The math on the GRE can be one of the most challenging sections to prepare for. It requires time, consistent dedication, and patience. Whether you have a background in mathematics or if this is a subject that has always made you run for the hills, the Quantitative questions on the GRE take some getting used to.
In this article I will briefly review the structure and grading of the GRE Quantitative measure, provide an introduction to what I call the “two tiers” for preparing, and then discuss in detail how to actually implement the two tiers so that you truly learn how to improve your GRE Math score.
The GRE will have two Math sections that will each give you 35 minutes to answer 20 questions. You will want to average answering each question in 1.5 minutes in order to finish the section on time.
Although the questions within a section are not meant to get harder as you progress, the GRE is section adaptive. Your first math section will be composed of questions that are of medium difficulty. The difficulty level of your second math section will depend on how well you performed on the first one. It will be easier to obtain a higher score if you are able to get the harder second math section.
Also, there is no penalty for missing a question (so always guess if need be) and some questions are not worth more points than others (so never waste too much time on any given question). The two math sections will be combined to create a Quantitative Reasoning score ranging from 130-170.
On test day, there is a possibility that you can receive three Math sections opposed to two. If this is the case, one of the three is the Experimental section. This is what ETS uses to test the difficulty level of future GRE questions. The Experimental section will not be scored; however, you will not know which of the three sections it is. Therefore, treat all three Math sections as if they will be graded.
As mentioned, there are two tiers to conquering the math measure of the GRE.
The first tier is learning all of the content that appears on the exam. The questions will draw from arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and data analysis concepts. Although advanced math–such as calculus–is not tested, within each of the stated categories there is an abundant amount of math rules, formulas, etc. that you will need to be comfortable with. Essentially, you will need to know a little about a lot.
Knowing all of the math concepts that could appear on the GRE is not necessarily enough to walk away with a high Quantitative score. You will need to be strategic in how you navigate through the math measure, working efficiently in order to finish on time. After you are comfortable with “Tier 1” (content), you will want to work on “Tier 2.”
The second tier portion of your prep is when you should change your focus from practicing math problems that test your knowledge of the concepts, to working through official GRE written questions. You want to really get to know the unique wording used by ETS (since they write questions that can feel like puzzles), the common traps ETS scatters throughout the measure that cause many test takers to miss questions, and the different strategies that can be implemented in order to answer questions quickly.
Following these tiers in order can be very important. If you are someone who struggles with math and you are not confident with arithmetic, algebra, and geometry, trying to learn content while also trying to figure out ETS’ writing style can be overwhelming and make progress hard.
Preparing for the GRE Quantitative measure takes time. There are quite of bit of formulas and math rules you not only need to have memorized, but must feel confident knowing when and how to implement them. This is a process that will require repetition.
In general, a good rule of thumb is to spend three months preparing for the GRE. If you are someone who has always struggled with math, I would recommend you spend anywhere from four to six months studying (rarely do I ever say study longer than six months). The first month or two should be dedicated to working through algebra and geometry books, not GRE math books.
Once you have decided how many months you will spend preparing for the GRE, create a weekly study schedule. You always want to try and study for at least a solid hour. The GRE will require unbreakable focus for 3 hours and 45 minutes, minus the 10 minute break halfway through the exam. You need to build up the mental ability to stay focused for long periods of time and this is done through practice.
Let’s say you would like to study for eight hours a week. First, figure out the days and times you can fit in these eight hours, then schedule it off in your calendar. Treat this time as if you will be clocking into work. A hypothetical situation would be to spend Monday and Wednesday studying from 8-9:30 a.m. and again from 6-7:30 p.m. (a total of three hours each day) and then your remaining two hours from 9-11 a.m. on Saturday morning. I am being very specific because this is how specific your schedule should be.
Furthermore, do not sit down to study with no solid plan of the material you will be working on. On Sunday evening, decide on the chapters you would like to get through for the week.
The more math problems you can work through, the better. As I mentioned, the GRE will not test you on advanced math topics, but it will require you to have a very solid understanding of algebra and geometry. The math questions are not straightforward. Hence, students who settle for “kinda understanding” a concept or are a bit “wishy washy” will see little increase in their math scores.
ETS writes math questions that will truly test you on whether or not you know the “why” behind the math you are practicing. It is very common for people to prepare by simply memorizing formulas and rules without reflecting on why the formula is written the way it is, why the math rule applies to one situation but not another, and so on.
Whenever you are learning new material or reviewing practice problems you completed in a prep book, never settle for anything less than a full understanding of what you just learned or completed. If you missed a question, do not simply say “oh I know what I did wrong” and then move on.
If you miss a question, no matter how small your mistake, always rework the problem. Furthermore, verbalize (out loud) the math rules you are learning and force yourself to come up with an explanation for why it works and the different ways it can be implemented–as if you were teaching the rule to a class. For example, what are all the different types of problems where Pythagorean Theorem could be needed?
If you know you really need help with algebra and geometry fundamentals, I would not rely on GRE Quantitative Reasoning prep books to provide this. The books are likely to focus on helping you conquer the strategies. Therefore, I recommend simply looking on Amazon or going to Barnes & Noble to pick out a Geometry and Algebra book you like.
Now, when it comes to GRE Math prep books some will focus a little bit more on teaching you the math behind the problem (such as Kaplan’s GRE Math book). If you feel your math fundamentals are strong, I would go straight to working through the Manhattan Prep’s 5 lb Book of GRE Practice Problems and the ETS Official Guide to Quantitative Reasoning.
Check out this article for a more in-depth description of the best GRE prep books.
Many companies offer full-length GRE practice exams. However, the questions have been written by the company. These tests can be useful when you are at the beginning of your prep and trying to figure out how close or how far you are from your target score.
However, the only way to truly expose yourself to the types of questions you will see on test day is by taking the official full-length practice GRE exams released by ETS (the writers and administrators of the GRE).
These exams, known as POWERPREPS, can be purchased on your ETS account. The first two exams are free and the second two will each cost $40.00. If you know you will only be taking the GRE once, try to complete all four prior to test day. If there is a chance you are taking the GRE more than once, take three prior to test day and save one for later. Use these tests to track your progress–I recommend spacing each one out about three to four weeks.
Always complete the POWERPREP exams in the designated time. One of the trickiest aspects to the GRE Math sections is completing the 20 questions in 35 minutes. If you time yourself, you will be able to have a better sense of how quickly and efficiently you need to work. Also, never allow yourself to stop the clock in the middle of a section to take a break. This is not realistic of true testing conditions. If you need to use the restroom, hold it.
You should rework all of your missed questions from the POWERPREP exams within 48 hours of taking the test. Your brain will be tired after completing a POWERPREP, so try not to look at your missed questions the day you test. However, don’t let too much time pass or else you will forget how you originally approached the question, and this is important.
If you truly want to improve your GRE Math score, you will keep an error log. This will be a journal that you will use to re-work every math question you missed (or spent over three minutes on) in a practice set, or on a POWERPREP. Be sure to write out a detailed explanation of why you missed the question.
I understand this might seem too time consuming. However, the only way to start completing GRE math questions error free is by reflecting on the errors you tend to make. Here are some questions you will want to ask yourself when reflecting on a missed question:
There are six steps you can implement in order to improve your GRE Math score: focus on building your algebra and geometry fundamentals prior to working through ETS written questions, stick to a consistent weekly study schedule, take an active approach to practicing by verbalizing the “why” behind all of your math, purchase effective GRE prep books, take the POWERPREP exams on your ETS account, and be diligent about your error log.
One thing that I did not mention is enrolling in a GRE Math prep course. If you are having a hard time raising your GRE Math score on your own, you might simply need the guidance of an instructor. There are plenty of classes out there that focus solely on math. Here is a list of our top picks!