For many years, I didn’t know what to do when students asked me, “How much should I study?” I would cough and hem and always start some answer with, “Well, it depends …” Because it did depend! The population of GRE test takers is so diverse, and the range of ability they bring to the test so disparate, that a GRE test taker chosen at random might need anywhere between 0 and 200 hours of preparation to achieve her goal, and I say that without exaggeration.
But students would keep asking that question, class after class after class, and I realized that I needed to upgrade my answer. My hedging answers were technically true but not very helpful.
So here’s a practical, helpful answer to that question.
First of all, you should never study seven days a week. You need a day of rest to recharge, guard against burnout, and let your brain do some dot-connecting in the background. Once you’ve established your day of rest, study six days a week, 1-6 hours a day. If you study more than three hours at a stretch, take an extended break. And if you’re taking a class to prep for the GRE, remember that class time counts toward your daily limit!
This is a flexible framework that lets you ratchet anywhere between 6 and 36 hours a week. So what number of weekly hours should you reach for? I’d recommend 20. Consider the GRE a part-time job. However, while 20 hours is a good target to shoot for, you shouldn’t regard it as a ceiling. When you plan your study schedule for the week, add more or fewer than 20 hours as your professional and personal commitments allow (or don’t allow!).
I hear this from a lot of you. Unfortunately, as I explained recently, having more time on the GRE wouldn’t actually help you get a higher score, since the GRE is a scaled test. So let’s leave the complaining to our competition, shall we? Instead of moaning about the clock, strive be as awesome as you can at solving problems. If you’re great, you’ll also be fast. Here’s a quantitative comparison that’s pretty simple, but also a nice illustratration of the fact that speed isn’t something that comes independently of problem solving skill.
This problem, like several I’ve been looking at recently, comes from our GRE Bootcamp event:
Quantity A: The sum of all integers from 9 to 29, inclusive
Quantity B: The sum of all integers from 12 to 30, inclusive
At a glance, the “math” way to solve this problem is time-consuming but direct: add up the sums in both columns, then compare. Since there’s an on-screen calculator on the GRE, some of your competition will solve the problem this way. And boy does it take a long time.
Let me be very clear: directly totaling both columns isn’t just a slow way to solve the problem. It’s a BAD way. Someone who solves the problem in this head-on, brute force fashion, then says to themselves, “I’m fine with the problems, it’s the timing that kills me,” is being dishonest with themselves. They are not ”fine with the problems.” They are very much unfine!
Instead, when you have to compare two quantities, start by eliminating what they have in common. If a quantity appears in both columns, then it isn’t helping either one to be bigger than the other.
Here, both columns include the range of numbers 12-29. Thus, totaling that range would be a waste of time. Ignore it and look instead at what’s different:
Quantity A: The sum of all integers from 9 to 11, inclusive
Quantity B: The of all integers from … never mind, it’s just 30!
And since 9 + 10 + 11 clearly equals 30, you can click choice (C) — “The two quantities are equal” — in under 10 seconds and score the point. That’s the beauty of the GRE: if you’re awesome, speed comes for free. Practice will get you there!
Which of the following is equivalent to (√3 + 1) / (√3 – 1)?
(A) 3 – √3
(B) 2√3 – 2
(D) 2 + √3
(E) 4 + 2√3
Several of us instructors looked at the problem, and without even glancing at the answer choices, half of us said “Whichever choice is equal to 2.” But when we actually read the answer choices, we noticed that there wasn’t one that matched our prediction.
Where did we go wrong? It was hubris. We’ve all been teaching for long enough that we know the common math tricks inside and out – in this case, as soon as we saw (√3 + 1) and (√3 – 1), we noticed that they looked like the terms in the common quadratic equation (a + b)*(a – b), and assumed that we were supposed to multiply the terms together. In that case, the result would be 3 – 1, which equals 2. Of course, the problem asks us to divide the terms, not multiply them, but we’d read too quickly and made a fatal mistake. We were able to fix it, but only after we had 1) realized that no choice matched our result, and 2) gone back and reread the question. That’s a lot of time wasted, on a problem that – if read correctly on the first pass – can be solved with a couple of very straightforward calculations.
If it was so easy for a group of people who have been teaching the GRE for decades (albeit a group who was half-distracted with work) to read too quickly, just think how easy it is for the average test-taker to fall into a similar trap. So learn from our mistake: Know every shortcut and approach that you can possibly learn, but do not ever, under any circumstances, let that be a substitute for reading carefully and identifying exactly what a question is asking you to do.
What traps do you commonly fall into in your GRE practice? And what answer did you get to this quant problem? Let us know in the comments!
Last year, I wrote a series of entries about the critical reasoning problems that were recently added to the GRE. Since it’s been a while, let’s revisit that question type — and check out another aspect of critical thinking that confounds many of you.
Here’s a type of problem that’s caused no end of consternation to a lot of my students:
Residents of this state are obligated to renew their driver’s license in two circumstances only: if they accumulate six or more points in moving violations, or if they obtain citizenship in another country. Clarice, who is a citizen of only this country, has been involved in only one accident, which added three points to her license. Therefore, Clarice has no reason to renew her driver’s license at this time.
The argument above depends on which of the following assumptions?
I’m not going to show you the answer choices because the essence of this problem needs to be taken care of long before you ever look at a single choice. When I ask my students for the assumption, I invariably hear answers such as the following:
- “The author assumes that Clarice didn’t receive points from sources other than accidents.”
- “The author assumes that Clarice wasn’t already a citizen of some other place.”
- “The author assumes that Clarice didn’t do something else that would make her have to renew her license.”
All of these wrong answers fall for the same trap: thinking in the way that the test makers want you to think. The test makers say, “Hey! Look at these conditions. Clarice didn’t meet any of them. So, there’s no reason for her to renew her license.” And a lot people look at that line of reasoning and say, “Aha! I bet Clarice DID meet one of those conditions, in some sneaky way.” Then they start drumming up clever ways to force poor Clarice to retake her driver’s exam.
This is what I like to call going down the wrong rabbit hole. The test makers show you a rabbit hole, saying basically, “Hey, you! Think about THIS.” And so you think about whatever “this” is, and you think about it really hard, and the problem is that you shouldn’t have even started thinking along those lines in the first place.
Let’s back up a bit.
Consider this argument:
Boris isn’t obligated to exercise. Therefore, there is no reason for Boris to exercise.
Or how about this one:
There is no law mandating that Boris be kind to his mother. Therefore, he should be a jerk to her.
How do those arguments sound? Terrible, you say?! But why? If I’m not required to do something, doesn’t that mean I have no reason to do it?
Here, again, is the argument about Clarice, but condensed to the essentials:
Clarice isn’t required to renew her driver’s license. Therefore, she has no reason to renew her driver’s license.
It’s tricky to spot the error the first time someone throws you an argument like this, because renewing a driver’s license is boring and lame, so your brain fills in the gap in the argument: “The only reason anyone would ever renew their license was if they had to.” But that’s not necessarily true: that’s an assumption. Maybe Clarice gets a tax credit for renewing her license, or renewing the license will get some of her points taken away, or renewing the license provides some other benefit to something completely unrelated. We don’t know.
Remember this nugget of logical wisdom when you take the GRE: just because a person isn’t required to do something, doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t or they won’t!
Climate change is a very serious issue, but as a resident of Madison, Wisconsin, I sometimes grumble that global warming can’t come soon enough. It wouldn’t be a true Wisconsin winter if we didn’t get at least one blizzard in March, and I found myself last week shoveling desperately through a waist-high mound of heavy, densely packed snow deposited by snowplows at the foot of my driveway. My usual strategy in such situations is “stay in the house until the roommate has to go somewhere first.” Unfortunately, he was out of town, so I had to excavate the driveway myself if I wanted any shot of pulling my car out of the garage.
I get the feeling that many of you view the taking GRE the same way I view shoveling snow: as a chore. Something unpleasant that takes a lot of time and work, that you have no choice about, and that if you were king of the world, you’d never have to deal with.
You might expect that, as a professional GRE teacher, I’d be disappointed that so many of you are as excited to study for the GRE as you are to clean the bathroom. And in some respects, I am. As I wrote recently, I honestly believe that studying for the GRE is a valuable experience, and I’d like for more of my students to be excited by the prospect of becoming smarter and cleverer.
In another light, however, I actually wish that GRE students viewed the test more like a chore. Chores have something going for them: nobody doubts their ability to complete one. As much as I loathe shoveling snow, I knew after a set amount of unpleasant labor, my driveway would be clear and I could pull my car out and move on with my life. We all dread mowing the lawn, folding laundry, and unloading the dishwasher, but we never entertain for even a second the possibility that we won’t be able to bring any of these chores to a successful conclusion. Nobody approaches a loaded dishwasher thinking, “Oh man oh man oh man THIS MIGHT BE THE DISHWASHER THAT ENDS ME.”
By contrast, a staggering number of GRE students fear exactly this: that the GRE will be the end of them. Some of you call the GRE a “chore,” but in actuality you don’t view it as a chore at all. You view it as a trial. You think that, maybe, you won’t succeed. And I know that on some days, the “maybe” tilts dangerously toward a “probably.” Watching my students suffer because they fear their own potential is the most heartbreaking aspect of my job.
Yesterday morning I was lucky enough to TA a practice test for Jesse Evans, one of the best teachers in the whole company. While talking about the despair that shrouds a lot of students who take their first practice test, Jesse uttered a line that I and the other TA’s promptly confessed to each other we were going to steal. The line was this:
“Don’t confuse being uncomfortable with being incapable.”
This was such a simple statement that I was simultaneously blown away by Jesse’s wisdom and stunned that I hadn’t come up with it myself. When you take the GRE, many things about it make you feel uncomfortable: using math you haven’t touched in eight years; reading prose full of words you don’t know; working with question formats you’ve never seen before, and the list goes on. But just because you’re uncomfortable with something doesn’t mean you’ll never be able to do it. If you knew the formulas once, you can learn them again. If you don’t know the meaning of a word, you can memorize it. If a question format seems weird now, it won’t seem weird after you’ve done a hundred problems that use it.
Outside, in the bitter cold, with my nose running and my muscles burning, I felt the keenest discomfort as I hacked through several feet of hard, nasty snow. But I never doubted for a second that someday my ordeal would be over and I’d be able to say, “I did that!” as I got in my car and caromed triumphantly through the gap in the snowdrift. Don’t read too much into your own discomfort on the GRE. Just because you’re uncomfortable doesn’t mean that you’re incapable.