GRE Quant is very unique. You won’t see its exact mix of questions and skills on another exam or in any university class. Because it’s so unique, this very important part of the GRE test is often misunderstood. Today, we’re going to look at 4 frequent misconceptions about the GRE.
I’ve been surprised at just how many of my students assume this at the beginning of their GRE studies. Once you get deeper into preparing for GRE Quant, it becomes clear that the GRE calculator is not a golden ticket to a satisfactory score. GRE math problems can be pretty complicated, even with a calculator. And your calculator won’t do you much good if you don’t know the concepts and steps behind getting the right answer.
What may be less obvious is that calculator use can actually hurt your GRE score. This can be true even when you do understand the relevant concepts and steps. This seems counter-intuitive on its face. Why would calculator use make you less likely to get the right answer?
Here, it’s important to remember that GRE math problems can be complex. Sometimes it takes several steps to get to the answer. At other times, it may only take a step or two. But either way, taking the proper steps requires real attention to the detail.
GRE Math operations require thought, and you aren’t thinking quite as much if you let your calculator do your thinking for you. It’s easy to absent-mindedly key in a mistake on your calculator. It’s much harder to actually think of a mistake and write it down on scrap paper. In short, calculator use can actually open you up to making more mistakes, by reducing your attention and focus.
Unnecessary calculator use can also cause you to complete a GRE math problem more slowly. This too may sound like it’s contrary to common sense. But the fact is that you can usually find a mental shortcut or two in any GRE Quant problem. These shortcuts can eliminate many steps in the problem.
But you’re less likely to notice these shortcuts if you’re just focusing on how to best use your calculator. Moreover, doing all of the steps on a calculator can take longer than skipping most of the steps via shortcuts and mental math. This brings me to the next big misconception about GRE Quant…
GRE Math is very advanced, graduate school level math. So most of the questions must involve sophisticated, multi-step problems, right? Well… yes and no. You certainly can solve a lot of GRE math problems in a drawn-out, painstaking step-by-step process, “showing all of your work.”
But the idea that you need to “show all your work” belongs in a high school or undergraduate math class. Showing your work is not important in the GRE. And in fact, the GRE punishes you for doing every step in a math problem. If you try to take the time-consuming “show all your work” approach, you are bound to run out of time in GRE Quants.
Instead, the GRE rewards ingenuity and efficiency. The test is designed to encourage you to find shortcuts and creative ways to skip steps, do less work, and get to the right answer more quickly. There are a number of methods to do this.
Estimation is perhaps the biggest way to skip doing steps on a GRE Quant problem. Remember, GRE Quant is multiple choice, so the solution to the math problem is already in front of you. You don’t have to calculate the answer down to the exact number. Just work on the problem until you can estimate the answer. Then select the choice that’s closest to your estimate.
Let me give an example. Suppose answering GRE Quant question requires you to multiply the square root of 27.823. Figuring out that square root, even to the nearest 1/10th, would be pretty complicated. This would probably involve multiple steps and perhaps a lot of “guess and check” trial and error with non-whole numbers.
However, you may notice that 27.823 is between 25 and 36. This allows you to make an estimate. The square root of 25 is 5, and the square root of 36 is 6. So the answer to the question will be a non-whole number between 5 and 6. If only one answer choice is between 5 and 6, you’ve gotten to the answer just by eyeballing 27.823, noticing its place on the number line, and making a rough estimate.
And what if more than one answer choice is between 5 and 6? Even then, the power of estimation can still provide a shortcut to the answer. 27.823 is a lot closer to 25 than it is to 36. Therefore, the answer choice that’s closest to 5 and farthest from 6 will be the right one. You can spot that choice without any additional steps in your calculations.
The ability to “notice” the properties of a number and then make estimates and other shortcuts is called “number sense.” And with this number sense, many problems in GRE Quant can be reduced from multiple steps to just a step or two.
This misconception ties into a much bigger myth: the myth that there are two kinds of learners: “math people” who have a natural affinity for math, and “non-math people” who simply don’t have a head for math and can’t advance in it.
In truth, math is a skill anyone can learn. Unlike drawing, composing music, or being an amazing basketball player, math is not an inborn skill that certain people just don’t have.
Not only that, but passing GRE Quant doesn’t actually require you to become a math genius. GRE Quant is more focused on critical thinking, a rudimentary development of “number sense,” and creative problem-solving. With a thorough GRE study guide and proper test prep, you can learn these skills regardless of your math ability.
OK, so this misconception is half-true. You might need a top GRE Quant score if you are applying to a grad program where the coursework is very math intensive. But even then, you may be able to get into a mid-tier school with a mediocre GRE Quant score, provided the rest of your application packet is strong.
In addition, Quant scores may not matter all that much at all to grad programs that aren’t very math-oriented: MFAs in Creative Writing, grad degrees in the humanities, and even some business programs can be surprisingly tolerant of average and slightly below-average GRE Quant scores.
For more information on whether or not you’ll need a top GRE Quant score, I have a special resource for you. This table tells you what a good GRE score is, by major.