How to approach GRE problems: the counterintuitive process that works

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, let’s get to it. I just want to ask you a simple question today. Is there an overall strategy, just a generalized strategy, that one could have in mind taking the GRE to go through problems given the timed nature of the test?

Orion: I believe that there is. The best general orientation to approaching a GRE problem is to get into it quickly and out of it slowly. To really understand that, let’s first talk about the opposite—what not to do. This is generally how most people naively approach the test: they get into problems slowly and out of them quickly. What does that look like?

That means they spend most of their time thinking about the problem before starting to solve it. This often involves reading and rereading the problem to understand it fully because they believe that the most challenging part is figuring out how to address it.

So, they dedicate most of their time to thinking all the way through to the solution. Once they’ve determined that, they quickly move to the actual execution of the solution. On some level, they believe that going through the steps is merely a formality; the real challenge is in understanding the problem. Implementing the solution becomes a chore that they want to complete as quickly as possible. This approach, of course, is maladaptive in several ways.

First of all, it’s incredibly time-inefficient. Spending all that time thinking and rereading wastes precious minutes. Secondly, by rushing to the execution of the solution, you dramatically increase the manifestation of carelessness, and you tend to blow points more frequently than you otherwise would.

Davis: I can totally relate both as a teacher tutoring kids on the SATs and other standardized tests, as well as from my own experience taking tests. What you’re describing is a very normal process. In a test scenario, people bring to bear a greater level of attention, thinking, “Oh, this is a test; I need to be really careful.” And they’re reading, and they want to make sure they understand it really carefully and really accurately. Then, at some point, it dawns on them, “Oh, I’ve been spending a lot of time on this; I better move quickly. I have many tests left.”

I appreciate your perspective, which is, you know, the opposite of that, which I want to hear you speak about more in just a minute, which is, you know, get in fast, have an executive outlook from the start, isolate the important pieces of the question first that you can address immediately get through those and then avoid those careless mistakes. Tell me more about that fast in and slow out approach.

Orion: Yeah, this is really important. Some questions will have very unambiguous, recognizable diagnostic signs, some problems will not. In fact, for some problems, the solution to them only reveals themselves in the solving. It’s very, very hard without doing anything to know all the steps that would be required to arrive at the solution. But sometimes, simply by doing the only next thing you can do, the next step reveals itself in the solution. Sometimes, diagnosis evolves as you move through the solution as well. These things are hidden until you take some action in the direction of the solution.

Davis: Okay, so what does it look like to be fast in and slow out?

Orion: Well, that’s why, in the Stellar system, we have a second-by-second strategy for how to approach a new GRE problem. In that first second, upon seeing that question, we decide whether we’re going to do it right then and there or skip it for our second pass-through. That holds true for both the verbal and the quantitative sections.

Since that’s based on immediately recognizable visual criteria, that only takes one second; in the next second, we move into the efficiency strategy, which is diagnosis. This should take about 10 seconds. It takes about 10 seconds to look at the answer choices, to figure out the structure of the problem, which will suggest a general problem-solving strategy that might be appropriate for this question, and maybe another few seconds to do a soft scan on the problem to recognize any of the immediately apparent diagnostic signs.

Remember, every question has either English words or arithmetic symbols or geometric shapes that you can point to and say this is this type of problem. And with more experience with diagnosis, those diagnostic signs will jump out at you like landmarks in the desert; the more experience you have, the faster it is to see those diagnostic signs.

So, pretty much within the first 10 seconds of encountering a novel problem, you should know whether you’re doing it right then and there, and you should know what kind of problem you’re likely dealing with and which specific techniques or general problem-solving strategies might be appropriate to that question.

That said, even if that doesn’t quite happen, like in the examples I gave earlier about diagnoses not being immediately apparent, if after 10 seconds, you haven’t been able to figure out what type of problem you’re dealing with, you get into the question anyway, through efficiency strategy number three, which is continuous solving.

Continuous solving means that rather than reading the question multiple times to come up with a holistic understanding of the problem and its solution, we read until we can do something, and we force ourselves to stop right then and there and do that thing without knowing how or why that thing will actually be helpful to the ultimate solution. It’s sort of like you do it on faith.

Davis: Absolutely. I couldn’t agree with you more. This is like a gold paradigm shift. Just to reiterate a few points you made, Orion, we should avoid approaching problems with the feeling of “Let me be really careful and meticulous until I understand how to solve it.” This continuous problem-solving approach is incredibly valuable. I’ve seen it work for myself and others.

What it does is it changes what would be the natural, intuitive human approach, which is “Let me go in carefully. Let me try to wrap my head around the whole problem, get the whole landscape.” And then, once I’ve got that moment of, “Oh, I know how to do this,” then I rushed through the work. Those careless mistakes are what differentiate top scores from average scores on the GRE.

To really take your game to the top score level, use this strategy of jumping in and doing what you can immediately after you’ve completed these diagnostic processes. By the way, all of them are specifically explained for each of the different types of problems in Orion’s StellarGRE self-study program and private tutoring courses. So, what’s the slow out part?

Orion: Part of the slow out is in continuous solving. You’re absolutely right; we want to disabuse ourselves. The tendency is to solve questions holistically because it’s very easy for one thing to shift in your working memory when you’re trying to keep 7-9-10 things in your working memory simultaneously.

Ideally, you’re focusing on the smallest next quantum of the problem and giving that your full undivided attention. So continuous solving is an efficiency strategy because it prevents you from reading the question multiple times. And it’s kind of a carelessness strategy, too, because it limits your focus to the smallest actionable step of the problem. The idea here is to give your full, undivided attention to the one and only one step of the problem that you’re currently focusing on. And to do that at a slow and measured rate.

You can even, on some level, solve that step 50% slower than you otherwise would because we’re never going to have to reread a problem. If we solve things in a calm, measured way, we will never make it less likely that we will make a misstep, which will cause us to waste more time. Sometimes, taking shortcuts actually tends to be the long way around.

So, if you implement a lot of these strategies, you can actually go more slowly and more carefully through your solution because you’re not bleeding time and unnecessary ways elsewhere.

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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