Getting ahead of the clock on the GRE quant section: how to create a time buffer

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 we’ve spent some episodes in the weeds, and some episodes looking at the broad picture, zoomed out. Now, I want to understand something specific. We’ve talked about time and mental strategies before, but this time, I want to look at it from a different angle, specifically in the quant section. Is there a way to get ahead of the curve, to not always feel like you’re rushing, to not always feel like, “Oh, I don’t have enough time to really give this question what it needs. Let me skip around,” or whatever. So, how do you create a feeling of, “Oh, I’m ahead of the clock. I’m ahead of my time schedule”?

Orion: It definitely is possible to get that feeling on the GRE quant section. And it’s really important because one of the primary drivers of carelessness is the subjective sense of urgency, this feeling that I don’t have enough time to answer this question and I have to keep moving. That sort of internal pressure is just a breeding ground for small careless errors, which is really the bugbear of high scorers. They know how to answer all of the questions, but they are not yet getting the score they desire because of small, insignificant mistakes that they’re making. Right? They’re actually not so insignificant. Carelessness is the hardest thing to fix on the GRE. It can be fixed, but it’s usually the last thing to be fixed.

Davis: Okay, so how can we feel like we’re ahead of the clock, which will reduce this subjective sense of urgency, which will mitigate our carelessness and help us have a better and more positive experience with the test?

Orion: Well, first of all, I recommend skipping around on the quantitative section. Basically, we want to take two passes through each set. And if a question pops up and it meets one of our skipping criteria, we’re just going to save that for the second pass through. We’re not even going to read it or consider it now. We’re just going to skip and move on. My skipping criteria revolve around not whether a question is difficult or not because it takes time to determine a question’s difficulty level. We have to read it, we have to think about it, maybe try something else that doesn’t work. It’s just a specific diagnostic on this type of question.

Davis: Skip?

Orion: Yes. Because some questions are going to be inherently more time-consuming than other questions simply as a consequence of how they’re presented on the test. These are things like paragraph-long word problems. Maybe the math isn’t hard, but it’s going to take you a minute just to get down to the question mark. So, you know, there are questions that you can solve in less than a minute. So that’s really interesting. Just to make that concrete, a little bit of a paragraph word question is one question. It’s the same value, it’s the same value of points in your score, as another question that, you know, is a plug and chug.

Davis: Yes, that’s right. But if you can do three plug and chugs in the same time it would take you to do one paragraph word question, it makes a lot of sense. From that higher level, looking at it, skip the paragraph one first, get those three points out earlier when you’re deeper. And then if you have time, you can go back to that one point instead of spending your time at the first.

Orion: Yeah, and you should have time. So but that’s absolutely right. So we want to skip defensively, which is basically like we’re going to skip the big time-consuming questions on our first pass so that we can answer the questions that we have the highest likelihood of answering correctly and quickly first, on our first pass through. And there’s generally about one-third of the questions in any given quantitative set that meet one of my skippable criteria.

And so we’re going to answer about two-thirds of the questions on our first pass through. And that will feel, well, really, we will have gotten through most of the questions while we still have plenty of time left on the clock. And so we’ll also know exactly how much time we have left for exactly how many questions, which will also help us to pace ourselves more appropriately on our second pass through.

So again, this skimming strategy is mostly defensive because it prevents students from expending too much time on the first pass through on questions that, you know, that time could be spent answering two or three more efficient problems. And so you’re going to feel like you’re ahead of the clock because you will have answered 15 problems in 20 minutes instead of maybe only 10 if you’re just doing the questions sequentially. But just to tie that together.

Davis: That makes a lot of sense too. Because if you don’t practice this skipping method, if you’re not skipping defensively and organizing your time that way, you might blow a couple of minutes on a word problem that was just a little tricky to parse out. And then, you have that subjective sense of urgency on these three other easy questions. And you could make careless errors there, whereas if you did those first, with all the clock ahead of you, you’re much less likely to make careless errors. But I want to talk a little bit about this last part, which you said, “Okay, if you get through these two-thirds of the questions, then you have a better sense of how to allot your time for the remaining section.” How important is that? That internal perception of like, “How am I using my time? How am I going to allot my time?” Timing is super important on this test; it’s the most, I think it’s the most difficult component of the GRE is the time pressure.

And the clock will be ticking away second by second in the upper right-hand corner of the test, which I find to be nerve-wracking and distracting.

Orion: So there are a couple of things that I do. First of all, I toggle the timer off. I don’t like seeing it tick down second by second; I find it distracting. I find it anxiety-provoking. That said, I can’t ignore it entirely. Because it’s a timed test, I can’t pretend that that’s not a constraint. So what I do is I check in with the time limit every five problems. Five problems is a quarter of the set. A quarter of the time is about eight or nine minutes.

So I check in every five problems to see where I am relative to being about eight and a half minutes deeper into the set. If I do five problems, and I’ve only spent seven minutes, it’s like, “Oh, great, I have some, you know, chill out. I’ve banked a couple of minutes. I’m ahead of the clock.” Makes me feel good. If for whatever reason I check in on the timer, and I’m 10 minutes in, okay, well, it’s not the end of the world. But I clearly can’t keep that pace up and get to all the questions in the time limit. So checking in at this frequency allows me to course correct if and when I need to. Because that’s, you know, helps me attend to the reality of the test. That’s right. That’s right. So if you can get through what’s just in on average, if you get through two-thirds of the test, you’re skipping those skippable questions for the second pass.

Davis: Yeah. And you’re looking at the clock. What, you know, after two-thirds of the problems, are you about halfway through the time?

Orion: Yeah, ideally, this might not happen right away. But what I usually tell students is we’re going to take two passes through each quantitative set. We’re going to do the first two-thirds of problems we don’t skip right then and there. And ideally, those two-thirds of problems we complete in about 20 minutes. That obviously reserves the final 15 minutes for the inefficient problems we did skip. If you do the math, these inefficient problems get more time per question, like prorated, which they need because they’re inefficient.

Davis: Yeah, but they get the minority of minutes, only 15 versus 20, which is important because they’re the minority of points. Like, you know, like you mentioned, these time-consuming problems aren’t worth more than the quantitative comparison questions that you can generally do in less than a minute.

So it’s important to get as many points as we can while we still feel like there’s plenty of time on the clock, because that will allow us to be cool, calm, and collected, reduce our carelessness, and get the points that we deserve to get. Is there also a time, I know you’ve spoken – this is a little tangential to the focus of this episode – but is there also a time you reserve at the end? To say, “Okay, any questions that I haven’t gotten to yet, let me go throw in an answer because you can’t get penalized for wrong answers.”

Orion: Yeah, that’s a good question. So generally, what I do, best practices, is when I decide to skip a problem, I put in a placeholder answer. Okay, I hit ‘mark’, which is like this little red flag in the toolbar. So I can go back there very, very easily on my second pass, and then I just move on to the next prompt. So it’s a three-click flow: placeholder, mark, next. Placeholder, mark, next. It takes a second, and you’re doing that on your first pass. That’s right, because worst case scenario, I lose track of time, time gets away from me, the section just ends. Now everything at least has an answer.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: So I don’t have to stop what I’m doing when there’s 30 seconds left, and in this, you know, very frenetic fashion. Yeah, it’s like everything has been taken care of. And I know it’s a placeholder because I’ve marked it. And that also allows me to go back to those questions very quickly, using the review function in the toolbar. So I don’t have to just go forwards and backwards sequentially through the prompts. But there’s one more thing I want to mention, which is that we can kind of get ahead of the clock by skipping offensively.

Davis: So we’ve talked about like skipping defensively, let’s not spend our time on the time-consuming questions on our first pass through and like we’re protecting our time, we can also skip aggressively, offensively, because there are certain types of problems that are easy to recognize that, in the vast majority of cases, you can solve in 60 seconds or less. And these are questions with variables in the answer choices; these are plug-in problems. And there’s usually going to be four or five of them per problem set, like 20 to 25% of the test, and the quantitative test. If you just skip through the set, looking for variables in the answer choices, you can skip offensively and just get those done first.

Orion: Yeah, because I’ll skip, skip all variables. Within two seconds, I know that I’m plugging in, I can start by plugging x is two, is minus three. And I can generally solve these problems in 45 seconds, 60 seconds. And if I can solve five questions in five minutes, that’s a huge game changer because I’ve just finished a quarter of the test in like, what, like a seventh of the time. I mean, it’s huge. So that’s a way that you can bank a lot of time, right out of the gate by skipping offensively. But that’s a more advanced strategy. Students should only do that once they’ve mastered the defensive skipping because that’s more important in the early stages.

Davis: And just to clarify, when you skip offensively within that first pass, you’re not necessarily, because you’re going for speed there, you’re not necessarily, if you’re skipping problems, are you doing that three-click flow?

Orion: No, if I’m skipping offensively, because it’s the first five minutes, I know, I’m not going to be running out of time. That’s not a danger here. So I just didn’t you just burning through looking for variables in the answer choices, getting those done, and then plugging in as quickly as possible. And hopefully, I can get five points in five minutes. That one key thing to point out here is that with this strategy, what I’ve noticed is that then you get in a flow if you’re specifically skipping just on this offensive way. You’re, you get in the flow of “I know I’m just doing plug-in exercises,” and then it’s just, you’ve got instead of switching between different diagnostic strategies, you’re just, “I’m going to do all these first.”

Davis: That’s a great point. Because one of the hardest things about the test is that the questions, you don’t know what type of questions they are, you don’t know what their diagnoses are, you don’t know their difficulty. The test is not in descending order of difficulty. So you do have to spend time on the front end, trying to figure out just what you’re dealing with. And if you know, “I’m just going to be doing plugging in, because I’m looking for this one, very common diagnostic type.”

Orion: Yeah, you should be able to solve those questions way more efficiently than if they’re mixed up with other problems.

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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