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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.


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7 Responses to How to Approach Complicated Math Problems

  1. Ayo December 11, 2017 at 6:04 am #

    I’m preparing to write the GRE in a month time and my preparation by then would be 6 weeks. I’ve been solving questions from Manhattan and Magoosh but I don’t get the questions on time till I come back to them, the luxury which I won’t have on test day. How can I get past this? Thanks for the reply in advance

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert December 11, 2017 at 2:29 pm #

      Hi Ayo,

      Pacing can definitely be challenging! One way to work on your pacing is to set obtainable goals so that you approach your goal pace little by little. For instance, try to answer questions at a pace of three minutes per question. The next day, set a faster pace, like two and half minutes per question. Do this day by day until you are answering math questions in about 1min 45 sec.

      We also go over a really important pacing strategy in our lesson video on pacing and skipping questions: answering the “low hanging fruit” first. The idea here is to go through each section twice. The first time through, answer all the questions that you find easy. So mark and skip any question that you know right away will take you a long time to answer. If you begin to work on a problem and realize that it is too hard, mark and skip it. Once you have completed the whole section once, go to the “Review” screen and return to each question you marked. Now you have more time to work on the harder problems since you already answered all of the easier ones.

      Also, I definitely recommend checking out the following blog post on pacing on the quant section 🙂

      I hope this helps!

  2. sameesh July 17, 2015 at 5:07 am #

    i have got a tendency to get carried away by the clock ticking. Especially while reading long word problems or data interpretation questions. Apart from that quantitative comparison really sap out majority of my scores as i end up committing silly mistakes. Knowing the fact that i am not good in vocabulary i end up surmounting the humongous pressure of scoring maximum in quantitative section. How to tackle that?

  3. 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 :).

  4. 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 :).

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