GRE Problems: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

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Manhattan Prep GRE Blog: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly by Chelsey CooleyDid you know that you can attend the first session of any of our online or in-person GRE courses absolutely free? We’re not kidding! Check out our upcoming courses here.


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

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

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

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.

Good Bad Ugly
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.


Want more guidance from our GRE gurus? You can attend the first session of any of our online or in-person GRE courses absolutely free! We’re not kidding. Check out our upcoming courses here. 📝


Chelsey CooleyChelsey Cooley Manhattan Prep GRE Instructor 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.

  1. Manhattan Prep August 10, 2016 at 10:30 pm

    Hi, Lisanto.

    Thanks for reading! That’s a tough situation to be in. I’d need to know more to give you really specific advice, but for now, I can tell you how a couple of my students have broken through a plateau in their studies. The issue is often one of two things (or sometimes both). Either you know the material well but you aren’t ‘making it happen’ on test day, due to poor strategy or anxiety, or you know the material superficially, but you haven’t mastered it.

    Try going back through a couple of topics and creating a detailed ‘cheat sheet’ for them. First, start with the notes and work that you’ve already done. Look at all of your percent and fraction problems, for example, and start writing up everything you know about percents and fractions. Focus on making good generalizations (talking about general strategies, not specific problems) and identifying how you’d know that you should use one strategy and not another. Once you feel like you’re done, start actually doing some problems from that category. Each time you’re able to use a technique you’ve already written down, you’re doing well! But if a problem involves doing anything that you haven’t made a note of yet, back up, review that problem, and add notes on it to your cheat sheet. Eventually you’ll have a list of all of the strategies and approaches you find useful for percents and fractions. Then intersperse working on other topics with reviewing the ‘cheat sheets’ you’ve already made. This forces you to develop mastery of the topics, not just ‘I understand it when it’s explained to me’, since you’re actually creating the explanations.

    Best,
    Chelsey

  2. Lisanto July 29, 2016 at 2:53 am

    Hi Chelsey! I am absolutely amazed you were able to obtain full scores on both sections and I hope you will be able to lend some of your wisdom to me, as well.

    I have been doing practice tests for a while now, and for the past 3 exams, I have gotten THE EXACT SAME SCORES on both verbal and math: 158Q / 156V! I have been reviewing my mistakes methodically, following an online learning module, working on different sections from ETS’s official guide, and also utilizing Manhattan Prep! I am very frustrated at the lack of score improvement and am realizing that I have hit a plateau in my scores. How do I combat this?

    My target is to attain at least 165 on both sections, and my exam is at the end of August. Any help, suggestions, advice would be greatly, greatly appreciated. Thank you so much for your time!

  3. Manhattan Prep May 11, 2016 at 2:19 pm

    Hi, Gbenga.

    First of all, I recently finished an article explaining exactly how I got a 340 on the GRE, so you can look out for that on this blog sometime in the next couple of weeks!

    In general, here’s the best advice I can give you:

    – Start by taking a practice test and analyzing it very thoroughly to learn your current strengths and weaknesses. There are several past articles on this blog that focus on how to do exactly that.
    – Study a couple of different topics simultaneously. Don’t try to do everything at once, but don’t burn yourself out on one topic, either. Pick the topics that will have the highest yield, first: things that appear frequently on the test, and that are hard for you, but not completely impossible.
    – Every time you do problems, do two things: time yourself and review thoroughly. Check out this article (http://www.manhattanprep.com/gre/blog/2015/11/23/heres-what-the-best-students-to-do-study-for-the-gre/) to understand what I mean by ‘review thoroughly’ – it’ll probably take more time than you think, but it’s absolutely worth it.
    – After working in this way for a couple of weeks, take another practice test, and do a side-by-side comparison with your last one. It’ll probably reveal new strengths, but also new weaknesses. Reevaluate what topics are highest-value for you, and start the cycle over again.

    Good luck – I’d love to hear how you end up doing. 🙂

    Best,
    Chelsey

  4. Gbenga May 10, 2016 at 8:57 am

    Hi chelsey,

    I am not new to GRE. I have taken GRE three times – 290, 302 and 308 respectively. I applied for a Ph.D. program in Finance based on the third score but I was unsuccessful in all 11 applications I made to 11 business schools in the US. I intend to write GRE again. Please, I need you to tell me the steps you took that made you to score 790 in GMAT and 170 in GRE. I am ready to give all it takes this time. I have bought the official guide from ETS, the test makers and a GRE material from Mahattan. I also have access to all the 6 online tests made by Manhattan. Please respond. Thanks.