Cracking the GRE General Test – Part 1, Quantitative Reasoning

Like it or not, the GRE General Test is one of the first steps to joining a great school for higher education. Programs across disciplines highly value your score in this test – so it’s worth your while to do your best. Over 3 articles, I’m going to go over the best ways to tackle this exam.

The GRE comprises three sections:

  • Analytical Writing (scored 0-5 in half-point increments)
  • Quantitative Reasoning (scored 130-170 in 1-point increments)
  • Verbal Reasoning (scored 130-170 in 1-point increments)

In Part 1, I want to talk about the Quantitative Reasoning section, commonly referred to as Quant. We’ll go over tips on preparation, some commonly made mistakes, and my iterative roadmap for success. What are my qualifications to advise you on this? I scored 170/170 in Quant, 164/170 in Verbal and 5.5/6 in Analytical Writing. And I prepared for a grand total of 8 hours, all on the day before my test – no joke. Let’s make it that easy for you.

GRE Quant Scoring

This is the least important piece of information in your preparatory stages, but let’s cover the important points.

  • There is no penalty for incorrectly answered questions – so attempt all questions
  • Your score will be in the 130-170 range with 1-point increments
  • Questions are not each worth some number of points that all add up to 170
  • Instead, your score is determined by a process of ‘equation’. Based on the difficulty of your test and your performance in it, anybody with the same performance on an equally difficult test would have the same score
  • To clarify – you can score 170/170 despite getting one or more questions wrong. In this case, the questions you got wrong would usually be the more difficult questions.

GRE Quant Syllabus

Was the last time you tried to find the value of x years ago? Before plunging into anxiety, it’s important to develop a clear idea of the syllabus. Let’s refer to the official ETS guide for GRE prep, so there’s no confusion. In the Math Review Section, they list out the syllabus as follows:

Credit: The Official Guide to the GRE General Test (ETS)
Credit: The Official Guide to the GRE General Test (ETS)

Let’s also note ETS’s disclaimer on this syllabus:

“Note, however, that this review is not intended to be all-inclusive—there may be some concepts on the test that are not explicitly presented in this review. Also, if any topics in this review seem especially unfamiliar or are covered too briefly, we encourage you to consult appropriate mathematics texts for a more detailed treatment.”

At the same time, note that all topics are at the level of high-school mathematics. Advanced topics like trigonometry and calculus are not tested.

There are three typical responses to this information.

  1. “This doesn’t sound so bad.”
    That’s the spirit!
  2. “Umm, it’s been a while since I dealt with this stuff…”
    No problem, all you need is a little practice!
  3. “Nope, nope, nope. Maybe I don’t want to do higher ed after all.”
    I promise you, you can handle this.

GRE Quant- System Format

1. Quantitative Comparison questions

Here, you will be given two quantities, A and B, and some accompanying information. You will have to correctly decide which of the following options is correct: A is greater, B is greater, A = B, or The relationship cannot be determined from the given information.
Common mistakes:

  • Forgetting to consider the accompanying information
  • You plug in some possible value and find that A > B. But the correct answer is that The relationship cannot be determined from the given information! Because for some other allowable value, B>A!
  • Hesitating to mark that they are equal even when you can prove that they are!
  • Reaching a point where you feel that there is no clear answer – this is a definite sign that you have made a mistake!

The following types of questions don’t really have common mistakes specific to the question type. However, in general, if you feel that you have to guess, you have made a mistake. In Quantitative Reasoning, there are no ‘opinions’! Either something is correct, or it isn’t, and the mathematics should work out to show that!

2. Multiple-choice questions — Select One Answer Choice, Select the single correct answer from a list of 5 choices.
3. Multiple-choice questions — Select One or More Answer Choices, Self-explanatory.
4. Numeric Entry questions, Self-explanatory.

Preparing for GRE Quant

At the outset, anybody preparing for GRE Quant should remember one thing. Mathematics is a language like any other, and one learns to read, write, and communicate in it better in only way – practice.

A lot of people will give you a lot of advice about preparing for Quant. This often involves buying an expensive array of books containingh concept reviews, practice questions, tips, and tricks. You don’t need any of this.

I have a simple iterative strategy for GRE Quant that will help you identify your strengths, focus on your weaknesses, and maximize your score.

Step 1: Do a breadth-first review of the concepts in the syllabus.

The Official GRE Guide has a good compilation for this very purpose. There are also a ton of free resources on YouTube and elsewhere to help you review the syllabus. Do not spend more than 5-8 hours on this review. The point of the iterative process is to take multiple steps. You can’t do this if you spend 2 weeks on the first one.

Step 2: Solve a handful of practice questions to get acquainted with the types of questions.

The Official book again has a nice compilation of questions of three different difficulty levels. However, you can find lots of free resources that are as good. Solve not more than 50 of these questions.

Step 3: Evaluate your performance!

Ensure that you go back and thoroughly evaluate your answers. It is important to fully understand why you marked things wrong – but equally important to fully understand why you marked things right. If there was something that you got right, but were confused about while marking – understand why you were confused and what made you randomly pick the right answer! This is the most important part of the iterative strategy that you will keep coming back to.

Step 4: Solve a GRE Quant practice paper.

You should definitely time yourself to make sure that you’re within overall time limit. However, if it’s feasible, also have a stopwatch to record how long you spend on each question. For the purposes of this exercise, try not to have to come back and change your answer on a question (of course, on the actual test, you will be allowed to do this).

Step 5: Evaluate your performance - strictly!

Don’t worry about your performance in a practice test as indicative of how you’ll do on the actual GRE. Think of it as the bruises that you need to earn in order to learn how to cycle. Now that you have comprehensive information on one test you can do the following:

  • Identify what kinds of conceptual mistakes, thinking mistakes, or random errors you tend to make – and avoid them in the future!
  • Know exactly why you got wrong the things you got wrong – but also why you got right the things you got right! (This is crucial to developing confidence and improving on both your strengths and weaknesses).
  • Identify which topics you’re good at and avoid wasting time on them
  • Identify which topics you need to work on
  • Identify which topics you spend most time on – this will help you manage time during your exam

Step 6: Convert your insight into action!

Develop a study plan that takes into account the time you have, and the insights you have from your analysis above. Decide how often you will be able to re-evaluate your performance with another practice test. This could be monthly, weekly, every two days, whatever suits your convenience. Attack your problem areas with focus, not a broad brush. Whether this involves self-study or the time of a tutor, this ensures you are an efficient, high-performance machine.

Repeat steps 4, 5 and 6 until you’re ready to book your test date.

Even if you’re terribly disappointed with your first attempt at Step 4, I guarantee a visible improvement by your third or fourth try. Give it a shot – it really is that simple. With this iterative strategy, you can even pace yourself however you need to – whether you want to take the test in a week, a month, or a year.

Remember, self-awareness is the first step to self-improvement. Good luck, and keep iterating!


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