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Common GRE Math Mistakes

General Mistake #1: Not reading the problem carefully

Under timed conditions, you may feel compelled to rush. But remember, by misreading a word (or not reading it entirely), you can make a relatively straightforward problem seem intractable. You may flail about the answer choices, picking one – usually the incorrect one – that happens to be somewhat close to your answer.

Worse yet, you may get a numeric entry question and blithely enter in the wrong answer, something you could easily have avoided doing had you read the question carefully.


General Mistake #2: Flubbing the Math

Many math mistakes result from forgetting something so minor as write a negative sign. Other times, simple mathematical errors, like thinking that 16 x 5 = 90 can be very costly. Math is about precision so use your prep time to become an efficient and unerring human calculator.


Specific Mistakes

Below are two common mistakes/oversights, along with problems that test those mistakes. See if you can avoid these common GRE mistakes.


Prime Numbers

2 is the smallest prime number. It is the only even prime. 1 is NOT a prime.


Don’t Forget 0 and 1

Especially in Quantitative Comparison, you always want to make sure to plug in 0 and 1 if the constraints permit doing so. Oftentimes plugging in a 0 or 1 will prove the exception, thus making the answer (D).

x  is a non-negative integer

Column A Column B
2x^2 3x^3


  1. The quantity in Column A is greater
  2. The quantity in Column B is greater
  3. The two quantities are equal
  4. The relationship cannot be determined from the information given



Remember to plug in ‘0’ and ‘1.’ If you don’t, you will choose the obvious – but actually incorrect – answer (B). However, if x is zero the two columns are equal. Because of this one instance, we cannot say for sure which side is bigger. Thus (D).



Must Be vs. Could Be

There is a subtle, but important difference here. If a question is phrased  ‘must be’, then the answer you choose must always hold true for the conditions stated in the problem.

‘Could be’ means that in certain instances, i.e. for certain numbers.

All of this makes a lot more sense when in the context of the problem. So let’s take a look at number 1.


1. c and d are prime numbers. If c - d is an odd prime, then which of the following must be true?

(A)  c is even

(B)  d is odd

(C)  c*d is odd

(D) d is even

(E)  c*d - c is even



First off, don’t let the variables throw you. There is an answer, so there must be some pattern that you have to discern.

If you remember, I mentioned that ‘2’ is the only even prime. Thus the rest are all odds. The question says that c - d is an odd prime. The only way to get an odd number when we subtract two numbers is that one number must be odd and one must be even.

Since ‘2’ is the only even prime we know that ‘2’ must be d. (c cannot equal ‘2’ because c - d would end up being negative number, and primes can’t be negative).

We don’t have to know what exact number c equals. As long as c - d equals an odd prime. c = 5 is perfect. We plug in those values into the question.

Only D works. And we know that d must be even, because d must equal 2, an even number.



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3 Responses to Common GRE Math Mistakes

  1. Daisy January 5, 2017 at 7:08 am #

    Excuse me, I meant for the first question.

  2. Daisy January 5, 2017 at 7:07 am #

    For the question question, isn’t 0 a “non-negative integer”?

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert January 5, 2017 at 2:04 pm #

      Hi Daisy,

      That is exactly correct! That is why it is so important to plug in 0–in this case, the 0 gives us the information we need to choose (D). Any other number would result in answer choice (B). It is easy to overlook 0 in questions like this, even though 0 and 1 often provide the information necessary to determine the correct answer in these sorts of quantitative comparison questions!

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