What to do if you have too much time on the GRE: how to pace yourself properly

Davis: Hey, everybody! Welcome back. This is GRE Bites. I’m Davis, an educator with over 10 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 stellargre.com. You can use the code “BITES” for 10% off all memberships.

Alright, let’s get into today’s topic, which is contrary to what we’ve talked about a lot, with respect to time management: a game of seconds, not having enough time. I wanted to acknowledge that there’s an experience some people have where they get to the end of a section, and maybe they have a minute or so or two minutes left. What should a person do? Even on the writing section? What should a person do if they feel like they have too much time on any given section of the GRE?

Orion: It’s a great question. You’re right, it’s a good problem to have. Most people have the opposite problem. They don’t have enough time. I would say that if you’re finishing a verbal or a quant section, and you have one or two minutes left: congratulations! That’s actually exactly where you want to be. If you’re finishing with about a minute left, it means that you paced yourself absolutely correctly. With a minute left, you’re no longer rushing at the last second to answer that last question or two. And you also probably didn’t sprint through the section, which likely would have increased your careless error rate.

So when we talk about having too much time, I’m not thinking about a minute or two. That’s actually a really good problem to have. That’s not a problem at all. Actually, what I’m talking about is that sometimes there are some hot shots out there, and they finish with ten or even fifteen minutes left on the clock. It’s possible. I’ve gotten perfect scores on the test in half the available time. And some people are just very, very confident in one or the other section of the test, and they just plow through. So what to do under those circumstances?

Well, until you’re getting a perfect score on those sections consistently, it makes sense to me to take as much of the available time as possible to ensure that you’re not making any careless errors. I mean, if you’re a hotshot, and you can finish the sections in half the time, you’re probably scoring in the high 160s. But you may not yet be getting a perfect score. Why go through all of this prep, why schedule a four-hour test that costs you hundreds of dollars, just to get out of the test ten minutes earlier than you otherwise would? To my mind, use those extra ten minutes to give yourself every possible chance of getting the highest possible score that you can, namely: a perfect score.

Davis: Thanks for clarifying that. That makes a lot of sense. The test is a game where I have to really just go as fast as I can while being as accurate as I can. You mentioned the word “paced” earlier. If you’re pacing yourself well, and you get through and you have a minute or so at the end, that’s not too much time. It’s not necessary, in other words, to feel rushed in every section to be able to get a perfect score.

Orion: Absolutely. I talk about this in the program. You should never feel rushed. When you’re taking the GRE, if you know your strategies, if you have your system down, you should never feel rushed. But you should also never hesitate. So there’s this balance of, like, perfect poise and responsiveness at every step of every problem. If you’re in that sweet spot, if you’re on the razor’s edge of the present moment, you will never feel like you don’t have enough time – because you’ll consistently come in right under the time limit, at about a minute or two, if you follow the strategies that I lay out in the manual.

So what I suggest doing is, if you are in the mid- to high-160s, almost certainly the reason why you’re not yet at a perfect score is because of your own carelessness. So you have to understand that you get the material, you understand the vocab, you’re fine with the math. In fact, you are the primary source of error at that point. On some level, you are your own worst enemy. You know how to do all the questions.

So if you’re going to get a question wrong, it’s because you’re going to miss something silly. You’re going to miss a negative sign. You’re going to transcribe a number incorrectly. You’re going to miss a small, but important word in the question. And if developing fail-safes, if going through questions a little bit more slowly and more carefully reduces one out of 100 careless errors? Well, that could be the difference between getting a 167 and a 170. And I think those 10 “additional” minutes well-spent in the context of your total test prep experience.

Davis: Awesome. So rather than approaching the test with a strategy of “go as fast as I can, get through the section as fast as I can, and if I have time, you know, go back and double check,” that’s a much poorer strategy than pacing oneself, and trying to arrive at the end of each section with a comfortable one-to-two minutes to just kind of relax.

Also, I want to point out, I remember, that on writing sections, for example, word count is huge. The higher the word count, you know? So the time spent there: just continue and use up the whole time?

Orion: Yeah, when I used to teach my class, I would make this tongue-in-cheek flowchart on the board when somebody asked, “What should I do if I have more time on the writing section?” And the flow chart had one arrow from “Do I have more time?” to “Yes.” And one arrow from “Yes.” to “Write more.”

There’s absolutely no reason why you wouldn’t benefit from a higher total word count on the essay. So if you finished your well-crafted, thesis-based, five-paragraph essay in 20 minutes, and you have 10 minutes left over, great! You’re just going to be adding some copy for the next 10 minutes, and you can increase your total word count by potentially 50%. And on the writing section, you can always add fluff before your intro, and after your outro. So you can leave your core five-paragraph essay intact. And you can just add more context both before and after you actually get into the response, proper. Does that make sense?

Davis: No, yeah, that makes a lot of sense for the writing section. Also, this gets into the question of verbal sections, where you’re reading. How much time do you want to take on reading? Do you want to, like, skim through that? Or is there a time to really just take the time to read the whole thing?

Orion: Yeah, that’s a great question. And it’s hard to know. As you’ll recall, we always skip around in the verbal section by question type. So we would take care of all of the vocab-based questions first. And there’s going to be 10 of them, it’s going to be half the section. Once you’re done with that, you’ll know exactly how many questions you have left, across how many different passages, and exactly how much time.

So, at that stage, you can do some quick calculations: “Okay, I have three passages to read, for a total of nine reading comp questions, and I have 18 minutes left, so I can spend about six minutes per bundle, which means I can spend three minutes or so reading this passage.” You can do some real fast, back-of-the-napkin calculations that way, because that will help you to determine how closely you get to read the passages.

Obviously, with less time, you have to accommodate to that reality, and read the passages a little bit more casually. And that’s okay, because, remember: most of the passage is going to be completely irrelevant to any of the questions you’re subsequently asked. If you feel like you have to understand the passage, that’s actually your anxiety talking. You don’t. You have to understand it on a gist level for passage as a whole problems, and you need to be familiar enough with the passage that you’ll know where to go back to read for detail based on the questions you’re subsequently asked. So you do get a second pass at certain parts of the passage. You don’t have to understand it all.

Davis: Now that helps a lot. So just to recap: use your time wisely, pace yourself, no need to rush, but also don’t hesitate.

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 stellargre@gmail.com. And if you’re ready to take your prep to the next level, check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at stellargre.com. You can use the code “BITES” for 10% off all memberships there. Talk to you soon.

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