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Coming Back to Math after Years Away

Suppose you have been away from math for a while, perhaps since Algebra Two and the SAT in high school.  After these necessarily evils, you bid it a hasty farewell and gave it the bum’s rush from your entire life.  Now, several years later, you have completed a Baccalaureate degree in something, and wish to go on to advanced degree — all highly commendable — but alas! graduate schools require the GRE, and the GRE involves math.  How does one get back into math after years away?


Math anxiety

Some folks who have not dealt with math for a wrestle with “math anxiety”, and may even be heard to utter such things as “I’ve never been good at math.”  It actually says something quite profound about the American math educational system that such a substantial proportion of intelligent and highly educated people claim to be “bad at math.”

Study after study has shown that “math anxiety” involves self-fulfilling prophecies galore: folks who don’t like math avoid it, don’t practice it, and thus get rusty at it and are more likely to make mistakes because they are rusty — which reinforces the anxiety.  In most cultures in which “math anxiety” is not a huge issue, proficiency at math is regarded as the result of simple hard work and practice, not of some kind of genetic windfall that a nerdy few have and most people don’t.

All of this is to say: dive in.  You’re an intelligent and well-educated person: you can do this!  Do math every day between now and your GRE.  Math is not a spectator sport: the only way you learn is by doing it.  Yes, you will make mistakes in the beginning.  That’s fine. That’s exactly what is supposed to happen in the  math-learning process.  Just learn from your mistakes and keep working.


Practice, practice, practice

Before you even begin your formal GRE practice, start warming up with mental math.  You should be able, in your head, to add and subtract random two digit numbers, and multiply all single digit numbers.   Make sure you know your “times table” inside out, and drill it until you know it.   Start reviewing arithmetic with fractions and decimals, with percents and ratios.  If you are a Magoosh member, you will find our introductory math video lessons helpful.  This McGraw-Hill book is also a very gentle refresher.

One of the biggest traps on the GRE Quantitative Section is calculator overdependence.  Math-phobes sometimes get lazy and think: I don’t really need to know what 5 times 7 is, because I’ll always have a calculator on the GRE.  That is a STUPENDOUSLY BAD APPROACH!  One GRE Quant question after another is written specifically to punish all those people who instinctually reach for the calculator all the time.   The more you can rely on your own mental math, and not touch the calculator, the more you will avoid these traps, and the more successful you will be.   There is no substitute for strong mental math skills. Ideally, you should use the calculator no more than two or three times at most in an entire GRE Quant section.

Get comfortable with estimation.  For example, suppose however the question is framed, it involves multiplying 298 times 5.2.  A benighted approach would use the calculator to calculate that exact answer.  A considerably more sophisticated approach would recognize immediately —- 298 is almost 300, and 5.2 is very close to 5, so (298)*(5.2) must be very close to 300*5, and your mental math has to be good enough that you can do that multiplication in your head: 300*5 = 1,500.  Quite often, when ugly numbers are given in the question, answer choices are spaced apart enough that estimation easily will isolate a single answer.

Learn the divisibility tricks.  Learn the doubling & halving shortcut.  Part of success on GRE math is developing something called “number sense”, which comes only from “playing” with numbers (see Chris’s description of the “99 game” in this post.)  The more you can develop a sense of “play” in games such as these, the more it will build your confidence in math.


Math and your brain

I would also recommend getting curious about your own brain and how it interacts with mathematical ideas.  This post talks a little about left-brain vs. right-brain approaches to math.  Many of the folks who really struggle with math are right-brain, big-picture types, perhaps with aptitude for the arts, and typically not good with details, organization, and precision.  These people typically get the big ideas very quickly, but then can’t apply them in the rough and tumble of individual problems.

If this is you, I have some hard left-brain medicine for you.  Unrelated to anything specifically mathematical, you need to practice (a) detail management; (b) organization; and (c) precision, in any areas in which it is possible.   Organize that messy drawer of your dresser, or your kitchen cabinet, or your medicine cabinet, in the most hyper-rational anal-retentive way possible. Pay attention to subtle precise differences in colors, in fonts, in leaf shapes, in window designs, in bird calls, etc. etc.  Volunteer to plan and organize things for people, forcing yourself to manage all the relevant details.   In all the environments in which you are the most familiar (your house, your place of work, store where you frequently shop, etc.), practice noticing a new detail, something you have never seen before, each and every time you are there.  In all of these, you are trying to exercise your left-brain capacities: just a little strength more on that side of your brain will have huge payoffs in your ability to handle math problems.



You are an intelligent person.  Therefore, you are eminently capable of learning enough math to perform well on the GRE Quant section.   Don’t let your own habitual fears psyche you out.  Practice feeling confidence in math, and practice math questions with a sense of curiosity and adventure.  Believe in your ability to develop the necessarily skills and perspectives, and don’t let yourself down!


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.

13 Responses to Coming Back to Math after Years Away

  1. Lauren June 8, 2015 at 5:49 pm #

    Hi Mike,

    I’m working my way through the 90 day study plan (for beginners), which coincidentally starts off with math! In some ways, I am an artistic, creative type, but I’m also super organized (I have to do lists and calendars that block out my studying time, time I have to be at work, time I have to write, time I have to exercise, etc.) but like you say, I get the idea behind a math concept during the lessons, but when it comes to the wording and breaking down of the problem or the steps I need to go through to get to an answer, I’m usually at a loss. I’ve read what you’ve (and Chris) have to say about developing a numbers sense, but it seems overwhelming on top of all the math review I need–not to mention verbal!

  2. Aishwarya March 29, 2014 at 2:57 am #

    Hello Mike/ Rachel/ Chris
    I am from India, UG Student – Arts. I have been following your blogs for a month or so. This year, I am taking GRE General Test. I have enrolled myself in a GRE Prep class, because I haven’t studied Mathematics for almost 3 years now & I really never liked it at all.
    Verbal is not a issue for me but I am really scared of Math. I don’t know where it started but I think I have developed a Mathematical anxiety. What can I do to feel confident doing Math, after all these years?

    For the Basics I bought MGRE 8 set of Strategy Guides, as you guys suggested & it is really very easy for dummy like me. I am planning to take the GRE in late 2014, before my Diwali or Christmas vacation. I feel that I can devote myself for Math but after going through 10-11 examples, and if I got even one of them wrong, I just feel like giving up. 🙁

    I am not really a online or PC learner but I do watch your videos on YouTube. 🙂 You guys are doing an amazing job!

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike March 29, 2014 at 1:04 pm #

      Dear Aishwarya,
      I’m happy to respond. 🙂
      First of all, I will recommend adjusting your attitude. You are not allowed to call yourself a “dummy.” You are not allow to denigrate your own abilities. If you want to have success in anything, you have to see yourself as capable of success. The best way to fail anything is to convince yourself beforehand that you will fail, so you want to do the exact opposite.
      Second, you need to adjust your attitude toward mistakes. A math mistake is not an existential indictment of your abilities. A mistake is simply an opportunity to learn. See this post:
      Making mistakes is exactly how you are going to learn and improve. Don’t be afraid: instead, welcome the opportunity inherent in each mistake. The mark of an exceptional student is: never make the same mistake twice. That is an ideal for which to strive. One definition of a master of any field is: someone who has made every possible mistake in the field. See your mistakes as essential steps on your road to mastery.
      Read though this post repeatedly, and take all this advice to heart. Don’t touch a calculator. Do mental math practice every day — every day add, subtract, multiply, and divide in your head. Know your “times tables” inside out. Practice with fractions in your head.
      Follow every link in this article, and read those articles, and take all that advice. If you are going to generate success, you need to be ready to absorb and put into practice all the advice you hear.
      Also, read this GMAT post
      especially the “math game” I recommend in the article, and play that game every day. Part of becoming comfortable with math means — you need to learn to loosen up and play with it. If there’s no sense of play, you will never relax enough to allow yourself to succeed.
      It is well within your abilities to turn this around and generate success in math, but you need to stay focused and have the courage of lion. You need to get organized and develop precise attention to detail. You need to understand logical connections and detach emotionally from the process. You need to see patterns and develop trust for your intuition. Trust this process: you will grow considerably as a thinker if you remain dedicated to this.
      I hope you find all these recommendation helpful. Best of luck to you!
      Mike 🙂

      • Aishwarya March 29, 2014 at 10:43 pm #

        Thanks Mike! This really motivated me 🙂
        I just took a print out of this page and I will stick it in my study room so that I will never forget it!

        • Mike MᶜGarry
          Mike March 30, 2014 at 5:38 pm #

          Dear Aishwarya,
          You are more than welcome, my friend. Best of luck to you in the future!
          Mike 🙂

  3. varun August 9, 2013 at 8:22 am #

    Hey Mike ,

    As always an intriguing post and will definetly apply them . But the problem is i have my GRE coming up in around a month , is there a quick fix such that i can perform well in math ?

  4. shruti June 26, 2013 at 9:05 am #

    hi Mike,

    THANKS A LOT for this “for me” post..
    i felt like its for me..since i am studying for GRE after 10 years.
    thanks for boosting confidence.. hope to see more posts as like this …

    as u said i m practicing(without caclculator)
    but could u please tell me what’s the best source to practice chapterwise(as a prime member i am practicing from Magoosh they r really best but i need to do much more..)

    THANKS once again.

    • Mike MᶜGarry
      Mike June 26, 2013 at 1:24 pm #

      Dear Shruti,
      I’m glad you found this helpful. For additional math practice, we often recommend the McGraw-Hill book:
      Remember, chapter-wise practice is helpful at the beginning, but it’s very important to throw yourself into mixed practice as soon as possible.
      I hope this helps.
      Mike 🙂

      • shruti June 28, 2013 at 12:03 pm #

        as you said i will definately give more time for mixed practice.

        i need little more help..
        i am really getting confused with basic math book for practice..
        among Manhattan maths books and Mcgraw hill’s conquering maths..
        what’s your suggestion ?
        for my case.. where initially i need to be strong in basics with practice and then practice for more difficult problems..

        as they aren’t available in my local stores so i couldn’t actually see them

        i read book reviews on magoosh blog but still couldn’t decide so..could you please me help me for this ….


        • Mike MᶜGarry
          Mike June 28, 2013 at 12:33 pm #

          Dear Shurti,
          I will suggest: start with the McGraw-Hill book. If you work all the way through that and want more practice, then get the MGMAT books.
          Does this make sense?
          Mike 🙂

          • shruti June 28, 2013 at 8:07 pm #

            THANKS MIKE,

            I GOT MY ANSWER!! thanks a lot for your all help and showing me the right path.
            I am going to buy MC-hill now and looking at it very hopefully to me better in maths.

            Thanks again.

            • Mike MᶜGarry
              Mike June 29, 2013 at 3:17 pm #

              You are quite welcome. Best of luck to you.
              Mike 🙂

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