Crash Course for the New GRE, 4th Edition (2011)

Part I. Introduction

General Strategy


On the GRE, there are questions and there are questions. Some are a breeze, while others will have you tearing your hair out. The new GRE has been constructed so that you can answer questions in any order you like, and the questions you get on the second section will depend upon the number of questions you get right on the first section. You can maximize that number by starting with the questions you like. Remember that every question counts equally toward your score. As you work through a section, if you see a question you don’t like or understand, skip it. If you see one that looks as if it will take a long time, skip it. If you love geometry, but hate algebra, do all of the geometry questions first and leave the algebra questions for last.

Unless you are shooting for a 700 (on the old scale) or higher, you should NOT attempt to answer every single question.

As long as you are going to run out of time, you might as well run out of time on the questions you are least likely to get right. By leaving time-consuming and difficult questions for the end, you will be able to get to more questions overall, and get more of them right. Do not mark questions you skip; we will use the mark function for something else. Just click “Next” and move on to the next question. The review screen will tell you which questions you have and have not answered.

Note: There is no guessing penalty on the GRE. They don’t take points away for a wrong answer. When you get to the two-minute mark, therefore, stop what you’re doing and bubble in any unanswered questions.


Any time you practice for a test, you end up getting a few wrong. Later, when reviewing these questions, you end up smacking your forehead and asking yourself, “What was I thinking?” Alternately, you may find a problem utterly impossible to solve the first time around, only to look at it later and realize that it was actually quite easy, you just misread the question or missed a key piece of information.

On a four-hour test, your brain is going to get tired. When your brain gets tired, you’re going make mistakes. Typically these mistakes consist of misreadings or simple calculation errors. A misread question or a calculation error will completely change the way you see the problem. Unfortunately, once you see a question wrong, it is almost impossible to un-see it and see it correctly. As long as you stay with that question, you will continue to see it wrong every time. Meanwhile, the clock is ticking and you’re not getting any closer to the answer. We call this La La Land. Once you’re in La La Land, it is very difficult to get out.

On the flip side, once you’ve spotted the error, solving the problem correctly is often quick work. A question that bedeviled you for minutes on end in the middle of a test may appear to be appallingly obvious when viewed in the comfort of a post-test review. The trick is to change the way you see the question while you still have the opportunity to fix it.

Step 1—Recognize La La Land.

Step 2—Distract your brain.

Step 3—See the problem with fresh eyes and fix it.

Step 1—Recognize La La Land. This is often the hardest part of the process. The more work you’ve put into a problem, the more difficult it is to walk away from it. Once you get off track on a problem, however, any additional work you invest in that problem is wasted effort. No problem on the GRE, if you understand what’s being asked, should ever take more than a minute or two to solve. If you go over two minutes, you’re off track. Get out. If you find yourself working too hard, or plowing through reams of calculations, you are off track. Get out. Here are a few signs that you are in La La Land:

a.     You’ve found an answer but it is not one of the choices they’ve given you.

b.    You have half a page of calculations, but are no closer to an answer.

c.     You’ve spent more than four minutes on a problem.

d.    Your hand is not moving.

e.     You’re down to two answer choices, and you would swear on your life that both are correct.

f.      There is smoke coming out of your ears.

g.    You’re beginning to wonder if they made a mistake when they wrote the question.

If you find yourself in any of these situations, you are in La La Land. Stop what you’re doing and get out. You’ve got better things to do with your time than sitting around wrestling with this question.

Step 2—Distract your brain. When you find yourself faced with an immovable object, walk away. Think of it this way: You could spend four minutes on a question even when you know you’re stuck, or you could walk away and spend those same four minutes on three other easier questions and get them all right. Why throw good minutes after bad? Whether they realize it or not, ETS has actually designed the test to facilitate this process. This is where the Mark button comes into play. If you don’t like a problem or don’t know how to solve it, just skip it. If you start a problem and get stuck, mark it and move to the next question before you waste too much time. Do two other problems, three tops, and then return to the problem that was giving you trouble.

When you walk away from a problem, you’re not walking away entirely; you’re just parking it on the back burner. Your brain is still chewing on it, but it’s processing in the background while you work on something else. Sometimes your best insights occur when your attention is pointed elsewhere. Walk away from a problem early and often. You want to always have questions to use to distract your brain. If you don’t walk away, and you take the test in order, you will not have questions available at the tail end of a section. On some difficult problems you may walk away more than once. It is OK to take two or three runs at a hard problem.

Step 3—See the problem with fresh eyes and fix it. You use other problems to distract your brain so that you can see a troublesome problem with fresh eyes. You can help this process out by trying to read the question differently when you return to it. Use your finger on the screen to force yourself to read the problem word for word. Are there different ways to express the information? Can you use the answer choices to help? Can you paraphrase the answer choices as well? If the path to the right answer is not clear on a second viewing, walk away again. Why stick with a problem you don’t know how to solve?

The Amazing Power of POE

There are roughly four times as many wrong answers as there are right answers; it’s often easier to identify the wrong answers than it is to identify the right ones. POE stands for Process of Elimination. On hard questions, spend your time looking for and eliminating wrong answers. They are easier and quicker to find.

The simple act of eliminating wrong answers, something anyone can do on any question, will raise your score. Why? Because 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. Don’t be afraid to arrive at ETS’s answer indirectly. You’ll be avoiding the traps laid in your path by the test writers—traps that are designed to catch unwary test takers who try to approach the problems directly.

If you guessed blindly on a five-choice GRE problem, you would have one chance in five 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? Why not improve your odds?

Note: Especially on verbal questions, if you’re not sure what a word in an answer choice means, don’t eliminate that choice. It might be the answer! Only eliminate answers you know are wrong.

The “Best” Answer

The instructions on the GRE tell you to select the “best” answer to each question. ETS calls them “best” answers, or the “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. You have to pick from the choices ETS gives you, and sometimes you might not like any of them. Your job is to find the one answer for which ETS gives credit.

Use That Paper!

For POE to work, it’s crucial that you keep track of what choices you’re eliminating. By crossing out a clearly incorrect choice, you permanently eliminate it from consideration. If you don’t cross it out, you’ll keep considering it. Crossing out incorrect choices can make it much easier to find the credited response, because there will be fewer places where it can hide. But how can you cross anything out on a computer screen?

By using your scratch paper! On the GRE, the answer choices have empty bubbles next to them, but in this book, we’ll refer to them as (A), (B), (C), (D), and (E). Each time you see a question, get in the habit of immediately writing down A, B, C, D, E on your scratch paper.

Mark up at least a couple of pages (front and back) like this before the test officially starts. This will give you a bunch of distinct work areas per page, which will be especially helpful for the Math section. You don’t want to get confused when your work from one question runs into your work from a previous question.

You then can physically cross off choices that you’re eliminating. Do it every time you do a GRE question, whether in this book or elsewhere. Get used to writing on scratch paper instead of near the question, because you won’t be able to write near the question on test day.

Don’t Do Anything in Your Head

Besides eliminating incorrect answers, there are many other ways to use scratch paper to solve questions; you’re going to learn them all. Just remember: Even if you’re tempted to try to solve questions in your head, even if you think that writing things down on your scratch paper is a waste of time, you’re wrong. Trust us. Always write everything down.

Read and Copy Carefully

You can do all the calculations right and still get a question wrong. How? What if you solve for x but the question was “What is the value of x + 3?” Ugh. Always reread the question. Take your time and don’t be careless. The question will stay on the screen; it’s not going anywhere.

Or, how about this? The radius of the circle is 6, but when you copied the picture onto your scratch paper, you accidentally made it 5. Ugh! Many of the mistakes you make at first might stem from copying information down incorrectly. Learn from your mistakes! You need to be extra careful when copying down information.

Accuracy Versus Speed

You don’t get points for speed; the only thing that matters is accuracy. Take some time to work through each problem carefully (as long as you leave some time at the end of the section to fill out the rest of it). If you’re making careless errors, you won’t even realize you’re getting questions wrong. Get into the habit of double-checking all of your answers before you choose them. However, don’t get too bogged down on a question. When you get stuck, mark the question, walk away, and return after you’ve answered a few other questions.

At the Testing Center

You’ll be asked for two forms of identification; one must be a photo ID. Then, an employee will take a digital photograph of you before taking you to the computer station where you will take the test. You get a desk, a computer, a keyboard, a mouse, about six pieces of scratch paper, and two pencils. Before the test begins, make sure your desk is sturdy and you have enough light, and don’t be afraid to speak up if you want to move.

If there are other people in the room, they might not be taking the GRE CAT. They could be taking a nursing test, or a licensing exam for architects. And they will not necessarily have started their exams at the same time. The testing center employee will get you set up at your computer, but from then on, the computer itself will act as your proctor. It’ll tell you how much time you have left in a section, when time is up, and when to move on to the next section.

The test center employees will be available because they will be monitoring the testing room for security purposes with closed-circuit television. But don’t worry, you won’t even notice. If you have a question, or need to request more scratch paper during the test, try to do so between the timed sections.

Let It Go

When you begin a new section, focus on that section and put the last one behind you. Don’t think about that pesky antonym 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. Remember, the test adapts so that it is hard for everyone.

This Is the End

When you’re done with the test, the computer will ask you twice if you want this test to count. If you say “no,” the computer will not record your score, no schools will ever see it, and neither will you. You can’t look at your score and then decide whether you want to keep it or not. And you can’t change your mind later. If you say you want the test to count, the computer will give you your Verbal and Math scores right there on the screen. A few weeks later, you’ll receive your verified score in the mail. You can’t change your mind and cancel it.


Dress in layers so that you’ll be comfortable regardless of whether the room is cool or warm.

Be sure to have breakfast, or lunch, depending on the time your test is scheduled (but don’t eat anything, you know, “weird”). And go easy on the liquids and caffeine.

Do a few GRE practice problems to warm up your brain. Don’t try to tackle difficult new questions, but review a few questions that you’ve done before to help you review the problem-solving strategies for each section of the GRE. This will also help you put your “game-face” on and get you into test mode.

Make sure to bring two forms of identification (one with a recent photograph) to the test center. Acceptable forms of identification include driver’s licenses, photo-bearing employee ID cards, and valid passports.

If you registered by mail, you must also bring the authorization voucher sent to you by ETS.

The Week of the Test

A 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? If you’re taking the new test between August and October 2011, you won’t see your score until November 15, 2011.