We might expect that the only students who avoided math for years will struggle with the quant section, which deals mostly with topics from a middle school/high school Algebra I class. In fact, students of all stripes encounter a range of challenges. Most students experience a unique combination of strengths and “growing edges,” but here are some patterns I’ve seen over the years.
I’ve tutored students who were so gifted at math that they found the section banal, even boring, zipped through the two quant sections with minutes to spare -- and made a dozen silly mistakes. For these students, the generic advice to “slow down” or “reread” is less helpful than a systematic effort to track the types of mistakes they’re making and the type of problems that trip them up. This kind of pattern-seeking and thorough cataloguing of quantitative concepts comes naturally to these students.
This approach is also useful for students who struggle with test anxiety, regardless of their math skill level. Like the math whizzes, the anxious testers benefit less from generic advice about their weakness, i.e., take deep breaths, or remember that this test isn’t the only part of your application, than from targeted analysis of the types of questions or timing traps that tend to trip them up and specific strategies for handling those problems. For example, a student might be particularly prone to missing the last line of a story problem that asks the reader to solve for the second of the two variables, rather than the first. Story problems often, if not always, provide tempting wrong answer choices with the value of the wrong variable.
Some students simply have gaps in their math education or use of math in their daily lives. One student told me that they struggled with circles, but a quick review brought this student up to speed. The cause was simple: We need to calculate the dimensions of rectangles far more often, e.g., in playing out our living space or packing the trunk of our car, than circles. It’s also easier to visualize the area of a rectangle than a circle. For example, it’s easy to visualize a 5 inch x 4 inch rectangle as being filled up by 5 rows of 4 unit squares, each, for a total of 20 unit squares. It’s a little bit harder to visualize the circle area formula, π r2, although there are some great visual proofs of this formula on youtube. Of course, once you have this formula on automatic recall, circles are much easier to work with. There are additional formulas and relationships relevant to circles, such as sector / circle area = sector arc / circle circumference. These formulas are even simpler to understand, and again, a quick review typically takes care of these knowledge gaps.
Of course, some students have significant learning disabilities that affect their math performance. These students can really benefit from focus on basic skills. Many GRE resources provide some of this, but I have also found terrific resources online for middle and high school math concepts, ranging from practicing arithmetic and algebra with negative numbers to factoring polynomials to calculating probability. While Khan Academy is a common go-to for students, I find that I can provide a more responsive explanation in person. Furthermore, the specific chunks of knowledge available in their problem sets don’t always correspond as clearly to the targeted skill as do resources from, e.g., homeschoolmath.net.
Another issue that all GRE students wrestle with is the question of how much time they want or are able to spend preparing. Your ideal amount of prep time varies depending on your background and skills. The majority of my students are really up for the extra work, but some have schedules that simply won’t allow this. Others find that a little bit of work raises their scores significantly, but that getting those last few points just takes too many extra life hours. Still other students give it everything they’ve got every step of the way. All of these approaches to studying are legitimate and respond to different life situations, and I encourage students to be conscious of the trade-offs they face and the choices they make.
Craving more expert advice on GRE preparation? Read some of our previous blogs below!