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No matter how hard you study for the GRE, you can expect to encounter questions you just don’t know come exam day.
And that’s ok! It’s realistic to assume that at least a few Quant or Verbal questions will trip you up. If you’ve prepared thoroughly, one or two stumbles won’t jeopardize your overall score.
This sounds reasonable enough—but what about when the pressure is on and the clock is ticking? What will happen when you come face-to-face with a question you can’t answer and feel completely frozen with panic?
The anxiety brought on by a particularly challenging question can seriously upset the poise and careful reasoning you need to score high on the GRE.
This is why students need a well thought-out strategy for handling unknowns and coping with those inevitable moments of stress.
Watch how you handle tough questions during mock GRE exams and practice tests.
Try a few different coping techniques to find the approach that works best for your learning style—and you’ll be far better prepared for bumps in the road on test day.
These are 3 reliable techniques to get started with.
1. Systematically Eliminate Least Likely Answers
You’ll spend months learning proven, step-by-step procedures for tackling each type of Quant and Verbal question on the GRE, right?
Best case scenario: You’ll use those techniques to de-code every question, immediately see which answer option is correct, select it with confidence, and move on.
Reality: Certain questions will contain confusing elements (such as a vocabulary word you didn’t study), making it difficult to apply the right technique, and go straight to the correct answer.
At this point, panic will likely set in because you feel stuck, and only have a moment or two to make a decision.
Your best bet is to carefully look at the problem again. Identify the question-type, and recall the features, traps, and patterns present in all problems of that kind.
Based on what you do know, analyze the available answers and try to eliminate the least likely options. The more options you can eliminate, the better your chances of selecting the correct response.
You will not feel certain about your answer, but you’ll have done your best to remain calm, and apply a strategic approach to handling the unknown.
2. Make an Educated Guess
Just plain don’t understand the problem, and can’t remember any theory that helps you eliminate unlikely answers?
Ok, but don’t leave the question blank. On the GRE, points are not deducted for wrong responses, so if all else fails, you should go with your gut and make an educated guess.
Important tip: Don’t let the minutes tick by while you agonize over which answer option to select. Give yourself one to two minutes, choose the response that stands up best to logic, and then quickly move on.
Staring at the screen will not illuminate any hidden wisdom—it will only rob you of the time you need to successfully answer the remaining questions.
When you’re practising this technique during GRE mock exams, be careful not to “cheat” and give yourself extra time—you’ll be setting yourself up for serious pacing problems on test day.
3. Flag it for later
If you encounter a problem you feel you might be able to solve if you had a bit more time, it makes good sense to flag it for later.
This is likely a question-type you recognize, and are able to somewhat decode using a standard technique—but you end up going in circles, or torn between two possible answers.
Don’t get stuck on this type of “unknown”. It’s better to flag the question, move on to easier problems, collect those points, and then go back for round two, if the clock allows.
Important tip: Don’t understand the problem at all? See no possible pathways for solving it?
Don’t bother flagging it for later. Save your time and energy for questions you have a better chance of getting right. Take an educated guess and move on.
Bottom line: Like every other aspect of GRE prep, dealing with unknowns demands a strategic approach.
Integrate some reliable “plan B” techniques into your study routine, and you won’t get sidelined by panic on exam day.