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

Part II. Ten Steps to Scoring Higher on the GRE

Step 1. Use Scratch Paper for Verbal Questions

Most people answer verbal questions in their heads. Heck, most people will answer half the math questions in their heads as well, which is suicide if you ask us! When you answer a verbal question in your head, you are really doing two things at once. The first is evaluating each answer choice, one by one, and the second is keeping track of which answer choices are in or out. A recent study of multitasking (trying to do multiple things at the same time) showed that it can’t be done well. The brain is simply not equipped to do too many things correctly at once. What most people call multitasking is really schizophrenically jumping back and forth between multiple tasks. The study also showed that people who attempt to multitask inevitably end up doing both tasks worse. Really. Those super efficient multi-taskers we always hear about are a myth. People who try to multitask make more mistakes because they are constantly distracting their brains from the task at hand. Doing verbal questions in your head is multitasking. It leads to careless and avoidable mistakes, mistakes that could be catastrophic to your score.

The solution is to engage your hand. This means using scratch paper. Yes, scratch paper is every bit as important on the verbal side of the test as it is on the math side of the test. If your hand is not moving, you are stuck thinking. Thinking does not get you any closer to the answer. You should be doing, not thinking, while taking the GRE.

Here is what verbal scratch paper looks like on the GRE:

Scratch paper allows you to park your thinking on the page. On the verbal side of the test, there will always be words or answers you don’t know. Looking for the right answer, therefore, will work only part of the time. Fortunately the majority of the verbal section is multiple-choice. They’ve actually given you the answers, and one of those answers is correct. If you can’t identify the right answer, you can always identify some wrong ones. You’re probably doing this already; you’re just not capturing the results on the page.

Once you start parking that thinking on the page, however, a few good things happen. The first is that you avoid redundant work. Once you eliminate an answer choice, it’s gone. You need never look at it again. Next, you save time because you aren’t going back over ground you’ve already covered. And the last benefit is that you save yourself lots of mental effort. It’s hard keeping track of all of those decisions in your head. During a four-hour test, your brain is going to get tired. Saving mental effort makes a difference.

Use these symbols on your scratch paper to capture your progress:

This means you know the answer choice, and it looks right. It doesn’t mean that you are done. You must always check every answer choice, but it does mean that you’ve got one that looks good. Give it a check and move on to the next one.

In some ways, this one is the most important because you’re going to use it all the time. On your first pass through the answer choices, it’s important to keep moving. Don’t get hung up on a single answer choice. When you’re not sure about an answer choice, the first thing that everyone does is stop and think. On the GRE we want to be doing, not thinking. You should be looking for wrong answers not right ones. Rather than spending time thinking about a single answer choice, give it the “maybe” and move on. It is entirely possible that the other four answer choices are wrong, or that you come across one that is clearly right. In either case, time spent agonizing over an answer choice about which you’re not sure is time wasted. Keep your hand moving.


We love this one. When you know something is wrong, get rid of it. You never want to spend time on that answer choice ever again. Even if you have to guess, you want to guess from as few answer choices as possible. There are about four times the number of wrong answers on the GRE as there are right ones. The wrong ones are much, much easier to find. Identify them and eliminate them. Keep track with your hand.


If you don’t know a word, you can’t eliminate it. Be honest with yourself. If you don’t like the word, you don’t have to pick it, but you can’t eliminate it. But you should not waste a lot of time on it. Give it a question mark and move on to the next answer choice.

In all cases, the place to invest your time is in the question stem and in coming up with your own answer choice. The answer choices are designed to tempt and to mislead you. By the time you get to the answer choices, your first pass through should be quick—10 or 15 seconds, tops. Either you know the word or answer choice and it works, you know it and it doesn’t work, or you don’t know it. Anything else gets the “maybe.” Making this evaluation takes very little time.

With your evaluations parked on the page, your scratch paper can often answer the question for you. Consider the these five common scenarios:

1.    ABC If you have an answer choice and it works, go with it. Look at this scratch paper. Your decision is made.

2.    ABC, ?, D What more do you need to know? You have four wrong answers and one you don’t know. If the other four are wrong, they’re wrong. You have no choice. There is only one possible answer choice that it could be.

3.    ACE If you need to spend more time on an answer choice, you always can, but don’t do it until you have to. In this case, you’re down to two. Do what you can to inform your guess, but don’t go crazy. Pick one and move on or skip and come back.

4.    ABCDE You’ve eliminated all five. Something’s gone wrong. Most likely, you’ve misread something in the question or something in the answer choices. You’ll never see your mistake unless you distract your brain. Mark the question, walk away, and come back after you’ve done a few others.

5.    A, ?, C, ?, E You’re down to two. You don’t know the words. You’ve eliminated all that you can. Spend no more time. Pick an answer and move on.

Here are a few examples:

Which of the following is not the capital of a county in Europe?






Engage the hand and work out the problem on your scratch paper. Each question should take less than 25 seconds.

Now try this one:

Which of the following was not one of the original Seven Wonders of the Ancient World?

          The Colossus of Rhodes

          The Great Pyramid of Giza

          The Great Wall of China

          The Hanging Gardens of Babylon

          The Lighthouse at Alexandria

Verbal scratch paper is a habit. Start practicing it now and force yourself to use it. The more you use it, the more it will ease your decision making. Eventually, you won’t be able to do it any other way. This is the goal. It’s hard work at first, but good techniques should become instinctual, physical, and automatic.