Cracking the GRE Premium (2015)

Part I Orientation

Chapter 2 General Strategy

This chapter contains some basic advice to get you into The Princeton Review mindset. You’ll learn some core test-taking strategies to help you maximize your score. In addition, you’ll see some of the different question formats you will probably encounter on test day.


Although ETS claims that the GRE measures “critical thinking, analytical writing, verbal reasoning, and quantitative reasoning skills that have been acquired over a long period of time,” that isn’t quite true. Again, what the GRE really measures is how well you take the GRE. The first step to bettering your GRE score is realizing that you can improve your score, in many cases substantially, by familiarizing yourself with the test and by practicing the techniques in this book.

I Thought the GRE Was Coach-Proof

ETS would have you believe that its tests are coach-proof, but that is simply untrue. In many ways, taking a standardized test is a skill and, as with any skill, you can become more proficient at it by both practicing and following the advice of a good teacher. Think of your GRE preparation as if you were practicing for a piano recital or a track meet; you wouldn’t show up at the concert hall or track field without having put in hours of practice beforehand (at least we hope you wouldn’t!). If you want to get a good score on the GRE, you’ll have to put in the necessary preparation time.

Why Should I Listen to The Princeton Review?

Quite simply, because we monitor the GRE. Our teaching methods were developed through exhaustive analysis of all of the available GREs and careful research into the methods by which standardized tests are constructed. Our focus is on the basic concepts that will enable you to attack any problem, strip it down to its essential components, and solve it in as little time as possible.

Think Like the Test Writers

You might be surprised to learn that the GRE isn’t written by distinguished professors, renowned scholars, or graduate school admissions officers. For the most part, it’s written by ordinary ETS employees, sometimes with freelance help from local graduate students. You have no reason to be intimidated by these people.

As you become more familiar with the test, you will also develop a sense of “the ETS mentality.” This is a predictable kind of thinking that influences nearly every part of nearly every ETS exam. By learning to recognize the ETS mentality, you’ll earn points even when you aren’t sure why an answer is correct. You’ll inevitably do better on the test by learning to think like the people who wrote it.

The Only “Correct” Answer Is the One That Earns You Points

The instructions on the GRE tell you to select the “best” answer to each question. ETS calls them “best” answers, or “credited” responses, instead of “correct” answers to protect itself from the complaints of test takers who might be tempted to quarrel with ETS’s judgment. Remember that you have to choose from the choices ETS gives you, and sometimes, especially on the Verbal section, you might not love any of them. Your job is to find the one answer for which ETS gives credit.

Cracking the System

“Cracking the system” is our phrase for getting inside the minds of the people who write these tests. This emphasis on earning points rather than finding the “correct” answer may strike you as somewhat cynical, but it is crucial to doing well on the GRE. After all, the GRE leaves you no room to make explanations or justifications for your responses.

This is NOT a test of

You’ll do better on the GRE by putting aside your feelings about real education and surrendering yourself to the strange logic of the standardized test.


The GRE is adaptive by section. That is, you will see two Math sections and two Verbal sections, but the difficulty level of the second section of either subject is determined by your performance on the first section. The more questions you answer correctly on the first section, the harder your second section will be. While your accuracy on a harder section two is likely to be lower than it would be on an easier section two, you are better off with the harder section. To get a high score on the GRE, you must get to the hardest questions and answer them correctly. The selection of the second section is purely a function of the number of questions you answer correctly. The difficulty of an individual question plays no part. When the GRE converts your raw score (the actual number of right and wrong questions) to your scaled score (130–170), however, the level of difficulty will play a role.


1. Take the Easy Test First

Within a section, each question counts equally toward your score. There will inevitably be questions you are great at and questions you don’t like. The beauty of the GRE is that there is no need to bow to Phoenician numerical hegemony; you can answer questions in any order you like. The question you can nail in 25 seconds is worth just as much as the question that will torture you for minutes on end. To maximize your score, leave the questions you don’t like for last. If you are going to run out of time anywhere—and unless you are shooting for a 160 or higher, you should be running out of time—make sure that the questions that get chopped off are the ones you didn’t want to answer anyway.

This strategy is called Take the Easy Test First. Skip early and skip often. Doing so will result in two passes through an individual section. On the first pass, cherry pick. Answer the questions you like. Get all of those easy points in the bank before time starts running short. You know that the hard questions—or the ones that you don’t like—are going to take more time. Also, although you should never rush, everyone starts to feel the pressure of the clock as time starts running low. This is often when mistakes happen. Leave those difficult, time-consuming questions for the end of the test. If you run out of time or make some mistakes at that point, it won’t matter because these are low percentage questions for you anyway.

2. Mark and Return

On your first pass through the questions, if you see a question you don’t like, a question that looks hard, or a question that looks time consuming, you’re going to walk on by and leave it for the end. Sometimes, however, a question that looks easy turns out to be more troublesome than you thought. The question may be trickier than it first appeared, or you may have simply misread it, and it seems hard only because you’re working with the wrong information. From start to finish, the GRE is nearly a four-hour test. Over four hours your brain is going to get tired. When that happens, misreading a question is virtually inevitable. Once you read a problem wrong, however, it is almost impossible to un-read the problem and see it right. As long as you are still in the problem, you could read it ten times in a row and you will read it the same wrong way each time.

Whether a question is harder than it first appeared, or made harder by the fact that you missed a key phrase or piece of information, the approach you’ve taken is not working. This is where the Mark button comes in.

Reset your brain by walking away from the problem, but Mark the question before you do. Do two or three other questions, and then return to the marked problem. When you walk away, your brain doesn’t just forget the problem, it keeps on processing in the back ground. The distraction of the other questions helps your brain to consider the question from some other angles. When you return to the problem, you may find that the part that gave you so much trouble the first time is now magically clear. If the problem continues to give you trouble, walk away again.

Staying with a problem when you’re stuck burns time but yields no points. You might spend 2, 3, 5, or even 6 minutes on a problem but still be no closer to the answer. Spending 5 minutes to get one point will not get you enough points on a 30- or 35-minute section. In the 5 minutes you spend on a problem that you’ve misread, you could nail three or four easier questions. When you return to the question that gave you trouble, there is a good chance that you will spot your error, and the path to the correct answer will become clear. If it doesn’t become clear, walk away again. Any time you encounter resistance on the test, do not keep pushing; bend like a reed and walk away. Use the Mark button to facilitate this key skill. Skip early and often so that you always have questions to distract your brain when you get stuck.

3. Use the Review Screen to Navigate

Within a single section you can mark an answered or unanswered question and return to it later. In fact you can skip any question you like and return to any question at any time you like. Navigating around a section is easy with the new Review Screen, which looks like this:

Simply click on a question and hit the button marked “Go To Question,” and you will return directly to that question. This opens up a whole new realm of strategic opportunities for the savvy test taker.

4. Slow Down/Work for Accuracy

Speed kills on the GRE. The clock has a way of infecting your brain. Just knowing that there is a ticking clock provokes mistakes. The trick is to take each section as if there is no clock. As long as you are skipping the hard ones and using the Mark button and coming back every time you run into trouble, you should get very few questions in a section wrong. Wrong answers drag your score down and often take up even more time than the right ones!

Remember that it is not the number of questions that you answer that gives you your score; it is the number of questions you answer correctly. Accuracy is everything. Ignore the clock. Slow down and work for accuracy only. If you run into a brick wall, don’t keep spending time; do an easier question and come back. The minute you try to go faster, however, your accuracy will go down and take your score along with it.

Accuracy is all
that matters. Walk
away often.

There is only one exception to this, and that is the last two minutes of a section. A skipped question and a wrong answer count the same. In other words, there is no penalty for “guessing” on a question you don’t know. When two minutes remain on your clock, stop what you’re doing and bubble in answers to any remaining unanswered questions. Use the Review button to quickly see which questions you haven’t answered. A few lucky guesses will pay off. If you don’t get any of them right, no harm done.

To avoid careless mistakes and to make the best use of your time, we suggest the following:

1.    Be Aware of Your Personal Order of Difficulty. Spend your time on the questions that are easiest for you. Work through them methodically and accurately and collect points.

2.    Use the Two-Pass System. The Two-Pass system involves taking each section in two parts, or passes. During the first pass, focus on all the questions that you’re comfortable with. On the second pass, return to the tougher questions and do the best you can on them in the remaining time.

5. Use Process of Elimination

Because there are many more wrong answers on the GRE than there are credited answers, on some of the more difficult questions (those you do on your second pass) you’ll actually be better served not by trying to find the best answer, but instead by finding the wrong answers and using POE, Process of Elimination.

ETS Doesn’t Care How You Get the Best Answer

Remember when you were in high school, and even if you got a question wrong on a test, your teacher gave you partial credit? For example, maybe you used the right formula on a math question, but miscalculated and got the wrong result, but your teacher gave you some credit because you understood the concept?

Well, those days are over. There is no partial credit on the GRE. On the other hand, ETS doesn’t know or care how you get the right answer. A lucky guess is worth just as many points as a question that you solve completely and correctly.

There is one thing for which we must thank ETS. They have actually given us the answers! For most problems, there are five answer choices, and one of them is correct. It is important to remember that the answer choices are part of the problem. Many of them will be clearly wrong and can, therefore, be eliminated. In fact, sometimes it is easier to identify the wrong answers and eliminate them than it is to find the right ones. This approach is called Process of Elimination, or POE.

POE will be crucial on the verbal side of the test. Vocabulary-based questions will include plenty of words you don’t know. For such questions, you may not be able to identify the correct answer, but you will certainly be able to identify some wrong ones. Get rid of the wrong ones so that when you guess, you have a fifty-fifty shot and not a 20 percent chance. The same holds true for the reading comp questions, which will include plenty of answer choices that are clearly wrong.

On the math side of the test, ETS loves to sucker you into doing more math than is really necessary. You can often eliminate answer choices that are clearly too large or too small. Sometimes it is even more efficient to eliminate wrong answers than it is to do the math required to come up with the right one.

The Importance of Distractors

By using POE, you will be able to improve your score on the GRE by looking for wrong answers instead of right ones, on questions you find difficult. Why? Because, once you’ve eliminated the wrong ones, picking the right one can be a piece of cake.

Wrong answers on standardized multiple-choice tests are known in the testing industry as “distractors,” or “trap answers.” They are called distractors because their purpose is to distract test takers away from correct choices. Trap answers are specifically designed to appeal to test takers. Oftentimes, they’re the answers that seem to scream out “pick me!” as you work through a question. However, these attractive answers are often incorrect.

Remembering this simple fact can be an enormous help to you as you sit down to take the test. By learning to recognize distractors, you will greatly improve your score.

Improve Your Odds Indirectly

Every time you’re able to eliminate an incorrect choice on a GRE question, you improve your odds of finding the best answer; the more incorrect choices you eliminate, the better your odds.

For this reason, some of our test-taking strategies are aimed at helping you arrive at ETS’s answer indirectly. Doing this will make you much more successful at avoiding the traps laid in your path by the test writers. This is because most of the traps are designed to catch unwary test takers who try to approach the problems directly.

POE and Guessing

If you guessed blindly on a five-choice GRE problem, you would have a one-in-five chance of picking ETS’s answer. Eliminate one incorrect choice, and your chances improve to one in four. Eliminate three, and you have a fifty-fifty chance of earning points by guessing. Get the picture?

Guess, but guess

6. Use Your Scratch Paper

ETS doesn’t give you many useful tools on this test, so you have to make good use of the ones they do give you. You will get six sheets of scratch paper stapled into a booklet. You can get more by raising your hand during a section, but that takes time, so you will need an efficient system for using scratch paper.

Mistakes happen in your head, but good technique happens on scratch paper. When you do work in your head, you are really doing two things at once. The first is figuring out the answer at hand, and the second is keeping track of where you’ve been. Mistakes happen when you try to do two things in your head at once. It’s better to park your thinking on your scratch paper. Get it out of your head and onto the page. Good things happen when you do.


By crossing out a clearly
incorrect choice, you
permanently eliminate it
from consideration.

On the math side, scratch paper is crucial. Not only is it important for performing complicated calculations, but when used properly, it can actually help to direct your thinking as you work through multi-step problems. In the math sections of this book, we will give you graphic set-ups for each math concept that you will encounter. Use them consistently, and they will become good habits that will pay big dividends in accuracy, even over a four-hour exam.

On the verbal side, scratch paper is every bit as essential. It will help you to track your progress, to focus on only one answer choice at a time, and to work through a series of answer choices efficiently. In the verbal section of this book, we will give you a process for using scratch paper efficiently and effectively.

7. Double-Check

Get into the habit of double-checking all of your answers before you click on your answer choice—or answer choices. Make sure that you reread the directions and have done everything they asked you to—don’t get the answer wrong just because you chose only one answer for a question that required you to choose two or more.

The only way to reliably avoid careless errors is to adopt habits that make them less likely to occur. Always check to see that you’ve transcribed information correctly to your scratch paper. Always read the problem at least twice and note any important parts that you might forget later. Always check your calculations. And always read the question one last time before selecting your answer.

By training yourself to
avoid careless errors, you
will increase your score.

8. Let It Go

Every time you begin a new section, focus on that section and put the last section you completed behind you. Don’t think about that pesky synonym from an earlier section while a geometry question is on your screen. You can’t go back, and besides, your impression of how you did on a section is probably much worse than reality.

9. Don’t Make Any Last-Minute Lifestyle Changes

The week before the test is not the time for any major life changes. This is NOT the week to quit smoking, start smoking, quit drinking coffee, start drinking coffee, start a relationship, end a relationship, or quit a job. Business as usual, okay?


Before you dive in, you might wish to take one of the practice tests in this book or online to get a sense of where you are starting out from. It can be a good exercise to tackle a practice test before you know any strategies or have reviewed any content—while you have relatively fresh eyes to the test-taking experience. This will be a good initial impression and these first scores will show you what content areas need your focus. Of course, you’ll review all necessary content for the GRE (won’t you?), but this first test can serve as a helpful guide. Then as you learn strategies and review math and verbal content, you’ll have a genuine sense of accomplishment.

Now let’s get cracking!


·        You can increase your score on the GRE through practice and successful application of test-taking strategies.

·        The GRE uses a variety of question formats throughout the test.

·        Not all questions on the GRE are of equal difficulty. Your Personal Order of Difficulty should tell you which questions to spend time on and which to skip.

·        Accuracy is better than speed. Slow down and focus on accumulating as many points as possible. Forcing yourself to work faster results in careless errors and lower scores.

·        Process of Elimination is an extremely useful tool on the test. Use it to eliminate wrong answers and increase your odds of guessing correctly.