Help! I’m Terrible at GRE Math!

This is the sister post to I’m Terrible at GRE Verbal! Help! 🙂

Sometimes we all need a little GRE math help. It usually doesn’t take more than the first session for a new student/tutee to look over me and confide sheepishly,

“I need help with GRE math. I’m so bad at it!”

Mind you, I hear this not only from students who haven’t seen an equilateral triangle in 20 years. Even those students who end up doing better on the quantitative section than the verbal section say this (and some continue to say this, even once they’ve scored in the top 20% on quant).

My belief is that, for the most part, the “I’m terrible in math” shtick is nothing more than an attitude. And a bad one at that. It is self-defeating, and doesn’t help students improve. Instead the refrain should be “I missed that problem…I’m going to understand why so that I will get it the next time around.” And especially if it is tough math question, your attitude should be, “I’m not the only one who got that one wrong.”

Ultimately, the whole bad at math thing is ironic: the GRE math is not your high school math. It is a test of how think logically. Numbers play only a small part. And believe it or not, even formulas are just a piece of the puzzle. In high school, you could mostly rely on memorizing the formula. Not so with the GRE.

Thus the negative attitude is most likely based on a different kind of math. So take a deep breath. You are not terrible at math! 🙂 You are here to learn how to do well on the GRE math. So pay attention to some important points below.

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Develop Number Sense

Sure, the GRE allows you to use a calculator. But using it will often slow you down. In order to make yourself a more efficient GRE test taker, at least quant-wise, you should get comfortable around numbers. Now typically is that time when the negative voice sounds in your head. But keep it at bay by doing the following.

Take a set of four numbers. For simplicity sake, I will use 1, 2, 3, and 4. Your goal is to make the number 99. You can use any of the math signs: +/-/x  (my computer doesn’t have the division sign—but that one too!).

You can also use the square root sign (√), and powers of numbers, such as 2^4 = 16. The next rule, and the most important one, is do the operations in your head. That’s right no pencil and paper. We are talking about using your raw mental math skills.

Once you’ve been able to come up with 99, then choose a different set of four numbers. For instance, let’s say were born in 1987. Or maybe your address is 2995.  This is a great game to play when you are waiting for the bus, a food order, or maybe a friend. Speaking of friends, it’s fun game to play with others, especially if you can figure out how to make ‘99’ first.

The point is your brain should be in number shape come time for the GRE. Or things will be noticeably more difficult for you.


Learn how the GRE works

As I said, the GRE quant is not your high school math exam. Try a few practice questions. What do you notice? Well, you’ll probably notice how the test is confusing. Indeed the answer choices are often meant to trap you. Then there is the actual question itself, which you may have to read a few times over. And of course at this point the “I’m terrible at math” voice comes roaring back. Despair not: these questions are confusing for many test takers, especially those who are seeing GRE math problems for the first time. Many people don’t even know how to start studying for GRE math.

Once you get over the initial frustration of not being able to understand what the question says, keep some of the following GRE math tips in mind.

1. Plugging in

When you see variables in the answer choices or in the problem, you do have to do algebra. In fact, algebra often gets you into trouble. By learning the technique of plugging in numbers you can make a seemingly intractable problem seem that much easier.

2. Approximation/Estimation

The great thing about the GRE is it is multiple-choice (except for the numeric entry question). Learn to look at the spread between the answer choices. Are the answer choices very close together? Are some nice round numbers, and other unpleasant, unwieldy numbers, such as 119? Often the GRE will present answer choices in such a way that you can eliminate a few obviously wrong answers, and then home in on the correct answer by approximating.

3. Know your fundamentals

At the end of the day, you have to know how to add fractions, the formula for area of the circle, how to solve work rate problems, or the rules of exponents. Learn the basics and feel comfortable applying them. Learn most of the major formulas. But remember, they are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to solving a problem. To truly get anywhere on the GRE, you have to be able to…

4. Learn how to unravel the question

This is the pith—that is, the essence—of the GRE Quant. Imagine the math problem is a riddle, and you must unravel it. In other words, you must figure out what the question is asking, and then arrive at a solution path, i.e., the necessary steps to arrive at the correct answer.

Typically, the formula stuff only comes at the very end. A common misconception amongst students is that they only need to know a formula to solve a question. This is often decidedly not the case. Without unraveling the problem first, having a formula isn’t going to get you anywhere.



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  • 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!

12 Responses to Help! I’m Terrible at GRE Math!

  1. Pallavi February 8, 2017 at 5:04 pm #

    I attended Power prep || practice test one and got score 296 (Q 150 , V 146). When I reviewed the exam I made 13 silly mistakes.
    Score could have been better.I really need to score at least 315 to get admit in colleges.
    I have brush up all basic formulas and try to learn some vocabulary words also.
    Please tell me how to process further as I have only 3 days left for my exam.
    Does practice test 1 and 2 are same or 2nd practice test is hard compare to first one.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert February 8, 2017 at 9:25 pm #

      Hi Pallavi,

      First, I will say that we typically recommend that students take more time in their preparations, but I understand that there are some situation in which you don’t have any flexibility in your schedule. That being said, if you only have three days left before your exam, I would spend my time focusing on weaknesses. Just taking a bunch on mock exams without reviewing and learning will not get you anywhere. You’ll just have a series of scores. Instead, review your mock exam and see which concepts you struggle most with and review those lessons. Also, jot down those 13 careless errors you made. You want to review that list right before your exam, so those careless errors are fresh on your mind before your exam. This helps you remember the errors, so you won’t make them again.

      Then, on the day before the exam… rest. I know you may want to cram, but honestly cramming won’t make a big difference in your score. It may just hurt you. A low crammed score may hurt your confidence or it may just tire you out. This is a mental exam. So, take the day to get mentally prepared. Tell yourself that you’re going to do this, and do well!

      Finally, don’t worry too much about the difficulty level of the practice exams. Generally they are the same. The reason one may feel more difficult than another to you may be that one exam plays well with your strengths compared to the other. Other test takers may feel the opposite based on their skill set. You don’t know what exam you’ll get, so just prepare for the worst and study your weaknesses.

      Good luck Pallavi! You’ve got this! 😀

  2. Riana Piccirillo-Delgado June 3, 2016 at 8:09 pm #

    Magoosh I’m terrified! I havent taken a math class in 12 years and Im prepping for the GRE and Im not getting any answers on practice tests in the math sections right. Im acing the other sectiobs but math i seem to be drowning. Help! Is there a book I should work with, should I re-examine algebra altogether? I dont know what to do.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert June 4, 2016 at 4:25 am #

      Riana, my friend, you have to go get a free account at my favorite math resource in the world: Khan Academy. You can work through all levels of math from the very basics (like addition) to calculus (not needed for the GRE)! This can really help you to build your math skills before tackling tricky GRE questions. 🙂

      • Nya August 12, 2016 at 11:40 am #

        hi, i went to khan academy, there are so many subjects in math to choose from. where do i start? i was hoping they had GRE test prep, but they only have GMat prep. which math course do i need to go through to study for the GRe?

        • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
          Magoosh Test Prep Expert August 13, 2016 at 8:13 pm #

          Actually, Khan Academy DOES have GRE prep. It can be a little hard to find from the Khan homepage or the Khan YouTube channel. But ETS has indexed all of the Khan Academy GRE lessons on their official GRE website. Enjoy!

  3. Shashank Rane March 5, 2016 at 7:27 am #

    Hi,i am feeling as if i am very weak in maths but actually not! Please tell me how to start my preparations since my teacher assumes that everyone is good at maths! Tell me which books i should prefer in order to learn quants.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert March 15, 2016 at 1:30 pm #

      Hi there 🙂

      I’m happy to help! On the GRE, basic math concepts make up the foundation of harder math questions, so it’s essential to be very familiar and comfortable with these topics. Additionally, the better you are at the basics, the faster you’ll be at answering questions correctly. With that in mind, here is a pool of blog posts that should help you out: Math Basics.

      I’d also recommend checking out the instructional videos from Khan Academy that review the general topics tested on the exam. The relevant videos are organized to correspond to the GRE Math Review from ETS. And you can find these video lessons here.

      Additionally, if you’d like an even more in-depth review of basic concepts, I’d recommend McGraw-Hill’s Conquering the New GRE Math.

      I hope these resources help! Happy studying 😀

  4. Marie January 20, 2016 at 8:00 pm #

    Thanks for the pep talk! I am one of those guilty of saying I am terrible at math, when I know I am not. I just have a sort of learned helplessness.
    But your post did encourage me to try and get rid of the mindset. I’m sure it would otherwise cost me a couple of points.

    • Magoosh Test Prep Expert
      Magoosh Test Prep Expert January 21, 2016 at 2:37 pm #

      Glad this helped, Marie! And thank you for the heads up about the typo — we fixed it right away 🙂

  5. Jasmine September 30, 2015 at 10:57 pm #

    Thanks for the article, Chris! I’m going to try all your tips. I’m really struggling with GRE prep. I’m currently on the 90 day study plan but my scores haven’t improved at all over the last few weeks. I consistently do score poorly. The plan says weekdays average about 2-3 hours and 4-5 hours on the weekend. After work, I’ll study for about 4-5 hours (weekdays) and 6-8 hours on the weekend. I’m struggling to retain all the information (terrible at math). I have a natural affinity with verbal but my scores are low there too. What else can I do? What time frame is indicative of your score? It’s a bit discouraging because I don’t remember any of the lessons/material when I take the practice questions/mock exam(s). I’m concerned that my GPA/work experience won’t match my GRE score. I’m trying to make small lifestyle changes like sleeping 8 hours a night too. Any advice would be greatly appreciated! Love your videos and explanations.

  6. Pradyumna May 24, 2013 at 11:37 am #

    Chris, excellent article. Thank you.

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