The Real Benefit of Changing Your Answers on the GRE

Changing Your Answer

I welcome the latest press release by ETS, which provides helpful data regarding students changing their answer choices on the GRE exam. Indeed, it overturns a common fallacy that I’m sure has hurt students’ scores. Nonetheless, one has to be careful in interpreting ETS’s latest findings.

For instance, students might very likely to think that their first hunches are suspect, and so they might end up overanalyzing a question that they knew the answer to all along. The data in the ETS study only showed that questions in which the student changed the answer—meaning a potentially difficult question—tended to result in an increased score.

Such a misperception is just one of many that can result from the data. I urge students to think carefully about their current approach to the test before changing their answers. For one, some students might actually do better by sticking with their original guess. That subset would clearly be in the minority but if you happen to be in that minority then applying the findings could actually work against you.

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Hopefully, your head is not spinning with all the different possibilities and ramifications of these findings. And if it is—don’t fear. To get a better sense of how you do on questions in which you decide to switch your initial guess take detailed notes while doing practice sets and—more importantly—practice tests. You’ll want to note all the questions in which you changed the answer and then the outcome of those questions. You’ll even want to make note of the questions that you weren’t a 100% sure on. So even if you don’t end up changing your answer, do you tend to go with the right answer when you less than certain?

Once you can determine a general pattern that fits you—that one test taker in a million—that you’ll start to improve. Blithely sticking with the answer choice you switched to, without actually going back to the original and without having a better understanding of your own approach, can hurt your score. So be careful how you decide to apply the findings of this study to your own test approach.

Does this press release mean I should not take the GMAT?

If you have no plans to apply to b-school, disregard this part of the post. If you are applying to b-school, then you might be wondering, after reading this, whether the GRE is the safer test—the better test—since it allows you to go back and change answers, if need be.

But knowing that students go back and changes their answers doesn’t tell us anything about those students who spent lots of time going back and looking over questions and not changing answers—regardless of whether those questions were right or wrong. In other words, students might have wasted time agonizing over questions that were right all along. In that case, the GMAT suddenly looks like the better test.

Finally, in wondering whether the GRE is the fairer test, you should keep in mind that ETS has an incentive to publish these results and frame them in a positive context: it wants you to take the GRE instead of the GMAT, because it wants to make money. Cynical? Sure. But when there is a profit motive involved, we should always be at least somewhat skeptical of a company’s claims, or at least aware of that company’s underlying bias.

My recommendation: take plenty of mock tests across both exams, apply various strategies, and see which one you do better on percent-wise. Even then, many business schools, while accepting both tests, continue to give greater weight to the GMAT than to the GRE. And that’s something that ETS, probably won’t tell you.


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3 Responses to The Real Benefit of Changing Your Answers on the GRE

  1. Patrick May 18, 2015 at 4:42 am #

    Hey Chris,

    To me, one of the most important points in the findings released by ETS is that when test takers skip a question and come back later to answer it they achieve the same or better scores than they would have otherwise. I find this particularly pertinent because it was a strategy I employed on the LSAT (twice), and that I have been utilizing with my GRE practice as well. I think the results ETS describes draw logically from skipping questions and coming back to them.

    Say you hit a very hard question that you can determine early on is going to give you a lot of trouble – you can tell from the setup and the complexity that you are going to spend more time than you probably should working towards the right answer, and even then it is the type of question you don’t usually get correct. In this scenario, on the LSAT and GRE, if you skip the question (and with the GRE especially it is so easy to mark it and come back to it quickly) and proceed to work through the questions that are more manageable, you end up using your time more efficiently. You get more questions correct because you use your time more proactively on questions that you most realistically CAN get correct, and if you end up with a minute or two left and have to guess on the very tough ones that you skipped, that results in a net higher score than if you waste time on those tough ones, end up guessing on them regardless and then don’t have adequate time to answer all of the questions that you can and will get correct. This strategy worked well for me with the LSAT and has been in my GRE practice so far; it’s pure time management and cutting losses. If you’re going to have to guess on a question, might as well not waste time in the process and instead focus that precious time on all of those questions you can get right.

    This point was in the ETS findings, as I mentioned, but kind of got covered up by the other information about changing your answer. Just my two cents! By the way, I’ve been loving the Magoosh service and look forward to finally putting it all to the test in two weeks time!

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele May 18, 2015 at 4:51 pm #


      Thanks for your insights! Esp. the part about not wasting your time trying to guess on questions, but instead of moving around the test to get as many as possible correct. The strategy of focusing on the more manageable questions is great and one that students should apply. I’m just wondering about the results in general. Does this mean that some students initially guess outright on questions they perceive as difficult and return to those only if they have time–and in doing so (because they have more time) answer that question correctly? Is that really the same as “changing your answer”. Not sure–but again, there are so many confounds that it is hard to draw the facile conclusions that ETS hopes we might draw.

      The key is to experiment–as you did–with the test taking experience, finding a strategy that helps you increase your points. I think many will agree with your approach: learn how to quickly identify tough questions and then move on to easier questions.

      Thanks again for sharing your thoughts 🙂

      • Patrick May 18, 2015 at 5:55 pm #

        As you say, it is tough to discern about the results more generally, especially as they may apply across tests (LSAT vs. GRE) and across sections within the GRE. For me, I utilized this approach with the logic games sections of the LSAT and am doing so with the quantitative sections of the GRE. Math is definitely my weaker area, and within a minute or so of working on a math question on the GRE I can get a good feel about whether or not it will take me multiple minutes to get to the right answer – if I get there at all. It simply doesn’t make sense to spend 4-5 minutes trying to get a question right (and possibly not even then), when you can get four other more manageable questions correct in that same time frame. So yes, I would guess after discerning that a question is particularly challenging for me, mark it, finish the questions I am capable of getting correct in a reasonable time frame and return to those tough ones if time remains.

        I do not, however, believe this is the same thing as changing one’s answer, as ETS reports it in their study. I do think it is basically the same thing as ETS saying that if you skip a question – the functional equivalent of guessing when you can tell it is an inefficient use of your time and intending to come back to it later – you generally achieve the same or higher scores.

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