Description: Succeeding on the GRE means performing accurately, confidently, and quickly.
Each of the two scored Verbal sections you will encounter on the GRE consists of approximately 20 questions in 30 minutes – obviously, that gives you (on average) 1.5 minutes per problem, but keep in mind that during that time you will also have to read and process several Reading Comprehension passages.
Each of the two scored Quantitative sections consists of approximately 20 questions in 35 minutes, or 1 minute 45 seconds per problem. Many students have serious difficulty completing 20 problems in this amount of time.
Some students ask, “It’s not so bad to just leave a few blank at the end, right?"
The answer to that question is an unequivocal NO! If you took the SAT, you might have been told: “Worry most about the easy and medium questions, and don’t sweat the very hardest ones at the end." The GRE does NOT work in the same way – the difficulty level throughout a section is mixed, meaning that you want to avoid getting hung up on any one problem, since easier problems may be coming up next.
Additionally, the GRE is section-level adaptive, meaning that your performance on your first verbal section will determine the difficulty of the next verbal section you receive, and your performance on your first math section will determine the difficulty of the next math section you receive. (Hint: you want the hardest possible second section!) To get a difficult second section on both math and verbal (you must get the hard section to achieve a top score), you must work quickly and answer all or nearly all questions.
Fortunately, there is no penalty for guessing on the GRE, so there is no reason to ever leave a question blank. If you run out of time, save the last thirty seconds to randomly guess on the last few. If you use the “mark” feature to flag a question for review, pick a random answer anyway, just in case you don’t have time to come back.
Here are some good guidelines for how much time you can afford on each problem type:
Sentence Equivalence 45 seconds
Text Completion 30-90 seconds, depending on the number of blanks
Reading Comprehension 1 min 30 seconds
Quantitative Comparisons 1 min 15 seconds
Discrete Quant 2 min
Data Interpretation 2 min
Keep in mind that, on Reading Comprehension, the first question for a particular passage will take much longer, since you will need to read (or at least partially read) the passage. So, plan to complete a short RC passage (2 questions) in about 3 minutes and a long one (3 questions) in about 4.5 minutes.
On a typical GRE verbal section, you can expect to see one 3-question passage, three two-question passages, and one one-question passage (the Argument Structure Passage, which is more of a logic question).
Note that the time limits above, for every area other than Reading Comprehension, are per problem. Of course, the real GRE is timed per section, not per problem, so if you can save time on some problems you can “spend” it on others. For example, if you are slow at Reading Comp, you could speed up your process on Sentence Equivalence and Text Completions to leave more time for reading. You may actually need to practice reading faster without losing comprehension – reading speed and focus comes with daily practice on difficult, GRE-like material.
Note that the time limits above, for every area other than Reading Comprehension, are per problem. Of course, the real GRE is timed per section, not per problem, so if you can save time on some problems you can “spend” it on others. For example, if you are slow at Reading Comp, you could speed up your process on Antonyms, Analogies, and Sentence Completions to leave more time for reading. Some Quantitative Comparisons can be solved in well under 30 seconds (for instance, in many problems that involve both exponents and negatives, one side is clearly positive and one side is clearly negative, so the positive side is bigger – no calculation needed). Banking time on Quant Comp can allow you to “spend” that time on difficult Data Interpretation questions, such as those that require you to synthesize information from multiple charts and tables.
Similarly, some Quantitative Comparisons can be solved in well under 30 seconds (for instance, in many problems that involve both exponents and negatives, one side is clearly positive and one side is clearly negative, so the positive side is bigger – no calculation needed). Banking time on Quant Comp can allow you to “spend” that time on difficult Data Interpretation questions, such as those that require you to synthesize information from multiple charts and tables.
On the Quant side in general, you will find throughout your studies that there are many problems that you can do – but not nearly fast enough for the GRE. If you aren’t timing your work, you won’t know that you need a new method for that problem type (for instance, if you are doing long division for divisibility problems, you won’t finish on time; most divisibility problems are best solved by breaking a number into its prime factors).
On the GRE, if you can’t perform within the time limits, your hard work simply won’t result in the score you want. A good rule during studying is: If you can’t do it within the time limits, it doesn’t count.
On both Verbal and Quant: Always use a timer when practicing! This means using a stopwatch when doing practice problems on paper, and taking online practice tests under standard testing conditions. If you haven't taken your first practice test yet, you can download the free PowerPrep software from ETS.org here or sign up to take a free online practice exam from Manhattan GRE here.
In reference to taking practice exams under “standard testing conditions," I refer in part to the fact that many practice exams have a pause button that does not exist on the real GRE. I always say: Don’t Hit the Pause Button Unless Your House Is On Fire! Certainly don’t pause a practice test to rest, make a sandwich, or – worst of all – work “off the clock” on a problem. Hitting the pause button and continuing to work completely invalidates your practice test score.
During the exam, there will be a timer that counts down. So you will need to do a little bit of mental math to see whether you are ahead of time, on schedule, or behind. Here’s a simple chart for keeping on-task during the Verbal sections:
When you have this much time left... You should be on question...
Here is a similar chart for Quant
When you have this much time left... You should be on question...
Finally, let’s talk about guessing strategy. Remember that you should answer every question on the GRE. So always keep an eye on the clock! If you notice halfway through the exam that you are behind on time, you have time to pick and choose which questions to guess on.
For example, say that you have 15 minutes left on Quant and you are only on question 9. You are about four questions behind. If you know that geometry is a weak area for you, you could decide to catch up by simply guessing or estimating on any geometry problems you see. Alternately, many students prefer “straight-up algebra” to lengthy word problems, so if you realize with at least 15 minutes remaining in the exam that you are behind, you could choose to guess on anything that pops up that seems dauntingly long. Many students find that Data Interpretation questions are by far the most time-consuming; as such, a good strategy might be to pick a random answer, mark for review, and come back if you have time.
In contrast, if you ignore the clock until, all of the sudden, you have 2 minutes left and 4 problems to do, now you’re going to have to guess on whatever problems you’re given – including those you could’ve gotten right! You probably spent more than two minutes early on in the test struggling over a problem in one of your weak areas, thus “stealing” time from a problem in one of your strong areas towards the end of the test.
Of course, one of the easiest ways to get faster on the GRE is to know the material cold! If you are the possessor of a prodigious lexicon, a one-blank Text Completion question often takes about 10 seconds, not 40. If you have studied assiduously for the Quant section, you will see many very similar problems over time, allowing you to plow confidently through these “stock” problems, leaving you an extra minute or two for more novel question types.
In sum: From now until your GRE, you live by the clock! Take timed CATs, and use your stopwatch for practice problems on paper. A top GRE test taker functions in an alert, steady, confident manner – and in 1-2 minutes per problem.