How much prep is too much prep?: solving thousands of problems may not be helping

Davis: Hey, everybody! Welcome back. This is GRE Bites. I’m Davis, an educator with over 10 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 You can use the code “BITES” for 10% off all memberships. Let’s get to it today.

So today’s question is a little generic, but it’s something I like to look at before I get into anything: kind of assessing how much preparation I need to do for a given task. And in this case, some people err towards the side of overconfidence with their prep. Some people are like, “Oh, my God, I just need to go for months. I need to get everything I can. I need to do as many problems as possible.” So my question for today is, you know, is there a such thing as too much preparation for the GRE?

Orion: Yes, there is absolutely such a thing. And I have seen some folks who have fallen prey to, let’s say, their perfectionistic tendencies over the 20 years that I’ve been a test prep instructor. They generally tend to be the more anxious sort, but they often can be high achievers. And as a psychologist, I’ve worked with folks to overcome their perfectionistic tendencies.

Perfectionistic tendencies are based on a maladaptive meta-belief that suggests that I can’t succeed if I make a mistake. And that’s not true. If you’re going to hit home runs, you’re going to strike out a lot when you’re in the batter’s box. That’s just how it is. The best players of all time in any sport have generally lost more games than more mediocre players have won. So the ability, the willingness to try and fail, is a prerequisite for sustained high achievement in pretty much any domain.

And for the vast majority of folks, you don’t have to get a perfect score. That obviously would be a nice feather in your cap. But remember: no one gets into the chocolate factory because they have a perfect score on the GRE. I had one and I was still rejected from more places than I got accepted to. So what you need is your target score, which is the median score of successful applicants at your top program of choice. Even the most competitive MBA programs have medians in the high 160s, which means you don’t have to be perfect. You have to be pretty close, but you do get some room to maneuver.

And that’s good because perfectionism can be stultifying. It’s paralyzing. And it can also lead people to some really dark places, if they encounter one problem that they don’t know how to answer. Sometimes they can spiral out of control, because they tend to obsess and ruminate about that one. They can’t let it go. When, really, if they had gotten all the other questions right, except that one, they probably would still hit or exceed their target score. But because they were so perfectionisticly focused on getting everything right, they were too rigid and inflexible. They weren’t rolling with it. And it made it much more difficult for them to achieve the desired result.

Davis: So we’re talking about the prep as well, not just a test-taking experience, which is important. I agree with you that the cognitive baggage of always thinking about the outcome, and the self-reflection of what that outcome would mean for yourself: that’s just baggage, that’s just extra weight. And so you want to be more concentrated in the moment. So in the process of a person preparing, what’s kind of the shortest prep time frame you’ve seen be successful, the longest prep time frame you’ve seen be successful? Is there an inflection point where it becomes just too much?

Orion: Oh, I’ve seen all kinds of things. I’ve had people take a single session with me, and then go on to get top-percentile scores. I once worked with a student who had taken the test 13 times before she reached out to me. Thirteen times. She had been preparing and not hitting her target score for over three years before she booked a session with me. We worked together for a few months, she took it for the 14th time. She finally got what she needed, and she moved on with her life. But that’s probably the longest prep that I’ve ever experienced as a as a tutor.

There’s definitely too much prep. GRE prep is sort of like a Bardo: no one really likes to be here. It’s just a station on route to greater things. We have to stay here for a while, most of us, but we don’t want to live here. We don’t want to build a house here. We want to get what we need from the test and then move on with our lives as quickly as possible.

A lot of test prep companies do not facilitate this for a number of reasons. One is, I think, that a lot of test prep companies want students to continually feel a little under-prepared, so that they will continue to buy memberships for their product. And to that end, you have some of my competitors, who populate their problem sets or their practice tests, like, completely with impossible or devilish problems. And that’s not an accurate reflection of what students will encounter on the actual exam. But it keeps students feeling unprepared, because there’s probably going to be a few questions in that set that they’re not answering correctly. And so they say, “Oh, I’m still not at my target level. I have to keep preparing.” And then they keep buying memberships, which is good for business. But again, the actual test will not ever be entirely composed of devilish problems. So that’s misleading.

Other programs are almost encyclopedic in their approach. Some of them have like a 10-volume set of books for students to read. And then they give them practice problem books that have literally thousands and thousands and thousands of problems in them. And I call this the “shotgun approach,” which a lot of teachers do, which is basically, like, if you throw enough stuff at a student, and if only 10% of it sticks, then you still get that significant improvement. I think that can work. But I also think it’s a little disrespectful to the students. I think that if you focus and you put good faith effort into your prep, you will certainly retain more than 10%, especially if the material is presented to you in a clear and compelling way.

And, to my mind, if you haven’t yet mastered the technique after a thousand problems, doing another four thousand problems is probably not going to help. Like, you should have learned the technique by then. And doing it more times probably isn’t going to work, because you might be reinforcing a strategy or technique that isn’t working.

So the way I approach test prep is more like a boot camp. I know that students’ time is valuable. We hit the ground hard. I give you what you need when you need it. The idea is to devote a lot of attention to test prep in a short amount of time, so you can get what you need to move on with your life. It’s not about doing thousands and thousands of problems. That’s unnecessary. That feeds into the anxiety that students naturally feel with respect to a high-stakes standardized assessment. I think a lot of these materials, on some level, consciously or not, they stimulate student anxiety, which is actually good for sales. My belief is if you help people get what they want, yeah, they might spend less time with your product, they may not buy as many memberships, but they’ll be happy with the experience. And they generally tell other people that they know who are taking the test about the product, and you can still be a successful company and grow in that way.

Davis: Now, I really appreciate your feedback on this topic. And short personal story: I took the course with you maybe four years ago. And one of the things that I liked, that differentiated it, was a focus on “Hey, is the GRE even right for you?” Because if it’s not, you know: drop out. You don’t need this course. I took the course anyway, that eight-week “boot camp,” just as you’re saying. I scored on my final practice test a 169. So not perfect, but up there. And then I got a job at the company I wanted to get a job, with the experience. So the balance is healthy, you know. Put this in context of what’s necessary. Don’t feed off your own anxiety. And also don’t let other companies generate and feed off your anxiety.

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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