Given that you’re reading this blog means that you have probably elected to take the GRE in lieu of the GMAT or the MCAT or NCLEX. It is also likely a safe assumption that you plan to go into some field in the social sciences upon completion of your graduate degree. With few exceptions, this typically means that the majority of the coursework you completed while an undergraduate was not particularly math or science intensive. Have no fear: neither is the GRE. (In fact, apart from some Reading Comprehension passages that deal nominally with scientific topics, science is missing altogether.) While many of the students to whom I’ve tutored or taught the GRE through the years have come to courses somewhat rusty and/or apprehensive in the math department, most by and large find that doing math is like riding a bike: with a little practice, the skill returns. If it is the case you feel you never had the skill to begin with, it’s often amazing how much easier learning as an adult what was once difficult as an adolescent. So, keep the faith. Your perception of your ability impacts your actual ability to perform on a standardized test far more than you know.

On that note, let’s begin by taking stock of the things you don’t need to know for the GRE math. You don’t need to know the distance formula (the Pythagorean suffices) or the quadratic formula. You don’t need to know any advanced trigonometry (no SOHCAHTOA or anything beyond that) or any advanced geometry (basic formulas for area, perimeter, surface area and occasionally volume will cover it). You don’t need to know about standard deviation or statistics, and the probability involved in the test is fairly common-sense based and relatively easily figured.

What’s left? A lot of fundamentals: arithmetic, beginning algebra, simple word problems, elementary geometry, and some basic logic problems. Any GRE test prep book worthy of the name will provide a comprehensive review of the finite number of concepts you can expect to see on the exam. The key for GRE test-takers who find themselves unduly wary of the math section will be to:

– Stay positive. Giving yourself over to the feeling of being overwhelmed and helpless will not help your studying. The GRE is best viewed as a game with fixed parameters and limited rules that can be mastered with practice. Keep plugging away at it and give yourself the periodic pats on the back that you deserve even for small bits of progress. Attitude is everything when it comes to preparing for these tests.

– Identify the areas where you need improvement that are most prevalent on the test and begin there — after you run through some drills that you’re good at, just to build confidence. Keep in mind no one is good at everything, and patience and preparation will surely get you to your goal.

– Break up the topics into manageable and logical sections: begin with basics (mental math and arithmetic, PEMDAS, fractions, rules of exponents, radicals, percent to decimal, etc.) – or wherever it is appropriate for you to begin – and then move on to the next level of complexity: algebra, word problems, geometry, etc. It doesn’t make any sense to start with permutations just because they freak you out if you haven’t fessed up to your basic math being sub-par.

– Don’t be ashamed to do drills, like the ones you used to learn the stuff in school in the first place. Learning by rote is a good way to learn math concepts by heart. Learning by heart is what separates the good test-taker from the great one: it permits you to answer the question with a maximum of accuracy and a minimum of effort. If you work at the problems until your answers come nearly automatically and are always or almost always correct, you won’t be surprised when, come test day, your preparation affords you the results for which you worked so diligently!