GRE’s pattern questions deemed unfair


Taking the time to analyze the math needed to solve a problem should not keep you out of graduate school.

That is what Christine Shea, public relations director for Chicago-area Kaplan Educational Centers thinks. This is precisely the problem with pattern identification (ID) questions in the analytical section of the graduate records exam (GRE), Shea said.

“Pattern ID takes too much time if done using proper mathematical methods,” Shea said. “Because there is a trick that can be used, those who know the strategy prove that the questions are invalid. They have such an advantage over other students.”

“If these questions are testing no math knowledge, no ability, no abstract reasoning, it calls the validity of the exam into question,” Shea added. “What is the point of these questions?”

Jose Ferreira, director of GRE programs for Kaplan’s New York headquarters, has developed a strategy of arrows and anchors for solving pattern I.D. questions. “It was kind of intuitive,” he said. “Just imagine a room full of test geeks who sit around and try to beat the system.”

Jose Ferreira said the Educational Testing Service (ETS) should remove the questions from the GRE altogether.

The nature of this strategy developed by Ferreira compelled Kaplan to release the method to ETS.

Shea said most of the strategies Kaplan teaches its students involve some understanding of the math or logic involved in solving the problem. The students have to use the skills for which they are being tested, but can do so in less time with Kaplan’s methods.

The pattern ID strategy, however, circumvents math entirely. “Students who don’t know what they’re doing can answer these questions, and we feel that gives students who know the strategy an unfair advantage,” Ferreira said.

Shea said the pattern ID questions are unfair and should be removed since they do a poor job of separating students who belong in graduate school from those who do not.

Kevin Gonzalez, spokesman for ETS, said after learning of Kaplan’s method, ETS started phasing out the pattern ID questions


Gonzalez said questions on a past GRE were only on the pretest and did not count toward the students’ scores. He said he expected them to be removed entirely from the next exam, which NIU will administer on Dec. 11. The deadline to register is Friday.

Kaplan’s method works best for the most time-consuming questions, Ferreira said. These involve series of small numbers which vary up and down.

In a pattern ID question, the student is given a series of five numbers, such as 3, 2, 5, 4, 9. The student has to decide which of five possible patterns denoting the math operations, or steps, is used to produce the series. Steps, denoted by R or S, either change or remain the same for the whole series. For example, the answer to this series would be R, S, R, S.

According to Kaplan’s method, whenever the numbers in a series change direction the steps must change. R, S, R, S corresponds to down, up, down, up. In the series 6, 9, 12, 6, 3, the answer is R, R, S, S (up, up, down, down). If the same number appears twice in a row, that counts as a change in step.

When a series constantly increases, the last two numbers will be high. These two numbers are called anchors. If the same step used to get from one anchor to the next works throughout the series, as in the case of 1, 3, 7, 15, 31, the pattern is R, R, R, R.

When the two anchors involve a step that does not apply for the first three numbers, as in the case of 7, 8, 10, 14, 27, the pattern is R, R, R, S. In this case the operation used to get from 14 to 27 will not get from 7 to 8 or from 8 to 10.

While describing this approach as “an underground method,” Ferreira said if ETS did not remove the pattern ID questions from the GRE, it would be fairest for the method to be released to the public. “We had to do the right thing,” he said.