Overcoming Math Paralysis: Getting Started on GRE Math Problems
At some point in a Quantitative section, many test-takers experience Math Paralysis. “What do I do?” they ask themselves as they stare blankly at the screen, letting precious seconds slip away.
This fear is unnecessary! It’s true, the first step is the hardest. But once you know where to begin, solving a problem simply requires executing the steps.
That’s fine, if you’re a Math Person who can figure it out, right? No, even the most math-fearful among us can overcome this uncertainty. Instead of letting Test Day anxiety turn hesitation into paralysis, remind yourself that YOU CAN DO THIS – you just have to stop, breathe, and put what you know into action.
Every problem on the GRE gives you information. It may not be much, and it may not be immediately clear. But don’t forget that the GRE is testing your ability to THINK CRITICALLY, not how well you can do math. That Critical Thinking comes into play when deciding where to start solving the problem. Here’s an example.
“If Carl pays c dollars and Kevin pays k dollars per month for their apartment’s rent”… Have I lost you already? Stay with me. “What percent of the total does Kevin pay?”
What has the problem told us? We know c+k=rent.
What is it asking us for? What percentage k pays.
Next you would look at the answer choices. In this problem, they all have c and k in them, the variables given to us in the question. How does that help? Because we know that variables in the answer choices are a GREAT time to use one of the core Kaplan Strategies: Picking Numbers.
Kaplan-trained test-takers also know that when a problem asks for a percentage of an unstated value, the best number to pick is 100. So the savvy test-taker who encounters Carl and Kevin on Test Day would assume they live somewhere with phenomenal rent control pick $100 as their monthly rent. We’ll do that, too. (Look, we just did the first step together, painlessly!)
Next, we decide who pays what portion of that $100. Perhaps Carl got the tiny bedroom, so let c=40 and k=60. Now go back to what we were asked for: How much of the rent does Kevin pay? Well, if we decided that k=$60, and the total was $100, then Kevin pays 60/100, which is 60% of the total.
Following the rest of the Picking Numbers strategy, we know we need to plug let c=40 and k=60 into the answer choices until we find the one that gives us 60%. That’s easy, once we tackled the first step and figured out WHAT to do.
This works on even more complicated problems, too; decide where to start based on what you are given. The way to master this skill is to PRACTICE it regularly so it comes naturally on Test Day. Doing so ensures you will triumph over Math Paralysis!