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With so many industries relying on big data, analytics, and statistics, many top graduate programs require solid quant skills. Earning a strong score on the quant section of the GRE is a surefire way of demonstrating your ability to work with numbers and reason analytically, and displaying to admissions committees that you are capable of handling graduate-level math.
The good news is that even if math is not your best subject, if you follow a strategic plan of study, using the best materials and putting in the required time and effort to prepare, you can earn an impressive GRE quant score. In this article, we’ll take a look at the particular challenges that GRE quant presents and how you can overcome them, plus give you some key tips and tricks to help you maximize your score.
To start, you must understand how the GRE is structured and scored. Let’s take a look.
How the GRE is Structured and Scored
There are two separate quant sections on the GRE, each with 20 questions and a 35-minute time limit for completion. The first quant section consists of a mix of easy, medium, and difficult questions. The difficulty level of the second quant section depends on how well you score on the first quant section. Thus, the GRE is referred to as section-adaptive.
Although no one other than ETS knows exactly how the GRE scoring algorithm works, we do know that your score depends heavily on the difficulty level of the questions you’re answering. Since the test is adaptive by section, not by individual question, it is imperative that you correctly answer as many questions as possible in the first quant section. This not only will drive up your score, but also will allow you to see more difficult questions in the second quant section, giving you a greater potential to earn a high score.
Keep in mind that even if you are unsure of some answers or have to guess on a few questions in quant section 1, all is not lost. It is a common myth that test-takers must answer every question correctly in order to hit a 330+ score. If you try to predict how well you’re doing or if you fret over a slip-up on what seems like an easy-level question, you will likely only distract yourself from the task at hand, impairing your ability to perform at your best on the remaining questions. In GRE quant, you can incorrectly answer a reasonable number of questions and still earn a high score, even if a couple of those questions are easy ones.
That said, it is important to strive to answer both easy and difficult questions correctly. If you’re hoping to outscore your peers, correctly answering only the easy questions will not be enough. So, if you feel confident about your performance in quant section 1 and notice that the questions seem more difficult in section 2, that doesn’t mean you then can “afford” to ease up on your efforts. There is no way to accurately determine how well you’re scoring as you’re taking the GRE, and you shouldn’t try to. You must give each question your full effort and your full attention if you want to earn a high score.
Another important element of GRE scoring is that the GRE does not penalize incorrect responses, and thus, even if you have no idea what the correct answer to a question is, you should always select an answer rather than leaving the question blank. A guess, even a random one, has a chance of being correct and increasing your score, whereas a blank question has no chance of being correct. So, do not leave any question on the GRE unanswered, even if you are pressed for time and your answer reflects nothing but a guess.
Now, let’s get an overview of the types of quantitative questions on the GRE.
The Types of GRE Questions You Will Encounter
Unlike other standardized tests you may have taken in the past, you will find some unique question types on the GRE that require additional practice, even if you are confident about your overall math skills. The first of these is the Quantitative Comparison (QC) question. This question type presents you with two quantities: Quantity A and Quantity B, and you must determine the relationship between them. In a simple example, if Quantity A = 6 and Quantity B = 8, then we see that Quantity B is always greater than Quantity A. In a more challenging scenario, if Quantity A = x and Quantity B = 2x, then the relationship between them cannot be determined. Sometimes the two quantities are equal (if x = 0), sometimes Quantity A is greater than Quantity B (if x is negative), and sometimes Quantity B is greater than Quantity A (if x is positive). You will also encounter numeric entry questions, in which you have to calculate an answer and then type the answer into a box. You will see traditional multiple-choice questions that contain 5 answer choices, but you will also see “select all that apply” multiple-choice questions, in which you must choose all correct answers from as many as 7 answer choices.
While we’re on the topic of question types, let’s address the unique way that data interpretation questions are presented. Generally, you will see a chart, graph, or table, and sometimes a combination of two of those. Then, you will be asked exactly 3 questions about the data presented.
Before you continue reading, consider trying your hand at the following five GRE quant questions. As you work through them, take note of what makes them different from the run-of-the-mill math questions you may be used to seeing.
Now, let’s take a look at what makes the GRE quant section different from other math tests.
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GRE Quant: More Than a Math Test
The first step toward increasing your GRE quant score is realizing that GRE quant requires skills that are different from the math skills that you used in high school and college. The GRE quant section is more than a math test; it is also a reasoning game. So, increasing your score takes improving skills that relate specifically to the GRE quant game.
Of course, it’s imperative that you know an array of basic math concepts, such as 30-60-90 triangle rules, Venn diagrams, the difference of squares, divisibility, patterns in units digits and in remainders, combinations and permutations, and algebraic translations, to name a few. However, you need to far surpass simply understanding those concepts; you must develop strong analytical reasoning skills.
In short, without a solid understanding of the underlying math, increasing your GRE quant score will be difficult, but merely learning math probably won’t be sufficient to earn you a high quant score. The key is to learn how the GRE uses basic math to create logic-based questions.
Let’s take a closer look at what makes GRE quant questions different from what you’re used to seeing.
GRE Quant Questions Require Reasoning
Whereas high school and college math tests are challenging because of the complexity of the mathematical concepts being tested, GRE quant is challenging because of the level of reasoning the questions require. An ordinary math test assesses whether you understand concepts (and often allows the use of a calculator). The GRE, on the other hand, largely assumes that you understand certain concepts and uses those concepts as the foundation of reasoning questions.
Furthermore, the GRE is structured in such a way that you’ll need to be able to answer each quant question in one minute and forty-five seconds, on average. Thus, your understanding of how to answer GRE quant questions must be so great that you are able attack each question as efficiently as possible. Being able to answer a question in four minutes may be a good start when you’re beginning your quant study but does you little good on the actual GRE.
So, just because you have been able to score at a high level on ordinary math tests, don’t assume that that knowledge will automatically translate into a high GRE quant score. Likewise, just because the math concepts in GRE quant questions are relatively simple — the type that people learn in middle school math — does not mean that GRE questions are simple. Every GRE quant question has a unique “twist” to it, engineered by the test-maker. Mastering concepts is only the beginning; you must learn to think like a test-maker and be able to apply advanced analytical-thinking skills to a wide range of questions.
For example, try the following very simple GRE quant question:
The price of a particular stock has fallen by 50%. By what percentage must the price of the stock increase to return to the original price?
If you picked A, you fell for a trap answer choice that only looks logical. Presenting an opportunity to make a common mistake in logic makes for a good GRE question and adds a “GRE flair” to the question.
You might choose A by concluding that if something decreases by 50% and then increases by 50%, it will be back at its original value. This logic is specious.
A simple way to solve this problem is to pick an easy number to use for the original price of the stock, such as $100. After the 50% decrease, the stock’s value becomes $50. Thus, the price of the stock must increase by $50, or increase 100% in value, in order to return to its original price. Answer choice C, 100%, is the correct answer.
As is the case with all GRE quant questions, seeing a key aspect of what this question presents is necessary for getting the right answer. What you have to see in this question is that going down by 50% results in a numerical change different from that generated by going back up 50%.
Similarly, it’s important to recognize that there is simplicity in GRE quant questions.
GRE Quant Questions Are Simpler Than They Seem
Most, if not all, GRE quant questions have relatively simple solutions, yet too often, students look for complex solutions. This approach is a mistake. A crucial aspect of GRE quant questions is that they tend to be designed such that each question contains one or two key elements that the test-taker must identify in order to answer the question efficiently. Once you identify those key components, the question can become quite simple — far simpler than you expect. It’s often the case that a question that takes many test-takers three minutes to solve can be correctly answered in less than one minute if a test-taker pinpoints one or two key aspects of the problem.
Consider the following questions, all of which seem complicated until we identify the simplicity within them:
Even when a test-taker is scoring high and thus seeing relatively challenging questions, many of those questions can be solved using methods that are not particularly sophisticated. In other words, for most questions, the optimal path to the solution will be quite basic. Simplicity is your goal.
Keeping this goal in mind, you should ask yourself the following questions when solving GRE quant problems:
“What is the question really asking?”
“How can I make this question as simple as possible?”
“What is a shortcut to answering this question?”
At this point, most students ask, “How do I learn to see what I need to see?” The answer is that you must prepare with study materials that teach you how to answer GRE quant questions accurately and efficiently. Then, you must engage in a ton of systematic practice. Through that deliberate study and practice, you’ll gain the skills you need to recognize the keys that “unlock” GRE quant questions and expose their inherent simplicity.
Systematic, Abundant Practice is Critical
While there is typically limited variability in the way concepts are presented on a traditional math test, on GRE quant, there are dozens of potential variations of even the most seemingly simple question types. One mistake that students make when preparing for GRE quant is that they don’t systematically practice with enough questions in each category.
For most people preparing for the GRE, working on quant questions one type at a time is the most effective method for increasing their quant scores, and mastering how to correctly answer questions in a particular category can take answering many such questions. Practicing questions by topic means spending a certain number of days working on only Rate-Time-Distance questions, for example. The goal is to become so skilled at Rate-Time-Distance questions that you can’t get them wrong. By working through question categories one at a time, you learn how to decipher the logic of that question type, developing multiple approaches for arriving at answers and gaining a clear understanding of the common pitfalls in a category. You might make the same type of mistake twice in a row, but you probably won’t make it five times in a row. Thus, you must solve a wide spectrum of realistic practice questions in each quant category.
When people don’t spend sufficient time mastering a topic prior to taking the GRE, they tend to struggle with questions that look and feel different from the ones with which they practiced. In other words, they tend to get bogged down when they encounter problems that center on familiar concepts but use those concepts in new and unique ways. Consider the algebra topic known as the difference of squares. Most test-takers understand that x2 – y2 = (x + y)(x – y). However, some don’t engage in enough deliberate practice to be able to actually recognize and solve questions on the difference of squares. Conceptual knowledge must be bolstered by the practical application of that knowledge if you hope to have success in GRE quant.
Check out this article for more on the types of knowledge necessary to achieve a high GRE score, and try these practice questions on the difference of squares. How does your practical know-how stack up against your grasp of that concept?
Thorough conceptual and practical mastery will help give you the confidence you need to walk into the test center cool, calm, and collected, knowing that you are well-equipped to handle whatever spin the test puts on a question type. By focusing on categories of questions, you drive your quant score higher with each category that you master. If you work in this way, hitting your quant score goal is almost inevitable. Remember, when you study a topic, your goal is not to practice until you get questions right, but to practice until you can’t get questions wrong.
Now, let’s next talk about the importance of mastering foundational quant topics first.
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Build a Strong Foundation
Too often, students focus their study efforts on difficult GRE quant questions, such as those involving relatively complicated probability, combinatorics, and number properties, while neglecting the basics. This is not a sound strategy for GRE success. Mastering math, particularly the math tested on the GRE, requires that you take a linear approach to developing your knowledge and skills. If you skip to the hard stuff, it will be challenging for you to develop a strong command of the material. There are a number of reasons for this.
For one, understanding the basics, such as how to work with fractions and exponents, is necessary for solving more complicated questions. For example, if you are not well-versed in calculations involving fractions, you could miss or take too long answering a probability question. Furthermore, the key to hitting your score goal is getting all of the easy- and medium-level questions correct and getting as many difficult questions as possible correct. Remember, the first quant section has a mix of difficulty levels, and getting all or most of the easy- and medium-level questions correct will drive up your score in that section. This solid performance will give you the opportunity to increase your score even more in quant section 2, in which you will encounter more challenging questions. Conversely, missing easy or medium questions in quant section 1 will not only negatively impact your initial quant score, but also result in your being presented with easier questions in quant section 2, which means that you will not even see the types of questions that could significantly improve your score. In other words, if you can’t correctly answer easy- and medium-level questions, you are unlikely to later see score-enhancing difficult ones.
Knowledge of the basics, or the lack thereof, can make or break your GRE quant score. Concepts such as fractions, ratios, and decimals are simple in theory, but that doesn’t mean you are skilled at solving GRE quant questions involving those concepts. Often, test-takers don’t devote study time to the types of questions that are easy in theory, and thus test-takers often waste an inordinate amount of time answering those types of questions on the actual test. Don’t discount the possibility that to increase your GRE quant score, you may need to get better at tackling the most basic types of concepts and questions, and then build upward from there.
So, how do you retain all of these concepts and skills as you continue to master new ones? In other words, how do you not forget what you’ve learned?
Regularly Review the Material
If you’re like most students, when preparing for the GRE, you’ll learn a great deal of new content, strategies, and techniques. If you don’t regularly review what you’ve learned, you’re liable to forget things as your focus shifts. So, you need to review old content as you go, and there are a number of ways to do this efficiently.
For starters, consider taking notes as you study. Taking notes makes you a more active participant in your learning and gives you something to review at a later date. The simple act of writing down a concept or principle in your own words can make you think more clearly about the meaning of that concept, and thus it should stick better in your mind than it would were you to simply read about it. We’ve all been victims of mindless reading — those times when we say to ourselves, “I just read two pages and I have no memory whatsoever of what I read.” Taking notes as you read can help you avoid this wasteful activity, increasing your focus and retention.
After you’ve taken notes, consider making flash cards so you can consistently and quickly review a concept and better retain the information. The great thing about flash cards is that you can use them anywhere. If you have ten minutes on the subway, run through your flash cards. Waiting in line at Starbucks, quiz yourself using your flash cards. Some students prefer “old-fashioned” paper flash cards, while others prefer the digital version. Whichever format you choose, be sure to flip through your flash cards often. To challenge yourself even more, shuffle the deck before each use. By reordering the cards each time you review them, you make the material unpredictable. You will have to work a bit harder, but your retention of the material will increase dramatically.
As you dive deeper into your prep, the number of flash cards you’re using will grow. So, to help yourself review efficiently, separate your flash cards into piles: one pile for concepts that you’ve mastered and another pile for concepts that you haven’t mastered. Clearly, you should flip through the “not mastered” pile more frequently than the “mastered” pile. However, don’t forget to revisit the concepts you’ve mastered every so often to make sure that those skills don’t become rusty.
Additionally, as you work through categories of quant questions, include in your routine some time answering question types on which you’ve already worked. Ensuring that the concepts you’ve learned and the skills you’ve developed stay fresh is critical to driving up your GRE quant score. You can also use this free GRE math cheat sheet to review key formulas and rules.
Next, let’s discuss the importance of working on your weaknesses.
Embrace Your Weaknesses to Eliminate Them
Unfortunately, students tend to avoid working on question types that are problematic for them. However, problematic questions represent powerful opportunities for improvement. One surefire way to increase your quant score is to figure out what question types you don’t want to see on test day and work on those types until you hope to see them. Become an expert at answering the types of quant questions you currently dread, and watch your score increase.
Tackling your weaknesses head-on allows you to grow stronger in those areas, which means more right answers on those types of questions and, ultimately, more time to answer other types of questions, such as those requiring more calculations.
Let’s take a look at a specific skill necessary for answering many types of GRE quant questions: algebraic translation.
Algebraic Translation: An Essential Skill for GRE Quant
We know that test-takers have to master many topics in order to attain a high GRE quant score. However, there is one topic that pertains to questions in many categories: algebraic translation. Algebraic translation is the skill of translating the written words in a GRE quant problem into math. Too often people neglect this skill. Don’t make that mistake.
Often, weak algebraic translation skills are the common thread running through a test-taker’s struggles with multiple types of questions. In other words, the core weakness may not be in the nuances of concepts behind interest rate questions, for example, but in the student’s ability to translate words into math and then effectively and accurately deal with that math. So, while you must master many different mathematical concepts to perform well in GRE quant, by mastering algebraic translation, you can improve your performance in many areas.
Let’s discuss the three levels of problem-solving proficiency that most students pass through when preparing for the quant section of the GRE.
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The Three Levels of Problem-Solving Proficiency
For each category of GRE quant questions, you may see any or all of the following three levels of proficiency as you practice solving problems:
Level 1 – You understand the logic of GRE quant questions in a category and basically know how to answer them, but you may not answer them correctly, or at least do so consistently. This is a good start.
Level 2 – You consistently answer questions in a quant category correctly, but not quickly, averaging well over two minutes per question. This level of proficiency is even better. If you can get right answers consistently, you are well on your way to hitting your GRE score goal.
Level 3 – You consistently answer questions in a category correctly, taking around two minutes per question, usually less. At this level of proficiency, you are ready to see questions in this category on the test. Now it’s time to work on another question category.
To develop the third level of proficiency, you must allow yourself ample time for deliberate practice. When you first begin practicing, if you try to rush through questions, you’ll find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to progress to Level 3. Thus, in the early stages, you should practice the questions untimed. Yes, you can be aware of how much time you’re taking, but don’t focus on the time. You need to focus on finding the correct response to each question by mastering the material and learning to use higher-level thinking, rather than on answering questions in two minutes (or any other preset time constraint). The best way to gain speed is to know the material very well and develop strong skills.
As your knowledge of the material becomes more extensive and your skills get stronger, you can begin holding yourself to more stringent time constraints. For example, perhaps in the first month of your GRE prep, you don’t worry about the time at all. In the second month, maybe your goal is to answer each quant question in under three minutes. In month three, under 2:00. Then in month four, as far under 1:45 as possible.
Another mistake that students make is that they never time themselves, and thus they don’t know whether they can solve a problem in a reasonable amount of time (about 1:45, on average). Remember, on the GRE, answering questions correctly is a great start, but that will not produce a higher score unless you can reach those answers quickly enough.
As you progress through your preparation, be sure to hold yourself to increasingly stringent time constraints when you practice questions. By test day, you’ll want to be at, or close to, an average time of 1:45 per question. Check out this article for more tips on how to get faster at solving GRE quant questions.
Now, let’s discuss the importance of learning to be OK with feeling uncomfortable.
Get Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable
Over the years, I’ve noticed that the students who went on to earn the highest GRE quant scores were the ones who never gave up on problems during practice. Conversely, the students who gave into their discomfort after 60 seconds or 1:30 were the ones who, all else equal, saw the least improvement in their GRE quant scores.
Even when your brain begins to hurt and you feel frustrated and tired, or you’d rather be doing anything other than studying for the GRE, you must train yourself to push through quant questions. You must learn to be OK with — and even embrace — the feeling of being uncomfortable. Consider hardship a tool for growth, and put that tool to work.
Learning perseverance is another reason to work on practice questions untimed until your skills improve. There is a psychological component to getting the correct answer to a GRE quant question. You may look at a question and not know how to answer it at first. You may start wondering whether you have what it takes to get the answer. Generally, if you keep at it and go through the fire — the questioning yourself, the fear, the anger, the boredom, the fatigue — you will arrive at the answer, but that process may take much longer than two or three minutes. So, if you give yourself only those couple of minutes, you let yourself off the hook. You don’t learn to go through the fire and come out the other side with the answer. You can go to the explanation and learn what the answer is, but you will not have learned one of the most important things: how to persist, and hack, and do whatever you have to do to get the answers to challenging questions. Don’t underestimate the value of this skill on the GRE.
Of course, it is always better to know how to answer a question elegantly and efficiently. However, even if you don’t know exactly how to solve a question, I want you to hack, calculate, cogitate, count on your fingers, or do whatever you have to do to get a correct answer. Stay with the problem and don’t give up unless you are truly, absolutely stuck. Research indicates that when you think you’ve done all that you can, you’ve actually done about forty percent of what you’re capable of. And even if you don’t answer the question correctly, you will be teaching yourself how to be resilient and push on in the face of adversity.
Keep in mind also that when it comes to GRE questions, often “the bigger the bark, the smaller the bite.” In other words, the nastier a GRE quant problem may look upon first glance, the easier it is to correctly answer. So, do your best not to become intimidated when first reading a question.
Work Carefully to Avoid Careless Mistakes
Careless errors will destroy your score. Obviously, they can lead to wrong answers, but a more insidious and potentially just as damaging effect is that they suck up time. For example, you may catch a careless error because the answer you come up with doesn’t show up in the answer choices, but even then, you will have to recalculate or perhaps start the question over, and this takes time that you could be using to get right answers to other questions. In some cases, you may not have time to fix a careless error, and thus you will be forced to guess and move on. Learning to be more accurate in your work can easily add five points or more to your GRE quant score.
One way to avoid careless mistakes is to work slowly and carefully. The more you rush, the more likely you are to make a silly or sloppy error. Of course, you have to work relatively quickly in order to complete a section in the allotted time, but there is a difference between working efficiently and rushing through calculations.
You also can reduce careless errors by becoming aware of the types of errors that you tend to make. Do you typically make errors when adding? Do you forget to answer the question being asked? Do you get so excited when you’ve gotten through the difficult part of answering a question that you blow the final calculations? Learn what it is that you do that results in score-destroying, small errors, so that you can catch yourself before you do it.
Finally, consider that what seem to be careless errors may in fact be signs that you don’t fully understand how to answer certain types of questions. It’s easy to look at an explanation and think, “Oh, of course, I should have multiplied rather than divided.” However, asking yourself why you made the wrong move may reveal that you have some real work to do in order to truly understand what the right moves are in those situations. If you discover such gaps in your understanding, more topic-based training is probably in order. Check out this article on how to improve your accuracy on GRE quant for further tips.
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