Is there hope for low-scorers?: getting a 320 if you’re not a high-performer

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, so today we have another listener request: an email from Crystal. I’m really excited to get into this one. Crystal says, “Hi, I’ve been listening to your podcast religiously. However, you mention high-performing students all the time and how a score of 160+ is attainable for them. However, I get massive testing anxiety, and I wouldn’t consider myself a high-performance testing student.” So, Crystal’s question is, “Is it possible for those of us who aren’t high-performing to still get a 160+?” I love this question. Orion, what are your immediate thoughts?

Orion: Yeah, it’s absolutely possible for the vast majority of students to achieve at least a 160 on the GRE. It’s well within the capacities of the majority of students. However, it does require some prep, and some may need training to address test anxiety, especially if it’s extreme. But, absolutely, it’s achievable. In fact, sometimes students who approach the material from a lower-scoring perspective are actually much easier to work with.

As the old saying goes, “It’s hard to pour into a cup that’s already full.” Oftentimes, students who, for whatever reason, feel very confident with the verbal or the quant section, often come with their pre-existing notions of how they should engage with the test. For the most part, these strategies work for them. That’s why they are often very reticent to give up those strategies, even if those methods aren’t elevating them to their highest possible performance. In contrast, lower-scoring students often don’t have this issue. They approach the material with an attitude of “I don’t know, just teach me. I’m open; just tell me what to do, and I will try it.” This attitude is actually fantastic for students to have. Approaching material with that novice mindset, being open and willing to try out what the master teacher suggests, often leads to significant progress. Many lower-scoring students are open to this kind of feedback and, as a result, they often make faster and more significant progress than those who are already scoring at a higher level.

Davis: Now, I definitely appreciate and can relate to that exact issue from my educational experience. To restate what you said reflectively, students who come in, already confident in their intelligence or their ability to tackle problems, think they know it all. Therefore, when they encounter a new strategy that doesn’t immediately make sense to them, they resist it. On the other hand, students who come in recognizing, “Hey, I don’t know how to do this and I want to learn,” tend to have a more adaptable mentality which allows for faster improvement. For reference, I understand that until the GRE, StellarGRE is the only test prep out there with empirical evidence of improved scores. So, in your 10 or 15+ years doing this, what’s the lowest score you’ve seen and the highest score improvement you’ve seen?

Orion: I mean, I’ve always given students an initial diagnostic test when they first come to me, either for the classes I used to teach or as private students. I’ve had students who literally answered zero questions correctly on their diagnostic test. And that wasn’t because they didn’t try. I mean, they attempted the questions, but they didn’t get a single question right. I’ve worked with them over just a couple of months, and one of them, I recall, started with an initial score of one question correct on the quantitative section, and they improved to around 16 or 17 correct answers.

Davis: Right.

Orion: On a similar version, within just two or three months. I mean, that’s about the entire spectrum of the scoring of the entire test. You can’t really see a bigger improvement than that.

Davis: Is that usual?

Orion: I don’t know. I mean, there aren’t many students who start by getting zero or one question right on their diagnostics, to be honest. But it wouldn’t be the first time that has happened. So that’s probably the most significant score improvement I’ve ever seen. And the good news is, if you’re answering 0-2 questions correctly on your diagnostic, the pressure’s off. You’re not going to do worse; you can only improve. So engaging in prep is a very low-risk endeavor because, really, what’s the worst that could happen? You’re already starting from the lowest point.

Now, I’ll continue to say that lower-scoring students tend not to have that cognitive willfulness that some of the higher-performing students possess. Instead, they face a different challenge: they’re burdened by historical perceptions of their abilities. Comments like, “I’m just not good at math. I’ve never been, and it’s not how my brain works,” can be self-fulfilling. It’s okay to acknowledge past difficulties with a test section or subject, but you should remain open to the possibility of success. If you firmly believe you can’t achieve something, you’re right. And if you believe you can, you’re also right. Your mindset and expectations often influence your performance more than we realize.

Davis: Now, I really appreciate that you took that subject right out of—you know, right out of—my mouth. I was going to ask about exactly this, which is, you know, what can you say about how negative belief structures affect performance. But also, I’d like to get a few closing remarks from you on just the—you know—reflecting that the GRE is not a subject mastery test. It’s a general aptitude test, you know, and we talked about in other episodes what its exact purpose is for in terms of admissions. And so, with this idea of a low-performing student, and this not being a subject mastery test, can you kind of sum up your thoughts on, you know, negative belief structures, and then the structures that a person can have, and also what the point of this test is?

Orion: Well, yeah, that’s one way to look at it. The GRE is essentially a metric that measures itself; it’s not correlated with intelligence or even attrition rates for graduate programs. It simply measures how well you do on the GRE. Understanding that can help you realize there’s no basis for any pre-existing prejudices about your performance on the test. It’s distinct from other experiences, like your high school math class. While you need some math knowledge, likely from middle school, the GRE doesn’t truly test math mastery. It evaluates a different skill entirely, one you might not be familiar with. So, any negative expectations you have based on past academic experiences might not be justified.

Davis: I really appreciate that. That’s an open door for everyone to jump in and see how the test-taking strategies available at Stellar can improve your ability to perform on the test. Thank you, everyone, for tuning in. Thanks for the question, Crystal.

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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *