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How to Study GRE Math

So you’ve bought a few of the major test prep books, and you’re ready to rip into the quantitative part. You’ll read through each book, page by page, and by the end, GRE math mastery will be yours. If only!

Studying for GRE quant is actually much more complicated than the above. Indeed many become quickly stymied by such an approach, feeling that after hundreds of pages and tens of hours they’ve learned very little, and asking themselves … “But, how can I ever learn GRE math?!”

To avoid such a thing befalling you, keep in mind the following important points on how to study for the GRE quantitative section (and how not to!).

 

The GRE Math Formula Trap

How can formulas be bad, you may ask? Aren’t they the lifeblood of the GRE math? Actually, formulas are only so helpful. And they definitely aren’t the lifeblood of the quant section. That would be problem-solving skills.

Many students feel that all they have to do is use the formulas and they can solve a question. The reality is you must first decipher what the question is asking. Only at the very end, once you know how the different parts come together, can you “set up” the question.

All too often, many students let the formulas do the thinking. By that I mean they see a word problem, say a distance/rate question, and instead of deconstructing the problem, they instantly come up with d(distance) = r(rate) x t(time) and start plugging in parts of the question. In other words, they expect the question to fall neatly into the formula. To illustrate, take a look at the following question:

Two cyclists, Mike and Deborah, begin riding at 11:00 a.m. Mike rides at a constant rate of 40 kilometers per hour (kph), and Deborah rides at a constant rate of 30 kph. At noon Mike stops for lunch. At what time, will Deborah pass Mike, given that she continues at a constant rate?

Students are tempted to immediately rely on the d = rt formula. They think: Do I use the formula once for Mike and once for Deborah? Or just once? But which person do I use it for?

This an unfortunate quandary; the solution to the question relies on figuring out how many miles Mike has gone in one hour and how many miles behind him Deborah is (there is no formula for this conceptual step). Only at that point, does one use the d = rt formula. The answer, by the way, is 12:20 minutes.

This is but one example from one concept. But if you find yourself stuck in a problem with only a formula or two in hand, remember that the essence of problem solving is just that: solving the problem using logic, so you can use the formula when appropriate.

 

How to study for GRE math? Use training wheels!

Many students learn some basic concepts/formulae and feel that they have the hang of it. As soon as they are thrown into a random fray of questions, they become discombobulated, uncertain of exactly what problem type they are dealing with.

Basic problems, such as those you find in the Manhattan GRE math books, are an excellent way to begin studying. You get to build off the basic concepts in a chapter and solve problems of easy to medium difficulty. This phase, however, represents the “training wheels.”

Actually riding a bike, much like successfully answering a potpourri of questions, hinges on doing GRE math practice sessions that take you out of your comfort zone. In other words, you should try a few questions chosen at random. Opening up the Official Guide to the GRE and doing the first math questions you see is a good start. Even if you haven’t seen the concept, just so you can get a feel for working through a question will limited information.

Oftentimes students balk at this advice, saying, “but I haven’t learned how to X, Y, or Z yet.” The reality is that students can actually solve many problems based on what they already know. However, because the GRE “cloaks” its questions, many familiar concepts are disguised in a welter of verbiage or other such obfuscation.

 

GRE Quantitative Section Tunnel Vision

Some students become obsessed with a certain question type, at the expense of ignoring equally important concepts. For instance, some students begin to focus only on algebra, forgetting geometry, rates, counting and many of the other important concepts.

This “tunnel vision” is dangerous; much as the “training wheels” phase lulls you into a false sense of complacency, only doing a certain problem type atrophies the part of your math brain responsible for being able to identify the type of question and the steps necessary to solve it.

 

The Really High-hanging Fruit

This is a subset of “tunnel vision.” Really speaking, it is a more acute case. To illustrate, some students will spend an inordinate amount of time learning permutations and combinations problems. The time they could have spent on more important areas, such as number properties and geometry, is squandered on a question type that, at most, shows up twice on the GRE.

The metaphor of the “really high-hanging fruit” captures this aptly: Would you climb to the very top of the tree to grab the meager combinations/permutations fruit, when right within your grasp are the luscious number properties fruit?

 

Bad GRE Math Prep Sources

Many of the sources out there do not offer practice content that is as difficult as what you’ll see on the test. Some, such as Princeton Review, offer a meager number of sets with a mixture of questions types. Basically, the book never takes you out of the training wheel phase.

Other content has questions in which you can easily apply a formula without first having to “crack” the problem. Again, such books will leave you woefully unprepared for the actual GRE.

 

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+!

6 Responses to How to Study GRE Math

  1. siddharth mehra April 2, 2013 at 10:28 am #

    Hi Chris,
    i am going to start with me preps for gre soon , i plan to give the exam by june end and i work too , never been good at math! whenever i see a question i just start to think too much and there is akind of phobia which i am not able to attack .. what should be my strategy to go about with this.. but your blogs are awesome going through them and its giving me confidence slowly and gradually. thanks.

  2. Craig March 27, 2013 at 1:26 pm #

    Chris. I’m using manhattan gre to understand word problems. Why does Kaplan, pr, etc use different words for permutations, fundamental counting principle, etc? Manhattan has combinatorics. Can you explain it for me in great detail about which one is which? Thanks.

    • Mike
      Mike March 28, 2013 at 4:00 pm #

      Craig,
      First of all, understand that NONE of the terminology is important to know for the GRE. For the GRE, you just need to be able to do the math. In order to teach you the math, we teaching folks, of all brands, need to use this terminology.
      Technically, those three terms you mentioned are three different things. “Combinatorics” is the largest category, the entire branch of mathematics devoted to counting things. Theoretically, in all these books, the sections that talk about all this stuff are about “combinatorics”, although many books find use of that word gratuitous. Apparently, MGRE opines otherwise.
      The FCP is one of the foundational ideas within combinatorics. This handles many areas of counting. I discuss this in greater depth in this GMAT blog:
      http://magoosh.com/gmat/2012/gmat-quant-how-to-count/
      Permutations and combinations are very specific cases within combinatorics, very specific consequences of the FCP. In a permutation, we select items from a pool, either some of the them or all of them, and we count the different ordered sets. In a combination, we select some items from a larger pool, and we count the number of un-ordered sets. You can read more about the difference here: http://magoosh.com/gmat/2012/gmat-permutations-and-combinations/
      There are shortcut formulas for both permutations and for combinations, or you can figure them out from scratch from the FCP. Here’s a blog in which I talk about some handy shortcuts for calculating combinations:
      http://magoosh.com/gmat/2012/gmat-math-calculating-combinations/
      Does that answer all of your questions?
      Mike :-)

      • Craig March 29, 2013 at 9:28 am #

        So when more says multiple arrangements, is it another term for permutations?

  3. Sofia Franzén March 15, 2013 at 1:13 am #

    This was exactly what I needed to read right now. I have spent many, many hours trying to learn the right math strategies (i e formulas) in order to solve problems quickly. It didn’t go so well and I thought that I was missing some pattern regarding how to “mechanically” apply the strategies. So thanks for affirming that I still need to be creative and “think from scratch”! Now I have come to realise that learning strategies can only take me so far, just as you said! Great analogy with the bikeride, btw :)

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele March 15, 2013 at 10:59 am #

      Awesome! I’m so happy to hear that the post was helpful. Yes, “thinking from scratch” is a great way of putting it. With that approach you’ll be able to shed the training wheels in no time :).

      Good luck!


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