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People study for the GRE in different ways. Some people spread their studying out over time, taking 10-15 minutes every few days and studying for several months or more. Others condense their studying into a more limited amount of time.
When I was first studying for the GRE, I was lucky enough to get to doing it during six weeks I had off over a summer. During this time, I mainly spent my time doing two things: learning vocabulary (using flashcards) and taking practice tests.
I spent so much time studying for the GRE during this time that I began to have dreams about exponents, ratios, and number properties! Sometimes they were nightmares, in which I imagined myself confronted with an unsolvable problem, filled with a growing sense of dread as the clock counted down to 0.
Other times, however, I had dreams that filled me with a sense of confidence. In these dreams, I was confronted with a problem, and, even before I knew what the answer to the problem was, I knew something even more important: I understood what the problem was asking me to show.
This feeling became a key in reality, as well. And it can be for you, too. What you have to understand is that every version of the GRE consists of a well-distributed series of questions on a limited range of topics. That is, every GRE will have a handful of percents problems, a handful of triangle problems, a handful of exponent problems, and so on. Moreover, you can rest assured that, by the time you’ve finished studying for the GRE, you will have encountered every problem type that there is on the test. No trigonometry, no calculus! Just basic high school math that needs to be applied using good reasoning and logic.
One of the single most important benchmarks of success on the test is if you can begin to identify each problem for what kind of problem it is—that is, if, before even putting pen to paper, you can decipher what the question is trying to get you to show that you know.
How do you do this? It’s actually quite easy. The more practice problems you encounter while studying for the GRE, the more you’ll realize that certain question formats typically test the same thing. For instance, questions with exponents and “greater than 0” signs are usually testing your understanding of number properties. Questions with different people’s ages (e.g., Betty is 5 years older than Jim will be in 12 years) are usually testing your ability to apply systems of equations. Etc.
Once you have identified what type of problem you’re looking at, the number of possible approaches or strategies that you would have to employ in order to solve the problem becomes infinitely smaller. You might say to yourself, “Oh, this problem is asking me to show that I understand that raising negative numbers to odd powers always yields another negative.” Or: “This problem is asking me to show that I understand the relationship between ratios and percents: they’re both just parts of a whole.”
In other words, the better you can get at identifying the problem type, even before you begin solving it, the better, faster, and less prone to error you will be when you start employing your math or algebra. Identifying problem types is a lot like that old saying: look before you leap. 📝
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Daniel Yudkin is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in New York, NY. He has been a test prep instructor for over seven years and is currently in the final stage of a Ph.D. program in social psychology at NYU. In his spare time, Daniel writes popular science articles about psychological phenomena and is a devoted jazz pianist and vocalist. Check out Daniel’s upcoming GRE prep offerings here.