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Persistence is, in most endeavors, an admirable quality—just not when taking the GRE. For this test, knowing when to give up on a problem, guess, and move on, is a crucial skill. It’s important to remember that this is more than just a test of math knowledge or reading skills; it’s also a test of how one makes decisions under pressure.
Here are a couple important facts about the GRE which will help you to establish a strong timing strategy:
- All questions count the same, whether they are easy or hard. You don’t get extra points for powering through a particularly difficult problem.
- There’s no penalty for guessing, so you should fill in an answer for every question, even if you decide to skip it.
- Problems don’t get harder as the section progresses. Easy points could be waiting for you at the end, so make sure you give yourself enough time to at least start all problems in the section.
Good timing choices are most important in the first half of each section. If you fall behind here, you’ll end up rushing to compensate—which makes you more likely to make careless errors in the second half of the test. It can be harder, too, to make aggressive timing decisions early on, because you have more time on the clock, and thus can be tempted to think (incorrectly) that you have a little more leeway.
Instead of stalling at the beginning and rushing at the end, you want to aim for a steady, consistent pace throughout each section. This definitely takes some practice to get right, but there are a few things you can do that will help to ensure you’re making smart timing choices.
One Minute: Make a Decision
For each problem, make a deliberate decision about whether or not to commit to that problem. It can be easy to start solving a tricky problem, get bogged down, and not notice that you’ve wasted four minutes on it.
I give myself a minute to start each problem and see how it goes. At the minute mark, I then ask myself if: do I think it’s likely I’ll be able to solve this problem correctly within another minute or so? If not, I guess and move on.
You can practice this method as you study. Each time you start a problem, set a one-minute timer. When the timer goes off, figure out what decision you’d make on test day. Regardless of your answer, continue solving the problem (take as much time as you need to). When you’re done, see if you made the right decision—were you able to solve the problem efficiently or not?
Do this consistently, and this “check-in” will become an automatic part of your problem solving practice. That way, on test day, you won’t have to look at the clock constantly, because you’ll have an ingrained sense of how long to spend on each problem before committing or moving on.
Practice Guessing on the GRE
In my classes, I force my students to commit to an answer for every question we solve, even if this answer is a blind guess. This is because guessing on the GRE is itself a skill that requires practice.
If you’re skeptical about this, I have a story for you. A student of mine recently took the test and found herself grappling with a tricky probability question at the end of one section. With fifteen seconds left, she’d narrowed it down to two answers but couldn’t decide between them. Paralyzed, she let the clock run out. If she’d guessed, she’d have had a 50% chance of getting the problem right. Instead, she ended up not putting in an answer at all.
So force yourself to guess. If you reach your minute check-in mark and decide that this is a good problem to skip, force yourself to write down a guess before continuing on. Do this over and over, and you become comfortable with committing quickly to an answer you’re not totally sure of.
Set Timing Benchmarks
While you do want to stay on top of timing, you don’t want to end up staring at the clock. For this reason, it helps to set a few timing benchmarks throughout the section. For example, the average timing for a vocabulary question is 1 minute. Each Verbal section usually starts with six vocabulary questions. This means that, when I get to my first RC question, I want to be about 6-7 minutes into the section, so I’ll have 24-23 minutes left on the clock. (The GRE clock counts down, not up, something that can take a little getting used to).
When I see that first RC question, I glance at the clock. If I’m around the 24-minute mark, I proceed as usual. If I’m running behind, I don’t start rushing. Instead, I continue at the same pace, but decide that I’ll guess and skip on the next tricky problem that I see. If I’m running early, then I slow down—I don’t want to make careless errors by going too quickly.
I like to write my benchmarks down on my scratch paper at the start of each section, so that they’re on the paper in front of me as a reminder. In general, the more I do on paper, and the less I try to hold in my head, the more efficient I’ll be. 📝
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Cat Powell is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in New York, NY. She spent her undergraduate years at Harvard studying music and English and is now pursuing an MFA in fiction writing at Columbia University. Her affinity for standardized tests led her to a 169Q/170V score on the GRE. Check out Cat’s upcoming GRE courses here.