Can you cram for the GRE?: why time and repetition are key

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.

Alright, let’s get to it today. The opening question is very simple: Can you cram for the GRE? Orion, what do you think?

Orion: No. Thank you, everybody for tuning it. No, I’m just kidding.

Davis: So okay, so why doesn’t cramming work?

Orion: Yeah, it’s an interesting question. What do you really need to know to succeed on the GRE? I’ve said multiple times that everything you need to get a perfect score on the quantitative section can be written on the front and back of a regular-sized sheet of paper. Conceivably, you could learn that information in a day. My GRE manual, available to folks who buy memberships through stellar, is about 500 pages long. If you are industrious, you could read that in a week.

Davis: Okay, so you can get all the strategies and techniques in a short amount of time. So why isn’t it possible to cram for the GRE?

Orion: Well, there are a couple of bottlenecks. First and foremost is vocabulary. In my opinion, it’s not possible to learn thousands of new vocabulary words in, let’s say, a week. Generally speaking, vocabulary acquisition is the most time-consuming and onerous part of GRE prep. It’s something you should start sooner rather than later. Even if you’re not going to begin the prep in earnest, you can start by acquiring new vocabulary now.

Davis: Just as a reminder to everybody out there, when we talk about thousands of vocabulary words, we’re not necessarily saying you need to know each word, recognize it, and recite its definition; we’re also talking about understanding the general meaning. But even so, it’s true that you can’t cram.

Orion: Absolutely. In fact, most people study for the vocab aspect of the GRE incorrectly. That’s why I’ve attempted to correct this problem by releasing “Stellar GRE Vocab Flashcards,” a free vocab app available for download on the Apple Store and the Play Store, depending on your cell phone platform. This app helps students learn vocabulary in the manner they’ll actually use it on the GRE, which can significantly speed up the learning process. That said, even with these tools, it’s not feasible to learn thousands of words in just a week. So that’s a significant bottleneck.

Davis: That’s true. You mentioned that bottleneck, and I recall we’ve discussed others in previous episodes. The fact that this is a timed test makes it a game of seconds. From personal experience, mastering the pacing of a timed test requires practice over multiple test-taking sessions. Would you agree with that? Can you shed some light on this?

Orion: Absolutely. So, the reason why you really can’t cram for the GRE is that the GRE is not a test about “what”; it’s not a test of information. That would be an achievement test, like your driver’s license exam or the MCAT. If you’re studying to become a doctor, it’s about information, testing your knowledge base on specific information. If that were the case, it might be possible to cram for the GRE. But the GRE is not an achievement test; it’s an aptitude test. This means it’s not really a test about “what” but a test about “how”. Success on the GRE requires some knowledge, but it really, truly requires a process. It requires a “how”. This is procedural knowledge. Think about it like riding a bike. You could read a whole bunch of books about balance and the mechanics of what makes a bike move. But, there’s no substitute for actually getting on the seat and figuring out how to stay on the bike while it’s moving. It’s not something that can be taught in a text; it has to be experienced and embodied by the person in question.

Davis: No, that’s great. It brings me to a question: when you learn how to ride a bike, you have to actually get up and do it. For some people, that might mean trying four or five times before they get it, with someone helping them out. I remember teaching my kids how to ride; they each picked it up differently. But they all had to have that routine experience and exposure, repeating the process multiple times. So, considering an episode titled “Can You Cram?” where the answer was simply “no,” what is the average time necessary to really embed this procedural knowledge to a point where it’s comfortable?

Orion: Yeah, that’s the $64,000 question I get all the time. And it really depends. It depends on a student’s pre-existing aptitude. Most people have significant differences in, let’s say, their verbal and quant performance. This is often a good thing because it means they might need less prep, as they can target one section over the other. However, for someone who’s starting from scratch and needs help across the board, I generally recommend devoting three months to their study.

That’s why, in the StellarGRE self-study program, there’s a week-by-week protocol over a three-month timeline. This guides students through every aspect of their prep, such as which chapters to read and when, which quizzes to take, when to do the full-length mock exams, and so on. Everything is integrated into a three-month timeline, which I believe gives students ample time to practice the how.

And that’s also the basis for the reported score gains—the score improvements in the system over the course of a couple of months. Now, if this is true, if what I’m saying is correct—that success is really about the “how” and you can’t really teach it in a book—then why am I selling a book? Why am I selling a self-study program? Well, Stellar does something very different than all of my competitors, which, unfortunately, focus on the crystallized knowledge, the “what.”

So, if you read a chapter in the StellarGRE manual (and there are several chapters that are available for free if you go there today), you’ll see that after a brief description of the “what”, most of the chapter is a step-by-step modeling of the “how.” And then, there are immediately practice problems made available to the students to go through that same sequence of a solution on similar variations of the same problem. In order to consolidate the process. It’s not really about flashcards or the area of a trapezoid, or the definition of products. It’s about opportunities to get on the bike, opportunities to balance, opportunities to steer, because through that repetition, that procedure becomes embodied. And in order to have top performance on this test, the procedure—the “how”—needs to be embodied sufficiently so that you can move through this timed, standardized test with some degree of confidence and aplomb.

Davis: Now, that makes a lot of sense. Thank you for explaining that. And there’s a lot more to learn. And we have other episodes as well that touch on this.

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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