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The GRE isn’t really about memorization. In order to keep the GRE fair, the test writers put 99% of the info you need right there in the questions themselves. They’re not interested in what you know—they’re interested in how you think.
That said, there are a few things that you do need to memorize for the GRE. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but if you memorize everything on this list, you’ll be ready to focus on solving problems.
There’s no way around it: if you’re going to conquer the GRE, you’ll have to memorize some new vocabulary words. Start with the 500 Essential GRE Words—then, if you have time and you’re looking to improve your Verbal score, move on to the 500 Advanced GRE Words. How you memorize vocabulary is important, too. Here’s one article on how to memorize words efficiently and another article with some tips to keep vocab memorization interesting.
Geometry is the other topic that you’ll need to memorize for the GRE. As you learn new geometry rules, make flashcards. For most of us, it’s easier to memorize geometry rules using pictures, rather than descriptions: after all, pictures are what you’ll use while solving real GRE problems. And which of these flashcards is more interesting?
To memorize geometry rules, you can use the same technique, spaced retrieval, that works for learning vocabulary. It works just as well for math!
Finally, don’t assume that you’re finished studying geometry just because you’ve learned a bunch of rules. It’s just as important to practice solving geometry problems. Once you know the rules, dive into the 5lb. Book of GRE Practice Problems, and try the chapters on geometry—they’ll help you refine your process.
Squares and Cubes
Before you take the GRE, memorize the perfect squares up to 20 squared, and the cubes up to 5 cubed. Sure, you’ll be able to calculate the squares and cubes using your calculator—but that isn’t the point of memorizing them. Knowing your squares will actually help you come up with strategic ways to solve equations like these:
(x – 1)² = 196
You might be tempted to use FOIL on the left side of the equation, then move everything to the left and use quadratic rules to solve. That would get you the right answer, but it wouldn’t be efficient. If you recognize that 196 is a perfect square, you can actually just take the square root of both sides:
(x – 1)² = 196
x – 1 = 14 or -14
x = 15 or -13
That gives you the answer in fewer steps.
Unlike squares and cubes, primes aren’t easy to find with a calculator. You can check whether a number is a prime—try dividing it by smaller numbers to see whether it’s divisible—but that can take a lot of time and steps. So, memorize the prime numbers up to 50. This will help you with problems that directly ask about primes, as well as problems that deal with divisibility.
You don’t need a lot of advanced statistics for the GRE, but you do need to know a bit about the normal curve. When you learn about the normal distribution for the GRE, be sure to memorize the percentages associated with different standard deviations. There’s no need to be precise! It’s enough to know that 34% of measurements will be within one standard deviation above the mean, and 34% will be within one standard deviation below. About 13.5% will be between one and two standard deviations above the mean, and the same percent will be between one and two standard deviations below.
There isn’t a lot of pure memorization on the GRE. You’ll learn a lot more than just these facts as you start to study, but most of your time should be spent on learning to solve problems. It’s rare that a problem just depends on remembering facts: it’s much more important to remember what to do while solving, and how to know what to do. But a little quality time with some flashcards can go a long way too! 📝
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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.