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I've been studying for the GRE quantitative section for months, and I feel like I've hit a wall over which I cannot climb. In short, I always run out of time. As such, I get at least a quarter of the questions wrong, and my final score won't budge north of the ~80th percentile.

How I'm preparing

My current thinking is by analogy. For example, the runner Alan Webb said:

People always ask me if it's an all out sprint. But that's the idea of training. You train hard so it doesn't feel like that. The reason you train is that you can do it and it won't feel like a sprint.

Thus, I've been trying to mix

  1. Doing problems carefully in order to develop good habits like organizing my work, re-reading the problem statement, and checking my work.
  2. Doing problems under timed conditions. Recently, I've been pushing myself to solve problems in less than 1.5 min rather than the given 1.75 min.

After solving a set of problems (typically 10-20), I review each one, logging the type of problem, the type of answer, and most importantly: "What did I need to recognize or know to get this question right?".

So far, I've solved and logged over 1500 problems in this way. While my score initially increased dramatically, from around the 50th percentile to the 80th percentile, it seems to have slowed down. For the past month or two, I simply cannot score much better than in the high 70s to mid 80s.

What problems am I getting wrong?

The GRE General quantitative material is divided into two sections of 20 problems each, with 35 minutes per section. The first section is fairly easy and the second section is more difficult if you did well on the first section.

Generally, speaking the problems I get wrong can be divided into a few classes:

  1. I typically get 2-4 problems wrong on the first section. In nearly every case, it is a simple mistake: an arithmetic error, copying the problem down incorrectly, selecting the better deal (in terms of $) rather than the greater quantity, not seeing the similar triangles, etc. Once I see the answer, I think, "Well, that was obvious!" My performance on this section has increased with time, but I still can't get 100% of the problems correct.
  2. In the second section, I usually come across 1-2 that I simply do not know how to do. If I read the answer, it makes sense, but I can't "see it" on the test, and simply guess and move on.
  3. I never finish the second section. As such, I always get 1-2 wrong by default here, and often the last 5 are pretty hard, and I'll get 2-4 wrong out of the last 5.

My question

Assuming I haven't hit some intellectual wall where I simply don't have the enough neurons firing to solve these problems—assuming this is a performance gap rather than a conceptual one—how can I improve on time? I've read a dozen GRE prep company blog posts where the author walks through one problem and shows how there is always a faster way. I get that. My question is: how can I systematically train in such a way that over time my performance increases?

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  • $\begingroup$ Are you allowed to leave a question unanswered and go back to it later? $\endgroup$ – barak manos Oct 29 '15 at 13:56
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    $\begingroup$ Yes, and there is no penalty for guessing. $\endgroup$ – gwg Oct 29 '15 at 13:57
  • $\begingroup$ You can go back on GRE? Are you sure? $\endgroup$ – barak manos Oct 29 '15 at 13:58
  • $\begingroup$ What exactly do you mean by you run out of time and get one quarter of the questions wrong? Do you only complete three-fourths of the test, so the rest are automatically "wrong", or do you mean that you leave some questions unanswered and one-fourth of the ones you did answer are wrong, or do you mean that you rush through some questions because time is running out and get many of those questions wrong? $\endgroup$ – David K Oct 29 '15 at 14:03
  • $\begingroup$ @DavidK, that's a good question. My answer takes more than a comment, so I've added a section to my question. But now that I've answered you, it seems like the ultimate answer is that I don't know the material well enough to see the solution-path quickly for all problems. I've found that silly mistakes are best avoided by seeing the solution-path so clearly that my mind has the energy to focus on not making trivial mistakes. $\endgroup$ – gwg Oct 29 '15 at 14:46
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Out of personal experience:

  • Measure for yourself, which type of questions you are mostly wrong in
  • Every time you encounter a question of this type, skip it
  • When you finish answering all the other questions, go back to the ones that you've skipped

For example, I've found out that I was worst at graph/diagram questions - not only have I wasted more time on average for each one of these questions, I also ended up getting most of them wrong.

Assuming that you get the same score per question, you may as well save your time for those questions that you usually get right, and spend the remaining time on all the other questions.

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  • $\begingroup$ This is good advice for optimizing what I spend time on, but I was asking if there are ways to train to get faster at each problem. In cycling, I would do intervals, work my legs at the gym, focus on cadence, etc. Are there equivalent strategies in math? $\endgroup$ – gwg Oct 29 '15 at 22:37
  • $\begingroup$ @gwg: Depends on the specific type of each question. Math is a very general term, you know (a lot "more general" than cycling, if one can compare the two). $\endgroup$ – barak manos Oct 29 '15 at 22:40
  • $\begingroup$ If you can identify a particular aspect that goes wrong on multiple problems, you can spend some time concentrating on that aspect. It does not have to be something that affects all the questions. For example, suppose in 30% of your wrong answers, you set everything up correctly but made an arithmetic mistake (do they still have you do it with pencil and paper?). You can get a book of just arithmetic problems and drill those for a few evenings until you can do them lightning fast without errors. I think you can get books that have sections specialized for other kinds of problems, too. $\endgroup$ – David K Oct 30 '15 at 1:53

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