Defensive vs. offensive skipping: making the most of this essential skill

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 let’s jump into the weeds today. We’ve talked about different strategies for the quant section, different ways to approach it, how to maintain, you know, a calm mental state, efficiency versus accuracy. And we’ve talked about one of your strategies, and that’s on the app as well. It’s skipping, skipping as a strategy on the quant section as you’re going through it. And you’ve mentioned in previous episodes, you know, defensive skipping, offensive skipping. I want to use this episode to better understand the difference between those two. What does it mean to defensively skip through the quant section? And then come back versus offensively skipping through?

Orion: Sure. Yeah. So this is, I guess, a tactical talk today. Skipping on any section of the GRE is very, very important. Unlike other standardized tests that you may have taken in the past, like the LSAT, questions on the GRE, i.e., are not presented in ascending order of difficulty.

So that means that the hardest, most time-consuming problems could be the ones you first encounter, and basically surrendering to the test’s succession of questions might put you at a disadvantage, especially on harder sections.

What I’ve noticed is that ETS often front-loads its harder verbal and quant sections with more difficult and more time-consuming questions simply because students tend to solve test sections sequentially. And they often run out of time. And of course, if you’re not getting to questions, you can’t be answering them correctly. And that’s one of the main ways that students underperform.

Davis: And a hard question is worth as many points in the grading scale as an easy question.

Orion: Well, that’s right, every question is worth the same, one point. Easy and hard are also interesting concepts because every individual student will have an idea of what is easy or hard for him or her. But obviously, that is irrelevant to the grading of the test. Like the difficulty grading. Difficulty from the perspective of ETS is always statistical, for example, the hard question is a question that 10% of students get right. And an easy question is one that 80% of students get right, right. And they don’t actually know that until they give that question to hundreds of students, which is why the experimental section exists. It’s ETS trying to collect empirical data on the statistical difficulty of its test items, right.

Davis: And so, and we’ve also talked about like, grouping, like taking all the same types of questions, going through an entire quant section and looking for all the same types of questions so that your mind is not jumping between, like, a plug and chug versus like a multiple-choice versus like.

Orion: I think that’s related to offensive skipping.

Davis: So let’s talk about defensive skipping first.

Orion: So defensive skipping is to, it’s called defensive because it’s to avoid that negative outcome, the time drain, yes, if you solve the section sequentially, you might not be pacing yourself appropriately because of the way that this action is constructed. So we’re defending against that negative outcome. And so on the quant section in particular, I highly recommend that students take two passes through each 20-problem set. The first second upon encountering a quantitative problem, a student should make the determination of whether he or she is going to do that question right then and there or skip it for the second pass through. It takes one second, which means that this is not based on reading the problem or understanding it or thinking about it.

Davis: It’s looking at the answer choices.

Orion: Well, sometimes it involves looking at the answer choices, but it’s also about examining the problem. It is a visual test. There are three criteria for skipping, and you should be able to identify these features in less than a second. One of them is if it’s a big paragraph of text, just skip it; it’s going to take more than a minute to get down to the question mark. There are plenty of questions you can solve in less than a minute. Second, if it’s a multiple-answer question, that’s looking at the answer choices. If the little buttons are squares, as opposed to little ovals, squares mean choose all that apply.

Oftentimes, these are range problems, which require us to push the extremes, which basically means we have to solve that question twice: once for the minimum and once for the maximum. That’s kind of two problems in one. Hence, it’s inherently time-consuming. And skip it, skip it. Third are the data interpretation questions, which are always grouped together. Skip, skip, skip, and those are very easy to spot because they’re associated with graphs and charts.

So, if you skip those problems defensively, then basically what you’re doing is reserving the time-consuming problems for later in your 35 minutes. And that’s good because they’re not worth any more than the efficient problems. So this allows you to bank more points earlier in the time, which will make you feel confident, and will increase the likelihood that you’ll get to more questions within the time limit. Makes sense?

Davis: Yeah, it makes perfect sense. You also avoid carelessness. Just to consider the opposite, if you were to front-load by just going sequentially and you get stuck with all of these data analysis questions up front, and you’re spending minutes examining graphs and everything, and then you get to these really simple questions, but your time is short, then your rate of error, your inefficiency, your lack of accuracy all go up because of that time constraint.

Orion: Oh, absolutely. So the primary driver of carelessness is the subjective sense of urgency.

Davis: And so we’re defending against that by skipping inherently time-consuming questions, getting all the ones that don’t take as much time but are still only worth one point per question.

Orion: That’s right, if you can skip like this. And let’s say you answer two-thirds of the questions in about one half of the time, you’re going to feel like you’re ahead of the clock, because you are, and that’s going to cause you to relax, it’s going to cause you to feel confident, it’s going to cause you to approach questions with a clear, stable frame of mind. Versus “I’m running out of time, I don’t really know what I’m doing, I have to cut corners.” It kind of becomes flailing and desperate. Which obviously, we want to avoid. That’s not associated with top performance at all.

Davis: So, okay, so that seems really logical and smart. And I know from experience, it’s effective. So then what about offensive skipping? What is that? What’s another reason to skip?

Orion: Great, so now with offensive skipping, we’re kind of like taking it to the enemy this time. So we can, besides skipping the questions that are likely going to suck our time, go directly to questions that we should be able to answer correctly in less than a minute. And there’s a certain type of question that you can identify in a half a second. These are the questions with variables in the answer choices. Variables in the answer choices mean that we can plug in. This is far and away the most frequently occurring diagnostic category in the quantitative section. I think the base rate is between 20 and 25%. Which means that between four and five problems in any given section will be plugging problems that we already know in advance we can solve using plugging in. It takes me, if I just skip through the test section until I find a question with variables in the answer choices, which would take half a second to visually determine, and in that next second, I start plugging in values, plug in two for x and three for y. Almost certainly, I can solve that question in less than a minute.

Davis: What does that mean?

Orion: That means that I could potentially solve five questions in five minutes right out of the gate, which means I can solve one quarter of the questions in 1/7 of the time, which is almost like lapping the test right out of the gate. This is really important for that reason that you just mentioned because if I can do a quarter of the questions in a seventh of the time, I am not going to feel rushed. I have like, I have the test on the ropes. I pushed it back. That’s why it’s offensive. And this is where grouping similar question types comes back.

So, if that’s what you mean, that’s a diagnostic tool too, to offensively directly go to the questions you know you can get ahead on quickly, reliably, and get them out of the way. And those are questions with variables in the answer choices because we know for sure, 100% of the time, that we can plug in. And if you’ve been practicing your plugging technique, you should be able to solve the vast majority of these in less than a minute, sometimes less than 30 seconds. And that is a huge game changer when it comes to the quantitative section of the GRE.

Davis: Are there any other types of questions that you can offensively skip other than variables in the answer choices reliably?

Orion: I don’t think so. If there are, I haven’t found them yet because a lot of questions that look sweet and innocent can actually be very time-consuming and devious. Appearances can be deceiving in life, and they certainly are so on the GRE. So, what I’ve discovered is that skipping offensively to questions with variables in the choices is the most consistently reliable way of finding problems that you can solve in less than a minute.

Davis: Well, there you have it. That’s defensive skipping in order to make sure you’re not draining your time at the beginning and creating an unhealthy mental environment for you to feel rushed for the rest of the test, and offensive skipping, going to the questions that are easily diagnosed as quick and easy to solve.

Orion: That’s awesome.

Davis: There’s so much more we could get into here. Like, if we haven’t already done an episode on diagnostic strategies for the quant section, I’m sure we’ll do one in the future.

Davis: 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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