The GRE is a game of seconds: how to be more efficient

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, so let’s just jump right in. I’ve heard you say before, “You know, baseball is a game of inches,” they say, “but the GRE is a game of seconds.” What do you mean?

Orion: Well, I don’t know if anyone says that, but I say that.

Davis: So they say about baseball being a game of inches?

Orion: Oh, they absolutely say that. Yes, that’s it.

Davis: You’ve said, “I’ve heard you say, ‘Well, people say that baseball is a game of inches.’ And then you personally say in a similar manner that the GRE is a game of seconds.”

Orion: I don’t think I’ve heard anybody else say that. But I think it’s true with respect to the GRE because what makes a big difference in, let’s say, baseball is being able to get to the base a fraction of a second earlier than the ball or being able to extend through the swing, you know, a fraction of an inch further to make the ball travel just a little bit faster. That’s what actually separates the folks who are in the majors from the folks who are in the AAA minor leagues, who are often extremely talented themselves. The person who’s in the majors might be batting .250, while the person in the minors might be batting .248. So, the difference between good and great performance in the sport of baseball comes down to increasingly minute improvements in performance.

So, with respect to the GRE, I say that it’s a game of seconds. The most challenging aspect of this test is the time limit. Being able to shave 5-10 seconds off your standard approach to a problem can make the difference between a good score and a truly great score. That’s why, in the Stellar system, we focus on how to approach problems more than the factual information required to solve them. Obviously, that information is provided and necessary. However, top performance on the GRE is really about the process. It’s about the approach, the “how”, rather than just the “what” – merely knowing the appropriate formulas or vocabulary words.

Davis: In other words, both of us have seen really intelligent students with an incredible breadth and depth of knowledge. However, when placed in a timed situation, like the GRE, even with all the knowledge in the world, if they don’t know how to perform under that time constraint, they won’t achieve the target score. Picking up on your metaphor, it’s like having a baseball diamond. The difference between someone making it home and just getting a double or triple can be mere inches by the time the ball gets there. Similarly, when hitting a home run, a few inches can determine whether the outfielder catches it as a pop fly, resulting in an out, or it sails out of the park for a homerun. What you’re saying about the GRE is that, even if someone is consistently good, without an awareness of the time aspect, their performance can still fall short. Even with a high batting average in the minor leagues, if you always fall just shy of hitting it out of the park, you’ll find yourself out more often than not.

Orion: That’s exactly right. Maybe you do like baseball. This is cool. We should go to a game sometime.

So, in the Stellar system approach, we have a very specific second-by-second approach to problems. I don’t think this exists in any other test prep system. Let’s break it down. For example, on a quantitative question: In the first second upon encountering a problem, we decide whether we’re going to address it immediately or skip it. It only takes one second to figure that out because that decision is based on immediately recognizable visual criteria.

By the time we associate that with a generalizable strategy linked to one of the four structure diagnoses, we should be three seconds into the problem. By the fifth second, we take a soft scan of the content, the body of the actual question. We don’t dive in with intense focus right away because we might miss the bigger picture.

So, we take a soft scan to see what stands out. Are we looking at geometric figures? An obvious cue is spotting triangles or circles. If you see them, you know the type of problem you’re dealing with.
Do you see any kind of strange mathematical notation, like “f of x” or exponents? Are those immediately recognizable? Or are there words or phrases that are consistently associated with certain diagnostic categories, such as the word “probability,” the word “ratio,” or the phrase “arithmetic mean”? Once you understand that there are only 50 different types of quantitative problems and recognize the diagnostic signs associated with each of them, you’ll be scanning for those signs. They’ll stand out to you because you know what you’re looking for.

Rather than immediately tapping into a knowledge base of “I know how to do that,” in the initial pass, it’s more about strategy than knowledge. As you’ve mentioned, it’s a process. You’re able to identify which problems to tackle first, organizing your time to maximize your score in the least amount of time, and leaving extra time for the questions that might be a little bit trickier.

Davis: I mean, the way you’re talking about it now makes me think about baseball more. I knew more about it in childhood, but it’s making sense now. It’s like taking that guy who can hit consistently; anything you throw at him, he can hit. But he just can’t hit it out of the park; he always hits it to the midfield or something. That guy is like someone who can answer every problem on the GRE; he just can’t answer within the time limit. Given time, he could do it.

So, it’s interesting because in baseball, players might turn to steroids to enhance their muscle power to hit further. In the GRE, while using steroids is illegal, you can strategize the test. You focus on the time limits as your primary challenge, which isn’t illegal. Stellar is the performance-enhancing tool for GRE test-takers, and it’s legal in all 50 states.

So the bottom line for the GRE is this: your primary focus should be understanding the rules of the game, especially the time limit. Concentrate on the strategies that StellarGRE can teach you to best navigate those time constraints to maximize your score. If you prioritize managing the time rather than merely relying on knowledge, you’ll have the tools to perform much better.

Orion: That’s right. Because if you can begin rehearsing that process earlier on in your prep, you’re going to reinforce it to a greater extent. It’s going to be more familiar, and you’ll have greater confidence. It’ll be more accurate. So, the benefits will redound to you earlier and more significantly. There are many different ways that we approach this “game of seconds” in the Stellar system. We’ve talked in previous episodes about offensive skipping, defensive skipping, and time bleeds, which absolutely have no place in your process. We’ve also discussed continuous solving. All of these respect the time limit, which is by far the most challenging aspect of this test and which most programs willfully ignore.

Davis: That’s awesome. So again, you’ve heard it here first: StellarGRE is the steroids of GRE test prep.

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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