Making Friends with Time on the GRE – Part I

It doesn’t take long for students to become keenly aware of the GRE's time constraints.  Given sufficient time, you’d answer a lot more questions correctly, but when you have approximately 90 seconds for each question, the test becomes considerably harder. 

Some students deal with this time constraint by aiming to complete each practice question in less than 90 seconds.  While there’s some wisdom to this 90-second guideline, there’s also some danger and, taken out of context, it can lead to an unhealthy relationship with time that will ultimately hamper your preparations.

This article is about avoiding an unhealthy relationship with time and, more specifically, avoiding an unhealthy relationship with time as it pertains to the math sections of the GRE.

We all know that unhealthy relationships often arise when the participants commit to the relationship before getting to know each other first.  This certainly applies to your relationship with GRE timing; committing to the 90-second goal too early in your studies can eventually lead to an unhealthy relationship.  It’s actually quite ironic: by rushing to beat the clock, you may never learn how to beat the clock.  The reason for this is that almost all GRE math questions can be solved using more than one approach.  One approach is often long and full of calculations, and another approach is often fast and painless.  To perform well on the quantitative sections, you must become adept at identifying multiple approaches to a question and then selecting the best (fastest) approach.  In other words, success on the math sections isn’t just about knowing how to solve a question; it’s also about identifying the fastest way to solve a question.  

How do you become adept at identifying all of your options?  Well, that takes some time.  It certainly takes more than 90 seconds per question.  So, if you limit yourself to 90 seconds per question, you may never learn the best approach for that question.  To really develop your problem-solving skills, you must invest some time in each question. 


My Suggestions

When practicing math questions, try to identify at least two possible approaches to solving each question.  Do this BEFORE you begin scribbling calculations on your scrap paper.  Then, for each approach, try to predict the number of steps it will take to reach an answer.  This will greatly increase your chances of beating the clock on test day.

What if you can spot only one approach to a question?  No problem. Remember, it isn’t test day yet.  You’re still practicing.  If you found only one approach, but that approach led you to the correct answer, then that’s great.  However, just because you answered the question correctly doesn’t mean you found the fastest approach. For this reason, you MUST ALWAYS review the solution.  In doing so, you may discover an even faster approach that you hadn’t considered.  What if the solution method matches your approach?  Well, this does not necessarily mean that you used the fastest approach.  If you think there might be a faster approach, there just might be.  To find other approaches, try posting the question on one of several GRE discussion forums and see what others come up with.

Similarly, if you were unable to spot any approaches to a question, be sure to review the solution and go to the forums to solicit other solutions.


Final words

The message here is not to rush your practice sessions.  In my opinion, it’s much better to spend your time carefully analyzing 20 questions than to race through 60 questions.  Later, once you have become adept at identifying your options, you can work on your timing.

So, does this mean that students should throw away their watches and timers when they begin preparing for the GRE?  Absolutely not.  I’ll discuss this in my next article.

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