Best practices to improve efficiency on the GRE: how to move more quickly through the test

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.

Okay, so in a previous episode, we kind of went in on the general approach for balancing accuracy and efficiency to get to the sweet spot where you’re, you know, really bumping up your percentile points 10%, up into the 90s. So let’s talk a little bit more about efficiency. What are some of the different strategies, specifically, to increase a student’s throughput to get to all the questions?

Orion: Yeah, I’ve mentioned this before; the hardest aspect of this test for the vast majority of students is the time constraint. If you can’t do it in five minutes, you kind of can’t do it with respect to the GRE. There are some exceptions, but most students should be able to do most questions in 90 seconds or less. And if you can’t, then it’s kind of a zero-sum game; you will get this question right, potentially, but you won’t have time to get to another question within that time limit. And so, you kind of are coming up against a ceiling with respect to your overall score. You’ve got to get to more questions within that time, which means you have to answer the questions you’re responding to more efficiently.

So, first and foremost, the student going in fully aware and prepared that this is a timed test. So, you have a 35-minute section knowing you have 20 questions. That kind of clock should always be there, like, okay, 90 seconds, on average, per question.

Davis: Yes.

Orion: But I do believe that it’s not helpful for most students to micromanage their behavior on that level. I personally don’t time my performance per question. I even toggle the timer off when I take the test because I find it to be very distracting. Counting down each second in the upper right-hand corner is just anxiety-provoking for me. I’ve been doing this for a long time, so I can imagine what it would be like for some of my students. That said, we can’t ignore the time limit; it’s a reality. What I personally do is toggle the timer off and check in every five problems. So, five problems is a quarter of that set. If I’m on a quantitative section, then I should be between eight and nine minutes deeper into the time, every five problems. So, I check in often enough to see if I’m on pace to get to all the questions within the time limit. And I check it often enough that I can course-correct as necessary.

So, for example, if I were to answer the first five problems and I check in and 10 minutes have passed, whew, it’s a little slow. I’m a little behind; I need to pick up the pace, but I still have, you know, 25 minutes left. I can save that circumstance. And if I check in and only six minutes have passed, great, I can chill out, I can calm down, I can go a little bit more into accuracy than I might otherwise be able to. Does that make sense?

Davis: Yeah. And so, you know, you’ve talked in previous episodes also about practicing the whole, the whole, the whole section at once to increase your efficiency to get to all the questions there. And then to put all sections together for four and a half hours. I mean, how much of it comes from just rote practice? I mean, how much does real practice affect, like just repetition, repetition, repetition, increase a student’s ability to be efficient and get to all the problems a lot, especially with the quantitative section?

Orion: In my system, every single quantitative question can be sorted into one of only 50 diagnostic categories. So, in the Stellar system, there’s only 50 types of quantitative problems on the GRE, which is actually pretty amazing. Given the fact that when you actually take the test, you’re only going to take 40 problems. So, you only have to prepare for 50 types of questions for a 40-problem math test.

Davis: Alright, so each of those questions of those 40 is generally different.

Orion: Generally, but not always, we’ve talked about base rates in the past. For example, the diagnostic category that by far has the highest base rate is a plug-in question. And those are usually between a fifth and a quarter of any given quantitative set, which means that four or five of the questions you encounter will be plug-in problems, and you can solve them using this one technique. Plugging in is by far the most useful and versatile quantitative strategy because, boom, you get four or five free points just by mastering this one technique. Versus, you might have to take several tests before you see one mixture problem.

Davis: Gotcha. Okay. So, the strategy, one of the strategies for increasing efficiency, is recognizing what types of questions you encounter and having a set, you know, solution that’s right to set a system of how to answer that. So that’s quantitative.

Orion: Hold on, let me expand on that a little bit. Because in Stellar, we call that diagnosing. So, a big part of what’s difficult in transitioning from test prep to the actual exam is, again, when you’re studying, you kind of know that this question comes from this chapter on probability or this chapter on combinatorics, or this chapter on averages. And so, you’re already kind of primed to know how to solve that problem because it’s contextualized in the test prep system. And that’s very different from the actual exam, where, boom, a question pops up on your screen, and you have to first figure out what kind of problem you’re dealing with. And that’s diagnosis. And so that’s also a key part of efficiency, is the Stellar system trains students to recognize empirical signs in that question, that are associated with one of those 50 diagnostic categories, empirical signs, meaning either English words, geometric figures, or mathematical symbols.

And so you can kind of scan the question and the answer choices, try to figure out which of those 50 buckets this question is in, and then boom, you actively recall into your working memory the strategies, the techniques, the fun facts about that question type, that were successful in solving similar questions in the past. And especially with quantitative, there are many mechanical solutions.

In Stellar, there are a lot of techniques where the only thing that changes are the actual values of the numbers involved; you do exactly the same thing every single time. And if you’ve done that strategy 10 times, it’s not going to be different the 11th time. So if you’ve over-rehearsed those approaches to those types of problems, that is far and away your best bet for improving your efficiency.

Now, that seems like it would build confidence too. So, if you’ve trained a way of thinking that’s diagnostic, and you have these larger categories, and more helpfully, you have specific strategies that can tackle categories, and you’re looking at the question, and you take away the guesswork, you say, “Oh, I know from this word, or from this symbol, that I use this solution.”

Davis: That’s awesome. In the quantitative section, I’m wondering how efficiency gains can also be made in the reading comprehension section, for example, or the writing even? Are there similar categories or strategies that take away the guesswork in the Stellar approach?

Orion: Oh, absolutely. So, there are three sections of the GRE: the quantitative, the verbal, and then the writing section. The writing section is the first section students encounter; it’s two 30-minute essay prompts. There aren’t any efficiency strategies for the writing section.

Okay, you actually want to use all 30 minutes to write as much as possible. And we can probably talk about that in a future episode. In the verbal section, you have 20 questions in 30 minutes. So that’s 90 seconds on average. And there are less standardized approaches or strategies with the verbal section compared with the quantitative, because so much depends on the actual words involved, the content of the passages that you’re given, and obviously those can’t be prepared in advance. One of the major efficient strategies for the verbal section is skipping based on question type.

So, there are three general question types on a given verbal section: there are vocab-based questions, which are easy to recognize, because there’s vocab there and in the answer choices. There are reading comprehension questions, which are easy to recognize, because it’s usually multiple paragraphs and multiple questions. And then there are what I call logical reasoning questions, which are similar to reading comp, because you have to read but it’s one paragraph and one question. These are things like, what would weaken this argument? What would strengthen the argument? What’s the relationship between these two boldface sentences? Got it, so there are three: vocab-based, reading comp, logical reasoning, and I highly recommend that students do each verbal set in that order.

Do all the vocab-based questions first; there’s going to be 10 of them. Then do all the reading comps; there should be about nine, and save the logical reasoning if there is one, because it has a base rate of around 5%, one in 20 for the variant. This is helpful because vocab-based questions should be more efficient than reading comp, because there’s just less to read and when you’re reading you’re not solving. Ideally, we want to shoot for answering those 10 vocab-based questions within 10 to 12 minutes of a verbal set. Because we need to bank time, aim to be able to read passages. I like also doing the vocab-based questions first, because it can give you the opportunity to say, “Oh, how deeply and how thoroughly, how carefully can I actually read these passages?” Because you’ll know exactly how much time you have left at that point, right?

Okay, so I did my first pass, I answered all the vocab-based questions. And there are three texts: there’s one that’s two paragraphs, with two questions; there’s one that’s four paragraphs and gets four questions; and there’s one that’s two paragraphs and gets three questions. So I have 15 minutes left, so I can really do five minutes per bundle. And that’s going to just off the cuff, give you a general impression of how carefully you can read any one passage.

Notice that I also mentioned paragraphs to questions; that’s also useful. So if you’re going to do all the vocab-based questions first, that means you’re going to be skipping through that verbal section, which means you will have at least encountered those reading comprehension questions already. You should skip over them on your first pass through.

But as you’re doing so, you can collect information on the number of paragraphs associated with that text and the number of questions associated with that passage, which can create this ratio of paragraphs to questions. You can then prioritize reading comprehension questions that have lower fractions.

Davis: Yeah, basically, we want bang for your buck.

Orion: Exactly. The best thing would be if it were one paragraph long, and we got four questions; that would be awesome. You start there, because that’s going to be still in the meaty part of your time limit. And we want to get more questions within the time, obviously. So this also helps you to prioritize effectively.

Davis: No, that’s great. These are great strategies.

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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