Accuracy versus efficiency on the GRE: the eternal struggle

Davis: Hey everybody, this is GRE Bites. My name is Davis, and I’m an educator with over ten years of experience.

Orion: And I’m Orion, the founder of StellarGRE.

Davis: We’re here to bring you your weekly bite-sized episode on GRE prep and grad school admissions. Check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at And don’t forget, you can use the code “BITES” for 10% off any membership.

Alright, so in previous episode, we talked about some of the stumbling blocks that students have, like carelessness. Today, I want to get into something that you’ve called the eternal struggle.

Orion: Yes.

Davis: First, can you just lay out what accuracy and efficiency are in the context of the GRE test?

Orion: Sure, yeah. Very simply, accuracy is the likelihood that you’re going to get a question correct. And efficiency is the likelihood that you’re going to answer more questions within the time constraint. So, I call it the internal struggle, because we can see that it’s something of a zero-sum game for the vast majority of students. When students slow down and they try to mitigate their carelessness, when they really try to get every question that they attempt correct, they obviously begin to move more slowly through the test. And generally, that results in them getting to fewer questions within the time limit on any given set, which can obviously lower their overall score. When they overcorrect and try to move more quickly, oftentimes, that’s where sloppiness or carelessness can come in. And so, they get to more questions, but it lowers their overall accuracy.

So, I often think of accuracy and efficiency like a pendulum swinging back and forth. And it’s for each individual student to find his or her sweet spot. And it’s going to be a little bit different for each individual person. So, in this struggle between accuracy and efficiency, the goal of GRE prep is to find an individual’s, you know, maximum, where they’re having the highest throughput of questions in the time limit that they can, while maintaining the highest level of accuracy that they can, getting the questions right as often as possible.

Davis: So, how do you get to that sweet spot?

Orion: That’s a great question. So, let’s talk about that. So, depending on where you’re starting, for most students, when they first come to GRE prep, it’s actually not a good idea to focus on efficiency. You don’t need to get to all the questions within the time limit. In the beginning, it’s a much better idea to focus on getting the questions that you’re attempting correct. And depending on where you’re starting from, that could only be a quarter to a third of the questions.

You know, maybe you’re a rock star, you’re walking into this test, and you’re getting, you know, 90% correct right off the street. But for a lot of students, the GRE is almost like a foreign language. They haven’t done standardized tests for many years. And so, it’s just about kind of getting back in the swing of things, as it were. That begins to switch once a student is able to answer at least 11 questions correctly within the time limit – 11 out of 20, so more than half.

Davis: Now, why is that?

Orion: This has to do with just pure probability. If we were in Vegas at a roulette wheel, you know, roulette wheels, basically red and black. And there was a 55% chance that it would hit on black versus a 45% chance it would hit on red. You would never bet on red, right? You should bet on black every single time. It will obviously come up on red, but over the long run, you should bet on black and you’ll make money that way, right? So when a student has an accuracy rate of over 50%, what that means is that that student is more likely than not to get a question right. So, it then makes sense to prioritize efficiency to get as many questions done as possible.

Davis: That’s right.

Orion: But until they’re more likely to get a question right than wrong, that shouldn’t be the issue. They need to focus on improving their accuracy until they’re at least over 50%. And then it’s like, push the questions as hard as possible. And that can be tricky. For the vast majority of students, to be able to answer a question in 90 seconds or less, 20 in a row, over a half hour, 35 minutes, it’s going to feel a little uncomfortable. One of my general rules of thumb is that if it doesn’t feel like you’re moving a little too fast, if it doesn’t feel like things are a little out of control, you’re probably not moving fast enough.

The GRE is kind of like a runaway train; you kind of have to grab on and hang on tight, and maybe four hours later, you end up at your destination. You know, it’s not on your timeline. It’s not going to feel comfortable. You’re not going to be able to double-check your work, say, or understand everything that you’re reading in the reading comprehension passages most likely; there’s going to be gaps in your understanding. It’s an inherently uncertain task. You never know if you’re getting anything right or wrong, and you just have to keep moving, hour after hour, question after question. So there’s a part of like surrendering to the pacing of the test, the duration of the test, that is appropriate with respect to efficiency. Does that make sense?

Davis: Yeah, just a question came to me. It’s like, okay, so you talked about reading comprehension, you’re not going to get it right. Is it true that some of the questions are baked in to kind of pull you away from being efficient and spend more time being accurate? Does that make sense?

Orion: That’s a good question. I think that that has more to do with how students approach the test than anything that’s inherent in the test itself. Okay. Like, for example, when it comes to reading comprehension questions, in my system, I use something called the citation technique, which basically means that there’s usually one, and only one, sentence in that text that provides a citation, provides a textual basis for one of the given answer choices.

And that’s what allows ETS, the makers of the test, to legally justify one of those options as the credited response. There is textual evidence in the passage, and it’s usually, not always, but usually only one sentence in that text. Now, reading comprehension on the GRE can span from two to five paragraphs and from two to four questions. But think about that, if there are four questions, that means that likely there are only four sentences in that passage that actually matter. But students will usually approach that passage and try to understand every part of that text; they’ll want to understand every sentence, every paragraph because they think, “Well, I don’t know if this is the sentence or the paragraph that’s going to help me get those questions right.” Yeah, that’s right. They don’t know.

But, again, if we were in Vegas, the odds are that that sentence doesn’t matter or that paragraph doesn’t matter. And the longer the passage, the more likely that’s true. So it’s not so much that it’s baked into the test. But it has to do with, let’s say, most students’ natural attitudes towards test taking. And I think, frankly, a lot of that has to do with anxiety. As a psychologist, I can tell you that when people are feeling anxious, a really good strategy for coping with that is to like, learn more about what you’re anxious about. This has to do with like, phobias. Somebody comes in, “I’m scared of snakes.” It’s like, “Yeah, well, snakes are scary. I get it.” So what’s the strategy? Are you going to read some books? Most snakes are harmless. Most snakes eat vermin. So they kind of help with the ecosystem. Some snakes can be very beautiful. And then you learn more about it, and you dispel some of the uncertainty that fosters the fear. Does that make sense?

Davis: And that generally reduces anxiety. So this attitude that I want to feel less anxious about engaging with this test by collecting more information, understanding more about what I’m dealing with, is a strategy for life. But it’s not a strategy for a time-standardized test.

Orion: That’s kind of suicidal, to be honest. It’s not effective when the clock is ticking.

Davis: That’s right. So no, that makes a lot of sense. Rather than seeking to have all the accuracy available to you for any question that can be asked in taking the test, you always have to keep in mind the efficiency aspect, so that you’re only gathering the information you need to answer the questions accurately.

Orion: That’s correct. And that means sometimes letting go of certain emotional coping strategies to deal with anxiety. It also often means learning new strategies to get to the correct answer as quickly as possible, bypassing math, bypassing comprehension to the extent that that’s possible. We’re not here to actually do math or to understand a passage; we’re here to click the right button to get a point, so that we get a certain score on this test and can apply to grad school and move on with our lives. Let’s be really goal-oriented and focused on our ultimate end here. Do you really care about that passage? Be honest, no, it’s just a means to an end. And if we can reduce our reliance on that passage and get to the end quickly and consistently, then we should do that; that’s in our best interests.

So, there’s getting to 55% accuracy, then prioritizing efficiency, which means kind of letting go of some of these attitudes or behaviors that might actually be more associated with emotional coping than test effectiveness. And then, finding that sweet spot, which is idiosyncratic to the individual. So, let’s say, for example, a student is getting to 17 questions out of 20 within the time limit. That’s pretty good and has a pretty high accuracy rate. If that student pushes herself to move more quickly to get to all 20, maybe she misses two more questions due to carelessness. But if she’s getting to three more, then it’s a net gain for her. Do you see?

Davis: So, she’ll get one more point. And it’s, it’s that kind of thinking versus that that’s more strategic and effective with the GRE, as opposed to ‘I need to get every question right.’

Orion: That’s a bit rigid. We kind of want to be like coaches at the end of a basketball game when the score is close. There’s a lot of fouling, there’s free throws, you use your timeouts; the goal is to get a win, not necessarily to get every shot in the basket, right, or play the most perfect, beautiful game by the rules. You want to, like you said, just do what it takes to win. We do want to use the rules, but fouling is part of the rules. So, that’s another thing that someone taught me once: if you’re not fouling, you’re probably not playing optimally. That’s cool. That was our part of the game.

Davis: Nice. Just real quick, how does that come into the context of the GRE?

Orion: That’s a great question. I don’t think we have time to get into that in this episode, but we’ll definitely talk about it in future episodes. On a high level, we don’t necessarily want to do everything the way that the test wants us to do it, or pulls for us to. Obviously, we don’t do anything against the rules. The fouling is part of the rule system. Do you see what I’m saying? So that you can be efficient in getting to all the questions.

Davis: Exactly.

Orion: Like, for example, many math problems are pulling for you to solve it algebraically, like in high school, show all your work, solve for x. But that’s not necessarily the most efficient or reliable means of getting to the accurate answer, the correct answer. Exactly. So, that’s what I say is kind of a foul because we are not engaging with the test the way that it officially seems to want us to engage with it.

Davis: Got it. I appreciate the insights.

Thanks, everybody, for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with another bite-sized episode of GRE Bites. If you have a topic you’d like discussed on a future episode, let us know at And if you’re ready to take your prep to the next level, check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at You can use the code “BITES” for 10% off all memberships there. Talk to you soon.

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