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I like to think of GRE problems as belonging to three categories: good, bad, and ugly. These categories are a little different for each test taker, but everyone can use them to make better decisions on the GRE.
Good problems are the ones that you ‘get’ on your first reading. The content, or the problem itself, might look familiar. Good problems don’t have to look easy, but they do have to make sense. One sign that you’re definitely looking at a good problem: once you’ve read it, you not only understand what’s going on, but you also anticipate what tricks the GRE might try to play on you.
When you run into a good problem, go ahead and begin working on it. But if you’re running behind, be cautious. It’s possible to mistake a bad or an ugly problem for a good one, and it takes diligence to notice this mistake once you’ve made it. Keep a close eye on the clock, and be ready to move a problem into the other two categories if necessary. The GRE rewards test-takers who admit their mistakes and keep going.
Bad problems are the ones that you just don’t get, period. They might use vocabulary that you’ve never seen, for instance. There will be bad problems on every section of your official GRE, thanks to how the test is designed.
What to do with a bad problem depends on how much time you have.
- If you’re running behind, guess and move on. Don’t mark the problem for review. This problem just isn’t going to happen today, and that’s fine — on the GRE, you don’t need to “get an A” to get an excellent score.
- If you’re ahead, read the problem one more time. Maybe you can find an intelligent way to guess or approximate the right answer, or to eliminate incorrect answers. You might even find that the problem makes sense when you read it a second time. But resist the urge, particularly on Quant, to just try something and hope that it works. No matter how much time you have remaining, you should always have a plan.
- If you’re exactly on time, base your decision on your test-taking style. If you tend to work slowly on this type of section, pretend you’re already behind on time; if you tend to work quickly, spend a little more time before moving on.
Ugly problems come in two flavors. Some are problems you sort of get. You might have seen the problem before, but you don’t immediately remember how to handle it. Others make sense, but will obviously take you a long time to solve. I sometimes refer to these as ‘tedious’ problems. Here’s how to approach them:
- If you’re ahead on time, and you see an ugly problem, try it cautiously. Read carefully. Plan what you’re going to do before you do it. Consider using alternative strategies. Keep your scratch work neat. Double down on everything you’ve learned in your studies: now would be the worst possible time to get lazy or sloppy. And keep an eye on the clock, because it’s easy for an ugly problem to turn into a timing disaster.
- If you’re even or behind on time, or if the problem is obviously taking too long, guess at random, mark the problem for review, and try it later if you have time. This is the situation the ‘mark for review’ button was made for! Since your score is based on the raw number of problems you get right, these tedious or complicated problems aren’t as valuable as the ones you can definitely solve within the time limit. Think of the ugly problems as a reward for finishing the good problems quickly. Don’t mark more problems than you can realistically handle, either. Two or three is a good baseline.
Here’s a summary. First, read the entire problem carefully, including a quick look at the answer choices. Do a ‘gut check’: is this problem good, bad, or ugly? Then, follow the following rules of thumb.
|How to recognize||It might not seem easy, but at least you understand what it’s telling you and what it’s asking you.||It just doesn’t make sense — you can’t figure out what the problem is really saying.||It sort of makes sense, but you’re not totally sure what to do with it. Or, you know a way to solve it, but it looks like it’ll be tedious.|
|Ahead on time?||Work through it, but don’t be stubborn if it’s harder than it looked.||Read it again, looking for smart ways to guess or approximate.||Try it cautiously, but be extremely diligent about good test-taking behaviors, and be ready to bail out.|
|Behind on time?||Work through it, but watch the clock and be ready to bail out.||Guess randomly and move on. Don’t mark it!||Guess randomly, mark it for review, and come back later if you have time.|
Every time you do a problem, know which category it belongs in. As you study, more problems will move to the ‘good’ category, but you’ll always see ‘bad’ and ‘ugly’ problems! If you react to them intelligently, you’ll move through the test more quickly and avoid wasting your time.
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Chelsey Cooley is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Seattle, Washington. Chelsey always followed her heart when it came to her education. Luckily, her heart led her straight to the perfect background for GMAT and GRE teaching: she has undergraduate degrees in mathematics and history, a master’s degree in linguistics, a 790 on the GMAT, and a perfect 170/170 on the GRE.Check out Chelsey’s upcoming GRE prep offerings here.