5 Steps to Prep for the GRE Math Section


1. Mentally Prepare for GRE Battle

I recently purchased a shirt that reads “One Does Not Simply Walk into Mordor.” As a GRE instructor, I related to this T-shirt on a deep level. One does not simply walk into the GRE.

The first step to preparing for the GRE math section is to mentally get ready for what it is going take in order to reach your target score.

Students usually start their GRE math prep with excitement. However, as time progresses and the level of work is more than they expected, some students lose sight of their end goal and give up. This is usually because they did not have the correct expectations to begin with.

The GRE is screening you for your ability to handle a graduate/PhD program. The test itself is long and preparing for it isn’t easy. Both require dedication and endurance: necessary qualities in order to earn your future degree.

These are two fundamental concepts I need you to joyfully embrace if you want to prepare for the GRE math section:

  1. When it comes to studying, I am going to dedicate a great deal of time and energy
  2. I may need to take the GRE more than once in order to achieve my target quantitative score

2. Have a Target Score

If you have not figured out the GRE math score you will need in order to qualify for your program, you will want to do so. Not only is it important to have a goal, but you need to consider the fact your GRE math score is but one of several elements making up your application. If your GPA is on the lower side of what the program is looking for, perhaps you want your GRE score to exceed their minimum requirement.

3. Acquire the Appropriate Study Materials

Not all GRE test-prep books are created equal. There are three primary resources that you should be using to prepare for the GRE math section:

  1. Manhattan Prep GRE 5 lb. Book of Practice Problems
  2. Official ETS GRE Quantitative Reasoning
  3. Online PowerPrep GRE Practice Tests
GRE Math Section

Manhattan Prep GRE 5 lb. Book of Practice Problems: In order to succeed on GRE quantitative reasoning, you need to know a little about a lot. Preparing will require quantity (learning all the math) and quality. This book weighs 5 lbs. for a reason: it covers quantity. You will be able to learn, and practice, the math concepts that are going to appear on the test.

Official ETS GRE Quantitative Reasoning: This book covers “quality.” The math problems on the GRE are intricate. The words that make up the question, every answer choice, and where the question appears on the test all have a very specific purpose. No other book outside of this one will expose you to exactly what you will see on test day.

Online PowerPrep Practice Tests: These are full-length online GRE practice exams that can be purchased through your ETS account. Once you create an account, on the left side of your home page you will see a header that reads “Test Preparation.” Under that header will be the option to click “Shop for Test Preparation.” Once you click the link, you will be taken to an area where you can purchase the PowerPrep exams and the official ETS books (although the books are on Amazon as well). There are four PowerPrep exams. The first two (POWERPREP Online-Test 1/POWERPREP Online-Test 2) are free. The last two (POWERPREP PLUS Online-Test 1/POWERPREP Plus Online-Test 2) cost $40.00.

4. Create a Study Plan and Stick to it

If you are fresh out of college and took quite a few math classes, you might not have to spend much time going through the math portion of Manhattan’s 5 lb. book. However, if you haven’t done math in years, you will need to start by learning the concepts and then mastering the ability to take what you learned and get the questions right.

Regardless of your mathematics background, in order to prepare for the GRE math section, you must create a study plan and refuse to stray from it. Every moment you choose to stick to your plan is a moment you are choosing to invest in your future.

Frequently asked GRE Study Plan Questions

When should I start studying for the GRE math section?

A good rule of thumb is to spend three months studying before taking the exam. Leave yourself enough time before the application deadline to take the exam again if need be. You have to wait 21 days to take the exam again, so plan accordingly.

Also, odds are you will need to complete a statement of purpose, gather references, and refine a resume. Some students prefer to tackle these other requirements before or after their GRE prep rather than simultaneously.

How many hours a week should I study?

It is essential you schedule the time to study, take practice PowerPreps, and review completed PowerPreps in a day planner or online calendar if you want to successfully prepare for the GRE math section. Since the exam will require unbreakable focus for several hours, it is better to study for longer periods of time (2-3 hours with a 5-minute break every hour) four days a week than for 1 hour six or seven days a week. Do not study for any length of time under 1 hour. Schedule the times in your calendar that you will be completing specific chapters from your books.

When should I take the ETS PowerPrep exams?

If you are giving yourself 3 months to study, you will want to take one PowerPrep at the end of each month. I have my students take their 3rd PowerPrep about a week before their actual exam and save the 4th PowerPrep just in case they take the exam a second time.

5. Use Your Scheduled Study Time Wisely

GRE math section

The most common mistake students make is to miss a question and then immediately go read the explanation. Just because you can understand an explanation does not mean you will be able to get similar questions correct in the future. You need to discover the appropriate way to navigate the question on your own if you want it to stick.

The following strategy is what I call “reflections.”

For every question you miss or took too long on, you will want to spend 3 to 4 minutes reflecting on why in a notebook/journal. Here’s the process I recommend:

Step 1) Mark that you missed the question but do not take note of the correct answer

Step 2) Attempt the question a second time

Step 3) If you get the question correct, go straight to step 5. If you do not, go back to the material at the beginning of the chapter. You probably need to have a better understanding of the concepts. Utilize outside resources such as Khan Academy for math topics you are struggling with.

Step 4) Attempt the problem a second or third time and check your answer. If you still did not get the answer correct, either take the question to your tutor, if you have one, or read the explanation.

Step 5) Reflect in your journal by categorizing the type of problem (such as quantitative comparison, data analysis, etc.) and the math concept behind the problem (such as triangles).

Then, answer the following questions:

What part of the question did I understand?

What went wrong?

Ex: this specific phrase in the question left me confused, I tried to solve when I shouldn’t have, I forgot the formula required, calculation error…

What approach did I take and why? Was there a part of the question/answers that tempted me to take that approach?

What is the fastest way to correctly answer this question?

How is this question similar/different than other questions I have been answering correctly?

All of the practice questions you missed and completed your reflections on, you will want to go back and re-worked 1 to 2 weeks later.

In the words of Gandalf, “All we have to decide is what to do with the time given to us.” So, use your time wisely when preparing for the GRE math section!