offers hundreds of GRE video lessons and practice questions. Go there now.
Sign up or log in to Magoosh GRE Prep.

How to Approach Complicated Math Problems

Every GRE test is going to have a few math questions that are very difficult. Upon seeing them, you may become completely flustered and believe that there is no way you are able to solve such a question. Oftentimes this is not the case. Rather, you fall into any number of traps that prevent you from solving a problem that is well within your ability.

Below are five important points to keep in mind when you are dealing with a difficult GRE math problem.


Do not get flustered

It is very easy to become flustered on difficult math problems, especially word problems. One reason our normal breathing quickly changes to short, agitated breaths is we start reading and re-reading the same question over again. Hope that by the fourth read we will finally get it. At this point, re-reading is clearly an example of diminishing—and frustrating—returns. What to do?…


Let your brain decipher the question

It often may take about 30-seconds—and a couple (and only a couple) of calm rereads of the question—to decipher a complicated math question. After all, it is complicated. Deciphering the question means understanding what the question is asking. Next, find the solution path. To do so, think—or even write down—the necessary steps to get to the solution.

A few pieces of good news: you can take longer on complicated questions. After all, there aren’t too many of them. Just make sure to solve the easy and medium questions quickly and accurately. Secondly, you can always come back to a question. Sometimes, it is easier to decode the second time around.


Read the question carefully

Sometimes a problem seems much more complicated than it actually is. The reason is we are misreading a word, or injecting or own word into the question. We spend several minutes laboring through difficult equations only to realize that none of the answer choices matches up with our answer. To avoid this make you sure you don’t rush through the question. Instead, read carefully, and know what the question is asking before attempting the question.


Know when to back off

The great thing about the New GRE, vs. the old format, is that you can come back to questions. Sadly, many students do not take advantage of this and are unable to pull themselves from a question once they’ve bitten their teeth into it. But knowing when to unclench that jaw is very important. If a minute has gone by and you are unable to make sense of the question, move on! That question is worth the same number of points, so there is no point in wasting precious minutes on it.


Return with a fresh mind

The best thing about being able to come back to questions is your brain is able to make sense of the question a lot more easily the second time around. What seemed cryptic and inscrutable now seems much clearer.


About the Author

Chris Lele has been helping students excel on the GRE, GMAT, and SAT for the last 10 years. He is the Lead Content Developer and Tutor for Magoosh. His favorite food is wasabi-flavored almonds. Follow him on Google+!

4 Responses to How to Approach Complicated Math Problems

  1. Surya January 2, 2013 at 8:30 am #


    I am facing difficulty in solving problems quick. I am sure that I can crack all the problems, but the problem is that it takes time for me to set my mind in a right track. Could you please give me some valuable inputs where I can improve my pace of solving the problems.

    I want to solve as many problems as I could in order to increase the speed so, it would be great full if you could suggest me some material where I can find tones of problems which are related to GRE pattern.

    Thank you very much,


    • Chris Lele
      Chris January 2, 2013 at 3:32 pm #

      Hi Surya,

      I think practice is your best bet. As you pointed out, you need to select the right pool of challenging questions. I’d say Nova’s, Barron’s, Manhattan GRE (the six practice tests), and Magoosh. By going through the difficult problems in these books/programs, your brain will become more adept at cracking the difficult problems quickly.

      Hope that helps :).

  2. Surya December 29, 2012 at 7:11 am #

    Hi Geeks,

    Could you please tell me to what extent (difficulty) will they ask in probability, permutation and combinations?

    Your reply is most appreciated.

    Thank you,

    • Chris Lele
      Chris January 2, 2013 at 3:22 pm #

      Hi Surya,

      In total–that means across the two sections–you’ll probably see one permutation/combinations and one probability. You might see a total of three but I’m guessing the probability of that wouldn’t be too high.

      Hope that helps :).

Magoosh blog comment policy: To create the best experience for our readers, we will approve and respond to comments that are relevant to the article, general enough to be helpful to other students, concise, and well-written! :) If your comment was not approved, it likely did not adhere to these guidelines. If you are a Premium Magoosh student and would like more personalized service, you can use the Help tab on the Magoosh dashboard. Thanks!

Leave a Reply