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GRE Data Interpretation Strategies

Helpful Tips for the GRE Data Interpretation Section

If I had to count the number of questions/concerns regarding combinations or permutations, I’d have to use some pretty mighty factorials to do so. On the other hand, if I had to count the number of times students have expressed the same misgivings regarding Data Interpretation, I’d simply use my hand.

What’s truly surprising is there may be one combination/permutation question or probability question on the test. That’s right—for all those hours students slave away trying to tease out the nuances of these question types, not a single one of these concepts could be covered test day.

What is 100% sure, however, is that you will see a Data Interpretation question. Indeed, over the two math sections you can see as many as eight questions. So make sure you spend a lot of time practicing this question. Below are some helpful tips to get you started.

Strategy #1: Survey the landscape

All of sudden, you are tossed into an unruly world of facts and figures, bars and charts, and pies and lines. The first thing to do—before throwing up your hands in defeat—is to get your bearings. If you see bar graphs, read what is to the side of the bar graphs (the y-axis). Then read the information below the bars.  Now you should know what each bar stands for and what it means for one bar to be higher than the other.


Strategy #2:  Do not try to understand everything

At the same time, do not scrutinize the graph. You want to get a sense of the big picture. Once you’ve done so move on to the question. Answering the question will allow you to focus on the relevant information in the passage. Knowing the big picture will allow you to correctly interpret this information.


Strategy #3: Approximate whenever you can

If you have waded through all the information, determining that you have to find the total dollar amount of exports for Company B, you may be stymied yet. Often ETS gives us unpleasant numbers, like 149,000 and 41%. In fact, we can say the first figure is the dollar amount in thousands of the exports of Companies A – E, and that 39% is the percent of that share attributed to Company B.

Do not whip out the calculator to perform the tedious calculation. Instead, round up 149,000 to 150,000 and round 41% down to 40%. Quick math should give you 60,000. Then find an answer close to 60,000. If in the off chance that there are happen to be two answers very close to 60,000, then use the calculator. However, there will most likely be only one answer close to 60,000.


Strategy #4: Use your eyeballs

Sometimes, a graph may not give you an exact dollar amount. Instead, you may only have a bar or a line. Unlike Quantitative Comparison, everything you see in Data Interpretation is drawn according to scale. So if they are asking you for the difference between two bars or points on lines, then use your eyeball. It will save you a lot of time.


Strategy #5: Do not confuse percent with actual total

Almost every Data Interpretation Set will try to catch you mixing up percent with the actual total. To illustrate: Let’s say that Company X has increased by 40% from 1998 to 2000. Company Y has decreased by 30%. Without knowing the total amount of either company, we cannot say that Company X has more than Company Y.



Don’t just read the tips above—apply them. Hundreds of Data Interpretation questions abound, from those found in Magoosh to those created by ETS.


By the way, students who use Magoosh GRE improve their scores by an average of 8 points on the new scale (150 points on the old scale.) Click here to learn more.

9 Responses to GRE Data Interpretation Strategies

  1. Vidwesh August 3, 2015 at 3:11 pm #

    Yes. I completely agree with #3 and #4. They are needed in order to make estimations easier and in a faster phase. Thanks Chris.

  2. Shivam July 27, 2012 at 11:12 am #

    If some one is weak at handling DI questions, then when should such questions be attempted in the test?
    – Like with the natural sequence of test
    – At the end of all other questions
    – At the beginning of other questions

    • Shivam July 27, 2012 at 11:15 am #

      And is it advisable to use calculators for DI questions in GRE?

      • Chris Lele
        Chris July 30, 2012 at 12:07 pm #

        When relevant – meaning approximation doesn’t quite work – yes, use a calculator :).

    • Chris Lele
      Chris July 30, 2012 at 12:08 pm #

      If you struggle with DI, definitely leave them until the very end of the section. Remember – each question is worth the same :).

  3. Aman April 26, 2012 at 1:43 am #

    Hey Chris,
    There is a doubt in data interpretation actually its a query….

    I have the question but am unable to attach the picture of the question(as the blog constrain) and without the pictograph it won’t be easy to understand
    However if you can find out the question is Q20 of kaplan sectional quant exam -Section 9 the last answer is quite deceptive ,hard to find would it be 800 million or not.
    I think the graph is deceptive ….Whats your say?

    • Chris Lele
      Chris April 26, 2012 at 2:15 pm #


      I don’t think I have that version of Kaplan. Which Kaplan book are you talking about?

  4. Bhavin Parikh
    Bhavin March 25, 2012 at 11:46 pm #

    Chris – I love tip #3! I definitely find myself using a calculator for simple calculations just because I have access to it. Even though I know I’d likely get to an answer faster through approximation. I also had a teacher who recommended that we always approximate even if we were going to use the calculator. This way, in case we made a typo on the calculator, we could check the calculator’s answer against our estimated answer to make sure our answers were in the same neighborhood.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris March 26, 2012 at 11:49 am #

      Yes, typos are always a possibility when using calculators! And I know there have been students taking the Revised GRE and who have used the calculator on a simple problem. And it is also highly likely that one of those students, meaning to multiply 7 x 2, ended up multiplying 8 x 2. That student also probably let the calculator typo override their own knowledge that 7 x 2 = 14.

      Perhaps, a quick takeaway: if the result of a calculation is less than three digits do not use a calculator. And if the number is much larger a quick approximation can save students from the inevitable typos that come from punching a bunch of numbers into a calculator.

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