquerable—passages on Test Day.
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