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Can You Ace GRE Quant if You’re Bad at Math? (Part 2)

Manhattan Prep GRE Blog - Can You Ace GRE Quant if You're Bad at Math? (Part 2) by Chelsey Cooley

You’re here because you’re bad at math, and you want to ace GRE Quant but aren’t sure how. But if you read the previous article, you know that you weren’t born without a “math organ,” and your brain is just as suitable for learning GRE Quant as anybody else’s. That doesn’t mean you don’t have challenges to overcome. But you should really be asking, How can I ace the GRE with limited math experience? Or How can I ace the GRE when I don’t know how to study math? Or even How can I get over my math anxiety and get excited about the GRE?

Don’t Panic

There’s a lot of common sense involved in solving GRE Quant problems. If the price of a couch is marked up by 15%, it shouldn’t end up costing $180,000. If you want to know how many eighth-graders are in a classroom, you shouldn’t end up with 2/3 of a student. But when you let math anxiety get the better of you, it’s easy to lose that common sense.

When you start a GRE Quant problem, take a deep breath. This reduces anxiety—and gives your brain some oxygen. Read the problem slowly and calmly. Don’t immediately start asking yourself which equations to use. When you start trying to do the math immediately, you stop trying to understand the story the problem is telling you.

It’s okay to slow down at the beginning of a GRE Quant problem. On the GRE, you don’t run out of time because you read math problems too carefully! You run out of time because you don’t understand the problem, but you try to solve it anyway.

If you struggle with math anxiety—and a lot of people do!—you probably won’t fix it by studying more. Actually, things tend to work the opposite way: studying and practice will be far more effective if you reduce your math anxiety first. Staying calm makes you better at GRE Quant, not the other way around. Here’s another article with some great tips for reducing test anxiety.

Don’t Go from Zero to a Hundred

One huge study mistake I see from “bad at math” students is this: you choose one topic, say, solving linear equations. You drill away at that topic during a killer multi-hour study session, or even over a period of days. You watch videos, read articles, and do practice problems. When you’re finished, you’re exhausted, but confident that you totally understand how to solve an equation. So, you move on to the next topic.

Then you see a linear equation on your practice GRE a week later, and you get it wrong.

The study style described above is called “blocking.” I’ll be the first to admit that there’s something satisfying about it. It’s nice to feel like you’re finally done with a topic that’s challenged you for a long time. But your brain hates it.

This analogy might be a little crude, but just work with me: teaching yourself GRE Quant is a little bit like training a dog. If you want your dog to learn to sit, you start when it’s calm and relaxed, and you don’t try to get it to master the trick in a single marathon session. Instead, you interleave, which is what you should do when you study basic math.

Here’s a great rundown on interleaving. (The article is from our GMAT blog, but everything there applies to the GRE as well!)

In short, give yourself permission to walk away without 100% mastering something. In the long run, that’s actually better for your brain.

Where Should You Start on GRE Quant?

Some math-phobes get along just fine in our 8-week GRE course. If you have a lot of time to devote to the GRE, and you’re confident that you’ll pick up the basics quickly—for instance, if you always did well in math in school, but you’ve gotten rusty—go ahead and dive in!

However, if you’re weak on the math foundations, you might struggle to get as much as possible out of the course and the homework. Consider starting with something like Khan Academy, which has great videos and problem sets on all of the topics covered on the GRE. Good math topics to start with:

  • Working with fractions, decimals, percents, and ratios
  • Writing, simplifying, and solving basic equations
  • Working with equations that have exponents or quadratics
  • Knowing some basic statistics definitions: average, median, range, quartile, and standard deviation
  • Basic geometry formulas, dealing with circles, triangles, squares, and rectangles

You could even begin with the Foundations of GMAT Math Strategy Guide: it’s written for GMAT students, but the content heavily overlaps with what’s on GRE Quant, and the book is a fantastic guide to math basics for adults.

Also, start developing your “math instincts” as soon as you can. You get a calculator on the GRE, but the more confident you are with numbers, the better. Take every opportunity to do simple math or estimation: guess the number of people in a large auditorium, or calculate your tip at dinner in your head, or estimate how much it’ll cost to fill your car up with gas at a certain price. Try out some arithmetic games, like this one. Download the Manhattan Prep GRE app, and start getting in the habit of thinking about math every day.

Next time, we’ll take a deeper look at how to study GRE Quant. You may have been studying inefficiently for your whole life! That could have a lot to do with why you aren’t a math expert—and with a few simple changes, you can start becoming one. 📝


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Chelsey CooleyChelsey Cooley Manhattan Prep GRE Instructor is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Seattle, Washington. Chelsey always followed her heart when it came to her education. Luckily, her heart led her straight to the perfect background for GMAT and GRE teaching: she has undergraduate degrees in mathematics and history, a master’s degree in linguistics, a 790 on the GMAT, and a perfect 170Q/170V on the GRE. Check out Chelsey’s upcoming GRE prep offerings here.

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