GRE Data Interpretation Strategies

Helpful Tips for the GRE Data Interpretation Section

If I had to count the number of questions/concerns regarding combinations or permutations, I’d have to use some pretty mighty factorials to do so. On the other hand, if I had to count the number of times students have expressed the same misgivings regarding Data Interpretation, I’d simply use my hand.

What’s truly surprising is there may be one combination/permutation question or probability question on the test. That’s right—for all those hours students slave away trying to tease out the nuances of these question types, not a single one of these concepts could be covered test day.

What is 100% sure, however, is that you will see a Data Interpretation question. Indeed, over the two math sections you can see as many as eight questions. So make sure you spend a lot of time practicing this question. Below are some helpful tips to get you started.

Strategy #1: Survey the landscape

Improve your GRE score with Magoosh.

All of sudden, you are tossed into an unruly world of facts and figures, bars and charts, and pies and lines. The first thing to do—before throwing up your hands in defeat—is to get your bearings. If you see bar graphs, read what is to the side of the bar graphs (the y-axis). Then read the information below the bars.  Now you should know what each bar stands for and what it means for one bar to be higher than the other.


Strategy #2:  Do not try to understand everything

At the same time, do not scrutinize the graph. You want to get a sense of the big picture. Once you’ve done so move on to the question. Answering the question will allow you to focus on the relevant information in the passage. Knowing the big picture will allow you to correctly interpret this information.


Strategy #3: Approximate whenever you can

If you have waded through all the information, determining that you have to find the total dollar amount of exports for Company B, you may be stymied yet. Often ETS gives us unpleasant numbers, like 149,000 and 41%. In fact, we can say the first figure is the dollar amount in thousands of the exports of Companies A – E, and that 39% is the percent of that share attributed to Company B.

Do not whip out the calculator to perform the tedious calculation. Instead, round up 149,000 to 150,000 and round 41% down to 40%. Quick math should give you 60,000. Then find an answer close to 60,000. If in the off chance that there are happen to be two answers very close to 60,000, then use the calculator. However, there will most likely be only one answer close to 60,000.


Strategy #4: Use your eyeballs

Sometimes, a graph may not give you an exact dollar amount. Instead, you may only have a bar or a line. Unlike Quantitative Comparison, everything you see in Data Interpretation is drawn according to scale. So if they are asking you for the difference between two bars or points on lines, then use your eyeball. It will save you a lot of time.


Strategy #5: Do not confuse percent with actual total

Almost every Data Interpretation Set will try to catch you mixing up percent with the actual total. To illustrate: Let’s say that Company X has increased by 40% from 1998 to 2000. Company Y has decreased by 30%. Without knowing the total amount of either company, we cannot say that Company X has more than Company Y.



Don’t just read the tips above—apply them. Hundreds of Data Interpretation questions abound, from those found in Magoosh to those created by ETS.


Most Popular Resources


  • Chris Lele

    Chris Lele is the Principal Curriculum Manager (and vocabulary wizard) at Magoosh. Chris graduated from UCLA with a BA in Psychology and has 20 years of experience in the test prep industry. He's been quoted as a subject expert in many publications, including US News, GMAC, and Business Because. In his time at Magoosh, Chris has taught countless students how to tackle the GRE, GMAT, SAT, ACT, MCAT (CARS), and LSAT exams with confidence. Some of his students have even gone on to get near-perfect scores. You can find Chris on YouTube, LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook!