If you have a complicated relationship with math, you need to be especially careful about how you study. Some GRE Quant study techniques might seem to make perfect sense, but can actually leave you frustrated and demoralized in the long run. For painless studying, try these next few ideas instead.
(If you’re just joining us now, check out the previous two articles in this series before you keep reading. In the first one, we dispel the “bad at math” myth. In the second, we go over some simple approaches to gain momentum and learn the basics.)
The When and Why of GRE Quant Rules
Part of the “bad at math” mindset is the feeling that math is sort of like magic. When you watch an expert solve a math problem, it’s like watching someone pull a rabbit out of a hat: you can see what’s happening, but you don’t know what they actually did.
That’s compounded by the way that a lot of us learn math in school. Unless you had great elementary school math teachers, you probably learned math as a long list of rules and operations. You probably spent a lot of time learning to apply each rule correctly, and much less time learning when to use each rule.
So, if you took a test on multiplication in elementary school, you’d pass as long as you multiplied the numbers correctly. That doesn’t work on GRE Quant. To ‘pass’ the GRE, you have to not only multiply correctly, you have to decide whether to multiply in the first place.
That’s a skill that you won’t get from memorizing rules. You also won’t get there by drilling one problem type over and over until you can perform it perfectly, then moving on to the next one. If you don’t also know the “when and why,” the real test will seem much harder than your practice sessions.
So, what can you do? My first piece of advice is to create “when I see this, do this” flashcards. Those are discussed in detail here. Every time you do a GRE Quant problem, try to spot clues that you could use in other problems. Then, identify what you’re supposed to do when you notice one of those clues. Put those two things on the front and back of a flashcard, and keep it handy. Periodically, go through all of these flashcards and test your “what to do next” knowledge.
Second, regularly set aside time to do random sets of actual GRE Quant problems. This is more and more important the closer you get to test day. It forces you to not only solve the problems, but also figure out what they’re testing in the first place, and what approach to take. Instead of just skimming through your mental cheat sheet on a single topic, you have to choose from among everything you know about GRE Quant. That’s not something that comes naturally, but it will improve if you start practicing it!
Take GRE Quant Step by Step
Think of your GRE Quant knowledge as a jigsaw puzzle. Each time you learn a new fact or skill, someone hands you a new puzzle piece. If you already have the surrounding pieces in place, it’ll be easy to fit the new one in. But if you’re just getting started, and someone hands you a random piece from the middle of the puzzle, it’s almost impossible to decide where it goes.
Don’t start your GRE Quant studies by picking random pieces from the middle of the puzzle. Start with the corners and the edges: the math foundations. Check out the previous article for a list of starting places and some ideas on how to approach them.
From there, aim to “push your GRE Quant score up from below,” rather than “dragging it up from above.” You’ll gain more points by really mastering the easy or moderate problems than you will by conquering the very hardest problems—and this will take less of your limited study time and build your confidence as well. Spend a little more of your time on the problems that are just a bit too hard for you—the ones where you have all of the surrounding puzzle pieces in place, but you haven’t quite placed the very last one. And avoid wasting time on the very toughest problems, unless those are really the only ones that are challenging for you.
It may seem satisfying to continue drilling one topic until you’re comfortable with it, but this can also lead to frustration when it doesn’t work out. Worse, it’s a poor strategy for memory formation. You’re better off moving around the jigsaw puzzle, changing which bit you’re working on in order to stay fresh. (This means that even if you’re spending almost all of your study time on GRE Quant, a little work on Verbal can be good for both your morale and your score.)
It’s fine to not understand things, to make mistakes, and to get problems wrong, even all the way up until test day. Focus on learning the material that’s most within your grasp right now, and learning it in the most efficient and effective way you can. Why not check out GRE Interact to get started? 📝
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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 170Q/170V on the GRE. Check out Chelsey’s upcoming GRE prep offerings here.