Questions, Questions!

Not all GRE practice questions are equal. Learn to spot substandard GRE questions so you don’t waste precious study time and energy.


by Brent Hanneson and David Sovka, Greenlight Test Prep.


Just like your grandmother probably told you, the secret to getting good at anything – golf, piano, quantum physics – is to practice, practice, practice. It’s certainly true for success on the GRE. Once you learn the concepts being tested, you need to practice answering questions that test those concepts. The relationship is simple: the more you practice, the better you will do on the GRE.


Take a look at the following GRE practice question (WARNING: do NOT spend more than 30 seconds trying to answer it):


If k = 2x^4 + 4x^3 + 3x^2 + 2x + 7, what is the least possible value of k?

A) 7

B) 6

C) 3

D) 1

E) -1


The reason you shouldn’t spend any time on the above question is that its solution requires skills that are not tested on the GRE! It’s a complete waste of time and energy (not to mention unnecessarily scaring the crap out of you because you’ve never seen this kind of question in any official GRE preparation material).


Preparing for the GRE means just that: preparing FOR THE GRE, not preparing for the LSAT, the GMAT, or any other standardized test. There’s not enough time in the day, and your brain is busy enough learning the actual GRE-tested concepts that you will see on test day.


Rule #1: Find out what is tested on the GRE, and don’t waste time on “out of scope” material.


Substandard questions can be very discouraging and counterproductive. When students see an “out of scope” practice question that they can’t answer, they naturally worry. Some then learn concepts that the GRE doesn’t test, and some feel that they are not suited to write the GRE and quit their pursuit of graduate school.


It’s easy – and free – to find out which concepts are tested on the GRE. Go to the official GRE site, or review the content of a good GRE prep company (every reputable one will publish exactly what you will learn with them before you buy their services).


Sometimes – for example, on a GRE forum – when we point out a practice question as being “out of scope,” someone will say, “Yeah, but it’s still useful information to know.” After all, math is important, right? And there's no such thing as too much math.


Nope. We disagree. Because in the context of preparing for the GRE, you can know too much!


Rule #2: Learn how to spot substandard questions, and ignore them.


The best way to learn how to avoid wasting time on bad GRE practice questions is to fully understand how each section of the GRE works – both the structure of the questions and the kinds of things that are asked (and not asked). Any practice question that deviates from the norm should be ignored.


The GRE is not out to trick you – official questions always play by the rules. You just need to know what the rules are. Again, go to the official GRE site, or work with a good GRE prep company to learn not just the concepts that are tested, but how the concepts are tested.


Another hint that a question may be “out of scope” is when you see no Expert responses to a GRE forum for several hours after the question is posted. Of course, sometimes that might be because students have answered the question so thoroughly that there's no need for an Expert to respond. However, if all of the responses are in the form of guesses/answers (e.g., "I think the answer is B"), and an Expert hasn't responded, then it probably isn't a good question. We see this frequently with Verbal questions. There are many bad Verbal questions floating around.


What’s really going on here?

GRE preparation companies know that students need lots of practice questions, which has led to many sources of questions, some of them extremely dodgy. Don’t waste your time and energy on practice questions from “Krazy Eddie’s GRE Question Warehouse.” There’s really no substitute for the official GRE questions. They spend thousands of dollars in developing every question. That’s because EVERY question is tested, refined and made perfect before it ever is seen by students.


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