How to quickly eliminate vocab-based answer choices on the GRE: verbal section strategies

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, Orion, today I want to pick your brain a little bit about the verbal section, specifically, how to eliminate vocab-based, or what you’ve explained as vocab-based, answer choices on the GRE. What are the strategies for this particular type of question?

Orion: Great question, Davis. So I’m super stoked about this. Because the vocab-based questions are half of the verbal section; you’re going to get 10 per 20-question verbal set. And these questions are generally much more efficient than the reading comprehension questions. We want to do those first when we’re attacking any given verbal set, and the faster we can get through these questions, the more time we can bank for reading the actual passages associated with the reading comprehension passages. That’s going to be better for our overall score.

So we want to really kind of burn through these questions as quickly as possible. And I have a strategy for dealing with vocab-based questions. It’s a little counterintuitive and probably runs against anything you’ve possibly heard about how to answer these questions, but I’m just going to jump right in.

Basically, my recommendation is when you attack the vocab-based question, the very first place you should look, the very first place your attention should go, are the answer choices. You should go straight to the answers; don’t even read the question, just go straight to the answer choices.

Davis: Okay, why is that?

Orion: There’s a number of reasons. One is that if you look at the answer choices and you don’t know half of those words, you’re not going to get that question right. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but your odds of guessing correctly on a sentence equivalence question when you don’t know three or four of the words is just too low to justify spending the time on that question. So it’s better for you to figure that out immediately, immediately.

Davis: Because would you skip if you’re at that place?

Orion: I mean, hopefully, you’ve prepared vocabulary, which we’ll have a future episode on. But if you’re at that place where you realize three questions aren’t working, or three of the answers.

Davis: You just skip that?

Orion: That’s totally right. Because there’s no point in reading the question trying to use the indicator technique. And then only after 45-60 seconds realize, I don’t know most of these words. That’s a waste of your time. So if you’re in that situation, I’m sorry, but you should guess as quickly as possible and move on; cut your losses as early as you can. But there are other good reasons.

First of all, we can begin to eliminate answer choices without even reading the question, especially if we know what all of the words mean, right? Just by using some common sense. So there are these two types of vocab-based questions or sets equivalences, where we’re choosing two words to fit into one blank. And there are text completions where we’re choosing one word to fit into one blank. Those can be single, double, or triple blank questions. Let’s focus on the sentence equivalence.

First. We’re trying to find two words to fit in one blank. So logically, these two words must be, of course, synonyms of the same thing.

Davis: Yes, that’s one of the things in the fine print in the instructions for these questions. You not only have to choose words that make sense when they’re in the blank, but they have to make sense in the same way. So ETS actually explicitly acknowledges the synonym basis of these answer choices in the instructions of this question type. And this is when we get rewarded for having a decent vocabulary. Because if we know what all these words mean, we can begin to sort words into synonym pairs. Any word that doesn’t have a synonym pair, regardless of how well it fits into the blank individually, cannot be one of the correct answers. So it’s like boom.

Orion: And what’s really cool about this, Davis, is about 1/3 of all sentence equivalences only have one synonym pair in the answer choices. Okay, so you can look at these answer choices. And usually within like, 15-20 seconds, realize that there’s only one synonym pair among the six words, without even reading the question, you can answer the question. Don’t even have to read the question. And you’re probably going to get two of those per section, which means you can answer a 10th of the verbal section in about a minute. Which, if you could, you know, do that for all the questions means you could potentially get a perfect score in 10 minutes, which is pretty cool. So that’s how you get ahead of the clock on the verbal section by taking advantage of the sort of like Easter eggs in the verbal section.

Davis: Yeah, yeah, that’s great. So and then what about the case when there are more than one synonym pair?

Orion: Yeah, in that case. So that’s usually the case. Usually, there are two synonym pairs. Sometimes there are three; that’s rare, but usually, there are two synonym pairs. So you’re able to eliminate a couple of words, but then you got these two synonym pairs. It’s still a really good idea to get to the answer choices first, because if you identify these two synonym pairs, now you have a forced choice for the blank, rather than reading the question and trying to understand the content and to recall the perfect word out of the thousands and thousands of words that you know in English. By going to answer choices first and sorting them into pairs, you now know it’s either this or that; you’ve collapsed all of English down to two options. And usually, those options actually mean very different things from each other. It’s like the two options are either very good or very bad, very big or very small. So the consideration between those two answer choices is generally, it’s usually fairly straightforward.

They’re not going to be close enough, the two answer choices are not going to be close enough where ETS could, you could argue that one answer could have worked. Well, I mean, that does happen every once in a while, it’s not a perfect test. But ETS does want to avoid that because it doesn’t want to get into semantic arguments with irate students when they didn’t score as well as they had hoped. So that most often happens when you have two synonym pairs that have the same meanings, but like different intensities, like for example, vexed and chagrined is mild irritation versus like hostility and condemnation means I want to murder you right now. So they kind of are pointing in the same direction, but at very different intensities.

Davis: And so is that a red herring, that’s probably not the synonym pair?

Orion: Which part?

Davis: So if like, if you have different differences in intensities, that’s where the context clue from the question you go up, and then that’ll tell you which one is the synonym pair. Which one is the one that we’re looking for?

Orion: Yeah, because they’re both synonym pairs in this case, right? But the one that we’re looking for is going to match important components in the question itself, which we’ll probably have to get into in another episode. But it’s sometimes tricky to figure out how to group words together. So my rule of thumb is that we’re not looking for perfect Roget’s Thesaurus synonym pairs here; we’re looking for like 70% synonyms. And my definition of a 70% synonym is that the words move in the same general direction at the same general intensity.

Davis: So that’s what I was driving at, okay, is that the intensity level of the synonyms has to be?

Orion: Yes, you don’t want to match condemnation with chagrined. Those are in the same direction, but they’re not at the same intensity. So that’s not a good match. Okay, so those are my good reasons for going to the answer choices first. Now, we’ll move over very quickly to the second type of vocab-based question, one answer for one blank, yes, the right word for one blank. Those are called Text Completion questions. They come in single, double, or triple blank. When it’s a single blank, there are five options for the one blank. And when it’s double, or triple, there are three options for each blank. In this case, we’re choosing one word to fit into one blank.

So in this case, if there are synonym pairs in the answer bank, they can’t both be right; rule them out because ETS is not going to get into the semantic argument to force you to split hairs between two very similar meaning words. So this doesn’t happen as often as on the sentence equivalence, where we can eliminate non-synonym pairs. But if you do see a synonym pair, usually in a double or triple blank text completion question, you kind of get a freebie for that blank. They can’t both be right; they have to both be wrong. We’re going to sort for difference on text completion questions and sort for similarity on sentence equivalence questions. And in this way, we can kind of move through these vocab-based questions even faster than we otherwise would.

We definitely don’t want to come up with our own word for reading the question. We don’t want to plug the words in the answer banks into the question and read the question over and over again, to see what it sounds like, see what it looks like. Those are huge time sinks. And they actually leave students vulnerable to what I call Psychological Association trap answers, which are choosing words that sound reasonable when they’re in the context of the surface story of the problem. And the test is created by psychologists. So, I’m trapping a few students with those.

Davis: Oh, yeah.

Orion: Because maybe the story of the problem has to do with professors and students in universities. And so they’ll throw in words like “erudition” or “academic,” but it has nothing to do with that. It’s just the surface story of the problem, right? They’re filtering out people who just want to sound smart or who don’t actually understand the deep logical structure of the question and just think, “Oh, this is a school-related word, so I don’t really have to understand the deep structure of the sentence. I just have to associate this context with these vocabulary words.”

And that’s a trap for sure. It’s still just to cycle back around to the main principle and your strategy here. It’s still interesting that you’re talking about the deep logical structure of the question itself, but your best bet, as you have told students, is to jump to the answers first and make sure you understand. You’re either looking for similarities in the equivalence section or differences in the fill-in-the-blank sentence completion section. And then you can eliminate answers, then you can have a context, then go back to look at the question.

Davis: Yeah, because sometimes you don’t even have to look at the question.

Orion: Yeah. That’s a good summary.

Davis: No, that’s great; valuable episode.

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.

How long should you spend preparing for the GRE?: planning your test prep journey

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 today, let’s zoom out. We’ve had a lot of episodes kind of zoomed into particular strategies and particular sections, even you know how to deal with the mental landscape of taking it. But let’s just zoom big picture for a minute and talk about anybody who’s a student going in to take the GRE. How much time are they going to want to budget to prepare for the GRE, in general, broad strokes?

Orion: It’s a great question, one that I get very often from students who initially reach out for my services. Unfortunately, it’s hard to give them a very satisfying, definite answer.

Davis: Does it depend on the student’s capabilities?

Orion: Well, it depends on a lot of things; capabilities are one of those factors. I mean, some people are just faster learners than others. But I’m kind of under the impression that everyone can get better at this test, though some people are going to improve at different rates. Some of that is based on ability. Some of it is based on how hard they work, and also how smart they work. Sometimes, applying efforts in more strategic ways yields greater benefits than just massive action. The reason why is because everybody’s different. Some people come to me and they have extremely low baselines; they haven’t done any preparations on their own. They’re kind of low scorers looking for maybe just above the median.

Other folks come to me and they’ve already done a lot of prep on their own. They’re maybe even scoring in the low to mid-160s and want just a couple of extra points at the ceiling of the test. So, everybody is different. But because “that’s not a very satisfying answer” is not a very satisfying answer, this is also what I’ve come up with.

So, when I engage with students in private tutoring, I always give them a free diagnostic test to take before we meet. That gives students a very concrete and objective baseline. If you, listener, want to figure that out on your own, one of the best ways to do that is to download and take one of ETS’s free PowerPrep exams. It’s a full-length diagnostic, and you will get raw and scaled scores at the end of your administration. And that’s kind of like where you’re starting.

So those are your baselines. The next thing I do in an initial consultation is I gather more information about student goals, and specifically about their target scores. I think we did an episode about this, where target scores are the median scores for successful applicants at their top program of interest. So the point is, scoring significantly above that median does not increase a student’s chances of gaining admission to that program. This is because the best possible outcome on the GRE is not the securement of a positive but the avoidance of a negative. We’re just trying to dodge a bullet. No one is concerned because of the GRE; they get in because they couldn’t get past this filter in the application process.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: And if you can score at or around the median of successful applicants, that’s good enough; let it go and move on to other things, okay? So, it’s really important to know what those targets are because that gives us a delta between baseline scores and target scores. And that delta can be expressed in terms of either raw or skill points here. Basically, the bigger the gap, the more time you’re likely going to have to spend preparing for the test; the smaller the gap, the less time you want to spend preparing. Makes sense, right?

Davis: Yeah. So let’s say that you want to improve by 10 points on the quant and the verbal.

Orion: So that’s a significant improvement. I’ve seen students do that all the time. It’s also important to keep in mind which 10 points we are talking about. Going from a 145 to a 155 is substantially easier than going from a 160 to a 170. Right? That’s extremely difficult. So, the closer you get to the ceiling of a test, it’s sort of like the speed of light; it requires more and more effort and energy to make smaller and smaller gains. Okay?

Davis: So if you’re in the fat part of the curve, that’s the normal distribution, you can make more significant gains with less effort.

Orion: That’s another thing to keep in mind. And there’s also the fact that most people have differences, usually significant differences, between their scores on the various aspects of the test: the writing, the verbal, and the quant. I think in psychology, we call it ‘décalage’. I think that’s what it is; it’s a French word. I’m probably butchering it. You’re familiar with that, right? So basically, we just glean the meaning out of this.

Davis: In your experience, have you found that people require more time if they want to see a bigger improvement on verbal, or does quant generally take more time with prep?

Orion: Yeah, that’s a great question. If you want to see improvements there, in general, students can make faster and more significant gains on the quant than on the verbal. Okay, verbal takes longer to improve. Why is that? Just because of its sheer vocabulary. And that’s partly true. I mean, your vocabulary will exert a ceiling on your verbal score; if you don’t know 70%, if you only know 70% of the words on any given section, you’re going to have to accept the fact that you’re going to miss some points on the verbal section. And it’s harder to improve because there are literally tens of thousands of words in English that you could be tested on; there’s not like a master vocab list. And so, improving the vocab ceiling is time-consuming and frustrating because you can learn literally thousands of words, and maybe two of them show up on the test.

So it’s a challenge, but you do have to improve your vocabulary if that’s the bottleneck on your verbal score, right. It’s also very hard to learn to read for comprehension in a week or two. Right? Reading takes years. I mean, it took you and me, when we were children, years to really learn to read and maybe a decade to kind of like get good and enjoy reading. You know, a lot of people don’t enjoy reading because it’s a struggle.

Davis: Yeah, I get it, people generally don’t enjoy things that are not effortless. So I get that.

Orion: Then on the flip side, it’s faster and easier to improve on the quant because there are really only 50 types of quantitative questions. I think we’ve talked about that in my system. There are 50 quantitative diagnostic categories. And there’s like a clever strategy or technique associated with each one of those question types. And in the vast majority of cases, the only thing that changes are the values involved in these quant questions.

So if you can, like, do pattern recognition, diagnose the type of question you’re dealing with, you can remember the strategy or technique that worked for that question 10 times in the past; it’s probably going to work the 11th time, which is with the new values.

So, you can prepare on a much more granular level for quantitative questions than you can for verbal because so much depends on the vocabulary, the passages; you can only prepare in a more general sense. You have to be more flexible and high-level with verbal. But you can really get down to the specifics with quant, where it’s just like, just do this sequence of steps, and you’ll get the question right.

Davis: So, is there a baseline or threshold at which you’ll see positive gains? For example, you’re not going to be able to really improve your verbal section by just, you know, one to two weeks. And I’m guessing that cramming is not something that you can really do for the GRE. So, what’s the threshold at which you have a balanced, but still maybe aggressive, preparatory period? I’m just trying to get the bounds, like what’s the minimum number of weeks and then what’s the amount of weeks you don’t want to go past in prepping because it just becomes too long?

Orion: Well, I mean, I think that in general, people spend between two and three months preparing for this test. Okay. And one of the best things that you can do is figure out your baseline scores to figure out which side you’re stronger in and which side you’re weaker in. If you’re weaker in verbal, you should get busy learning vocabulary as soon as possible. And the good news is that there are a lot of free to low-cost resources to improve your GRE vocabulary. And if you can do what you can to learn as many new words as you can, then you’re going to position yourself to make better use of the verbal sets that you eventually practice with.

If you’re scoring high on the writing and the verbal and you’re scoring lower on the quant, maybe you can get away with doing, I don’t know, a month and a half to two months only. Personally, I approach GRE prep sort of like a boot camp metaphor. I like to go hard and fast to artificially prioritize this in my life for a shorter amount of time, and to attack it aggressively, so that I can improve my score as quickly as possible and move on with the rest of my life. The danger is if you can’t prioritize GRE prep for various reasons, because you have a job, you have relationships, you have a family, it’s like I get it. The longer the prep goes on, the more likely life is just going to get in the way and something is going to come up that will require your time and attention over and above the GRE. The longer you draw out the prep, the more likely that’s going to happen.

So, the shorter and more aggressive and intensive your prep, the less likely you’re going to get derailed. And the more likely you can strike while the iron is hot because you’ll take the test closer to your aggressive efforts to improve. That’s concrete, great, valuable advice I feel about how to train yourself for maximizing your GRE score right there: just concrete focus, prioritize it for a shorter period of time, and then strike while the iron is hot.

Davis: 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.

What is the best way to learn GRE vocab words?: introducing a new approach to vocab acquisition

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’ve circled around a specific topic I want to get into today in the past couple of episodes, which is vocab. A couple of episodes ago, we were talking about specific strategies for the vocab test. That means the vocab questions on the verbal section of the test. And then we talked about how vocab can be a serious consideration when organizing the time that you’re going to dedicate to preparation for the GRE. So let’s hone in on this specific topic a little more, because it’s one of the bottlenecks you’ve expressed for both your ability to perform well on the verbal section and also a bottleneck on how much time you need to dedicate. You have to cast a wider net with the verbal section in order to see improvements; it’s not, as you mentioned, granular. So, what is the best way to study vocab in an effective way for the GRE test?

Orion: Yeah, that’s a great question and a good summary as well. The vocabulary really does exert a ceiling effect on a student’s overall verbal score. And it’s the most onerous and time-consuming process of GRE prep, all things being equal. There are tens of thousands of words you can potentially be tested on, and there is no master vocab list. This means that you can’t cram thousands of words the week before the test; that’s impossible. It’s also difficult because if you space it out and reinforce your learning, we’re really talking about studying thousands of words, usually over months, in order to consolidate those gains into lasting memory. So, it’s a lot of time and it’s really, really boring. It’s tough to learn a new vocabulary.

Davis: Is it rote memorization? I mean, I know, for example, I have kids in elementary school, and when there’s this whole thing about if you can read, you know, the kids who read 20 minutes a day, every day, by the time they go into middle school, or whatever, they’ve got like 20,000-plus vocab words, whereas the kids who only read five minutes a day end up with only like 6,000-7,000 vocab words. So, how do you consolidate this? Is it just rote memorization of flashcards, or is it better in context reading? You kind of made two points there. So, let me guess which one to turn to. So, absolutely, the stat you shared about the kids and their vocabulary acquisition?

Orion: Yeah, the best way to prepare your vocab for the GRE is to be well-read. You know, if you are a wide reader, if you read often, you will have passively acquired a significantly larger vocabulary base than somebody who doesn’t read as extensively or as often. So, the best way to prepare for the GRE is just to love reading and to have spent a lifetime reading. But if we weren’t at three months, but that your point is well taken.

Davis: So, the best way to acquire vocabulary is just to read much and read often. So, how do you actually go about acquiring vocabulary?

Orion: Well, most people do it poorly, and I’ll explain why that is. If you go on Amazon and look at GRE vocab resources, you’ll usually find decks of flashcards. You can download free to low-cost GRE vocab apps on your phone; they’re virtual flashcards. And in almost all cases, the way that students approach vocabulary acquisition is by looking at a word on one side of a card and the dictionary definition on the other side. This is not a great way of learning vocabulary for the GRE, and there are two very obvious reasons why.

One is that you will never be asked to define a word on the GRE.

Davis: Why spend all that time and energy learning definitions when that’s not actually what you’re going to be tested on? The GRE isn’t tested on context, so what are you being tested on?

Orion: That’s a tricky question. You’re being tested on logical relationships between a few different words, and you have to deeply parse the sentence grammatically. You’re also being tested on whether words kind of mean the same thing or kind of don’t mean the same thing. You can’t ignore the definitions entirely – that’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying that it’s wasted time and effort to memorize the actual literal dictionary definition of words. Okay, because the question on the GRE will never be, “What does obstreperous mean?” It will never be that. That’s why I was driving into context a little more. So, is a better strategy to learn the vocab word rather than just, “Here’s the word, flip it over, here’s the definition.” Put it in the context of a sentence that’s used correctly; you can do that.

I think that the best way to learn a word forever is to create a mnemonic. And mnemonics are sticky; they stick in your memory to the extent that they are unusual, vivid, and connect either the look of the word or the sound of the word to the meaning.

Okay, so like, for example, I just used the word obstreperous, which is one of those words that I just had a lot of trouble memorizing back in the day. And so I came up with this image of this really annoying, aggressive man just yelling until he became so hoarse, like with strep throat, like he couldn’t speak anymore, because he was just so angry and rageful. And so I’ve connected the sound of the word “obstreperous” – “strep” – with this image of this red-faced man losing his voice with the definition of obstreperous, which is sort of loud and angry.

Okay, I’m never going to forget that word until the day I die. But that’s an energy-intensive thing, because I had to come up with this image that links the sound of the word with a definition, and that takes time too. So you can do that. But that’s time-intensive; you probably only have to do that with words that, for whatever reason, you struggle to remember. That’s why I did it for obstreperous and not for voluptuous. I’m never going to forget voluptuous.

Davis: Well, character insight, there you go.

Orion: So, the other reason why it’s not a good idea to learn the vocab, the dictionary definitions, is that it’s just so time and energy intensive, dry, and easy to forget. Also, it’s extremely easy to forget, yeah. So, you’re not being tested on the GRE on being able to recall the actual dictionary definitions of words, and it slows you down and drains your energy.

So those are the two kind of obvious reasons why learning the dictionary definition of words is not in your best interests.

Davis: So what should you do instead?

Orion: Well, like we said in a previous episode, since equivalence questions are really about kind of sorting for synonym pairs. And that’s also an elimination strategy for the text completion, we kind of just need to know what these words generally mean. And that these words kind of go together and that these words kind of don’t go together.

When it comes to GRE vocab, you want to prioritize quantity over quality. It’s better to learn a whole bunch of words kind of than to learn a smaller subset of words.

Davis: Exactly. Right.

Orion: So, the way that I’ve developed for approaching vocab acquisition in Stellar is using something called semantic clusters. So rather than learn the very specific nuanced dictionary definitions of a bunch of words, I’ve grouped a bunch of GRE-level words under a very simple heading, like a common definition. Do they all exactly mean the same thing? No, there are nuances and distinctions between the words, but they generally fall under that category.

Like, for example, I have a category for ‘talks too much.’ And under that category is loquacious, garrulous, prolix, logorrheic, verbose.

Davis: Are there nuanced definitions between those words?

Orion: Yeah.

Davis: Do you need to know them?

Orion: No, no, they all mean you can’t shut up, you talk too much.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: And so, if you can just put on one side of a card ‘talks too much,’ and you can put on the other side these five or six GRE-level words, that’s going to improve your vocab acquisition significantly. It’s going to make it more efficient; you’re going to learn five words or six words where you would have just learned one before. And you learn the words at a lower resolution, which is actually more beneficial for you in terms of prep.

And finally, it helps you study words more in the context of what you actually have to do on the GRE, which is to recognize that certain words are synonym pairs. Basically, well, that’s what I was going to point out, is that this particular strategy is goal-oriented. You’re looking at the types of questions that the GRE poses to the test taker. And then, you’ve already developed a strategy. We’ve already gone over it in previous episodes about how to filter through the answer choices based on synonyms, based on pairs of synonyms. And then you’re creating or elaborating on the way to study for words based on those end goals in mind.

And as far as I know, Stellar is the only GRE prep program that utilizes the semantic cluster approach.

Davis: So where can people find your version of flashcards?

Orion: Oh, that’s a good question. Right now, you can go to I’m working on an app right now. That should be released through, you know, like on your phone, but it’s not ready.

Davis: So, you’re kind of hinting at something that’s in the works, and I hope to get it out soon, but everyone’s going to have to exercise patience for a little bit longer.

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.

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.

Getting ahead of the clock on the GRE quant section: how to create a time buffer

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’ve spent some episodes in the weeds, and some episodes looking at the broad picture, zoomed out. Now, I want to understand something specific. We’ve talked about time and mental strategies before, but this time, I want to look at it from a different angle, specifically in the quant section. Is there a way to get ahead of the curve, to not always feel like you’re rushing, to not always feel like, “Oh, I don’t have enough time to really give this question what it needs. Let me skip around,” or whatever. So, how do you create a feeling of, “Oh, I’m ahead of the clock. I’m ahead of my time schedule”?

Orion: It definitely is possible to get that feeling on the GRE quant section. And it’s really important because one of the primary drivers of carelessness is the subjective sense of urgency, this feeling that I don’t have enough time to answer this question and I have to keep moving. That sort of internal pressure is just a breeding ground for small careless errors, which is really the bugbear of high scorers. They know how to answer all of the questions, but they are not yet getting the score they desire because of small, insignificant mistakes that they’re making. Right? They’re actually not so insignificant. Carelessness is the hardest thing to fix on the GRE. It can be fixed, but it’s usually the last thing to be fixed.

Davis: Okay, so how can we feel like we’re ahead of the clock, which will reduce this subjective sense of urgency, which will mitigate our carelessness and help us have a better and more positive experience with the test?

Orion: Well, first of all, I recommend skipping around on the quantitative section. Basically, we want to take two passes through each set. And if a question pops up and it meets one of our skipping criteria, we’re just going to save that for the second pass through. We’re not even going to read it or consider it now. We’re just going to skip and move on. My skipping criteria revolve around not whether a question is difficult or not because it takes time to determine a question’s difficulty level. We have to read it, we have to think about it, maybe try something else that doesn’t work. It’s just a specific diagnostic on this type of question.

Davis: Skip?

Orion: Yes. Because some questions are going to be inherently more time-consuming than other questions simply as a consequence of how they’re presented on the test. These are things like paragraph-long word problems. Maybe the math isn’t hard, but it’s going to take you a minute just to get down to the question mark. So, you know, there are questions that you can solve in less than a minute. So that’s really interesting. Just to make that concrete, a little bit of a paragraph word question is one question. It’s the same value, it’s the same value of points in your score, as another question that, you know, is a plug and chug.

Davis: Yes, that’s right. But if you can do three plug and chugs in the same time it would take you to do one paragraph word question, it makes a lot of sense. From that higher level, looking at it, skip the paragraph one first, get those three points out earlier when you’re deeper. And then if you have time, you can go back to that one point instead of spending your time at the first.

Orion: Yeah, and you should have time. So but that’s absolutely right. So we want to skip defensively, which is basically like we’re going to skip the big time-consuming questions on our first pass so that we can answer the questions that we have the highest likelihood of answering correctly and quickly first, on our first pass through. And there’s generally about one-third of the questions in any given quantitative set that meet one of my skippable criteria.

And so we’re going to answer about two-thirds of the questions on our first pass through. And that will feel, well, really, we will have gotten through most of the questions while we still have plenty of time left on the clock. And so we’ll also know exactly how much time we have left for exactly how many questions, which will also help us to pace ourselves more appropriately on our second pass through.

So again, this skimming strategy is mostly defensive because it prevents students from expending too much time on the first pass through on questions that, you know, that time could be spent answering two or three more efficient problems. And so you’re going to feel like you’re ahead of the clock because you will have answered 15 problems in 20 minutes instead of maybe only 10 if you’re just doing the questions sequentially. But just to tie that together.

Davis: That makes a lot of sense too. Because if you don’t practice this skipping method, if you’re not skipping defensively and organizing your time that way, you might blow a couple of minutes on a word problem that was just a little tricky to parse out. And then, you have that subjective sense of urgency on these three other easy questions. And you could make careless errors there, whereas if you did those first, with all the clock ahead of you, you’re much less likely to make careless errors. But I want to talk a little bit about this last part, which you said, “Okay, if you get through these two-thirds of the questions, then you have a better sense of how to allot your time for the remaining section.” How important is that? That internal perception of like, “How am I using my time? How am I going to allot my time?” Timing is super important on this test; it’s the most, I think it’s the most difficult component of the GRE is the time pressure.

And the clock will be ticking away second by second in the upper right-hand corner of the test, which I find to be nerve-wracking and distracting.

Orion: So there are a couple of things that I do. First of all, I toggle the timer off. I don’t like seeing it tick down second by second; I find it distracting. I find it anxiety-provoking. That said, I can’t ignore it entirely. Because it’s a timed test, I can’t pretend that that’s not a constraint. So what I do is I check in with the time limit every five problems. Five problems is a quarter of the set. A quarter of the time is about eight or nine minutes.

So I check in every five problems to see where I am relative to being about eight and a half minutes deeper into the set. If I do five problems, and I’ve only spent seven minutes, it’s like, “Oh, great, I have some, you know, chill out. I’ve banked a couple of minutes. I’m ahead of the clock.” Makes me feel good. If for whatever reason I check in on the timer, and I’m 10 minutes in, okay, well, it’s not the end of the world. But I clearly can’t keep that pace up and get to all the questions in the time limit. So checking in at this frequency allows me to course correct if and when I need to. Because that’s, you know, helps me attend to the reality of the test. That’s right. That’s right. So if you can get through what’s just in on average, if you get through two-thirds of the test, you’re skipping those skippable questions for the second pass.

Davis: Yeah. And you’re looking at the clock. What, you know, after two-thirds of the problems, are you about halfway through the time?

Orion: Yeah, ideally, this might not happen right away. But what I usually tell students is we’re going to take two passes through each quantitative set. We’re going to do the first two-thirds of problems we don’t skip right then and there. And ideally, those two-thirds of problems we complete in about 20 minutes. That obviously reserves the final 15 minutes for the inefficient problems we did skip. If you do the math, these inefficient problems get more time per question, like prorated, which they need because they’re inefficient.

Davis: Yeah, but they get the minority of minutes, only 15 versus 20, which is important because they’re the minority of points. Like, you know, like you mentioned, these time-consuming problems aren’t worth more than the quantitative comparison questions that you can generally do in less than a minute.

So it’s important to get as many points as we can while we still feel like there’s plenty of time on the clock, because that will allow us to be cool, calm, and collected, reduce our carelessness, and get the points that we deserve to get. Is there also a time, I know you’ve spoken – this is a little tangential to the focus of this episode – but is there also a time you reserve at the end? To say, “Okay, any questions that I haven’t gotten to yet, let me go throw in an answer because you can’t get penalized for wrong answers.”

Orion: Yeah, that’s a good question. So generally, what I do, best practices, is when I decide to skip a problem, I put in a placeholder answer. Okay, I hit ‘mark’, which is like this little red flag in the toolbar. So I can go back there very, very easily on my second pass, and then I just move on to the next prompt. So it’s a three-click flow: placeholder, mark, next. Placeholder, mark, next. It takes a second, and you’re doing that on your first pass. That’s right, because worst case scenario, I lose track of time, time gets away from me, the section just ends. Now everything at least has an answer.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: So I don’t have to stop what I’m doing when there’s 30 seconds left, and in this, you know, very frenetic fashion. Yeah, it’s like everything has been taken care of. And I know it’s a placeholder because I’ve marked it. And that also allows me to go back to those questions very quickly, using the review function in the toolbar. So I don’t have to just go forwards and backwards sequentially through the prompts. But there’s one more thing I want to mention, which is that we can kind of get ahead of the clock by skipping offensively.

Davis: So we’ve talked about like skipping defensively, let’s not spend our time on the time-consuming questions on our first pass through and like we’re protecting our time, we can also skip aggressively, offensively, because there are certain types of problems that are easy to recognize that, in the vast majority of cases, you can solve in 60 seconds or less. And these are questions with variables in the answer choices; these are plug-in problems. And there’s usually going to be four or five of them per problem set, like 20 to 25% of the test, and the quantitative test. If you just skip through the set, looking for variables in the answer choices, you can skip offensively and just get those done first.

Orion: Yeah, because I’ll skip, skip all variables. Within two seconds, I know that I’m plugging in, I can start by plugging x is two, is minus three. And I can generally solve these problems in 45 seconds, 60 seconds. And if I can solve five questions in five minutes, that’s a huge game changer because I’ve just finished a quarter of the test in like, what, like a seventh of the time. I mean, it’s huge. So that’s a way that you can bank a lot of time, right out of the gate by skipping offensively. But that’s a more advanced strategy. Students should only do that once they’ve mastered the defensive skipping because that’s more important in the early stages.

Davis: And just to clarify, when you skip offensively within that first pass, you’re not necessarily, because you’re going for speed there, you’re not necessarily, if you’re skipping problems, are you doing that three-click flow?

Orion: No, if I’m skipping offensively, because it’s the first five minutes, I know, I’m not going to be running out of time. That’s not a danger here. So I just didn’t you just burning through looking for variables in the answer choices, getting those done, and then plugging in as quickly as possible. And hopefully, I can get five points in five minutes. That one key thing to point out here is that with this strategy, what I’ve noticed is that then you get in a flow if you’re specifically skipping just on this offensive way. You’re, you get in the flow of “I know I’m just doing plug-in exercises,” and then it’s just, you’ve got instead of switching between different diagnostic strategies, you’re just, “I’m going to do all these first.”

Davis: That’s a great point. Because one of the hardest things about the test is that the questions, you don’t know what type of questions they are, you don’t know what their diagnoses are, you don’t know their difficulty. The test is not in descending order of difficulty. So you do have to spend time on the front end, trying to figure out just what you’re dealing with. And if you know, “I’m just going to be doing plugging in, because I’m looking for this one, very common diagnostic type.”

Orion: Yeah, you should be able to solve those questions way more efficiently than if they’re mixed up with other problems.

Davis: 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.

What is the best GRE study program?: introducing a revolutionary new approach to the test

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, Orion, we’ve got a cool topic today. So, we’ve talked a lot about specific skills and specific problems and how to address them. If a person is looking for a more comprehensive study program where they can just say, “I’m going to pick one thing, one program, and go through it to help me improve and get my target score on the GRE,” what comprehensive GRE study programs are out there? And what’s the best one?

Orion: That’s a great question, Davis. There are a lot of GRE self-study programs out there. There are a few big players in the market: Magoosh, Kaplan, Princeton Review, and Manhattan GRE. I think those are the four top programs on the market. But I’m here to give you some really exciting news, which is that Stellar GRE is entering into that market. And I’m very happy to announce that we have just released our top-rated GRE self-study program online; it’s available for sale today. And I’m super stoked about this. I know I’m a little biased. I know you shouldn’t ask a barber if you need a haircut. But I’m really trying to be as objective as possible when I say I think it’s the best GRE self-study program available on the market. It does a lot of things well, it does some things that the major competitors don’t do. And I’m really excited to tell you about some of the features.

Davis: So let me just understand this. So these other players, like Princeton Review, these other players you talked about, they have published books and practice tests. And they’ve published now in this modern day apps, and like you said, self-study apps that you can get on your phone, and you can use to guide you through the GRE prep experience. And StellarGRE, up until now, has been private tutoring or group tutoring classes, small group classes. So, unless you were in the San Francisco Bay Area, you wouldn’t be able to present it. But now you’re taking your proven, award-winning methodology, and you’ve made it into an app available to everybody, internationally, I guess, anywhere in the world.

Orion: Yeah, anywhere in the world that you have an internet connection, you can access StellarGRE. And it’s super exciting, because I think that as far as I know, it’s the only empirically validated GRE test prep program in the world. And this came from examining pre and post-performance from hundreds of students in my classes over the years.

Davis: And that’s huge. I mean, so empirically validated meaning, as you just said, you took people’s scores before they entered your program. And you’ve taken people’s scores after they’ve exited your program and taken the GRE and hit their target score successfully within the timeframe of the course. And what’s your percentage? Well, I mean, like, what’s the what’s the and no other company does this, though?

Orion: Well, no, because, well, I don’t know why they don’t. I assume they don’t do it because they don’t have the numbers that bear it out, because it’s obviously a very powerful selling point.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: And so basically, what I found is that after eight weeks of engaging with the program, overall improvements were statistically significant at a really small significance level. On average, students improved 19% on the verbal section, 43% on the quantitative section, and 31%, overall. And the average improvement in two months was 26 percentile points on each section of the test, verbal, quant, and writing – 26 percentile points per section in two months. That is an enormous improvement that is larger than the score guarantees of any of my competitors.

So, my line is like, “Why settle for promises?” It’s like these companies are saying, “We promise your score is going to go up by five points, by 10 points. And if it doesn’t, we’ll let you have the course for free.” In which case, why would you want to continue to engage with the course if it didn’t work in the first place?

But I’m saying my average improvement was three times higher than those score guarantees, not a promise, not theoretical. This is done data that you’ve made accessible and that you’ve analyzed.

Davis: I’m guessing this is all posted on StellarGRE.

Orion: Yeah, you can see I post all the data online, of course, you have to give my, you know, anonymity caveat. Like a stockbroker, you know, past performance does not dictate future performance, they still have to, any individual participating in the program has to actually follow the protocol.

Davis: So talk about the protocol? I mean, what is it about your protocol? What is it, what’s different there that these other main players don’t have?

Orion: So, the first thing that you’re going to get is my textbook that breaks down every single question type, and every single sub-question type, and tells you exactly the strategy or the technique appropriate to dismantling that type of problem. So the organization of the system is very different because it’s based around diagnosis. Diagnosis is a key component to top performance; it’s how you recognize the type of problem you’re dealing with. A lot of GRE success is recognition.

Once you recognize that you’re dealing with a certain type of problem, you can connect it to a solution that has worked for 10 previous types of that problem. And then you can execute with the, the slight variation with the new numbers. So it’s grouped in a very logical, but easy-to-understand system. It’s also based on a lot of empirical data, like, for example, most of my competitors present information, as if it’s all equally likely to be encountered on the test.

Davis: And that’s just as usual to know this just a list of things you need to know.

Orion: Yes, when the fact of the matter is, is that some question types are literally 100 times more likely to be encountered on the test than others.

Davis: So you give a weighted scale, a prioritization to the type of information, so those questions that are far more likely to be encountered get presented earlier on in the process, there are more questions associated with that. This allows you to leverage your time more appropriately. By paying attention to questions with higher base rates, you can make faster improvements in shorter amounts of time. And that’s kind of what this is all about. The way I’m thinking about Stellar GRE, it’s like executive test prep, we understand that you’re busy, we understand that you have better things to do with your time, no one takes GRE prep for the pleasure of taking GRE prep, it’s a goal or it’s a means to an end. And that end is to improve your score, we’re here to help you do that as fast as humanly possible so that you can move on with the rest of your life, which is where the good stuff is, in a reliable way.

Orion: Another thing that I’m really excited about is, in terms of practice problems, I’m adopting the protocol that’s based on the see-do-teach model, which is how we train medical doctors. The way that that works in medical school or residency is the intern watches a doctor perform a procedure, then does it with supervision, and then teaches that procedure to a lower-ranked intern, see, do, teach. And in just those three steps, is the fastest route to skill mastery that we’ve kind of developed in academia. So the point is, not to do something hundreds or thousands of times, it’s unnecessary. The key is to perform the action shortly after presentation in a more targeted fashion, so that you get more bang for your buck, you consolidate that mastery faster with less repetition.

Davis: How does the teach aspect work on your app?

Orion: You don’t really teach it to another person. You could, but that doesn’t show up on the app. What it’s more of is like an analogy, as opposed to a one-to-one correlation. But it does translate as, as soon as you’re taught a specific strategy, you’re immediately presented with several variations of the same question type, with different numbers and slightly different presentations. This will facilitate the generalization of the base skill to similar-looking problems, which is one of the big things that students encounter. They know how to do this specific sample problem. But when they encounter slightly different versions of that question, they’re thrown for a loop.

And so, the idea here is to practice the same strategy or techniques on a few very slightly different versions of the problem to consolidate that skill as quickly as possible. And you only have to do a few problems to do this. We don’t actually have to do thousands and thousands of problems. That’s one of the main selling points of my company. I understand that that’s sexy; we have plenty of questions, more than enough questions that you would likely want to do. We’re looking for quality over quantity, offering quality integration of the information over the quantity of just having plenty of problems. I just want to make that clear.

But yes, if after 1,000 repetitions, it’s not working, do you think another 5,000 is going to help? Like, it should work by then, right? If you’re not seeing results after 1,000 repetitions, 1,000 practice problems, you probably shouldn’t double down with another several thousand. With that approach, right? It’s like, work smarter, not harder. We’re not here to just grind you to dust. And we’re certainly not saying that this is a pastime for its own sake.

So the idea here is to match the most targeted approaches on a very granular level to very specific question types, to give you the least amount of repetition necessary for skill mastery, so that you can improve your score as quickly as possible, so that you can take the test and move on with your life. And this is also important because the longer prep goes on, the more likely something is going to disrupt it, and the more effort is going to be required just to maintain those gains.

So I kind of approach prep like a bootcamp. Let’s take two to three months, give it our all, artificially prioritize it above other things, so that we can strike when the iron is hot, and not spend unnecessary time maintaining performance, and then move on with our lives.

A couple of other things I’m really excited about is that we have an automated essay grader that will give students scaled scores. I mean, the major competitors don’t do that.

Davis: No, they don’t.

Orion: This algorithm that I built is based on the e-rater, which ETS uses to actually grade your essays. Remember, the essays are actually graded by a computer algorithm. And I’ve developed an algorithm that imitates that protocol, so students can practice writing for the machine before they actually get in front of the machine. And none of the major competitors do that as well. It’s really exciting news, it’s also affordable. The way that we’re structuring it is that there’s a few different memberships. You get full access to the complete textbook, the thousands of practice problems, as well as, oh, this is cool, there are five adaptive full-length mock tests. Nice, that really mimic the feel of the test, which, adaptive meaning, they’ll get harder if you’re doing well, exactly like it’s designed to mimic the actual experience of the test as closely as possible, specifically around the vibe, the feel of the test.

If you’ve taken the GRE before, you know that it’s kind of like in 2004, in terms of the software, and sometimes that can throw students off because the formatting and the presentation look unfamiliar. A lot of my competitors make their mock tests nicer and easier to use as a selling point. But you want to keep us in like, the “I want students to feel like when they sit down in front of the machine on test day, that it looks exactly like what they’ve been practicing with” zone. So the rest of the site and the app look top-notch, but the tests are designed to mimic the actual feel and design and functionality of the test as much as possible.

Davis: That’s awesome. Orion, you’ve mentioned so many wonderful advantages of the stellar GRE app that is now released. As you said, this is really exciting also. And you’ve also brought up a number of interesting topics that we could spend whole episodes talking about, such as generalization of problems or what the experience is like taking the test, maybe retaking it. So I’m looking forward to doing a few more future episodes with you on those as well.

Orion: Sure. Let me just give the one final plug about the memberships, just so people want to know that too. Right. So if you buy a membership, you get full access to the textbook, the mock tests, the practice problems, the only difference is in the length of time. We have one-month memberships, four-month memberships, and six-month memberships.

One-month memberships start at $99. This is a steal. This is significantly lower than any of the major competitors, I think, by at least 50%. You buy for longer periods of time, and there’s obviously a discount there as well, per month, but subscription plans start at $99 a month, and I don’t think that anyone can undersell that, that I’m aware of. And on top of that, to incentivize you to check this out, we’re offering a 10% discount on all memberships for all our loyal GRE Bites listeners. Just use the code BITES at checkout, and you’ll get 10% off of any of the three membership plans that we offer. Plus, we have hundreds of legitimate five-star reviews on Google and Yelp. From my years as a classroom instructor, and private tutor.

So I use this program, it’s the same that I teach in my class, the same that I used to get my perfect score. It’s the same I’ve used to help other people get perfect and top percentile scores. I’m really, really excited to finally bring this to market. And I hope that you’ll check it out for yourselves.

Davis: This is really exciting. Thank you so much, Orion.

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.

How to generalize your skills to new problems on the GRE: the importance of scaffolded learning

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.

Let’s get to it. So, in a recent episode, one of the things that was interesting to me, and that stuck out, was this idea of how to transfer your knowledge of how to do one type of question to others. And it just so happens that we’ve been receiving some user responses and listener requests; we got our first listener request.

Orion: That’s right.

Davis: And so we’ll read it, and then we’ll get to the subject at hand. Coming in from Michael, we have the following questions that would be great to hear about: what students are to do when they’ve gone through all the skills, and when they do ETS questions, find almost every one has a new question. He says, “I can’t do the vast majority of the math in the sections. And then when I see the answer, I can follow along. But I’m just not connecting the dots beforehand.” Is this normal? Alright, Orion, what are your expert opinions? What would you say to Michael here?

Orion: Well, first, Michael, thank you for writing in. I’m super stoked that we’re starting to get viewer requests. That’s one of the main points of this channel. So thank you for your participation; it makes me really excited to receive emails from listeners. With respect to this question, “Is this normal?” Yes, it’s unfortunately very normal. It’s a common complaint, especially with respect to the quantitative section. This can date back to high school, where being able to perform a solution to one specific question, then the numbers get changed, the presentation is slightly different, and it’s very hard to generalize from one to the other. This is because, as of yet, the student hasn’t really apprehended the deep structure of the problem.

Math is actually about relationships. Most people don’t understand that; it’s not usually how math is presented. And it’s relationships among quantities as opposed to numbers or values. Apprehending the deep relationships between quantities that are revealed by specific numbers and values is how top performers can effortlessly generalize from a specific problem to other problems with the same essential concept at its core.

That said, that takes a lot of time and a great deal of mastery. And a lot of people just aren’t going to get there in a two-month GRE self-study program, nor should they have to. So that’s one of my big things: if your goal is to kind of learn the math and to apprehend the deep, essential core concepts, which is how a lot of other programs teach for the quantitative section of the GRE, absolutely, you’re going to spend a lot of time, a lot of unnecessary time and energy preparing for the GRE, in my opinion. And that’s because we don’t actually need to know the deep structure, the essential core concepts of a problem in order to solve them.

Davis: So, let me just make sure I’m understanding you correctly. I taught math up through the second year of college and tutored it for a long time. Now, my son, who is 13, is into algebra. This is the exact problem that I’ve come across so many times. But it is what separates students who feel they can just barely get by in math and pass a test, versus those who actually go on to fall in love with math. You’re right, it’s a lifelong pursuit to actually get to that place where you can recognize the relationships and the quantities and see the power that equations can give. But I totally agree with you that GRE prep is not the place where people should be taught to do that. So, tell me more about the diagnostic method that you have. Because that method the GRE offers is a way to bypass this deep knowledge endeavor that you’re talking about, and get to the place you were just mentioning where you can just solve a problem correctly.

Orion: And just for the record, I was one of the students in the former category. I was the one who was just trying his hardest to pass the test and skate by. I was a proud B student in math throughout most of high school. I only really fell in love with math when I was in my 20s, when I think I had enough cognitive maturity to be able to appreciate it at a deeper level. I kind of had to teach it to myself in a way that made sense to me because it was never really taught in an intuitive way by my teachers or the textbooks that I read. So, it is possible.

And it’s a shame that math is taught to young folks in such a way that it’s often alienating and intimidating. Understanding relationships between costs and quantities is a core life skill. And it opens the doors to all kinds of not only professions and practical applications but just a deeper appreciation of reality in the natural world and things like that. It’s really cool. But you’re right, a two-month prep course is not the time and place to fall in love with math, necessarily. It’s probably not going to happen in that short amount of time anyway.

Davis: So, how do we get around this if we’re not going to have the time to really come to that deep apprehension of the core concept?

Orion: Well, we do that through diagnosis, which is a key component of the Stellar method. In my system, there are 50 different diagnostic categories for quantitative problems. This means that I have gone through dozens and dozens of practice tests. I’ve looked at thousands and thousands of problems from ETS and all the major test prep companies. And I can successfully sort all of those problems into one of only 50 buckets.

Davis: This is really good because there are actually only 40 scored quantitative questions on the entire exam. And if you understand that there are really only 50 types of questions on the test, there are only 50 types of questions that you need to prepare for. It significantly simplifies the issue. It’s no longer that there are thousands and thousands of problems. There are really 50 problems in different variations.

So the key component that begins every single chapter in the Stellar system, the Stellar self-study program, is diagnosis. You have to train students how to recognize those 50 individual diagnostic categories.

Davis: Help me out here a little bit because I went through the StellarGRE program. I don’t remember that there were 50. I thought it was broken down – are those 50 broken down into even fewer categories in terms of being able to diagnose quickly and move forward?

Orion: Yes, there are sub-variations within the different 50. For example, one of the 50 diagnostic categories is combinatorics. And there are combinations and permutations. Within combinations, there are multi-group combinations, and there are also multi-level combinations.

Davis: So, that was five different problem types that you could diagnose with one diagnosis. And this is a combinatorial problem.

Orion: Yes. But you can see that it’s almost like this, the solar system is a fractal.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: Where you can zoom in and zoom out at all different levels of granularity and still have a high-resolution vision of what you’re supposed to do. The point is that, whether we’re talking about those 50 high-level categories or even the subtypes of the subtypes within each category, there are always diagnostic signs that students can be trained to reliably recognize that will orient them to the type of problem they’re dealing with.

These diagnostic signs are always English words, mathematical symbols, or geometric figures. It’s one of those three things. And the top of every chapter begins with Visa, the diagnostic signs associated with this general category. These are the diagnostic signs associated with this subcategory. This is how you discriminate between the two varieties of this question. And the idea is that most of success on the GRE is recognition. Because again, there’s just 50 problems that they do over and over and over again. And if you can recognize the type of problem you’re dealing with, hopefully, within the first 10 seconds of encountering a new problem, well, then you can shuffle forward in your working memory, all the content, all the strategies and techniques associated with that diagnostic category, or that sub-variation.

You can remember what the strategy or the technique you used on 10 previous problems, if it worked on those 10 previous problems is probably going to work on this 11th problem that you’re encountering.

Davis: So we’re talking about a different way to train your recognition in your brain when you’re approaching problems, taking it rather than in practice, training the specific mechanics of each individual practice question and trying to somehow glean general concepts out of that to take to the test. Stellar GRE and the self-study program, and Orion, your program takes those generalizations already done for you, teaches you what to look for, in terms of like you said, the English words or the mathematical symbols or the images associated with a problem, and it’ll help you queue up what you need just for that.

Orion: Yeah, I think that’s a good summary. And this requires some degree of repetition. But the point is in the Stellar system, you should know what to do on every step of every problem for the entire four hours, like, I break it down on that minute of a level, like even where to put your eyes when you first encounter a problem, and the sequence of thoughts that are most conducive to you solving that question within 90 seconds or less. And I’m able to do this at such a fine resolution, because again, the test is standardized. It’s the same test over and over and over again, it just looks different to students. Because they don’t yet have that, you know, they haven’t seen 10,000 versions of it.

Davis: So, again, can you give us like you said, where to put your eyes when you first look at a question to help understand this diagnostic test? I know it won’t make sense without the full context of the entire, you know, diagnostic method. But where do you look, when you first see a question to help you understand what type of question?

Orion: It’s a great question. So, regarding diagnosis, we should probably do a whole episode on this. But because it’s a really good question and a core component, it’s my second Quantitative Efficiency Strategy. I have three primary quantitative variances. Number two, once you’ve decided to tackle a problem in the first place, you should look at the answer choices. Because 85% of the questions in the quantitative section can be sorted into one of only four different what I call “structural diagnoses,” which are revealed by what’s going on in the answer choices. That’s what I’m remembering.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: And on a very high level, when you look at the answer choices, you’re going to look for two different things. The choices are going to have real numbers or they’re going to have variables. And the answer choices are either going to be a ‘choose one’ or ‘choose many’. And that suggests that there are four different primary combinations of structural diagnosis: variables choose one, variables choose many, real numbers choose one, real numbers choose many. And this should take all of half a second to perceive, right.

And this is important because each one of those four structural diagnoses is associated with a general problem-solving strategy that works every time for that type of problem. It’s not always the most efficient route to the solution, but it will always work for that type of problem. And if you know that route, and even though it might not always be the most efficient, if it’s trained and practiced, it’s definitely within the efficiency margins needed to get a perfect score on the GRE. Sure, if I can look at the answer choices, and within two seconds determine a flexible, general problem-solving technique that will work on this problem.

It’s like I already have oriented in the direction of the solution, functionally immediately upon seeing the question. Now, that’s a huge game changer.

Davis: That’s powerful.

Orion: So diagnosis is super important. The sooner you can recognize the type of problem you’re dealing with, then the diagnosis, the treatment, the solution should follow naturally, organically from that recognition. That’s the whole point of diagnosis from a medical perspective. And that’s the key in order to generalizing solutions to problems on the quant section, right? It’s the power of diagnosis.

Davis: Well, thank you, Michael, for your question. It’s provided a really fruitful discussion, and left a few more questions, I’m sure.

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.

How to approach retaking the GRE: sitting for the test multiple times

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.

Let’s get to it. So, we’ve already had one episode on a listener question request, and today I’m excited because we have another one. This is from John. Thank you for being with us today and for sending in your request. He says, “Hi Davis and Orion, big fan of the GRE Bites podcast. It has been super helpful. I sat for the GRE for the first time yesterday. Unfortunately, my quant score was not where I needed it to be for engineering programs. I plan on retaking the test in three weeks. Do you mind doing an episode on how to approach retaking the GRE?”

Many thanks, John. So, Orion, this is a great question, something we’ve talked about, but I don’t think we’ve done an episode on what key strategies are involved in retaking the GRE. How can a student approach it?

Orion: Yeah, it’s a great question. Thanks for writing in; we love to get those listener requests; it makes our job here much more fun. So I’m sorry to hear that it didn’t go your way the other day. Unfortunately, this is not an uncommon experience for students. I hope that everyone I work with is one and done with the test.

Unfortunately, that’s just not the reality we live in. And sometimes it is necessary to sit for the exam more than once. It’s not the end of the world; it can sting. So, on a purely practical level, what I often suggest for students is to take the weekend off. Like, don’t think about the GRE, don’t do GRE prep, just get an ice cream, lick your wounds, take a walk, do other things, shake it off. Sometimes students get right back on the horse, but they do it with a sort of frenetic intensity that I think is counterproductive to their aims. So it’s like, “Hey, you took an L. It happens.”

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: So it’s like, take care of yourself. And get yourself in a calm, peaceful, and focused mindset so that you can then make the best use of your time moving forward.

Now, it’s really important advice to know that getting a score that’s not ideal is par for the course in trying to get the score you’re aiming for.

Davis: So, I have a question for you, Orion. Is there anything that students need to know? Or can we rest at ease knowing that when we take a GRE score, sometimes there’s a feeling that it’s recorded, it’s out there, ETS has it now. But if you take another score, they only remember your top score, is that correct?

Orion: Oh, okay. So it depends. Students have a lot of options with respect to what programs know which scores. ETS calls this ScoresSelect. And basically, students can choose for their programs to just know their best scores, all their scores, none of their scores; you have a lot of flexibility with respect to who knows what. In today’s day and age, generally, it’s a good idea to just release your top scores to the programs you’re applying to. That’s what’s expected.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: You don’t have to send all three scores if you take the test three times, especially if maybe your first or second attempt wasn’t what you wanted others to know about.

Davis: Yeah, that can happen.

Orion: So it’s not an all-or-nothing thing. Students have a lot of rights with respect to who knows what in the application process.

Davis: That answers that. That’s good. So people don’t have to worry that if they take a test, the college they want to get into is going to know that score.

Orion: Oh, yes, ETS knows that score. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that anybody else knows that score. There’s an extra conscious step that needs to be taken to release the scores from ETS to any program of interest, and the student or applicant has the ability to choose that score.

Davis: Yes. So that just helps you take that time off to really just be like, okay, just that water under the bridge. I did that; it wasn’t what I wanted. Okay, so we’ve taken the weekend off. We’ve relaxed; we’ve shrugged it off, let it pass, taken a break for a minute. And then we’re going back to retake it. What do we do? Do we get a copy of where we went wrong so we can understand what to do better?

Orion: Not really, you can pay ETS an extra fee, I think it’s like 30 or 40 bucks, to get a score analysis report from your actual GRE administration. I generally don’t recommend that students do this, because the information that report gives you, in my opinion, isn’t very useful. It doesn’t show you the actual questions, which they maintain for copyright and confidentiality reasons.

Davis: But then, what do they do?

Orion: They break all the quant problems, for example, down into four categories: geometry problems, arithmetic problems, and number theory problems, which are not very useful. They just say this was an easy, medium, or hard problem, so that’s the level of granularity you can expect from that score report, which I don’t feel is very useful to most students, just for the record.

Davis: Now, what’s interesting about John’s email is he says that he plans on retaking the test in three weeks. So, some students might not know this, but three weeks is the minimum amount of time between administrations; you have to wait at least three weeks between consecutive administrations. So he is wanting to get back on that horse as quickly as possible.

Orion: There are pros and cons to this. A pro is that if you’ve been doing a lot of prep, and you don’t want to extend the time you’re spending preparing for this test unnecessarily, you do want to take the test sooner rather than later, of course. But sometimes, it’s also important to keep in mind what you’re really going to be doing in those three weeks.

So, if you were scoring at or around your target level on practice tests, if you’ve already done a substantial amount of prep, and then something went sideways on test day, maybe you got anxious, maybe you encountered something that threw you for a loop, like there was some sort of performance aspect that got in your way, then sure, take the test as soon as you can, in three weeks. However, if you actually, and again, if you have a deadline, a hard deadline that you’re working with, yeah, I guess you’re going to have to take the test before that deadline.

On the other hand, if you have more time, and there might be more work required for you to hit your target score, it may not be in your best interest to just take the test again in the minimum amount of time. Because what’s the likelihood that you’re going to make the significant changes that are necessary? And then you just delay it for another three weeks? So now, it’s actually six weeks later? Why not spend six weeks and actually make it so that you’re far more likely to hit your target score, if you’re in the second camp?

Davis: So something that I’m noticing is that, you know, practice tests, is it going to be a good idea to take another practice test, like a full mock GRE test, you know, and then be able to really look at where the mistakes came from there?

Orion: Yeah.

Davis: I mean, so what are you going to do in three weeks, no matter which camp you find yourself in?

Orion: The key is to do a post-mortem on what happened. Where did things go sideways? Did you encounter problems that you didn’t recognize? Did you run out of steam? And so you encountered fatigue three hours into the test? Did you become anxious? Potentially, if you’re really surprised that you didn’t perform as well as you expected, that’s probably due to carelessness.

You might have to really dial down on mitigating your careless responding. But like, you have to do something different. And sometimes students, they just want to do 1000 problems, they just want to take a shotgun approach and do as many repetitions as they can get in, which is not as useful as doing fewer repetitions in a different way, based on feedback from your previous performance.

So it’s like it’s a better idea to try to dial down on where things went sideways, change those behaviors, and then implement those changes on fewer problems than to just say I need to do every problem that’s been published in existence, which sometimes students get into. That’s really an anxiety-based impulse.

Davis: Should they do mock tests?

Orion: Absolutely. There are two really good free mock tests available on ETS; those are the PowerPrep exams. Stellar GRE also has five full-length adaptive tests that are available through its online self-study program, but absolutely as you approach your test date, you should be doing full-length tests. This is because GRE prep is really three things: first is getting the question right. That’s the easiest. Second is getting the question right in 90 seconds or less, a little bit more challenging, then it’s getting the question right in 90 seconds or less, 100 of them in a row.

Davis: Yeah, that’s really, really hard, the step, but the distance between step two and three is huge.

Orion: Yeah. And you can only really begin to practice for that in full-length mock simulated exams.

Davis: Well, that sounds like really good advice. And it’s a great question.

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.

What is a good GRE score?: understanding score thresholds

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.

So, let’s get to the topic of today, which is kind of nebulous, kind of general, but we can get a well-rounded understanding here. What is a good GRE score? Someone saying, “I want to go into the GRE; I want to get a good score.” What does that mean? What are the ways to look at this question?

Orion: Yeah, it is kind of nebulous. It’s also the single most frequent question I get as a GRE instructor: “What is a good GRE score?” And I have to give a really unsatisfying answer, because the answer is, it depends. I will explain that, so it’ll become slightly less unsatisfying.

Davis: Why does it depend?

Orion: Well, there’s a number of things to consider. First of all, we have to appreciate that no one gets into grad schools because of their GRE scores.

Davis: You’ve talked about this before. A GRE score is a means for universities or applications offices to reject people under a certain threshold, but not the token of admission.

Orion: Correct. It gives graduate programs a legally defensible way to reject otherwise qualified applicants. Because these programs have a problem; they have to reject sometimes 95% of applicants. And these are genuinely very ambitious, intelligent, hardworking folks, just like yourself, dear listener, and so they have to reject on some basis.

And this is the easiest, most legally defensible way to reject qualified applicants. GSB, the Graduate School of Business at Stanford, one of the top business schools in the world, has an admissions rate of 6%. That’s 19 out of 20 people getting told no. So, the best possible outcome on the GRE is not the securement of a positive; it’s the avoidance of a negative. I got a perfect score on the test. I still was rejected by more programs than accepted me; it wasn’t like people were calling me up and begging me to come to their program. And that was literally the best score you could possibly get.

Davis: So, what is, just so we have a baseline, what is a perfect score? What are the numbers?

Orion: Okay, a perfect score is a 340. Combined, that means you’re getting a 170 on both the quant and the verbal and a six on the writing section. So, let’s break that down. Each major section, the verbal and the quant, has scaled scores ranging from 130 to 170, in one-point increments. The median for the verbal is a 150. The median for the quant is 152.

Davis: Just a question, median meaning 50th percentile?

Orion: Yes, exactly. This is based on the global standardization sample that ETS did several years ago. Most folks are surprised the quant median is higher than the verbal. And that’s because the standardization sample was composed of a significant number of international students; one-third of that sample took the test from outside of the country. English is spoken in many parts of the world as a primary language, but obviously as a secondary language in many parts.

And I think that’s what dragged down the verbal sample median relative to the quant sample median, which basically means that you have to perform better on the quant to get a comparable score on the verbal; you have to answer more questions right to get the same scaled score.
My general rule of thumb is that a 150 is the threshold of non-embarrassing.

Davis: Okay, what does that mean?

Orion: That means that if you can score at a 150 or above, you should not be embarrassed. You should be proud of your score because it means that you outperformed half of the people around the world who are trying to become doctors. You’re better than most. By statistical definition, you are better than most; that is not embarrassing.

Davis: Good.

Orion: And for a lot of programs, that’s actually good enough, really okay.

Davis: So, I was going to ask, different universities, different types of schools, different programs will, I’m assuming, have their own thresholds, of course. That will object, did not, and your, what you’re saying is that in a majority, what is it, a majority of universities, getting that 151, 132, or above, but that’s good enough to submit your application and not be rejected by the majority.

Orion: Potentially, there are so many universities and colleges and grad school programs in the world, and they’re not all going to be top 10 programs, right? So maybe it is good enough for the majority of programs. Most programs do not have a hard and fast threshold with respect to the GRE, i.e., you have to score above this score to be considered. But if they do, it’s probably at 150.

Okay. And again, that’s the threshold, and it’s not embarrassing, so you might have a program. I don’t know if Stanford does this, but a program like Stanford might say, we have a GRE median, we have a GRE threshold of 150. Yeah, but getting a 151 isn’t going to get you into Stanford. And so saying that you need to score at level 150, it’s such an easy thing for Stanford to say, it’s non-competitive for Stanford, it’s so low that they’re basically casting a very wide net with respect to their potential applicants. But for other programs, I’ve helped a number of students get into the low 150s, and that was good enough for them to secure admission to their programs of interest, for sure.

Davis: That’s great. So this answer of “it depends,” a lot of it depends on where you’re trying to get. Of course, a good GRE score always depends on your program of interest. And a good GRE score is one in which you outperform your competitors. And the best way to figure that out is to do some research on what were the median scores for successful applicants to that program of interest. And that’s publicly available information.

Orion: It depends. Business schools, because they’re dealing with business students, are really like, “Give me the facts. Give me the numbers. What’s the bottom line?” Business schools publish these GRE medians. Traditional master’s programs, not PhD programs, do not. And if you ask the admissions departments what they’re looking for, which is a terrible question, by the way, you’re going to get a very evasive answer, because anything they write to you will be legally binding. And the whole point of this test is to be able to reject people without getting sued. So, they don’t want to say something that’s going to bite them later, further down the road.

So a better question is, “What was the median score for successful applicants to last year’s entering class?” They absolutely have that number because it’s submitted to ranking programs like US News and World Report. In fact, the median score of successful applicants, in terms of the GRE, accounts for, I think, like an eighth to a fifth, somewhere between 12.5 percent and 20 percent, of a program’s ranking in the US News and World Report algorithm.

Davis: Wow. So one of the main drivers of ranking is the median GRE score, so they absolutely have it because all these programs want to be ranked by US News. However, they have no obligation to give it to you just because you asked. So it’s a good idea to kind of like butter up whoever you’re talking to before you ask. It kind of depends on who you get on the phone and what mood they’re in that day. But a good enough score is always based on your competition. If you can score at or around that median, it’s good enough. Do you have any examples of like top programs in these fields?

Orion: Well, like I said, business schools publish their medians online, so it’s much easier to know what those are. I’ve looked at the top 15 business schools; they all take the GRE, as well as the GMAT. See our episode on whether we should take the GRE versus the GMAT for more information on that. It looks like the school with the highest median in the top 15 has a tie at Stanford with a combined score of 330, which is a 165 split, and Yale, which again is 330, with a 165 split. Business schools tend to prioritize the quant score a bit more than the verbal.

Other programs do it the other way around. They don’t break it down often by quant versus verbal; they get the combined scores, which means that you can probably make up a few points in your stronger section and still hit your targets. So, what that also means is, if you’re gunning for Stanford and you do get a combined score of 330, well, first of all, congratulations. That’s awesome. Secondly, that’s good enough; taking the test again to try to get a combined score of 335 is not going to significantly increase your chances of getting into Stanford at that point. You’ve dodged the bullet. You’re above the 90th percentile already, but more importantly, you’re above the 50th percentile with respect to your competition, which means you’re better than most of your competition for that program. That’s what makes that a good score. Doing better does not make you more competitive. If you’ve dodged the bullet, now they’re going to look more closely at your application to determine goodness of fit. And that’s actually how people get in.

So, 150 is the threshold of non-embarrassing. 160 is the threshold of competitiveness in the vast majority, if you can score at or above 160 on both, you’re at least at a 320 combined. That’s a competitive score for the vast majority of programs on the planet. It still might not be competitive for like the top 10 business schools in the world, or some top 10 programs in other disciplines, but certainly above 160 on both will make you competitive for 90% of grad school programs in the world. So, that’s kind of my explanation for why it depends. A good score is always a good enough score relative to your competition for that specific program. And if you can score at or around that level, you’re good to go. That’s a good score.

Davis: Awesome. Well, if this was a question you’ve been wanting to know, now you have your homework: find the median score of your target university or program you’re looking to get into. Thanks, everybody. Thank you, Orion, for explaining that.

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.

The importance of vision for top performance: believe it to see 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.

So, let’s get right into it. I want to know from you, Orion, and you’ve talked about this and said it’s so important. You actually found that a large number of students don’t have this dialed in. So, what is the importance of vision for achieving your target performance? Or just getting higher? Getting towards top performance on taking the GRE? What’s the importance of vision? What is vision? How do you build it? And why is it important?

Orion: Your vision is extremely important. Unfortunately, I do talk to a number of students; I ask them the question, “Can you see yourself succeeding on this test? Can you see yourself, in the privacy of your own imagination, hitting your target score?” And unfortunately, many students tell me no, they can’t see it yet. They don’t usually include the word “yet.” They just say, “I can’t see it.” And that’s a problem. Because if you can’t even fantasize, in the privacy of your own mind, about getting what you want, it’s very hard to have any kind of reality-based confidence that you can achieve it in the real world. There’s this phrase, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” It really works the other way around, though. Sometimes you have to believe it in order to see it. If the belief doesn’t precede the vision, the vision is unrecognizable. You don’t have the conceptual framework to recognize it, even if it were staring you in the face. Many of those students who couldn’t see themselves succeeding absolutely had the skills, the knowledge, and the potential to succeed on par with their targets, but they couldn’t see it yet. And that made it more difficult for them to actually move forward with authentic confidence in the direction of their goals.

Davis: Now, that’s really important. So the vision that you’re talking about with respect to the GRE isn’t only about having the belief in oneself, thinking, “I can do this,” and therefore having the framework to recognize success or have the motivation for success. I’m imagining also that there are specific visual tactics one can employ in studying and taking the GRE, in the whole process. So, can you tell me a little bit more about those?

Orion: Yeah, just being able to see yourself succeeding is the most important thing. It’s the prerequisite for everything else. You can’t just fantasize about getting a 340 and think that it’s going to make it likely that you’ll actually achieve that level. But you do need to believe that you can arrive at your destination just to get your feet out the door, right? Why would you leave the house if you didn’t think you’d ever get to where you’re going? You know what I’m saying?

Davis: Yeah, so that’s just step one. When we’re talking about what actually creates top performance, what comes next?

Orion: Well, the process creates the top performance; the process creates the outcome. And so, the best way to attain the outcome is to kind of focus as much as possible on the process. So, we can have a very granular vision with respect to the process that’s most conducive to top performance, that’s most conducive to success. This could look something like, I can see myself. Boom, seeing a question, scanning it for certain skippable features, making a decision within the first segments to skip it or to attempt it, then looking at the answer choices to do a structure diagnosis, then doing a soft scan of the problem in order to reveal a content diagnosis, then actively recalling in my working memory all the concepts, strategies, and techniques associated with those diagnostic categories. Then I begin solving continuously. I see myself employing the problem-specific strategies and techniques accurately and efficiently. I see myself arriving at the answer to this question. I see myself moving without hesitation into the next one. I see myself getting questions right. I see myself responding to 20 questions perfectly and that eventually leads to, I see myself getting the score that I need on this test. But it means that I can see myself performing these sequences of steps on every question, on every set, to arrive at that ultimate outcome. Does that make sense?

Davis: Yeah, and I’m imagining this is something that a person is not asking, ‘Can you do it?’ or ‘Can you not?’ but imagining that that person actually can.

Orion: I’m not just imagining; I know that a person can arrive at this level of visualization, aiding them towards top performance through practice. Also, you can practice visualizing, getting into that granularity, working it out slowly, and then repeating it so that it becomes more natural. And those processes are queued at each stage more readily. It’s definitely a habit. And each little step is within every student’s ability to perform. It’s very simple to look at the answer choices, you know. It’s something else to remember to do that at this stage of the process every single time. So, it basically becomes part of your unconscious workflow associated with successful performance.

Davis: So, it’s structuring the way that we see the test in front of us but also structuring the way we see ourselves taking the test.

Orion: That’s right. In top performance, what’s the difference between the dancer at top performance and the GRE? There’s actually not really a difference between the test and you; the test is inside of you while you’re taking it, and you are responding. You’re inside the test as you’re responding. So, there’s actually this breakdown at top performance. And we usually experience that subjectively as a flow state.

Davis: No, that’s… I mean, there are all kinds of… the flow state, becoming one with the object of focus or interest. It’s talked about in many different cultures, how effective that can be, both in modern times and in the past. I’m talking about ancient Indian Hindu cultures; one of the forms of yoga, Samadhi, was focusing so much on something that your attention, the objectivity and subjectivity of it, disappeared, and you became it, and it became you.

That’s why I felt that at certain points in my life, and it changes your perception of what’s possible and the nature of reality.

Orion: That’s true. And the flow state is a hot topic of research for this day and age, and also within athletics and sports. This practice of visualization has been shown; this is not something that is just theoretical or new age. It’s not the power of attraction, it’s not new-agey.

This is demonstrable, peer-reviewed, testable, with practices that have beneficial effects. I mean, so much to the point where they’ve done studies, for example, in tennis, where they can have players, the top-tier players, practicing tennis matches, versus some players doing nothing, compared to some elite players sitting in a room and visualizing playing, visualizing hitting the ball in every granular detail, not just visualizing success on the macroscopic level, but visualizing all the balls coming this way. How would I respond to the point where they’re actually triggering the neurological pathways to fire the muscles in coordination? And you can develop skill through visualization. In some cases, as well, or more than even just throwing yourself into it, in the coarse matter, real-world material.

Davis: Yeah, that’s wild. And what I understand is the same principles can be applied to taking the test as well. It’s not like the GRE is ontologically different from all the other games that we play as human beings.

Orion: Well, but that’s an interesting question. Because in some of these other games, like, for example, a test, we’re talking about motor cortex pathways that control coordination, that control the timing of contraction and relaxation of actual muscles. But in a test, you’re sitting there, looking at a screen.

Davis: So, what are the pathways that the visualization is for StellarGRE? What are the pathways that they are trying to train to cue in sequence?

Orion: I see what you’re saying. I would say that why they’re not ontologically different is because both of them involve visualizing behavior. In tennis, the behavior is more overt; it’s muscular. When we’re talking about taking a test, like the GRE, the behavior is more covert, sequences of thoughts or behavior, where you put your attention is a behavior. How you actually respond to the test is a behavior.

So, behavior doesn’t necessarily have to be overt. It can be internal, subjective, and covert. And that’s kind of the work that we’re doing. This is where my work as a test prep instructor tends to dovetail with my work as a psychologist; it’s training in internal behavior for success. And we can sequence those internal behaviors of attention, of memory, of recollection, and segue them into more overt behaviors, like “I’m going to perform this strategy, this technique, and then I’m going to respond by clicking this button.” It’s all an unbroken sequence. It just starts more internal, with mindfulness, self-recognition of “Oh, if I start feeling anxious, or if I start feeling pressured by time, I can sequence the visualization. Oh, that’s when I need to take a deep breath.” And then there is covert, but there can also be physical anchors if I need to.

Davis: Oh, yeah, people think behavior is just something that you can see.

Orion: Yeah, that’s not always the case, from a psychological perspective anyway. And so that’s what we’re training: sequences of behavior that are mostly covert and cognitive. But nonetheless, they are behavioral and can be learned. Training those sequences for top performance on the test, and to see ourselves going through those sequence of behaviors prior to performance, facilitates and elevates success.

Davis: 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.