Today I got an email from a student who was perplexed that his GRE quantitative score was dropping on his tests. Toward the end of the email the student said:
I have been doing all the homework and a lot of practice problems [that] I’m doing fairly well on. I have been getting 70-90% correct in the quiz bank and on homework.
Many of you do exactly what this student does: when you do your GRE homework, you keep tallies of your right/wrong answers, then compare your homework performance to your MST performance. And then you get discouraged because your MST performance is worse.
But hang on a sec. Your homework problems are untimed, non-adaptive, and done in small chunks. Your MST problems are timed, adaptive, and done in the context of a grueling 4-hour exam. Of course you’ll do worse on the MST! That’s not a sign you’re doing something wrong. That’s not surprising. It’s downright commonplace.
When you finish a problem set, review it thoroughly to reinforce what you did right, and identify and squelch what you did wrong. But don’t keep score. “I got X questions right” is a thoroughly useless piece of information; all it can do is discourage you. Keep score when it counts: on Test Day.
A friend of mine works as a product leader at a medical software company. He gets to design software and make strategic decisions about its development — which features to include, which not to, that kind of stuff. That seems like a lot of fun. Unfortunately, because he’s a high-level dude, he has to deal with some unpleasant stuff as well, such as disciplining (and sometimes firing) bad employees.
One of the things he learned in his role is that people are surprisingly bad at articulating solutions to problem behaviors. For example, one of his employees missed a lot of deadlines because he kept getting distracted, and the reason for his persistent distraction was email: whenever a “new message” notification popped up in Outlook, the employee would drop whatever he was doing to read the email.
My friend asked him, “What are you going to do to stop getting distracted from your work?”
And the employee said, “I’m not going to read my emails as they come in from now on.”
Sound like a sensible thing to say to your boss? I thought so. My friend didn’t. He pointed out that “not getting distracted by email” is the goal. Saying “I won’t read incoming emails” is essentially a restatement of the goal; it doesn’t say how that goal will be achieved. A better answer would have been, “I will turn off my email when I’m coding and only answer it at designated points in the day,” or, “I’m going to turn off popup email notifications.”
I don’t think I know a single person — myself included — who doesn’t waste unholy amounts of time reading Facebook, texting, watching Netflix, or whatever. Everybody talks about how “busy” they are, yet it seems to be an open secret that no matter how busy someone claims to be, they still find ways to kill half their week doodling around Pinterest. Think about your own life: have I just described it, or haven’t I?
Our tendency to distract ourselves may be okay in general, but it’s a bit tragic where the GRE is concerned, because it means that many of you are effectively impeding yourselves from getting the score that you deserve. The hours you spend re-watching Game of Thrones instead of studying knock points off your Test Day score, and as awesome as that TV show is, you’ll surely agree it’s not as awesome as your dreams.
And so I find myself asking my students, “What are you going to do to stop getting distracted from your work?”
And they say to me, “I’m not going to get distracted from now on! I’m going to study so hard!”
And I’m here today to tell you: that doesn’t work. Saying, “I will work! I won’t get distracted!” is a restatement of your goal. It doesn’t say how you will achieve that goal. Once you identify behaviors that are actively reducing your future GRE score, you have to devise concrete, specific solutions. You have to figure out how you’re going to stop those behaviors.
Say, “I’m going to cancel my Netflix account for the next three months,” or, “I’m going to turn my phone off when I study,” or, “I’m going to download ‘self control‘ programs and block my favorite websites when I study,” or, “I’m going to tell my roommate/girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse/parents/some hobo I just met to hide my Game of Thrones DVDs and only give them back after the GRE is over.”
Then you can confidently say you’ve solved your problem are on the path to the GRE score you deserve.
I met an interesting student at the GRE practice test I presented last night. The gentleman was a math major and finished the test quite early, thanks in part to his obliteration of the quantitative section. He felt that his math training had given him a huge advantage, and he argued passionately that the GRE wasn’t a standardized test. How can the GRE claim to give everyone a level playing field, he said, when people with certain backgrounds clearly have an edge?
That is a terrific question, and I think you’ll enjoy the answer.
The GRE is, in fact, a standardized test. Yet the playing field it offers clearly isn’t level. Give the GRE to 100 people who have never taken it before, and some will do much better than others. What gives?
What gives is that “provides a level playing field” is not the meaning of “standardized.” The phrase “standardized test” is such a staple of common language that it seems the precise meaning of the word has become lost. Let’s patch that up.
Consider the following question:
In the novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, what does the protagonist discover is the meaning of life, the universe, and everything?
A) To be happy
B) To help others
C) To exist and to multiply
Would that question ever appear on the GRE? Of course not. To answer it, you’d need to have read or at least heard of the book, and questions like that never appear on the GRE. And BOOM: any time you confidently declare, “A question like that would never appear on the GRE,” that’s what it means for the GRE to be standardized.
When you first sit down to study for the GRE, you may feel that you know nothing about it. But because it’s standardized, you actually know a lot. You know how many sections there are, how many questions are in each, and how much time you’ll be given. You know that you’ll take the test on a computer, be given a pencil and scratch paper, and have an on-screen calculator. You know that the GRE tests algebra but not trigonometry; obscure vocabulary but not Douglas Adams novels. You know how it’s scored, and that your 150 or 160 or 170 is as good as anyone else’s 150 or 160 or 170, no matter when or where they take it. And you know that none of this is ever going to change — at least, not without an announcement from ETS and plenty of advance warning.
Standardized is just a fancy word for “consistent.” If you and I take the GRE, we both can trust that we are taking “the same test” — even if we take it thousands of days and thousands of miles apart. We’ll see different problems, of course, but there’s no risk that I’ll have to solve an integral or that you’ll need to analyze Dante’s Inferno in the original Italian. Tests have to be standardized or else they won’t be any use to schools. If you score a 165 on quant and your friend scores a 155, grad schools won’t be able to derive any meaning from the 10 point difference if there’s a chance that your friend had to solve differential equations and you didn’t.
So that’s what it means for the GRE to be standardized: it poses comparable questions under comparable conditions to everyone. That does not mean it’s designed to pose everyone a comparable challenge. If the sum of your life experiences have made you a better critical thinker, test taker, and creative problem solver, then you’ll do better starting out on the GRE than someone whose natural inclinations have led them to develop their mind along other avenues.
But if for some reason I thought I was never going to get paid again — not just today, but not ever — then I’d be pretty scared.
A lot of you get scared when you score badly on a practice test or get stumped on a problem. But you’re not really afraid of your bad performance; what makes you worry is the fact that you believe your bad performance will project indefinitely into the future. I don’t mind getting no money today because I know I’ll get money on pay day; by the same token, you wouldn’t mind getting a bad score today if you believed you’d get a good score on Test Day.
I surveyed a recent class to ask my students why this is: why do you believe that the bad score you have now will follow you forever? The most common answer I got was a single word: intelligence.
I found this very interesting, because when I’d asked that same class, earlier in the same lesson, “What makes the difference between a student whose score improves a lot and a student whose score doesn’t?”, no one said intelligence. Everyone agrees that while intelligence may determine your starting score, the only thing that determines the improvement in your score is hard work. The GRE is not an IQ test; it doesn’t test a static constant of your personality. It’s a test of skills that you and everyone can improve with practice.
Our brains have a way of playing tricks on us. In the abstract, your brain understands that if you work hard, you’ll eventually figure out the GRE. But in the heat of the moment, when faced with a difficult emotional stimulus — a low score, a problem that won’t bend to your will no matter how you look at it — your brain reverts to panic mode.
Please know this: your fear is grounded in a belief. And that belief is false. If you’re afraid of the GRE, it’s not because you fear being bad at it now; it’s because you’re afraid you’ll always be bad at it, that improvement is impossible. And that’s not true, as thousands of students before you have demonstrated.
So as I like to say: don’t feel bad. Just study. And let us know if we can help.
In this entry I debunked an absurd exclamation I hear, sadly, from far too many of you. Here’s another classic:
“Boris, it’s so easy when you explain it / when I read the explanation, but it’s so hard when I do it on my own!”
The fallacy behind this one is a bit more subtle, but if you ever find yourself saying it, that’s another habit you need to kick. The thing is, GRE problems are hard when you do them on your own. And they do seem to make so much more sense when a good teacher or a good book explains them to you. So what’s the problem?
The problem is that the statement makes too much sense. Many of you say, “It’s so easy in class, but so hard on my own!” with an air of resignation, as though you’re befuddled that that should be the case. But that statement is just about the least befuddling thing in the universe. Of course it’s easy to solve a problem when someone guides you through it. Of course it’s much harder to do the problem on your own.
You might as well cry, “When I go outside in the rain, I get wet!” Why, yes. That’s most unfortunate. Or, “When I juggle one ball, it’s super easy. When I juggle ten balls, it’s super hard!” Well, juggling ten balls sure is harder than juggling one, so of course juggling ten is harder.
And so it is with GRE problems. Please don’t think there’s something wrong with you merely because GRE problems seem so easy in guided practice but hard when you take a full test. That’s not weird. That’s what’s supposed to happen! Don’t mistake a stone-cold obvious occurrence for an enigma.