Climate change is a very serious issue, but as a resident of Madison, Wisconsin, I sometimes grumble that global warming can’t come soon enough. It wouldn’t be a true Wisconsin winter if we didn’t get at least one blizzard in March, and I found myself last week shoveling desperately through a waist-high mound of heavy, densely packed snow deposited by snowplows at the foot of my driveway. My usual strategy in such situations is “stay in the house until the roommate has to go somewhere first.” Unfortunately, he was out of town, so I had to excavate the driveway myself if I wanted any shot of pulling my car out of the garage.
I get the feeling that many of you view the taking GRE the same way I view shoveling snow: as a chore. Something unpleasant that takes a lot of time and work, that you have no choice about, and that if you were king of the world, you’d never have to deal with.
You might expect that, as a professional GRE teacher, I’d be disappointed that so many of you are as excited to study for the GRE as you are to clean the bathroom. And in some respects, I am. As I wrote recently, I honestly believe that studying for the GRE is a valuable experience, and I’d like for more of my students to be excited by the prospect of becoming smarter and cleverer.
In another light, however, I actually wish that GRE students viewed the test more like a chore. Chores have something going for them: nobody doubts their ability to complete one. As much as I loathe shoveling snow, I knew after a set amount of unpleasant labor, my driveway would be clear and I could pull my car out and move on with my life. We all dread mowing the lawn, folding laundry, and unloading the dishwasher, but we never entertain for even a second the possibility that we won’t be able to bring any of these chores to a successful conclusion. Nobody approaches a loaded dishwasher thinking, “Oh man oh man oh man THIS MIGHT BE THE DISHWASHER THAT ENDS ME.”
By contrast, a staggering number of GRE students fear exactly this: that the GRE will be the end of them. Some of you call the GRE a “chore,” but in actuality you don’t view it as a chore at all. You view it as a trial. You think that, maybe, you won’t succeed. And I know that on some days, the “maybe” tilts dangerously toward a “probably.” Watching my students suffer because they fear their own potential is the most heartbreaking aspect of my job.
Yesterday morning I was lucky enough to TA a practice test for Jesse Evans, one of the best teachers in the whole company. While talking about the despair that shrouds a lot of students who take their first practice test, Jesse uttered a line that I and the other TA’s promptly confessed to each other we were going to steal. The line was this:
“Don’t confuse being uncomfortable with being incapable.”
This was such a simple statement that I was simultaneously blown away by Jesse’s wisdom and stunned that I hadn’t come up with it myself. When you take the GRE, many things about it make you feel uncomfortable: using math you haven’t touched in eight years; reading prose full of words you don’t know; working with question formats you’ve never seen before, and the list goes on. But just because you’re uncomfortable with something doesn’t mean you’ll never be able to do it. If you knew the formulas once, you can learn them again. If you don’t know the meaning of a word, you can memorize it. If a question format seems weird now, it won’t seem weird after you’ve done a hundred problems that use it.
Outside, in the bitter cold, with my nose running and my muscles burning, I felt the keenest discomfort as I hacked through several feet of hard, nasty snow. But I never doubted for a second that someday my ordeal would be over and I’d be able to say, “I did that!” as I got in my car and caromed triumphantly through the gap in the snowdrift. Don’t read too much into your own discomfort on the GRE. Just because you’re uncomfortable doesn’t mean that you’re incapable.
The chat lit up with excitement. I was expecting a positive response, but there was so much enthusiasm that I was taken aback. One student called it “a blessing.” Many others agreed that if they had 15 extra minutes per section, it would be just about the greatest thing that’s ever happened to them: they’d be less stressed, get more problems right, have a higher score; the sun would shine brighter and longer and warmer; a cavalcade of parachuting puppies would rain down from the sky and deliver every child in the world a cupcake made of love and hope; a cadre of unicorns would …
“HANG ON, HANG ON!” I said. “If you had more time to work on each section … what else would happen?”
And then there was silence. For a moment, the class was confused. Nobody saw what I was getting at. I prodded a little more, and finally one student said, “… other people would have more time too?”
Another student caught on. “And the scoring scale would be harder.”
Right. If you had 15 extra minutes per section, that would be terrible! Your competition would get the same bonus you would, so it’d be exactly as hard to get any particular score as it is now, except the test would be 75 minutes longer. Because every student’s score depends entirely on her performance relative to everyone else, a feature that benefits everyone actually benefits no one.
Don’t rail against the strict time limits of the GRE. Don’t fume, saying, “This is stupid. If I had infinite time, I could get all these questions right!” The thing is, if you had infinite time, so would your competition, and you wouldn’t be any better off. Learn to love the clock — it’s an opportunity for you to succeed where others fail.
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.
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.