How to think about the GRE: it is a test of how badly you want it

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. So today, I think I want to ask you about a more general framing, which is, how do we think about the GRE test? In other words, how do we frame the GRE test in our own mind to maximize our performance on the test?

Orion: Yeah, it’s a good question. So a lot of people, in my experience, tend to have what I consider a wrong belief about the GRE.

Davis: So, what are examples of wrong beliefs?

Orion: Well, one of them is that it’s some kind of intelligence test. And that’s not true. That’s an unhelpful belief, because folks who believe that it’s some reflection of their intelligence tend to take their performance or the outcome very personally. I’ve yet to meet somebody who is really disidentified with his or her level of intelligence.

So, if you make this into an intelligence test, you’re going to become personally identified with the outcome, which is probably not in your best interests on a standardized test. It’s better to be kind of dispassionate and objective about things.

Sometimes, people also have these, let’s say, negative or complaining beliefs about the GRE, which are not entirely unjustified. For example, folks might say, “Well, the GRE is kind of a ridiculous test. It doesn’t correlate well with future success in grad school. Why is it such a frustrating and irritating thing that I have to do?”

Davis: I can certainly appreciate that perspective. Like I said, there is a grain of truth to it. And we have an episode on why the GRE exists at all, and on comparing the GRE to the GMAT, for example. But in this case, this framing doesn’t actually help you. Even the grain of truth you’re talking about, dwelling on that and thinking about the GRE in those terms doesn’t help you perform.

Orion: Well, of course not. If anything, it creates this sort of friction between you and the test, where it’s like, people almost never perform as highly on things that they don’t want to do or feel like they have to do. It creates this sort of emotional obstruction, a tug of war.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: Where it just would be much more conducive to success if that were not present. Right? So besides this, it’s you, the student, who potentially has to experience those emotional consequences of feeling resentful or irritated. And I don’t know about you, but I prefer not to feel those emotions. They are not pleasant emotions to feel. So I’m not sure if that’s in most students’ best interests.

Davis: So, given these are the various ways that we could think or emotionally struggle with the GRE, as students who need to take it, what do you recommend, from your experience, as the best way to hold, to frame, to think about the GRE? And the whole process of taking and studying, preparing for the GRE? What do you think? What’s the best way to think about it as a student in order to get through it efficiently?

Orion: Yeah. So the way that I conceptualize the GRE is that it’s a “How bad do you want it?” obstacle. We have to understand that the GRE is to get into grad school, and the point of grad school is not to simply explore your interests. If you want to do that, get a library card. The point of grad school, and everyone understands this, is that it’s a sort of hazing or credentialing process to enter into a more advantageous career path, which will come with greater income, higher status, better job opportunities, etc. Like, that’s why people are willing to spend all this money and to undergo all of these academic rigors, sometimes for up to a decade. It’s not because that is a pleasurable experience in and of itself. It’s because they believe that it will help them get what they want further down the road, which is basically a job that they don’t hate, more money, and better opportunities.

Okay. So those are good things. Like, I hope I don’t want those things. I’m sure you want those things, Davis; it’s good for people to want those things. That said, we can’t just hand those things out like candy on the street corner, because on some level, they’re in limited quantities.

So we have to understand that the GRE is a “How bad do you want it?” obstacle. Everybody wants a better job. Everybody wants a higher income. Everybody wants better opportunities. How are you going to differentiate yourself from the mass of people who also want these things? So, the metaphor I often use about the GRE is, in the olden days, if a monk wanted to join a monastery, he walked up to the door, knocked on it, and said, “Hey, you know, I’d love to be a monk here.” The monks in that monastery don’t just say, “Oh, well, I’m so glad that you want to be a monk. Here are your robes. Glad that we have your brother.” No, what they would do is slam the door in that guy’s face, and leave him waiting outside in the snow.

Why? Because it’s really easy to knock on a door. Anyone can do it. Not everyone has what it takes to be a monk. But almost everyone has what it takes to knock on a door. Do you understand?

Davis: Yeah, if becoming a monk were as easy as knocking on the door, probably being a monk wouldn’t be a really great career choice or lifestyle back in the 15th century, which it really was. I was going to say free housing, free food, and you get to teach. And also, it was probably one of the safest places to live on planet earth at the time, you know, it wasn’t always the case. But you didn’t have to really be worried that your village was going to be pillaged or your castle was going to be seized. I mean, presumably there were monks also who were doing it for the seeking of spiritual knowledge and enlightenment, not just as a career choice. I’m not sure they were framing it that way.

Orion: Well, but the metaphor, I think, still stands, which is that the knocking on the door that you mentioned is available to everybody, but to filter out those who are really serious about the endeavor, there’s a test of the mental fortitude of, you know, can you withstand the rejection of having the door slammed? Can you withstand waiting three days in the cold until it opens back up again? Well, certainly even for those monks who saw it as an opportunity to forge a path for spiritual elevation.

Great, the framework still works, because now standing out in the snow is a spiritual trial. It’s a way of demonstrating one’s conviction, which is a positive thing to somebody who views the whole process of becoming a monk as a spiritual journey.

So students can do that, too. It’s like, you can conceptualize the GRE potentially the same way. This is an opportunity for you to demonstrate your excellence, to show your quality, because you’re going to be doing that for the next five years of grad school and beyond. You never get to not do that in your professional career. And everything you do is a reflection of your values and who you are. And so this is just one of many opportunities to demonstrate that, which, if approached from the right mindset, is a good thing. It’s a blessing for you. But for the vast majority of people, that’s kind of a high bar for a test like the GRE.

So I think that just understanding that this is a “How bad do you want it?” obstacle is like, we understand, we being like the admissions community, understand that this is not really proof that you are going to be an excellent addition to our graduate cohort. You know, what we have to do is we have to weed out a lot of folks. And frankly, the easiest way to do that is if you weed yourself out first on a standardized test. Yeah, if you look at the GRE and think, “Oh, if you want to go to grad school, and you start to research the requirements for applying and you see the GRE and you think, ‘Oh, man, that looks really hard. I’d have to spend months preparing for it. Maybe I’d have to take a class, maybe get a tutor. It’s just not worth it.'”

Davis: Great. Yeah, from the admissions rate, we’re so happy that you decided not to waste our time, right? Because if you can’t handle a three-month timeline to prepare for a test, you really can’t handle grad school, right? And it’s great that you figured that out yourself before you forced us to actually take you seriously as an applicant. And on the other hand, if a student can put the GRE and the process to prepare for it and perform at a target outcome, if they can put that in the context of the “How bad do you want it?” obstacle and they find that no, no, they do want that badly enough, then the GRE becomes small, it becomes a step on the road.

Orion: Yeah, if that monk understood that this is generally what happens when someone knocks on the door, that the door is slammed in their face. But if they stand out in the snow for three days without encouragement and demonstrate their commitment to their decision, then they get invited in to clean the toilets. It’s like, if they understand that, they might actually be able to get through that three-day period with some measure of hope and optimism, right? Putting it in the context of “this is just a step, it’s required, it’s a chance for me to demonstrate my quality,” then, then you can, then yeah, then it puts it in context, it makes the challenge of it smaller, the right size relative to the greater task of why you’re taking it up in the first place. And then you can move on.

Davis: Thank you, Orion, for sharing that metaphor. And a way to better understand the GRE.

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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