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30 minutes of highly-focused study beats 2 hours of “half-studying.”
I’d like to share with you a little study mantra. This is something I firmly and absolutely believe to be true: “30 minutes of highly-focused study is far better than 2 hours of half-studying.” As much as one might try to make up for poor GRE study habits by slogging through a multi-hour weekend marathon session, it just doesn’t work. There are so many reasons to avoid such lengthy study sessions—increasing fatigue, impaired retention, general painfulness of sitting there for so long…
If you study this way, not only will you fail to improve, but you’ll teach yourself to hate the GRE in the process.
Instead of bashing the practice of lengthy “half-studying” sessions, let’s focus in on exactly what makes a study session “highly-focused.” I don’t think this is the norm for study, by any means. And I don’t think one achieves it easily or automatically. Here are a few things you can do to hit that golden-standard study session and develop good GRE study habits:
- Spend 90% of your time solving and 10% reading—not the other way around.
- When you do read, read with a purpose.
- Time the problems. You can go back if you need to, just be aware of the time.
- Embed reflection at the end of every problem set.
- Study short—no more than 30-45 minutes without a break.
- Treat scrap paper as a precious resource. Document meticulously.
- Mix old and new. Every session should include some throwbacks.
Let’s get into a little more detail on how exactly to pull this off:
1. Read Only What You Need
Often in my GRE classes, a student will come to me after 3 or 4 weeks and tell me they’ve fallen way behind in the homework. They keep reading and working but never seem to finish even a tiny portion of what’s assigned. More often than not, the problem is too much reading.
Certainly, there’s a need for reading here and there. If you’ve forgotten your exponent rules, for example, you’ll need to look them up, hear them explained, and read a little bit about why they work the way they do. But reading has a pernicious tendency to eat up all of your time before you ever get to the good stuff.
If you only ever read explanations about how to solve problems, you get really good at hearing problems explained, but not necessarily at doing them yourself. It’s a bit like watching Bobby Flay cook. It feels like you’re learning, but when you actually end up in the kitchen yourself, you end up with nothing but burnt Hot Pockets and a giant pile of dirty dishes.
It’s much better to do your homework flipped. Start every 30-minute session with 3-5 problems solved. Flip to the back of the chapter first if you’re using the Manhattan Prep Strategy Guides. If you can do the problems… great! Don’t bother reading how to do them. If the problems are a struggle, go back and read whatever you need.
2. Read Like a Homing Missile
When you do read the chapter, read with a mission. If you tried a few problems first, make note of what you didn’t know how to do, then skim back and find that part of the chapter. If you’ve had an experience of struggle before you read, you’ll be much more likely to home in on that particular nugget you needed to unlock the problems. Nothing makes reading stick in your memory like the thought, “Oh, dang! That’s how you do it. I wish I knew that 10 minutes ago.”
3. Time Each Question
The GRE is a timed test. You have, on average, 1:45 per Quant question and 1:30 per Verbal question. That might sound brisk… because it most definitely is. Pretty much everyone who takes this test finds themselves pushed for time. When you practice, get used to this feeling. Learn what it feels like to blow 5 minutes on a problem—and then learn to cut yourself off before you get to that point. This doesn’t mean you’re giving up entirely. It means you are recognizing what you can and can’t do within the time limit and then going back untimed to straighten things out.
Now, I totally understand that timing can be stressful. If you find that cutthroat time limits are a bit too much for you, at least run the timer in the background. If you aren’t comfortable cutting yourself off, at least learn to be aware of your timing. You can bring in the cutoffs later, once you’re on firmer footing.
4. Embed Reflection: The Two-Pen Method
When you’ve done a timed problem or set of problems and you’re ready to review, what’s the first thing you do? Check the answer key?
Not so fast.
Before you consult a key, switch into review mode. Try to become your own answer key.
When I make this switch, I make it official with a symbolic switch of my writing implements. Solving problems timed gets a black pen or pencil. Review gets a bright blue or pink. This allows me to fix mistakes, highlight paths that didn’t go so well, and write myself big-picture notes for next time that stand out among the scribbles.
I do all of this before checking the key. If I can catch my own mistake and teach myself how to do the problem better, I’ll definitely remember it. If I have to rely on someone else to explain, I at least go back and rephrase it in my own words as a message to myself. My notebook is littered with phrases like “Watch out for negatives in inequalities questions,” “don’t mix up median and mean,” and “learn to recognize the special quadratics.” Since I do all of these notes in a nice bright color, I have a really easy way to figure out what was important—even weeks or months after the fact.
5. Time the Session and Study Shorter
In addition to timing individual problems or short sets, use your timing to document your overall session. In general, human attention starts to wane at around 30 minutes. There’s a whole school of thought around instilling disciplined timing strategies as a way to be a more effective studier and worker—check out the Pomodoro technique, for example. They recommend using a buzzer that goes off every 25 minutes, reminding you to take a short, mandatory 5-minute break. You do this a few times in succession and then call the study session complete.
In my own practice, I’ve found that the perfect GRE study session starts with about 5 problems timed in a 10-minute set. It then includes about 15 minutes of re-solving, reflection, and documenting patterns. It ends with a few minutes consulting reading or other materials to put together some notes, flash cards, or big-picture takeaways for the next time. Beyond that, most time tends to get wasted. Walk outside. Pet the dog. Send some texts. Do something to hit the reset button on your brain before you get back to it.
6. Your Scrap Paper is Gold
When I do one-on-one tutoring, I always ask my students to bring in their scrap paper from the week. This ends up telling us so much more than a particular practice test score or checklist of problems completed. If you’re doing a good job with your scrap paper, you can pick it up one week later, find the problem you were doing, and then follow the logic you used to solve it. If your paper organization isn’t this clear, learn to:
- Label every problem’s page number and source so you can go back and find it if you need to.
- Identify variables and quantities on your paper clearly enough that you can figure them out when you come back to them.
- Write your takeaways in the margins (preferably in a clear format or with a different color) so that you can refer to them regularly.
If you do this in every session, you’ll accumulate a gold mine of insights about yourself as a problem-solver. You’ll learn what you do well and what you do badly. You’ll learn what your careless mistakes are. And if you start to notice and document your careless mistakes, you’ll become more aware of them, treat them with a little more care, and then stop making them.
7. Do It Again
You don’t have to do all the pages in all the books. You’d never be able to make it through all of the problems. (Have you seen the size of the 5 lb. Book, for crying out loud??) If that’s a goal of yours, know that it’s probably fueled much more by an obsessive compulsion than it is by genuine wisdom about how to get better at the GRE.
Good GRE study habits include a vast amount of circling back. There are numerous ways to do this, but my weapon of choice was a screenshotted “target problems” folder. At the end of a few study sessions—usually about once a week—I would go back through every missed problem, every problem that got a bit funky, and every problem that took me a long time. I’d screenshot them, save them in a folder on my computer, and then solve them again 2, 3, or 4 times before I’d call them done. You’d be surprised how often you kinda-sorta-maybe remember how to solve a problem, even after seeing the exact same thing multiple times over. After this happens a few times, you’ll start to internalize the process for getting it right. And that process will stay with you when you see a new problem. After all, the GRE is a pretty patterned test. They go after the same moves and ideas over and over and over again.
If you want to get better at it, so should you.
7 GRE Study Habits of Highly-Effective Students, in Summary
Maybe you’ve heard the old saying “you play like you practice.” If you practice badly, you’ll score badly on the real test. If you practice well and develop good GRE study habits, you’ll crush it. You’ll also save yourself a boatload* of time you could use for, oh, I don’t know… any of the 1,000 other things you’d rather be doing than studying? Study hard. Do it right the first time. And then you won’t have to worry about that nagging feeling hanging over your head any longer. Speaking of studying, what are you doing reading this article? Hit the books, my friend! 📝
*Boatload is not exactly a GRE vocab word. Maybe we could substitute plethora, abundance, plenitude, deluge, torrent, or any other of the boatload of synonyms out there? Shoot me some suggestions in the comments! 😊
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Tom Anderson is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in New York, NY. He has a B.A. in English and a master’s degree in education. Tom has long possessed an understanding of the power of standardized tests in propelling one’s education and career, and he hopes he can help his students see through the intimidating veneer of the GRE. Check out Tom’s upcoming GRE courses here.