How to stop the bleeding on the quantitative section: you’re wasting more time than you think

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, today’s topic: we’ve discussed accuracy versus efficiency and time pressure in a previous episode. We haven’t yet delved into specific strategies for when you’re taking the GRE and you’re conscious of the time, but despite practice tests after practice tests, you just can’t seem to finish sections in time. What are ways to prevent time from slipping away?

Orion: Excellent question. As I’ve mentioned in previous episodes, the time constraint is really the most challenging aspect of this test. If you had unlimited time, this assessment would be significantly easier. The reality is that if you can’t answer a question in 90 seconds or less, you probably can’t answer it at all. That’s something I want to emphasize to students right away: practicing untimed individual questions isn’t a good strategy for GRE prep. It might give you a false sense of confidence. It’s nice to feel capable, a good ego boost.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: But knowing how to do it isn’t sufficient. When you face a section of 20 questions to complete in 35 minutes or less, it’s a totally different game. If you haven’t been practicing under these constraints, the experience will feel very different. Therefore, rehearsing under non-valid conditions can detrimentally impact your score in the long run. So, avoid practicing untimed individual questions.

Davis: Okay, yeah. So, the first point is about the way you practice, right? You’re suggesting not to practice one question at a time, even though it feels good to know how to solve a problem. And you’ve also said, regarding the 90-second rule per question, that in a previous episode, you mentioned not being overly focused on timing every single question, but rather checking in every four or five minutes.

Orion: True. We don’t want to micromanage ourselves question by question. When tackling the full set of 20 problems, the 90-second rule is a guideline. You can’t always adhere to it strictly, as some questions will take more than 90 seconds and others less. It’s a rule of thumb, meaning in general, you should aim to complete questions in 90 seconds or less. Otherwise, you can’t truly claim to have mastered the concept or the timing. Does that clarify things?

Davis: Yeah, no, that does. But in terms of the time being the most challenging aspect of the test, as you’ve already said, if you’re practicing sets of 20 questions in 35 minutes and still running short on time, it’s like a medical emergency – you need to identify the source of the bleeding. So, what are the common high time-drain issues that people encounter?

Orion: Yes, it’s a very common issue. People try their hardest to complete full quantitative sets but still end up five or six questions short. It can be very frustrating and demoralizing. I’ve identified five primary culprits of time sink in the quantitative section. When I work with a student struggling with timing, I go through this list. Generally, if a student addresses all five culprits, they’ll find it much easier to complete all the questions within the time limit going forward. Ready?

Davis: Yeah. What are these five?

Orion: Okay, number one, and most importantly, are rabbit holes. Rabbit holes are what I call situations where a student spends five, six, seven, or eight minutes on a single question. It’s a sunk cost issue. They start the question, spend three minutes, and then think they must get it right to avoid wasting those minutes, investing even more time. Sometimes they spend up to ten minutes on one problem. I’ve seen that happen. So, it’s crucial to avoid this. You might spend five minutes on one problem, maybe, if it’s the last one you’re addressing and you’ve been efficient with the others, but this isn’t something you can afford to do repeatedly over the course of a set.

Davis: So at what point do you pump the brakes? And you’re just like, “This question is taking too long. Let me just come back to it at the end if I have time.”

Orion: Yeah, my line in the sand is three minutes. So, if after three minutes, you don’t have a solution to a given problem, you should make an educated guess. It shouldn’t be totally random at that point. Have an educated guess, based on the work you’ve done thus far, and then you move on with your life. You’ll make a guess. You don’t just leave it; you definitely never leave a question blank, because you can’t lose points on the GRE, you just fail to gain them. So there’s no reason not to at least, you know, throw something in and see if it sticks, right? But the point is, you make an educated guess and you move on. You don’t tag it in your mind and think, “Oh, I’ll come back to this later.” Right. That’s done. You know, we’re rolling that up in a carpet, driving to the bridge, and we’re never talking about what happened here again. We’re not coming back to the crime. So the first one is just stop. Don’t fall down any rabbit holes. Be really disciplined about that three-minute line.

Davis: Yeah. Okay. All right.

Orion: Number two is double checking, triple checking your work.

Davis: You should just have the confidence to do the question once and move on?

Orion: Well, that is a different question. Whether or not you have the confidence is kind of irrelevant because that’s a felt emotional state. And that’s actually why students do a lot of these time-bleeding behaviors. They’re actually trying to feel more confident. I personally would also feel more confident if I double checked and triple checked my work to make sure I didn’t make any careless errors. The issue is, what’s the likelihood that I am going to catch a careless error in that double check, versus that’s another 60 seconds that I could have used to solve half of the problem? If I’m doing that multiple times over the course of the set, that’s, I’m not getting to three, four questions within the time limit. So whether or not you feel calm, confident, I’m just suggesting that you don’t have time to double check or triple check. If you do, that’s the accuracy versus efficiency game that we were talking about in a previous episode. Your accuracy might go up, but I think kind of negligibly. But your efficiency is definitely going to go down. Right?

Davis: So if you get to a solution, that’s your answer. Okay, cross your fingers, you’re not going to know if you got it right or wrong anyway, so you might as well click that button and move on to the next question.

Orion: Alright. So one, no sunken cost fallacy, no rabbit holes. Two, no double checking, no triple checking your work, trying to look for confidence, reacting emotionally. Three is what I call double solving. So, this is a little bit different from double checking. Like, okay, so for example, I have a number of really clever techniques to answer certain types of quantitative questions. And one of the most common ones is plugging in whenever there are variables in the answer choices, so instead of doing algebra, you pick numbers like two, three, and you kind of do the arithmetic instead. So double solving is okay. A student plugs in, like he or she is “supposed to” in the stellar method, and they get an answer, but then they think, “Well, let me just solve it algebraically as well, just to be sure that my clever technique still works with this problem.”

Davis: Exactly.

Orion: So, it’s not like they’re checking their work for carelessness, but they’re actually solving their questions with two different strategies, plugging in and algebra. And so they’re solving that question twice. If they’re doing that every problem, they’re actually trying to answer 40 questions within 35 minutes, which is less than a minute per problem. I mean, that’s just not feasible for anybody. So, you can’t double solve either.

Davis: Okay, no double solving. Number three, number four.

Orion: Okay. I know I said five.

Davis: You’re trying to remember what the fifth one is? Because I never had the fourth.

Orion: So, the fourth one is, don’t linger.

Davis: Okay. Is lingering different than rabbit hole, because you’re not emotionally committed? What’s the emotional reason?

Orion: Well, it’s also, all of these are emotional coping strategies at the end of the day, but the difference is, with rabbit holes or double checking, you’re doing something. With lingering, you’re just kind of… it’s like you saw the question. You think that it’s C? And you sit there thinking, “Am I sure that it’s C? I look at everything. Am I ready to move on? Yes, or is there anything else I have to do here? Okay, I think I’m ready to say it. C, right.” So, you could spend like four or five seconds, but over the course of 20… Well, that was closer to 10 seconds. And then, you know, 20 times that, it’s 200 seconds. That’s close to three and a half minutes. That could be another two problems. That’s right. So, the question here is, once we get to a solution, we move on to the next problem with purpose and without hesitation. So, it’s like you do the math, answer is C, C next, shake the Etch A Sketch. It’s done, redo, you click the button, and you move on to the next question before you even allow the opportunity to second guess what you’ve done.

Davis: Gotcha. So, you have to build on that time. You have to keep pace.

Orion: Oh, absolutely. There is a pace that you tend to find once you get in the habit of answering all the questions within the time limit. Like, for example, I generally spend about 34 minutes answering those 20 questions when I take problems myself. Yeah, you know, I never feel hurried, because I’m reliably coming in between 33 and 34 minutes. So I’m never running out of time, just coming close to the end. But I know that my pace is such that I always finish with about a minute left. And so, I kind of like trust that pace, which is about solving, reading, and moving on from problems. It’s not moving fast at all. I mean, if I really wanted to show off, I could probably answer the questions in half the time. But then, of course, I leave myself vulnerable to careless errors. So I deliberately move at a slow, constant pace, that’s still within the time limit, but that I feel is consistent and without hesitation.

Davis: Okay, so rabbit holes, avoid rabbit holes.

Orion: Yep. Sunk cost, you said, was double, like double checking, triple checking. Three was a little different, which is double solving using two different methods. Right? Four, you’re saying, is lingering; it’s like you’re not actually doing anything, but you’re still kind of running through some checklists in your head.

Davis: Yep, checking things out. You said there were five.

Orion: Yes, thank you for doing extra; it gave me time to remember what the fifth one was, which is rereading problems. So you don’t have time to be rereading, and certainly not rereading or rereading problems, especially if they’re paragraph long.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: So one of the things I talk about in my system is the benefit of continuous solving, which is something we’ll probably have to talk about in another full episode. But basically, it means that we solve as we go. Therefore, we don’t spend two, three minutes just trying to understand the problem and how all the different moving parts fit together. We’re doing the smallest next quantum of math all along the way, and so we never have to reread problems. So those are the five primary culprits of time delay, and if you can stop those five things, you’re going to free up enough space to answer several more questions within the time limit. That’s almost a guarantee. That sounds great.

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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