Can artists do math?: lack of knowledge can be an asset

Davis: Hey everybody, this is GRE Bites. My name is Davis, and I’m an educator with over ten years of experience.

Orion: And I’m Orion, the founder of StellarGRE.

Davis: We’re here to bring you your weekly bite-sized episode on GRE prep and grad school admissions. Check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at And don’t forget, you can use the code “BITES” for 10% off any membership.

In a previous episode, we had an email come in asking for a question. We have another listener question that we’d love to address, similar but with some differences. All right, let’s get into it.

Nick says, “Hi, Orion, I hope this email finds you well. I wanted to express my appreciation for the valuable insights and information I’ve gained from GRE Bites. I’m planning to take the GRE, have started preparing, and have been listening to your weekly podcasts on Spotify. The GRE seems to be like climbing Mount Everest for me, especially having an arts background. You can relate to this, Orion. My basics in math are very weak. I’m spending most of my time brushing up on concepts and working on the knowledge part. I feel I’m very slow for the test. Plus, I’m making a lot of silly calculation errors. Another challenge I face is remembering so many rules, concepts, properties, etc. It would be interesting to also discuss strategies for how to organize those rules.”

Continuing, Nick says, “I’ve got a few questions. Is it possible for a student like myself to get a target score of 320, which would be 160 on each section? Or are such scores only achievable by students with advanced math skills? If it is possible, what should be the general approach for a student like me? Thanks in advance.”

Alright, Orion. There are a few points in there. Let’s pick up wherever you want, and we’ll get through it.

Orion: Well, thanks for reaching out, Nick. I can sympathize with where you’re coming from. Keep in mind that I also have an arts background, which is what Davis was alluding to. I have a bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts with a focus on drama. I never thought I’d go back to grad school, especially for psychology. I took one intro to psych class and earned a B-minus. So, I never imagined I’d return to academia. My GPA wasn’t stellar, and I didn’t specialize in math. I worked hard to achieve my grades in high school math and science classes.

However, this isn’t necessarily a drawback. Sometimes, art students are more creative and cognitively flexible than those who are more rule-bound and algorithmic, like many found in math or hard sciences. This creativity can be advantageous when answering certain GRE questions. As we mentioned in the previous episode, is it possible for someone like you to score a 320, with 160 on each section? Absolutely. Most students have the capacity for such scores. It may require dedication over a few months, but it’s achievable. Your arts background may allow you to approach the material with an open mind and a willingness to experiment. You won’t know if something works until you try. So, give it a good faith effort. You might see significant improvement in a short span.

Davis: Thank you, Orion, for that feedback on not needing a specific technical or hard science background to do well on the GRE. The fact that coming from an arts background can have its advantages, as you said, is enlightening. For me, knowing that I could creatively tackle the writing section was important. Now, for the math section, I know Nick mentions some of the troubles he’s having with remembering rules, concepts, properties, etc. Do you have any quick feedback you can give in this episode here on how to organize that?

Orion: Sure. I mean, you don’t need to know very much about math to excel. Everything you need to get a perfect score on the quant section was probably taught in seventh, eighth, and ninth grades. You could likely write all the essential formulas on the front and back of a regular-sized sheet of paper. I highly encourage you to do that. This is what some refer to as a “cheat sheet.” I’ve discussed this in previous episodes. Consolidating all the crucial information into one place helps with memory retention. Carry that cheat sheet with you and review it for five to ten minutes every day.

Consistency is key, as repetition ingrains those formulas and concepts into your long-term memory. You don’t need a vast amount of knowledge, but what you do need to know is vital for success. You’ll recognize your progress when you can instantly recall relevant material. If you haven’t reached that point, keep at it. Use mnemonics if needed. Sometimes rote memorization is essential. You don’t need to grasp the rationale behind the Pythagorean theorem, just remember that a2+b2=c2, and that ‘c’ is the hypotenuse. That’s it. No one will ask you to prove it. Just know the formula, how to apply it, and when to use it. Move on to the next concept.

So, I do sympathize with you. But, in reality, there are maybe 50 mathematical concepts, at most, that you need to master. Ask yourself, how badly do you want to succeed? Find a method to internalize the information, review it daily, and continue working hard. You can do it.

Davis: Thank you, Orion. And I think it’s important to point out here that having gone through the StellarGRE process myself, it can sometimes feel overwhelming to say, “Okay, there are 50 mathematical concepts, and now I just need to memorize them all.” But the beauty of it, you know—Nick, you ask for what’s a general approach for students like me?—having a systematic approach that walks you through with opportunities for practice and repetition, and that teaches you when to apply, how to recognize what type of question is what, what material you need, which mathematical formulae are applicable in this instance, and not practicing over time in an organized fashion can really help take away that stress of being like, “There’s so much, and it’s overwhelming.” So in terms of a general approach, Orion, just to kind of close up here, how would you sum up StellarGRE’s general approach?

Orion: Well, reviewing what Nick talked about, Nick is addressing a problem that all students face. What does he say? He spends most of his time brushing up on concepts and working on knowledge. Then he mentions, “I feel very slow.” Additionally, he notes that he’s making many silly calculation errors. This is a common experience for many.

There are three steps to GRE mastery. First, you must answer the question correctly. Without the requisite knowledge, this isn’t possible. If you haven’t achieved this yet, it’s premature to concern yourself with the later steps. Why focus on the third step when you haven’t progressed past the first? The primary objective is to correctly answer the question, which requires consolidating the relevant knowledge.

The second step is to answer that question correctly within 90 seconds or less. Once you consistently answer most questions accurately, it’s time to introduce this additional challenge. This entails employing the effective strategies and techniques discussed in the Stellar course. It also means pushing yourself to work faster and trusting in your abilities. Ultimately, you should believe that, given equal conditions, you can succeed.

But even that’s not enough. Once you get the question right in 90 seconds or less, you then have to answer them correctly 100 times in a row. Well, actually, with the new tests, maybe it’s more like 50 in a row. That’s still challenging. Then, you have to incorporate strategies to avoid carelessness, which relate to your error log and the fail-safes. We’ll discuss those in future episodes.

So, tackle one problem at a time, and tackle them in that order: first, getting the question right (which relates to knowledge), then getting the question right in 90 seconds or less (which concerns pacing and technique), and finally getting the question right in 90 seconds or less 50 times in a row (which pertains to mindful attention and reducing carelessness).

Davis: Thanks, everybody, for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with another bite-sized episode of GRE Bites. If you have a topic you’d like discussed on a future episode, let us know at And if you’re ready to take your prep to the next level, check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at You can use the code “BITES” for 10% off all memberships there. Talk to you soon.

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