Do you need to answer every question on the GRE?: hit your target score strategically

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 the GRE is a long test with many questions and many sections. Simple question here: Do you need to answer every question? What’s the consequence for not answering questions?

Orion: Yeah, great question. This comes up a lot with beginner students. First of all, there is no penalty for not answering a question. There’s also no penalty for answering a question incorrectly. When you put those two facts together, at the very least, every student, even if he or she is running out of time, should make sure that every single question on the test is answered, even if it’s a random guess. Because, hey, who knows? It’s like a free pull of the slot machine with much better odds, actually, since most questions give you a roughly 20% chance of getting it right.

Davis: You know, that’s not bad for Vegas.

Orion: So, because there’s no penalty for leaving questions blank or answering questions incorrectly, you should answer every single question. However, that’s not really the spirit of this question. I think the real question is, “Should I genuinely attempt every problem within the time limit?” For many students, especially when starting out, that’s not a realistic goal. If we’re aiming to answer every quantitative problem within the time limit, considering there are 20 problems and the section lasts 35 minutes, that equates to a minute and 45 seconds per question.

Most students, initially, cannot answer most questions at that pace. So, they might not be able to genuinely attempt all 20 problems. To those students, I say: that’s okay. In the beginning, it’s more beneficial to focus on accuracy rather than efficiency. At the very least, a student should aim to have a better chance of answering a question correctly than incorrectly.

In other words, your accuracy rate should exceed 50% before you begin to emphasize efficiency. Once you’re more likely to answer correctly than incorrectly, then it’s rational to tackle more questions. But until then, your focus should be on securing the points you can earn. I’ve worked with students who initially answered zero questions correctly. This podcast caters to individuals like them, as well as those who are already answering 19 out of 20 correctly before seeking my help. So, this guidance is primarily for those scoring lower initially. One reason they might score low is their attempt to maintain pace. These individuals need more time per question, and that’s acceptable. The priority should be on earning points before trying to answer more questions within the given time.

Davis: No, that makes a lot of sense.

Orion: And this is, you know, doing a practice test for the first time and putting yourself in the context of taking the GRE, or even just a section of the GRE. I can totally see the reality of that, saying, “Okay, I’ve got 35 minutes; I need to finish all 20 questions,” and then half-heartedly answering each question because I think I need to get to every one. In doing so, I haven’t really learned how to do the test better at all. Whereas the strategy you’re suggesting, as you said, is a bit more rational. If I sit down and focus on actually getting the question right, then I’ll have a better foundation for what I need to improve in order to actually get the target score that I want.

Davis: Yeah, that’s well said.

Orion: So, in the beginning, if you’re scoring very low on your initial diagnostics, I would recommend that you skip aggressively. You want to proactively skip to try to find questions that are recognizable to you. These could be questions that you already feel naturally competent to solve or questions that you’ve reviewed in the stellar program.

Remember, all the chapters are ranked in descending order of base rates, so we present the most common question types first. When you go into a new practice set or a practice test, you can skip until you find a question that you recognize. For instance, “Oh, this is a circle problem because there’s a circle. I studied circle problems, so I might be able to solve this one.” If you look at a question and, within five seconds or so, you can’t figure out even what type of problem it is, just skip it. That might not be the point for you right now. Does that make sense?

Davis: Yeah, so to be clear, we’re discussing whether students should attempt to answer every question. Orion is breaking it down: if you’re taking the GRE after going through an entire study program and there are a few questions you haven’t answered, provide an answer. You’ll have a better chance of earning some credit for it. But now, we’re discussing whether one should answer every question in practice tests to better develop the skills needed to excel at the test overall.

What you’re highlighting, Orion, is logical. In the initial phases of tackling the GRE and gaining exposure to different practice sets and sections, it’s wise to aggressively skip certain questions. Focus on accuracy first; this strategy will guide your study most effectively. Once you’ve reached a point where you’re more likely to answer a question correctly than incorrectly, then you can shift your focus to efficiency.

Orion: Now, in the beginning, let’s say you’re answering six questions within the time limit. Your next run-through on a practice set or a mock exam, try to answer eight questions within the same limit. You need to titrate and scaffold your performance throughout your prep; you’re not going to go from answering six to all 20 in one step. So with every subsequent practice set or practice test, try to answer one or two questions max more per that run-through. And that’s how you move reliably in the direction of your goals.

Finally, most students don’t need a perfect score, right? So you need to figure out what score you need to get what you want in this grad school admissions process. It’s probably not a perfect score, which means that you have some wiggle room. Even higher-performing students need to take this into consideration. Even at a lot of programs, if you can score around the 160 to 163 level, that’s a competitive application, which basically means that you have to answer around 17 questions in each set within the time limit. So you actually don’t even have to answer all the questions if you are a high-performing student trying to get into a competitive program. But that’s something that you need to do the due diligence on beforehand to know how much room you have to give with respect to your actual performance.

Davis: I appreciate that fresh perspective as well in terms of taking the final test relative to what program you’re trying to get into.

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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