Don’t clip coupons on the quantitative section of the GRE: shortcuts cost you

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.

Again, we’re talking about this week’s strategies for the quantitative section primarily. I’ve heard you use this phrase before, which is “clipping coupons,” and it’s something to avoid. The way I understand that is, you know, thinking that you could, rather than writing out certain steps, just do a little bit of mental math, hold an answer in your head, and somehow skip forward a few steps and be faster on it. But that’s something you’ve expressly said not to do.

Orion: Yes.

Davis: Please elaborate. Don’t clip coupons, correct?

Orion: So what you just described is one example. For example, rather than writing things down, doing a little bit of mental math or arithmetic to save the few seconds of actually making the math explicit on your piece of paper is an example of basically taking a shortcut. I call that clipping a coupon because it doesn’t really save you all that much. In terms of time, it saves you fewer than five seconds, maybe even less. And that’s primarily why people don’t clip coupons in real life, either.

Like, I mean, do you clip coupons? Don’t you like saving money?

Davis: Dude, it’s just not worth the time.

Orion: Exactly. Like, if you spend a half hour clipping coupons, that’s going to save you $4. You’re basically working for $8 an hour, which is less than half of minimum wage here in California. That’s not a really good use of your time. Do you see? So, plus, half the time I’ve tried to clip coupons, I ended up losing them or not having them when I need them in the store. Remember to bring them, and often you don’t. It’s a huge hassle.

Davis: So basically, it’s not worth it.

Orion: Yes, and on a very absolute level, you can save some money. But if you take a more economic, holistic view, you’re actually, on some level, losing money. Because what if you spent a half hour of time on an extra half hour on your side hustle, right? Your job? Like, how much money are you going to make in a half an hour versus how much are you going to save by devoting that half an hour to clipping coupons, right? You’re actually losing money. In that perspective, diminishing returns on your investment of time, that half an hour would be much more profitably spent increasing your income than attempting to reduce your expenses.

Davis: So in the context of the quant section of the GRE, rather than thinking, “Oh, I can just take a shortcut, do a little mental math,” what are the examples of clipping coupons there in the GRE?

Orion: Clipping coupons is generally a last step. So, most students, before they work with me, get into questions slowly. They reread problems multiple times, try to think out solutions all the way to the finish before they get started. For these students, the hard part is understanding how to solve the problem. On some level, they believe that understanding how to solve it is actually the crux of the question. Once they reach that understanding, they rush through the actual solution, through the steps they need to pass through to safely arrive at the conclusion. Right? And it’s in passing through those steps that students try to save seconds. They’re trying to clip coupons here.

Davis: Why?

Orion: Because they’ve spent minutes, sometimes, in preparation for the solution. They spent minutes reading and rereading, thinking, and considering. Then, once they’ve hit upon a solution, they’re like, “I don’t have the time; I need to pass through this as quickly as possible.” So, my approach is basically the complete opposite. We get into questions fast, sometimes without even knowing how or why anything we’re doing is used. As soon as you can do something, reading the question for the first time, start doing that; it’s continuous solving.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: So, we read until we can do something, then we stop and force ourselves to do it, suspending judgment as to whether or not it will be useful. We basically solve the question continuously but in a state of relative uncertainty, with, let’s say, the faith that everything will come together in the final analysis.

We get into questions within seconds, but we move through each step slowly and carefully. We recognize that, with enough preparation, understanding how to solve a problem is something we can master. We can look at a question, based on our structure and content diagnoses, recognize the type of problem we’re dealing with in seconds, cue up the relevant strategies in our working memory that have worked in the past, and boom, we know how to solve the question, sometimes not even reading it, in a matter of seconds, at a glance at times.

So, Stellar students, after a sufficient amount of time, don’t get stumped on how to solve the problem. More and more of their error variance becomes due to their own carelessness. And obviously, the faster you go, the more likely you are to make careless errors.

Davis: We did an episode about that, you know, the battle between accuracy and efficiency.

Orion: That’s really why it’s not worth it to clip coupons on the GRE. Saving those few seconds by skipping one step will triple or quadruple your careless error rate, making it more likely that the student will blow the point.

On the very last step, students tend to clip coupons because they can see the finish line. Carelessness is always caused by mentally time traveling, as I think I’ve said in the past, which basically means students are thinking about what they’re going to do while they’re still doing something else.

Sometimes they’re mentally time traveling just a second ahead of where they are. Their hand is writing something, but they’re thinking about what they’re going to write next.

Davis: Yep.

Orion: And then, their hand writes something else. It writes what they planned to write on the next step, on the previous step, and that’s where carelessness comes in, without awareness, because the person is not in the present moment. They’re only one second ahead of the present moment. But that’s enough of a gap to create the opportunity for carelessness to rear its head.

Davis: And the whole question can be destroyed, basically.

Orion: That’s right. So that’s also why we talk about how the GRE is really a measure of sustained mindfulness. It’s like, how can you stay on the razor’s edge, in the present moment, not one second ahead of yourself or an hour behind yourself? For four straight hours, it’s extremely hard to do.

Davis: So, clipping coupons, what does that look like?

Orion: It’s often mental math. It’s relinquishing fail-safes. As I think I’ve mentioned in a previous episode, our objective, idiosyncratic behaviors, should prevent the manifestation of carelessness if utilized, like mouthing the number that you mean to write in that step, keeping yourself focused as you’re writing it.

Davis: That’s a great one. I mean, I call it vocal self-talk. I look like a maniac when I take the test because I’m using all these behavioral tricks to keep myself on the straight and narrow, because I realize I’m the greatest source of my own error, right? And then, if you do something like that, which you call a fail-safe?

Orion: Yeah, a fail-safe is quiet self-talk or sub-vocal self-talk, so you’re not bothering other people. But what that does, right, is it gives you the opposite of clipping a coupon; you’re giving yourself that point of reference if all of a sudden you’re mentally time traveling.

Davis: But you’ve already been saying, you have a point where you can see there’s an error there, and you can check it, safeguard against it.

Orion: Yeah, that’s right. And often, people jettison a fail-safe, like sub-vocal self-talk, because it does slow them down. But that’s by design. Solving questions at the rate of speech is actually a more humane way of solving prompts at the rate of thought, which moves like lightning and can very quickly and without warning, go off on tangents that aren’t really useful to students.

So, by slowing things down, students are more likely to avoid unproductive tangents and are also less likely to make careless mistakes. But by design, it does slow them down. And so, if students start to get panicked or anxious because they’re running out of time, or they just become impatient, the fail-safes are usually the first things they throw overboard. But they’re so light, they only take a few seconds to do; they’re not actually saving the ship by throwing them overboard. They should be throwing the heavier stuff overboard, and the heavier stuff includes things like rereading problems multiple times, double-checking your work, or solving questions both algebraically and using the plug-in strategy, or something like that. Those are weighty things that take much longer, sometimes even minutes, to accomplish, and are more likely to save the ship than throwing off the bunting, you know, which are the little fail-safes that only take a couple of seconds to do anyway.

Davis: So again, it’s about investing our effort and time in something that’s going to give us a positive return on that effort and time, as opposed to a diminishing return.

Orion: Of course, that’s right. I mean, that’s just optimization in anything, right? We want to give our time and energies to the things that have the best possible chances to create the biggest positive result for us.

Davis: That’s right.

Orion: I mean, Stellar is all about data-driven empirical science. It’s like we’ve got it down to an art. It’s like, do these things, and on the whole, statistically speaking, this is your best possible chance of getting the most questions right in the shortest amount of time, consistently. That’s it. That’s why people pay me money. Anything else is just like snake oil salesmanship.

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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