Progress requires extraordinary effort on the GRE: understanding what it takes to succeed

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.

Okay, so we had an episode recently where we did zoom out. But that was more about the time requirements for preparation. I want to zoom out even more this time and just really look at the kind of personal preparation that anyone would have to have to make meaningful change in their life, whether it’s improving their score, in the context of this show, in the GRE, or in any other realm. So, what does it take because you’re a psychologist trained, as well as a successful GRE tutor and business owner? So what are the prerequisites for making meaningful progress in any domain of pursuit?

Orion: Yeah, great question. Because people come to me in the context of GRE tutoring because they want to get better at the GRE and they want to improve their score. It’s not a faith-based exercise; they have a concrete objective, they want to see that score go up over time, they want to make progress. That’s basically what they’re paying me for. It’s very outcome dependent. You know, fair enough. And the fact of the matter is, progress requires extraordinary effort, progress requires extraordinary effort on the GRE and in all domains of life. And this is kind of how I break it down. In physics, we have this concept called entropy, you know what entropy is right, Davis?

Davis: To put it in most terms, as defined, there’s a lot of talk about this, most time is defined as a growing level of disorder within a closed system. Absolutely, disorder increases. That is one way to think about it, is if you just like, sealed off a room in your house for a month and came back to it, it would be dusty, things, what’s the picture frames would start to hang crooked on the wall? I mean, disorder would increase over time if you did nothing.

Orion: Absolutely. So, and this is just baked into the fabric of reality. This is an inescapable aspect of the universe, right? So what this means is that if you do nothing, things get worse. And so in the context of the GRE, that is, if I took the GRE now, and did nothing for the next 10 years and took it in 10 years from now or a year from now, I would have a worse score, most likely if I didn’t do any kind of education or preparatory efforts.

Davis: Yeah, yeah. I think what might be more common in the context of the GRE is a student does maybe a month of prep, but then something comes up. And he or she spends three weeks, four weeks away from the test, doing nothing and then tries to go yeah, in that timeline, all of those gains or the vast majority of those gains will have decayed. Especially on the quant because there are certain things you’ll have to learn from the quantitative side of things like the area of a trapezoid like why would you ever need to know the area of a trapezoid in your everyday life. It’s something that is really only useful for this test in the context of adult life. So if you don’t reinforce those gains continuously, they degrade very, very quickly, within a matter of weeks. Two to three weeks, they’re gone.

So if you do nothing, things get worse. If you don’t attend to your health, if you don’t exercise, you don’t get more healthy, you get less healthy. Like you can generalize this across the board, especially after you turn 35.

Orion: Yeah, just scientifically, muscle mass starts to drop off.

Davis: That’s true.

Orion: We can also be in the best shape of our lives as well.

Davis: Absolutely. But it does take a steady effort, but if you want to improve fitness, do you have to increase your effort?

Orion: Oh, well, yeah, we’re getting to that.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: If you do nothing, things get worse.

Davis: Yes.

Orion: Now, if you do something, things don’t get better. Why? Because of entropy. If you do nothing, things get worse. If you do something, you just counteract the inevitable increase in disorder and decay that’s baked into the universe, doing a little bit of exercise. Like if you want to lose weight, doing running once a week, you’re probably not going to see any change in your weight.

Davis: Is it better than doing no running whatsoever?

Orion: Yes, because if you did no running whatsoever, you probably would gain even more. So the point is, is that just ordinary effort is required to maintain the status quo. But that might not be good enough. Let’s say you actually want to lose weight, do you want to build muscle, do you want to improve your GRE score, do you want to make more money, do you want to build a business, do you have this goal, do you have a positive, growth-oriented objective, ordinary effort is not going to be sufficient in those cases, extraordinary effort is required.

Davis: So let me ask the question here. In the context of the GRE, you take a diagnostic test upfront, you have a baseline, and you have a target goal you want to get to. You are prepping for a month and do a follow-up practice exam. And if you’re not reaching your goal, continuing with the same level of effort, you’re not necessarily going to see future gains. You have to increase the level of aggression, so to speak, in your study habits. I would think that’s reasonable?

Orion: Yeah, if you’re not yet getting the results that you want, you have to do something different. Now, oftentimes, that means devoting more time and energy to whatever you want to improve at. Like, you cannot develop any kind of skill without repetition, whether it’s touch typing or martial art. You have to do it repeatedly. And we’ve talked about this, that there’s kind of this mystery in repetition, where it’s a one-way street. If you do something over and over again, you can’t get worse at it; you can only get better. So you do have to put in the reps to ingrain it in your muscle memory, to really consolidate the process.

And being successful on the GRE is really not about learning individual concrete facts. It’s about learning a way of approaching the test, a process. And you have to practice that process over and over again on problem sets to integrate it so thoroughly that when the pressure is on, and you’re actually taking the test for real, you can rely on that training. That said, sometimes you also have to change how you’re doing it. Some students get bogged down, thinking, “Oh, I just need to spend more time doing the same thing.” And that might not necessarily be the right approach.

Davis: That makes a lot of sense. You know, to bring in another metaphor, we’ve got the exercise, we’ve got the GRE, but then you’ve got another metaphor in previous episodes where you’ve said, “Strike while the iron is hot.” And if you’re trying to get your piece of metal hot enough so you can actually do something, change its shape, hone it, make something useful out of it, sticking it in the same fire for longer is not going to make it hotter than that fire. You have to increase the temperature of the fire to get the metal up there.

Orion: That’s one way for sure. You’ve got to increase the temperature of the fire. Also, if you strike repeatedly with greater pressure, you’ll increase the internal temperature of whatever you’re hitting, right? Not as fast as putting it in the fire, of course, not as fast as getting a nice forge going. But that’s okay. But I think your point is valid, which is you have to increase the pressure, the temperature, the intensity, whatever kind of metaphor you want to use. If you want to move in the direction of growing your edge, if we’re going to stick with the metaphor of forging, the metal needs to be warm enough to be malleable so that we can sharpen it. Otherwise, it’s extremely difficult.

Davis: Yeah, and if you’re just hammering with only half effort and not making a real change to the shape, you either need to up how hard you’re hitting it. And sometimes what you have to up is learning a better way, like a better technique, get a bigger hammer, or, you know, learn a different technique for hammering. Maybe the technique that you’ve learned is too muscle-intensive, and so you get exhausted too quickly and can’t do the work.

Orion: Yeah, so maybe it’s not just a question of, “Well, I just need to hit harder and longer.” Maybe you also need to change how you’re hitting, change your approach. And that’s kind of what I do in test prep, which is teaching students how to approach the test or specific questions in radically different ways. And that’s really important because students shouldn’t have to quit their job, leave their relationship, and move to a monastery to prepare for the test.

I mean, I sometimes talk to people who are like, “I don’t get it, alright. I am studying eight hours a day. I took a month off from my job. It’s all I do is GRE prep, and I’m just not getting the gains that I want.” That person is definitely demonstrating commitment to the path; this person really wants it. But we also want to work smarter. A little bit more smarts is better than a little bit more effort. Let’s put it that way. Extraordinary effort doesn’t necessarily mean just doing your normal thing, just more of it. That doesn’t mean extraordinary; sometimes ‘extra’ means not necessarily the way you change the way you’re doing it because you might just be getting better and better at doing the wrong thing.

Davis: Right. So there’s both. You have to learn the most efficient and effective way of doing something, and then repeating that over and over again.

Orion: Yeah, if you don’t learn the most efficient or effective path, you’ll only go so far, and you might even get burned out by applying significant effort to that strategy, to that approach. Does that make sense?

Davis: Yeah, that makes sense. So what’s the takeaway that you want people to hear?

Orion: So, progress takes extraordinary effort. Extraordinary effort is not just more of the same thing. But it’s really diving into examining what’s the most efficient way? What’s the most practical way? How am I going to really make these progress gains, and then concentrating your efforts on that over a period of time. And then the big thing also said at the beginning was not to, you know, don’t like if you do that for a time and you see progress, make sure that you take that momentum straight into the end goal of taking the test. Don’t take a couple of months off, and oh, yeah, it goes away.

Davis: Yeah, I think that’s a good summary.

Orion: Okay, great.

Davis: Great. Well, I hope that helps everybody.

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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