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Don’t Pigeonhole GRE Questions

If you’ve spent some time reviewing the various GRE resources out there, you’ll inevitably run into advice espousing the best approach for certain situations. This is particularly true for word problems. You’ll read that, for rates, you should always set up the R*T = D table. For Average questions, you should always use the A*N = S table. For Quantitative Comparisons questions, you should always plug in numbers, etc.  Generally, the advice takes the form of: set up a table, fill in the table, solve, and now you’ll break 160 in Quant. Though tables are indisputably beneficial and can help organize seemingly chaotic data, they can become counterproductive for some people. Why? Because, in focusing so much on categorizing a question and inserting all the data into a table, you deviate from the fundamental problem-solving strategies that should form the foundation of your approach toward all GRE Quantitative questions. Whether you’re dealing with a question that concerns rates, divisibility, combinations, or fractions, you should have the same systematic approach for solving the questions:

#1: Understand the given information

#2: Identify what you’re solving for

#3: Determine how  you’ll use the given information to answer the question

#4: Execute

All too often, someone I’ve started working with will see the opportunity to use a table and eagerly but mindlessly jump into it without knowing why she’s doing what she’s doing. When this happens, the test-taker has essentially jumped to step #4 without having explicitly gone through the previous three steps. Though the tables are certainly helpful, their primary benefit is in helping you organize the information in a question that has a lot of moving parts. But if you haven’t made sense of these moving parts and haven’t identified how the table will help you answer the question, then you’ll ending committing a cardinal GRE sin: doing math without knowing why! The style of reasoning for answering GRE questions is no different from the approach used to solve problems in everyday life. Figure out what the problem is, understand what information is available to you, and determine how you’ll use that information to address the problem. Once you’ve gone through these steps, I wholeheartedly advise that you use tables where appropriate, but be careful that you don’t view tables as the end-all-be-all of answering a GRE question.

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