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GRE Timing and Strategic Guessing Strategies

  • by John
  • Feb 04, 2014
  • GRE Blog, GRE Tutor

How can you use test-taking strategy to improve your GRE score?

The GRE is not just about testing your verbal and math skills.  A huge part of the exam is based on your critical thinking ability and how quickly you can answer the questions correctly.  If the GRE were an untimed exam, scores would be much higher. The GRE challenges you to get the most right answers in a very short amount of time.  Work as quickly as you can without making mistakes on the initial questions so that you’ll have time to carefully work through the hard questions. Don’t feel like you should be timing yourself on every single question. Ultimately, what matters is that you complete the sections, answering as many questions correctly as you can, within the time allotted.   Each question requires a distinct amount of time.  For example, if you understand how number properties work then you may quickly be able to determine the correct answer without doing any calculations.  The time you save on one problem permits you to spend additional time on a higher difficulty problem.

GRE Verbal Strategy

There are two scored verbal reasoning scored sections on the GRE.  They each offer twenty questions that must be completed in thirty minutes.  Some might assume this means that a test taker should use about 1.5 minutes per question, but this is entirely incorrect.  One reason that supports this statement is that 1.5 minutes per question does not take into account that one must read dry, dense reading comprehension passages and then answer several questions based on that material.  In terms of the GRE reading comprehension portion of the verbal reasoning sections, you can expect to see one 3-question passage, three two-question passages, and one one-question passage.  About 50% of the questions will be related to short or long passages; however this is an estimate of the GRE verbal reasoning sections’ minimum requirements.  The one one-question passage is the argument structure passage which usually consists of strengthen, weaken, inference, parallel reasoning, or flaw questions.  Clearly, you must allocate some time to read the passages and arguments before answering the questions.


Also, reading the questions first and then reading the passages is a huge mistake. You might feel it could be beneficial because if you read the questions first, then you will know what concepts to look for when reading the passages.  Unfortunately this is wrong because you will first read the questions, then read the passage and then reread the questions to be sure you understand what the GRE is testing.  After that, you will have to go back and research the passage again to be sure you understand what the passage is stating.  This is simply too much duplicity and it is unnecessary and you will waste valuable time.

The verbal reasoning sections will also include text completion and Sentence Equivalence questions.  It is important to note that some of these question types will have more than one correct answer.  This means the test taker will have to select more than one answer to get the question correct.  If a question has three correct answers and a test taker only selects two of the correct answers, then the test taker will not receive any credit for the question whatsoever.  This is especially important to note when tackling text completion questions. They may have one or two or even three blanks to fill in.  There is no partial credit on the GRE.  Also, sentence equivalence questions ask you to select the two answers that best complete the sentence and provide similar meaning.  Hence, if you try to answer each question in approximately 1.5 minutes then you will not complete the section.

 GRE Quantitative Strategy

There are two scored quantitative sections on the GRE.  They too offer twenty questions but they must be completed in 35 minutes. The math section will be a combination of multiple choice problems, data interpretation, quantitative comparison questions (compare the columns), numeric entry, geometry and problem solving questions. You must be able to make sense of graphs and charts filled in nonessential information and extract the necessary data to answer the quantitative questions correctly.   The reason this is important is because a smart GRE test taker can save time by answering some GRE quantitative questions quickly in order to use more time to answer other more difficult problems.  It is imperative to know number properties and mathematical terminology to ensure you pick the correct set of numbers when tackling GRE math questions.   For example, if you understand how exponents work, you will be able to solve some quantitative comparison questions in less than thirty seconds.  This allows you extra time when tackling data interpretation questions that require you to use multiple charts and tables.

Some people believe that not completing a section but answering most of the questions correctly is better than guessing and completing all twenty questions in the section.  This egregious idea is unacceptable and detrimental to your GRE performance.  It might be true for the SAT, but the GRE is a completely different exam with a distinct scoring system.  The GRE questions vary in difficulty level throughout each section.  Do not believe that the most difficult questions are at the end of each section.  This is also untrue and cost GRE test takers a lot of valuable percentage points.  The exam is not section-level adaptive.  This means your performance on the first verbal section determines the difficulty level of your second verbal section.  To ensure you receive the most difficult sections in both math and verbal, then you must complete all the questions in each section and get the majority of them correct.

Unfortunately there are some questions on the GRE that you might not have any idea how to approach.  You might be working on a text completion question and not know what the definitions of some of the words are.  There are several approaches to help you make an educated guess versus an arbitrary one.  For example, when dealing with esoteric vocabulary use your knowledge of prefixes, suffixes and roots to try and grasp a fundamental understanding of what the word means.  If you are reading a sentence in one of the verbal reasoning sentences and you can predict that the correct answer must have a positive tone, then you can eliminate incorrect answers with “mal” or “dis” in them.  The prefix “mal” usually means bad and the prefix “dis” usually means not.  These could be negative charged words so they could be eliminated.  Again, this technique is flawed because there are examples where the word is a positive one.  Despite this fact, making an educated guess when you have no idea what the words mean is still better than simply picking an answer on a whim.

Another technique to help you make better guesses is to pit the answer choices against one another.  Sometimes four answers will be words that are synonymous with one another.  If that is the case, you can eliminate all four synonyms and find the correct answer simply by the process of elimination. The GRE will never require you to select an answer between synonyms.  However, if a word is more extreme than another, elimination must be based on the extremity of the question.  For example, the word “hungry” and “ravenous” both refer to your appetite, but “ravenous” is much more extreme than hungry.  Understanding the difference between synonyms and extreme wording are other ways to help you make better guesses on the GRE verbal reasoning sections.  No matter what, pick an answer.  Leaving blanks in a section does more damage to your percentile ranking than guessing incorrectly.

Also, when taking the actual GRE, you must be aware of the clock.  You must keep in mind how far along you are in a section and how much time remains.  If you only have ten minutes left to complete a section but you are only on question six, then you literally need to make some arbitrary, quick guesses on difficult looking problems without even trying them.  Sacrificing difficult looking questions will at least buy you more time to work on some of the more manageable ones with hopes of getting them correct.  You can always flag the questions you guessed on and go back if time is left in a section.  You need to secure your baseline score but getting a certain amount of questions correct.

To avoid this scenario, you should be incorporating timing techniques during your GRE preparation.  So, about three or four weeks before your test you should start working on timed section practice and full length GREs.  If you are working in a timed environment and have no idea how to approach a question, guess and move on.  You can always revisit the problem once you have secured the majority of the questions in a section. This is especially important in the first verbal reasoning section as well as the first quantitative section.  Your performance in the first sections affects the difficulty level of the second sections.  One question in any section cannot make your score, but wasting valuable time on one question can break your score.  It simply isn’t worth it.  Remember the GRE is also testing your time management abilities and being able to move on to another question is exactly the type of behavior you will be rewarded for.

Taking the GRE is not simply about understanding difficult vocabulary or managing taxing math problems.  The GRE is testing your critical reasoning skills under significant time restrictions.  Knowing how to manage your time appropriately and knowing when you simply move on to another question is imperative.  These techniques must be utilized to achieve your test day goals.  Digging your heels in and being stubborn is detrimental behavior and will cost you valuable points.  Once you have mastered the fundamental concepts of the material, then timed section practice, full length exams and full reviews of the material are the keys to Test Day success.

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