The two types of grad school: what is your ultimate goal?

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, let’s get into it. So, with today’s educational marketplace, online schools are all over the place, including smaller schools, larger schools, and of course, the Ivy League. There’s grad school, and then there’s grad school now. Hmm. So, what are the two types of grad schools? When we’re considering the GRE and what we want to do with our graduate degree?

Orion: Well, you’re absolutely right, Davis. There are so many different grad school programs that exist in the world. And some of them are worth your money, in my opinion, and some of them are not. And that depends on more than just the standard rankings associated with these programs, which I’m sure any student can and should Google before they apply, right. So, I have this conceptual framework for looking at grad school. And I do believe that there are two types of grad schools. And the two types of grad schools really depend on whether the degree that they award is legally instrumental to getting a certain job. That’s the difference between the two categories.

Davis: So, what does that mean?

Orion: So, for example, if you want to be a medical doctor, you need an MD; there’s no way around that, right. If you want to be a lawyer, you need a JD; there are very few ways around that. If you are a psychologist, you need to have a Ph.D. or PsyD; that’s a legal requirement in all 50 states. So that’s one type of program, a program that awards a degree that you legally need to get a license to do a specific job, to have a specific career.

Davis: Education is the same, right? If you’re going to teach, that depends on state to state. Like in New York State, you need a master’s degree in order to teach in the public educational system. And I don’t believe that is a requirement in other states. So this is part of the research process you have to do beforehand.

Orion: That’s right, exactly. Yeah. So, my kind of rule of thumb about this is that if you’re looking to get a degree so that you can apply for a license to do a certain job, it doesn’t matter so much where you go. So if you’re wondering, okay, well, if you’re wanting a degree to apply for a license, and the license is what you need, correct, for the job, as opposed to the actual degree itself, then it doesn’t matter where you go; it doesn’t matter as much, right? Because I’ll be honest, once I got my license to practice psychology and I established my private practice, I don’t think anybody in six years has asked me where I attended my graduate school. The fact is that I’m a licensed psychologist; I can compete in the open market with other psychologists who went to Harvard or Stanford. We’re all on a level playing field with respect to offering our services to the public. I have a bit of an entrepreneurial streak. So I always knew that I wanted to go into private practice. And so I just needed the degree to get the license that I could enter into the free market economy and promote my practice and get my patients that way.

Davis: Right.

Orion: And if you do your job well, if you help people, if you provide a service that nobody else can do, frankly, most people won’t care if you dropped out of kindergarten. They’ll say, “You can help me; I want what you have. Here’s my money, take it.” And that license serves as a voucher of trust for the consumer to say, “Oh, he’s licensed by the board or by the state or by whatever. So I know I can count on his services being legitimate.”

Davis: Yes, that’s ascribed authority.

Orion: And that’s a big part of it. There’s a difference between saying that you’re a licensed psychologist versus I’m a life coach.

Davis: Right, right.

Orion: Now, does that mean that the advice or the support that a life coach offers is necessarily superior to anything that a licensed psychologist would offer? No, there are bad licensed psychologists, and there are really great life coaches. But it’s harder to establish that initial trust, to get someone to pick up the phone and ask for help. Right. And so the license is really useful for that. To get your foot in the door, kind of. But like if you’re bad and licensed, people aren’t going to stick around, right? And if you’re good and non-licensed, eventually people will find you. So there is an element of trust associated with the licensure.

Davis: Yeah, right.

Orion: But yeah, but legally, right, you have to have a license to practice certain jobs. And if that’s the goal, to practice that job, then getting a license is what’s going to allow you to do that. So where you get your graduate degree in order to obtain the license doesn’t have as much importance in the long run, in my opinion. And so, if that’s the kind of grad school that you’re looking to go to, there are other considerations that I think would take priority over, let’s say, the ranking of the program. What’s the most affordable program? What’s the one where I can get the degree in the least amount of time? Because every year you spend in grad school, it reduces your overall lifetime earnings; you’re out of the marketplace. You want to get in and out as quickly and cheaply as possible. All other things being equal.

Davis: What about locations? I considered it dependent.

Orion: You know, it’s like a lot of grad schools can be online these days, which works for some people and doesn’t work for other people. I’ve moved across the country to go to my grad school program. But I also wanted to live where I was moving. I didn’t just apply randomly to the top-ranked programs and resigned myself to live in, say, Missouri, or no offense to Missouri, I guess, but not my favorite state in the union. I knew where I wanted to live. Does that make sense?

Davis: So location depends on the people involved. But that’s good news. If someone’s looking to go to grad school, and they know the license is what they’re eventually needing, they can look for a place more where they want to live and find the cheapest, quickest grad school program in the area of their choice.

Orion: That’s exactly what I did. I’m very happy that I did that. I got what I needed and moved forward. I was able to get out of debt a year or two after I graduated. I have a thriving private practice, like I got what I needed from grad school, which is important to consider: grad school is a means to an end. That’s right. And you don’t want to linger in grad school. And you want to make sure that grad school is actually facilitating that end, which means you also have to clarify what that end is before you go in. Unfortunately, a lot of folks, especially if they’re younger, they can enter into grad school because they just don’t know what else to do with their life. Maybe their career is kind of stagnant, or the economy’s going bad. So it’s hard to get a job. It’s like, okay, I can understand those considerations. But if you don’t have a clear end goal in mind, you just kick the can down the road. So now you’re three to five years older, potentially, and you still have those same questions. And now you have a huge debt, and you’re older, without a clearer idea of how this is going to apply in your job, not a good idea.

Davis: So, we’ve talked about one type of grad school, which is going for, you know, being flexible with the grad school of choice, because the license is what matters to enable you to have that end goal achievable. So, the other type of grad school, I’m guessing, is where the grad school you go to, and that name carries a lot more weight. And that matters.

Orion: Well, the other type of grad school is one that awards a degree that you don’t legally need to do a job, which is the vast majority of programs. Let’s be clear, only like, I don’t know, 10% of grad schools award degrees that you legally need to do a job – teaching, teaching masters in certain states, the JDs, the MDs, things like that. Yeah, the vast majority of programs give you master’s degrees in psychology, or MBAs, which you technically don’t need for a specific job. A lot of companies, they, they put a big carrot on a string and say, “Hey, you’d be more competitive for these jobs if you had a master’s.” And that could be true if you’re just comparing two cold resumes against each other. But that also, again, diminishes what’s really important about getting jobs, which is who you know, and being able to leverage relationships and networks and experience and being incredibly good at what you do. If you have those things going for you, you don’t need an MBA.

Davis: That’s true.

Orion: Okay. So, with this 90% of grad schools, where you technically and legally don’t need that degree, it’s very, very important where you go. Extremely. Because what that grad school is able to do for you is, you’re basically paying to enter into a kind of a country club. And you’re paying to be associated with a brand for the rest of your professional career. Right, “Harvard-trained.” Sure, some brands have way more power than other brands. Harvard, Stanford, they’re going to open doors. I believe South Central Florida State University is not going to open a lot of doors. You know what I’m saying? No offense, South Central Florida State University, you know what I’m saying?

Davis: That’s a real university?

Orion: No, I’m just making it up. So I don’t get sued. So, the point is, is that some brands open more doors than others. And if you don’t need this degree, you’re paying for opportunity, right? You’re also paying for a network and a network of the people that you meet.

Davis: Exactly.

Orion: Because those folks that you form relationships with will be your professional network that you’re going to be leaning heavily on for jobs and opportunities for the next, you know, 10 years of your life. That extended alumni network as well, so you can kind of like an old boys’ club, you go into a room and you realize you’re both in the same fraternity from even though you went to school in Virginia and you went to school in Oregon, it’s like it’s a point of connection, that can actually improve your chances of getting that job.

Davis: So, does this apply also, not just for the name brand of the school itself, but say, there’s someone in the field you’re interested in, that is already a distinguished professor or researcher in one of these 90% of jobs where you don’t actually need the degree necessarily. If you follow if you go to a school and you follow that person, even if it’s not a name-brand school, or an Ivy League, but you get to say, “I studied with this professor, this pioneer in the field at such and such university,” does that carry as much weight as well?

Orion: That’s an excellent question. That’s a bit more subtle, and it can, but that person needs to be really famous within that field. That name needs to carry as much weight as Harvard or Yale or Stanford by itself. And it’s also important to keep in mind that when you apply to those programs that do have these stellar personages on their faculty, there’s also no guarantee that you’re going to be studying under that person. Maybe you’ll take a class with him or her. But that won’t be enough to really associate with the brand, right?

So generally, I think it’s a good idea to favor a strong brand, even over a strong program. This is important to keep in mind. Not all grad programs at Harvard are fantastic, right. But Harvard, everyone in the world knows what Harvard University is, you know what I’m saying? So even if it’s like a 40th ranked program, I don’t know, maybe dentistry? I don’t know if Harvard has a good dentistry program. Maybe it does, maybe. But that’s probably something that you need a license for. So let’s say paleontology, you probably don’t need a degree in paleontology to become a paleontologist. I don’t think that’s a legal designation. And maybe Harvard doesn’t have a top-ranked program, but it’s still Harvard.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: And you get to be associated with that.

Davis: That’s right.

Orion: So that’s, that’s kind of it in a nutshell, is think about what your goals are. Do you need this for a job? If so, get in and out as quickly as possible. And if you don’t, I would not recommend applying to any institution that’s lower than like, the 15th ranked, okay. Because thresholds, if the 40th or the 50th ranked program is just as expensive as the 10th ranked program, but it comes with a fraction of the opportunity for networking. So it is really useful to shoot for the stars when it comes to the second type of grad school programs. I hope that makes sense.

Davis: No, that makes sense. Thanks for clearing up and making that structural framework of the two different types to keep in mind when we’re trying to figure out, you know, where to go.

Orion: I’ve done a lot of grad school consulting in the year. So, besides during the GRE prep, I’ve helped hundreds of students get into their grad school now, it’s valuable information.

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.

The worst question to ask yourself on the GRE: how you are getting in your own way

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 there are a lot of questions people can ask themselves both going into GRE prep work and while they’re taking the test, as well as in life. So, I’ve heard you talk about the worst possible question to ask yourself, one that just doesn’t help. So, what is the worst question to ask yourself when you’re sitting down taking the GRE?

Orion: Well, the clock is ticking while you’re actively taking the test. And I almost guarantee that it’s a question that the listener or the viewer has asked himself or herself as well. It’s human nature to ask this question.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: It’s just not very helpful. And that question, the worst question to ask yourself on the GRE, is, “What should I do?”

Davis: Okay, help me unpack that. Because I’ve definitely asked myself that question.

Orion: Of course, you have.

Davis: In fact, I wrote my master’s thesis on that question.

Orion: Oh, my goodness.

Davis: So, I want to understand this in the context of the GRE. Why is it to be avoided?

Orion: Well, when do you ask yourself that question when everything is going well?

Davis: No.

Orion: Of course not. It’s when there’s a momentous decision or moment where you are at a crossroads, and you don’t know what to do. You’re stuck on a problem. You’ve tried maybe a couple of different strategies or techniques that haven’t been useful in moving the process forward. You’re stuck, the clock is ticking, maybe even the panic is setting in, and you ask yourself, “What should I do?” Right? Well, it gets stuck on repeat sometimes. But “What should I do?” Well, of course, it gets stuck on repeat because you can’t answer that question. If you were in a position to answer that question, you wouldn’t be asking it. You’d be doing it. That’s why you only ask it when things are going poorly, not when things are going well. You don’t think to ask yourself, “What should I do?” when you know what to do. Right? So, what do you think are the consequences of asking yourself a question that’s impossible for you to answer? You just get stressed, stressed, you might ruminate, you probably don’t feel more confident, right? You probably become more self-aware of your struggle, which is, in itself, bad. We kind of want to be transparent to self when we’re taking the GRE. The more self-focused and self-absorbed we are, the less focused we are on the test. And the more likely we are going to get wrapped up in, let’s say, emotional eddies, which aren’t helping you get the point on that question. So, it definitely is human nature to ask this question. “What should I do?” is just not a good question to ask because you can’t answer it within your frame of reference. And given the context of the GRE, where if you’re asking yourself that question, it means that there’s some level at which you’re not prepared.

Davis: Well, that’s a good point.

Orion: So, one of the best ways to prepare for the test and also to lower test anxiety is to overprepare for the exam, to know your formulas and definitions with instantaneous recall, to be able to implement all of your rehearsed techniques and strategies within 90 seconds or less, basically, to be well-trained before you’re dropped into the war zone. Right? That’s a great strategy. Does that mean that you’re going to be 100% prepared for anything the test throws at you? Of course not. So, even very well-prepared students can be hit with an electrical problem that doesn’t look like anything they’ve been prepared for, or a very, very hard variant of the question that they have. It’s subject to happen to anybody. Right?

Davis: So, is the problem with that question, kind of that doubt and that entry into a downward spiral of rumination and self-doubt?

Orion: Correct. Because it doesn’t suggest a course of action. Since you can’t answer the question, there’s nothing you can do about it.

Davis: So, in other words, like, the question itself is not necessarily inherently wrong in the sense of, like, okay, I’m at a crossroads. I don’t exactly understand how my preparation for this type of problem should be put into practice, but instead of just being like, “Oh, what should I do?” kind of in that panic pre-panic mode, it can be like, “Alright, which of my strategies can I implement?” Is that a better type of question?

Orion: Well, yeah, we’re getting to it. I can’t just say, “This is terrible. Don’t do it,” right? And not offer a better alternative. Okay, so what’s a better question to ask yourself in that situation? Suspending judgment as to what I should do, because I’m not in a position to judge in that moment, suspending judgment.

Davis: What’s something that I can do to focus on what is possible?

Orion: The fact of the matter is that on the GRE, and I assume in life as well, many solutions only present themselves in the solving. It’s rare that you can see all the way to the end of a solution on the GRE. Sometimes you can see one or two steps ahead, but then there’s kind of a blank; you need more information, or something gets unraveled or revealed in those one or two steps. And so, if you feel the need to have everything planned out in advance before you get started, well, you might not ever leave the house on some level. This is especially true on the GRE, where the questions are designed in such a way that, you know, it’s like a perfectly knotted string, that if you just pull gently on the string, eventually the knot will untie itself. So, the questions are designed to almost like origami unfold into the solution. So, what you can do next is almost always what you should do to advance the solution further towards its terminus. Right?

Davis: So, rather than getting hit dumbfounded and being stuck in the paralysis of that “What should I do? What should I do?” spiral, what can I do, and then engage and stay active so that you’re pulling on that string, so that if you run into an immediate roadblock, it becomes obvious, “Oh, this isn’t the right strategy,” or it does unfold, and the string comes undone. You’re like, “Alright, great. I got it.”

Orion: Exactly. Being active is key. I mean, if you’ve played the game Scrabble before, of course, everyone’s played Scrabble, right? So, every once in a while, you’ve got the tiles on your rack, and you just can’t see a word, right?

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: Do you just keep staring at the tile, shuffle them around, do something with it, and you’re hoping, you know, you put some prefixes over here, some suffixes over there, and you’re trying to stimulate your mind to recognize some pattern in this chaos. But we all know that it’s more likely that we’re going to see it if we play around, we don’t just sit there and look and do nothing, right, and think that the inspiration is suddenly going to be revealed to us. That generally doesn’t happen, right? We have to help the inspiration. And we do that through action. So, the same basic premise holds true on the GRE: that we want to do what we can. And that almost always facilitates the revelation of the next step. And this is especially important, given the time constraints of the GRE. Sure, you don’t have forever, you have to keep your legs moving in the right direction. Right, right. So, that’s a better question, suspending judgment, because you don’t know. And that’s something, “What can I do?” is the better question. Yeah, what can I do?

Davis: And so, what does that look like?

Orion: It has to do with diagnosis, which I talk about a lot in my test prep system, like, what kind of problem is this? Is it an average problem or a ratio problem, a back-solving problem? That content diagnosis should reveal specific strategies or techniques that might be useful for that problem. Look at the answer choices. That’s where structure diagnosis comes in. Can you plug in? Can you back solve? Can you push the extremes? Those are general flexible strategies that always work for questions with specific answer choices. What’s this question talking about, a certain shape or a certain concept like probability or permutations? Is there an equation that I know that’s associated with this? Plug in what I know, so often what I don’t. You have to surrender the need to know why, what you’re doing is working, right?

Davis: So, you have to suspend the desire for immediate confidence, or confirmation that what you’re doing is correct, what you’re doing is correct?

Orion: And just take those first steps into the problem into the active engagement. I would say immediately and continuously because it’s not like after you do this for 20 seconds, or 20 minutes, the test gives you that confirmation. You actually never get that confirmation from the test, right. And this is a big trap for a lot of folks because a lot of what students do that is counterproductive for their performance is actually an attempt to take care of their emotions and to feel more confident in what they’re doing, right, emotional coping strategies. These are things like double-checking your work, rereading questions. These strategies generally don’t increase a student’s score, but they can make a student feel better in the moment about what he or she is doing, but at the expense of their efficiency and their overall score. So, the idea here is to enter into the mystery, my friend. You have no idea if what you’re doing is working; you don’t know whether you’ll get a question right or not. And by the time you figure that out, there’s nothing you can do about it anyway. So, you have to kind of just enter in and, on some level, accept a baseline level of uncertainty and discomfort that comes with abiding in uncertainty but to focus on effectiveness and doing what is best to increase your performance and move further down the road. And there’s some level of confidence, I imagine, that’s built in with having taken dozens of practice tests, working with that emotional state of being under a practice test condition where you’re timing yourself, and then seeing the results later and being like, “Oh, I actually did okay if you do it that way.”

Davis: Yeah. We’ll talk about that in a future episode.

Orion: If you do 12 tests, and the whole time you’re practicing these emotional coping strategies, that in and of itself is not going to help you prepare to abide in the uncertainty in the actual exam.

Davis: Well, we’ll have to get into that in a future episode. I imagine we will, maybe next week.

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.

Scheduling your GRE test: when is the best time to sit for the exam?

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, let’s paint a picture here. I’ve prepped for the GRE. Okay, I’ve taken all the stellar GRE courses I could. I’m confident, to a degree, in my ability to perform. But I also have grad school admissions coming up, deadlines, and I’m looking to schedule my test. So, do I rush into it? Do I wait a few months, take as many practice tests as I can before? I’m like, what? Do I do it in the morning? The afternoon? What are these tests? What’s the best time to schedule the test where I can ensure my highest performance?

Orion: These are great questions. So, I’m going to preface this by saying that everybody’s different. And so, you need to examine yourself and what works best for you. But I’m going to give some general rules of thumb. So, first of all, I recommend, my preference is to be one and done with this test. I’d rather take the test once, get what I need, and then move on with the rest of my life. To further that end, I need to be sufficiently confident that when I schedule the test, I can get what I need. I have to do that. And in order to do that, I have to do some research and some self-inquiry. Basically, if I’m scoring at around my target level on full-length practice tests a week or two before the test, I’m ready to take the test. Does that make sense?

Davis: Yeah. So let’s unpack that a little bit. What’s a target score?

Orion: A target score is the median score for successful applicants at your top program of interest. So if you’re applying, let’s say, to GSB at Stanford, that has a quant median, I think, of 166. It’s very high. But that’s what you’re shooting for. So if you can score on, let’s say, your power prep diagnostics, between a 165 and a 167, you’re ready to go. You’re scoring around your target level; you should be able to schedule that test with confidence. Now, in the past, before COVID, you’d have to schedule the test months in advance, because you’d have to go to a testing center, and certain times of the year were way busier than others.

Now, we have the luxury of at-home administration. And basically, you can schedule the test days in advance. So you have a lot more flexibility with timing, and you can wait until you’re scoring around your target score at a consistent level to pull the trigger on that test. And that will increase the likelihood that you can be one and done.

Now, is it the end of the world if you don’t get what you need on your first attempt? No, you do have to wait three weeks before you can take it again. And that means you will have to continue to study, or even study more, because you have to at least keep what you’ve maintained. And if it wasn’t enough, you have to do something different. So it prolongs your test prep experience, at least a month, it seems like, maybe more. And test prep is kind of not a happy, good times place. You know, I love it. But most people don’t want to hang out there indefinitely. It’s kind of like a Bardo; it’s a waiting room between two places, you know. It’s not a destination in and of itself for the vast majority of people, which I totally understand.

So, I like to take a boot camp approach to things. I hit it hard, I hit it fast, I make it a priority in my life. And if I do that, usually people can do that between two and three months. And then they’re ready to hit their target scores. Now, obviously, the two or three month window can change depending on a student’s baseline and also a student’s target. Obviously, the bigger the gap between where they’re starting and where they want to go may take a little more time. Obviously, you know, some people waltz in, and they’re brilliant on the verbal section and the writing, and they just need a little help on the quant. And so basically, two thirds of the test are kind of taken care of for them. And so they get to have a more targeted approach to their prep, which takes less time, right, generally, right. So that’s when you know that you’re ready to take the test.

Now, with respect to when, like what time of day, that is actually an excellent question. So, yeah, each person should examine himself or herself, and determine when they’re at their peak mental functioning. If I took the test at 8 am, I wouldn’t have gotten a perfect score. That’s just how my mind works. And you have to, you’ve gotten the perfect score a number of times. I’ve gotten a perfect score once on an actual one and done what exactly I don’t, I don’t say to anybody else, what I don’t want for myself or what I don’t do for myself. I’ve taken scores of ETS tests and practice tests and things like that. But when I’ve actually gone into a testing center for the official score, I’ve only done that once. I got a perfect score. I moved on with my life. And a lot of my students would like to follow in that as well and have followed. They have, I’ve helped students get perfect scores before. It’s pretty cool.

Anyway, if I had to do that, am I’d be half asleep. I’m not a morning person; my mind would be foggy; I’d be sluggish. It’s just really, really important that I find a time that was at my peak mental functioning, which is in the afternoon. I need a lot of time to wake up. I wanted to exercise. I wanted to do some practice. I wanted to feel fully awake and sharp. And then I sat for the exam. So it’s better to change if you can, to change the date, if it means that it allows you to take the test at the time of day at which you’re at your peak mental functioning. Does that make sense?

Davis: Yeah. And so this self-awareness, examination study process? People are potentially, they already know what you mean. They might already be like, oh, yeah, I’m a morning person. I’m sharpest at 8 am. Some people aren’t. But if someone’s like, I have no idea when my peak mental functioning of the day is, what’s the, what are you looking at?

Orion: You know, to be honest, I haven’t had that problem. Most people, I think, based on what you said, I think most people know by the time they’re in their 20s whether they’re a morning person or an afternoon person. So that general, or like eating a big meal or something, or those are those things. Do you get down into like that granular detail about, sure, when not even necessarily when to schedule it, per se, you realize you’re an afternoon person. But you also want to be focusing on these other aspects of what you do that day, like you said, exercise or something like that.

Davis: Oh, yeah.

Orion: I mean, I want to make sure that I’m well fed, whether it’s a breakfast or lunch. I want to be sure that the first questions I do that day are not the questions that count. Like, a coach doesn’t send you to the game cold; you have to run up and down the sidelines a little bit before the subject, right.

Davis: Okay. So you don’t want to warm up with a test; you want to warm up with practice problems beforehand. So you’re already in the GRE zone, you sit down and hit question number one.

Orion: So, I like to do some cardio, gets the blood flowing, I wake up, I have a lot more like my consciousness, that’s important for me. I mean, I treat the GRE like an academic Olympiad, which it kind of is. You’re competing against the brightest people around the world who are trying to become doctors. I mean, it is the Olympics of standardized tests. It’s at that global level, and it’s at that peak of performance. So I take it very seriously. And these, you know, being half asleep, having low blood sugar, being foggy of mind, these things can have extremely detrimental effects on a student’s performance. And I mean, why prep for three months? If you’re just going to show up and be half asleep on the day of the test? That’s terrible. It’s not a good idea, right?

Davis: Yeah. So we’ve talked about when to schedule when you’re scoring consistently at around a target, talked about your peak mental functioning. There’s also hard deadlines. So all grad school programs have dates at which you need to submit; they have application deadlines, let’s put it that way.

Orion: Now, here’s something to consider: there are two types of schools with respect to application deadlines, and each student has to do research to determine which type of school he or she is dealing with. There are what I call “Cool Schools” and “Strict Schools.”

Davis: Okay.

Orion: A “Cool School” basically allows you, the student, to submit your unofficial GRE score on the application prior to the deadline, provided you at least had taken the test prior to the deadline. So, for example, if the deadline is December 1 and you took the test on November 30, you could submit your unofficial scores the next day and be totally cool with respect to the deadline. Unofficial scores meaning the scores that you receive immediately following your administration, right? You get your unofficial scaled scores in Quant and Verbal two minutes after you finish the test, right. But your official scores only show up in your ETS portal about two weeks later.

Davis: Gotcha.

Orion: And even then, schools will require ETS itself to release the official scores to them. It doesn’t trust you even with communicating the official scores that are eventually communicated to you. So, some schools are like that. And it’s important to know if you’re dealing with a “Cool School” because it gives you a little bit more time to potentially prepare and to schedule the test. Now, there are “Strict Schools.” “Strict Schools,” on the other hand, require you, demand that they have received the official scores from ETS prior to the application deadline. So, if it’s a December 1 deadline, they need to have received the scores from ETS by that time, which will take at least two weeks or 10 business days for that to happen, which means that your point of no return for a “Strict School” is actually about two weeks before the official deadline in November. And you don’t want to figure out which school you’re dealing with in mid-November, because that’s going to create unnecessary stress and could even freeze you out of that year’s application cycle. That’s no bueno.

So, you want to do that research first. And the best way to do that is to write an email to the admissions department and say, the question you want to ask is very specific, it should be something like, “Do you need to have received the official scores from ETS prior to the application deadline? Or can I submit my unofficial scores from tests taken before the application deadline with the expectation that the official scores will follow after the deadline?” It’s kind of wordy, but you want to get all that in, so that the choice is very clear for the person you’re speaking to. Right?

Davis: That makes a lot of sense. And so, we’ve talked about on the front end, in terms of like, timing your test so that you make sure you hit these deadlines for a “Strict” or “Cool School.” What about, like, say, you’ve taken your GRE a few years ago and you’re looking at applying or still looking at applying? Is there a time limit on which you can no longer… there is both a hard deadline, like a hard time limit, saying like this GRE score is no longer even viable, but also like a perceptual, like if a school is looking at it differently. If it’s like, “Oh, I took that two years ago,” or “Do you want to be taking it always right?”

Orion: No, before your application deadline, I mean, I think the sooner you can get through the GRE the better. Okay. A lot of students come to me while they’re still in undergrad or immediately out of undergrad because they’re still in academic mode. They don’t want to go to grad school right away, but they figure this is the time to sit for an academic standardized test. So, they take the test, and they just put the score in their back pocket. That score is valid for five years. So, if they decide to go to grad school in the next five years, that’s done. I think that’s a perfectly reasonable strategy.

Davis: Nice.

Orion: So, that’s the hard deadline; the scores are valid for five years. With respect to the perception, there could be some of that. I can’t speak to the individuals involved. I know that they shouldn’t be considering that because a test that was taken last week versus four years and 11 months ago, they’re still equally valid. And so, legally, the admissions folks should treat both of those scores as valid scores, i.e., exactly the same, and just compare them on the merits of their actual scores.

Davis: Yeah. So, there could be that perception.

Orion: I can’t speak to that. But there shouldn’t be; in an ideal world, they’re not paying attention to that. And I think that is less important. If you have a very good score from four years ago, I think that’s enough. You don’t have to think about rescheduling tests.

Davis: Okay, no, that’s great. So, you’ve covered a lot of bases; you’ve covered time of day, depending on the individual; you’ve covered… you know, you don’t want to, after you’re arriving at your target score, you don’t want to push it more than a couple of weeks from when you’ve hit that benchmark; strike while the iron’s hot when you take the test. And then, you’ve talked about the admission “Cool School,” “Strict School” deadlines that you want to know beforehand, before you’re even considering scheduling it, so that you can line everything up, right?

Orion: Correct.

Davis: No, that’s great. I just wanted to make sure, so we’re good.

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.

Mindfulness and top performance on the GRE: focus is the mother of excellence

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.

All right. So, Dr. Orion.

Orion: Yes, sir.

Davis: So, we’ve talked about in the past, the emotional coping that sometimes people go through when they’re taking their test. And that can be a significant kind of minefield or environment to navigate when taking the test.

Orion: Well, it just decreases your efficiency and your overall effectiveness, right? So, there are tools that we have, such as mindfulness practices, that can help alleviate that and keep us focused for top performance.

Davis: So, talk to me a little bit about how mindfulness, increased mindfulness practices in the context of the GRE, can increase our performance.

Orion: Oh, it’s huge. Mindfulness is extremely important to top performance on the GRE and in many other domains of life, right. I often say that there are really three steps to getting a perfect score on the GRE. The first is getting the question right, obviously. But that’s the easiest step: getting the question right. Then it’s getting the question right in 90 seconds or less, because the time constraint is one of the more challenging parts of this test. If you can do it in three minutes, you kind of can do it. So that’s step two. And step three is getting the question right in 90 seconds or less, 100 times in a row. And that’s a huge step. That’s a bigger step between two and three than one and two. To be able to get every single step of every single question right 100 times in a row for four and a half straight hours is extremely difficult. It requires an almost robotic consistency with respect to your own fail-safes to reduce carelessness. It requires a presence of mind that is very difficult to sustain for most people for four and a half hours. And what I’m talking about with respect to that is sustained mindfulness.

A big part of this test is being able to kind of have temporal blinders, like those horses in Central Park that have the blinders. You don’t want to think about the past or the previous question. You want to think about the future, where the next question you want your entire universe to be the question that’s directly in front of you, and ideally, the smallest step of the question that’s directly in front of you. And to sort of walk the razor’s edge of the present moment in that way for four straight hours. Because as soon as you start to mentally time travel, and you think about what you did on the previous quant section, or how you have a third verbal section to look forward to, you take yourself out of the present moment, which means you’re increasingly disengaged from the actual sensory information that you need to solve that problem, which is just inviting carelessness, just inviting error and variance into your performance.

And so the difference between somebody who’s scoring at 162, and a person who’s scoring at 168, isn’t knowledge at that point; those two students probably know exactly the same amount of content, they might even have the same sexy test prep strategies. The difference between those two students is the 168 student is better able to mitigate his or her carelessness over the long run versus the 162 student. And the ability to do that depends instrumentally on sustained mindfulness, being nonjudgmentally aware of the present moment, moment to moment, for four and a half straight hours.

Davis: So, okay, the mindfulness you’re talking about is that ability to stay non-judgmentally present, focused on that razor’s edge of not considering the past or the future, but just on what it is I need to do now, what I’m doing right now.

Orion: That is one working definition of mindfulness. I know that there are many in psychology; the one that gets thrown around the most is: mindfulness is the non-judgmental awareness of the present moment. And I think that’s a good enough definition for what I’m talking about here.

Davis: Gotcha. And so, what are these strategies? Because a lot of times, people talk about mindfulness strategies. Like, what do you do? What tools do you have to actually allow yourself to stay focused?

Orion: I think a lot of it depends on practice. I mean, we don’t even have four-hour-long movies anymore. We used to be able to sit down for “Gone With the Wind”; there was a little intermission, but now, our entertainment has changed. We can’t even sit through four hours of entertainment these days. “Lord of the Rings,” maybe, but they had a theatrical release, which was 25% shorter than the director’s cut. You know, three hours is pushing it for the vast majority of people. So, my point is, when’s the last time most people have sat down and focused on one thing for four hours?

Davis: It’s probably been years, if ever.

Orion: So, this is something you can’t expect to just waltz into the test and be able to effortlessly manifest, and it’s really important. Let me demonstrate some evidence for how important it is. There’s a really cool study that was done at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB), several years ago, that inspired my own doctoral dissertation, which I’ll talk about a little bit later. But what these researchers did is they randomized two groups of undergrad students into two two-week classes.

One of them was a mindfulness class where the students learned how to meditate, mindfully meditate, and the other one was like a nutrition or a healthy living class; it had nothing to do with mindfulness. But neither class had anything to do with test prep. I mean, it’s mindfulness versus nutrition. And the variable of interest was student performance on the verbal section of the GRE. And the researchers gave the students in both groups the verbal sections both before and after the two-week intervention. Neither student learned vocabulary, nor did they learn GRE standardized test skills or strategies; they just focused on mindfulness and nutrition, respectively. And at the end of those two weeks, the researchers discovered that with no other additional information or test prep skills, the students in the mindfulness condition scored 19 percentile points higher than those in the nutritional condition. Nineteen percentile points is enormous. That’s like a fifth of the entire variance of the test. And so, this is just one performance factor. There’s also test anxiety. And it’s difficult to overstate the importance of these performance factors on top percentile performance on the GRE.

Davis: Okay. So, that study actually inspired me in my own doctoral research. I took that and ran with it, saying, “Okay, that’s a very powerful finding.” But it also takes two weeks’ worth of work, which, in the scheme of things, isn’t all that much, right?

Orion: If you’re preparing for the GRE and spend two or three months doing it, you could simultaneously cultivate a mindfulness practice during that time as well. There are tons of no- to low-cost apps that do that.

Davis: Was there any follow-up study that showed the effects of two weeks versus two months of mindfulness training, to see if you still get increased benefits? Or is it pretty much just a minimum threshold where if you have this mindfulness practice established, even over a short period like two weeks, you just get this boost?

Orion: I haven’t seen that study with respect to the GRE, but there’s tons of evidence suggesting that experienced meditators have all kinds of important differences from naive meditators or non-meditators in a host of performance factors, and even neurophysiological factors, like experienced meditators. One finding is that they consistently have a thicker left frontal lobe, and the density of the left frontal lobe is correlated with impulse control and distress management.

So, these practiced mindfulness meditators, the idea is that they’ve been able to create some space between, let’s say, their Observer Self and their thinking self, which might complain, which might prompt them to act in a certain way uncritically around thinking. And that exercising of space is what’s contributed to the thickening of that part of the brain, which is associated with that type of behavior. That’s right in line with some other research I’ve become aware of out of UC Berkeley, which talks about how experienced meditators have reduced activity sustained throughout their normal waking life in the default mode network, which is that temporal network.

Davis: That’s fascinating. I’m considering the past and the future. If you can get out of that space and stay in the present moment.

Orion: Well, the default network, I’ll take a short detour because it’s fascinating. I did my dissertation on mind wandering, the phenomenon and the cognitive phenomenon of mind wandering, and how to reduce it through mindfulness techniques. And my variable of interest was also a reading comprehension passage, like on the GRE. The default network is a host of different neurological centers in the brain that seem to be more active when we’re not doing anything in particular. That’s why researchers call it the default; it just is like our default state. And that is highly correlated with mind wandering.

And so there’s this idea that focus and concentration are not the default state for anybody, for whatever reason the human organism might have been created to, if we’re not, we have to make an effort to be focused and concentrated. And but that activity of a default network, as you just revealed with a study, can be influenced over time through sustained practice of meditation, correct?

Davis: Yeah. I think that’s wonderful. And it squares with what I understand.

Orion: So, I took this UCSB study and ran with it, because I was like, “Okay, two weeks is good. But what if there’s something that you can do in, like, seven minutes instead, something that’s just right before an activity or an event where you really do need focus and concentration? Maybe it’s not going to have as robust an effect as two weeks or two years or 20 years of meditation, but like, is there something that students can do to focus in, you know, very quickly in the moment and improve their mindfulness in their reading comprehension?”

And it turns out that there was. So, I used a certain technique with permission from a researcher in the UK, whose name escapes me right now. But it was called the Attention Training Technique. It’s basically an attention-switching task, where I asked students to intentionally switch their focus to different sounds. I would play different sounds in the room, like a metronome or the humming of the computer, or they had to focus on sounds from outside the space, or the sound of their own heartbeat. They had to switch on command between all these different audible cues.

There was also a practice of simultaneous listening, which was how many different sounds can I count in the present moment as an observer of sound. And these exercises took about five to seven minutes to complete.

Then, I gave the students a reading comprehension test and very covertly measured the number of mind-wandering episodes that they experienced while reading the passage, which was done in a kind of clever, indirect way, with respect to reaction times to advance the text they were reading. Basically, if their reaction time was very long relative to certain characteristics of the text that they were reading, we could surmise that they were not really paying attention because they should be in the flow of reading. And so that was an indirect measure of mind wandering.

Basically, the students who went through the Attention Training Technique versus a control exercise experienced significantly fewer mind-wandering episodes while reading this boring text that you will have to read on the GRE as well.

So, I think there’s robust evidence for the power of mindfulness in increasing performance on standardized tests, like the GRE. And there’s at least some evidence that students can increase their mindfulness very, very quickly. They don’t have to move to a monastery and shave their heads and devote their life to this. They can work it into a daily practice during their test prep using an app like Headspace or something like that. It’s basically great. Or they can even find techniques to focus their attention within minutes before they actually sit down and take the test. And all of those things should help to increase their sustained mindfulness, which is associated with almost a 20% variance in score.

Davis: So, this is extremely important. It’s something that everyone can do, and they can do it for free. It costs nothing except the time and energy that goes into designing skillful, science-backed, simple, practical tools that can give you this 22nd percentile.

Orion: That’s what I’m all about, man. I’m all about empirical evidence. I’ve run the numbers on my own students, and I know that the Stellar approach is empirically valid. I think it’s the only empirically validated GRE test prep program in the world. I know the size of that improvement. I mean, I’m all about the data.

Davis: That’s great. That’s great. This is incredibly useful. And people can find out more about these mindfulness techniques by visiting And for also anything else GRE prep or grad school consulting.

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.

You can only get better: why rehearsal matters on the GRE

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 there’s that old saying, “Practice makes perfect,” which kind of implies that the more you practice, the better you’ll get, until perfection. We’ve also talked about perfect scores on the GRE. So, help me understand this a little better. Why is it that the more we practice, the better we get?

Orion: I mean, it’s kind of self-obvious, but I can’t actually explain why it does seem to be a kind of miracle of existence.

Davis: Thank God for that.

Orion: It’s like, I don’t understand why repetition and reinforcement only work in one direction. It’s like why time only moves in one direction. I can’t explain why, but it does. Like, you can’t do something over and over again and get worse at it. It’s not physically possible.

Now, that said, you can get worse at the wrong thing. A lot of people get worse at the wrong thing. As a therapist, I’ve spent a lot of time dealing with people who have become masters at the wrong thing. They’ve avoided something for 20 years and are now master avoiders; they’ve procrastinated for 10 years and are master procrastinators. They’re very, very good at what they do, because they’ve done it 10,000 times over the course.

Davis: Okay, so when we talk about “practice makes perfect,” you can make the wrong action or the wrong habit or behavior perfect. So, you have to define what it is you’re practicing. And it has to be good practice. Isn’t that what any vice or bad habit is? It’s just a very well-practiced behavior that causes more pain than it’s worth.

Orion: But you do it automatically; you’re really good at doing it, almost effortlessly.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: And that’s kind of the issue with respect to a lot of bad habits. Most people in the beginning didn’t intentionally set out to cultivate that habit. They slipped into it outside of awareness, and repeated it a certain number of times until it began to develop a certain psychological or physiological pattern. And then, by the time they become aware of what they’re doing, the pattern has already been established. And it’s a much harder problem to solve because it’s so easy to do, since you’ve done it so many times.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: The way I think about it is like every time you do the same thing, it’s like walking the same path through a field. The first time you do it, the first 10 times you do it, it’s not going to create any kind of a path. But if you walk the same way through a field hundreds and hundreds of times, you will wear a path through that field. And at that point, it’s going to be much easier to walk through that field on that path than bushwhacking through all of the underbrush.

Davis: Right.

Orion: That said, sometimes that path doesn’t actually go to where people want to go. And they say, “I want to make a new path.” Okay, well, that’s possible, it is possible, but it doesn’t happen overnight. If this analogy is great, because let’s say you leave that path and start bushwhacking a new way through that field. That old path doesn’t grow over overnight. And that new path doesn’t get established overnight, either. So it takes some time, of effortful practice, to carve a new path through the field. And there’s always a temptation to go back to the old path, because it’s so much easier as it’s well established, unless you, you know, turned over all the soil and planted new things.

Davis: That’s a great metaphor, I like that. But you’d have to put active effort now; it’d be tough to do that the entire length of the trail.

Orion: So it’s like, it’s going to be hard either way. So at least, you know, what do you get from your pain and your toil? Hopefully, you get some—you get to go where you want to go.

Davis: So how does this work, and what consolation does it give to people who are struggling with GRE prep?

Orion: Oh, hopefully it gives a lot of consolation, which is that it’s almost inevitable; you can’t do something over and over again and get worse at it. So it’s important to practice, and it’s important to practice intentionally, i.e., behaviors that reasonably provide you with an expectation of success.

You want improved returns for the effort you’re putting in, of course. This isn’t a faith-based exercise. People hire me because they want their score to go up, not because I’m handsome, which I am, but that has nothing to do with it, right?

So the point is that we want to practice intentionally. And that’s what the solar system is all about. Like, for every single question type, there is a strategy or technique that will solve that problem.

And so, in my system, I present students with those strategies and techniques. Now, I don’t expect any student to hear it once and then be able to effortlessly generalize it to future similar problems. So that’s where the importance of rehearsal and repetition comes in. I used to be an actor. Rehearsal can be tedious, time-consuming, and exhausting, but it’s absolutely essential to the success of the show. And the more high-stakes the show is, like if you’re doing a lot of Cirque du Soleil, and you’re flying through the air and diving off of buildings, you have to rehearse those behaviors so much, that on some level, you can’t not perform them. That’s how you become safe in that performance.

It’s like, the performance kind of runs itself at that point, because you have overlearned it; you’re inseparable from it. You still have to be aware and present while you’re executing. That’s the mindfulness part. But you’ve rehearsed so much that you can’t not do the right thing. That’s what we’re shooting for. And that’s not something that can happen overnight. And so rehearsal is something that, unfortunately, some students can skimp on. The sexy part of prep is like learning the clever trick, right?

I love teaching students that. It’s really fun to teach them this really simple strategy that cuts through 90% of the problem, right? But just knowing it doesn’t mean that you, the student, can understand it and integrate it into his or her behavioral repertoire effortlessly moving forward, right? You can hear something once; it’s just information, correct? You do it once; it becomes knowledge, “Oh, I see that this actually works.” But it’s not actually effective, or you can’t repeat it on demand in a time crunch, like the GRE, until you’ve developed this pathway in the field of like, “I’m just gonna go that way; I do that way,” without even thinking.

Davis: Correct.

Orion: I said in a previous episode that I like to approach test prep like bootcamp. Now, why do we put soldiers in this immersive, intense experience for two or three months? So that when we drop them in the war zone, they’re not thinking. If you think in a war zone, you’re dead. Don’t think, just do, and rely on your training.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: When the bullets are flying, that’s not the time to question whether Sarge was right.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: You rely on your training, and you’ve learned it on such a level that if you are thinking, it’s on a different level. You’re thinking tactically as opposed to technical execution. Now, that’s important, which is why the training, what you’re doing in training, has to be right and getting you to the goal that you want.

Davis: So, in the context of the GRE, how much prep does it usually take? How many times do you have to get a practice test right at your target score before you can know that wasn’t just a one-off? I can do this automatically?

Orion: That’s a great question. Because you do need to be able to do it, right. But that alone, being able to do it once, doesn’t necessarily inspire authentic confidence. Because authentic confidence comes from trusting yourself that, all things being equal, you’re more likely to do it than not, at the very least, and doing it once. If you fail 20 times before you achieve that one success, who is going to feel authentically confident in that situation?

So, you do have to do it over and over again, to develop that confidence. And, but that’s something that you might have to play with, because the time it takes to establish authentic confidence with some of these things might be longer than most students have, or would like to have, preparing for the GRE.

Davis: Okay. And so, in a perfect world, students learn the strategies backwards and forwards until they can’t not do them. And then they generate enough success, that cultivates authentic confidence. But that second step typically is not necessary, authentic confidence, meaning, not just pumping yourself up, self-confidence, ‘I can do this,’ and having a faith-based, ‘this is going to be one of those one-offs.’ But authentic, meaning like, ‘Oh, yeah, no, I’ve practiced this. I’ve got this. I can trust the results are going to be within this margin that I’ve established.’

Orion: Yeah. I mean, think about it, if you were, wouldn’t you want that in your surgeon? What if you had to undergo a medical procedure, would you want the doctor to be like, ‘Alright, today is the day I finally do it,’ or would you be like, ‘I’ve done this, you know, 500 times in the past, I have a 94% success rate. And I feel like I can handle this situation, because of my past performance.’ Yeah. I would rather have the second doctor. So, what do you do in those situations you’re mentioning when there’s not enough, you know, the time is maybe more than the student has, as you were mentioning.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: And that’s a reality for a lot of students. They don’t want to spend the months that it would likely require to arrive at authenticity, and that’s fine. But that means the student might have to abide in feeling less confident than he or she otherwise might. But if he or she continues to do the things that are associated with success, the problem of the performance takes care of itself.

This also comes with a lot of the, you know, surrendering the emotional coping strategies like rereading questions or double-checking work. It doesn’t feel good for the student. But you’re not there to feel good. Right, you’re there to get a score that you need, so that you can get into the grad school of your choice and move on with your life. Your feelings are kind of irrelevant, right?

That’s the tough love here, guys. Delayed gratification; you can’t feel good in the moment you’re taking the test, but trust in these practice strategies. And then you’ll feel good after when you get the absolutely like, whenever I talk to students, I say, “What if I offered you a choice, you can either feel really good about getting a lower score, or you can abide in uncertainty and anxiety the entire time and get a higher score?” I have never in 15 years had a student say they’d rather feel better about a lower score.

And yet, they, if they’re not intentional, can continue to commit to behaviors that take care of their emotion, over and above their score and their performance. And so that’s what I try to disabuse them of with respect to a private tutoring relationship.

Davis: No, that’s great. Practice can make perfect. But at the same time, make sure that you’re practicing correctly.

Orion: So what I do in my system is I introduce a student to a new strategy or technique. And then I immediately give him or her three very similar versions of the same question. And I ask them to grind that solution, to grind that strategy, where they’re applying the same strategy or technique flexibly with different numbers and a slightly different format.

So the goal is to be able to employ that strategy correctly in 90 seconds or less. And most students can do that in three repetitions.

Davis: That’s great.

Orion: Immediately after the introduction of the technique, they’ll have to go back to it, you know, a week or two later to refresh. But if you introduce that grinding, that repetition immediately after the introduction of the strategy, it significantly increases retention.

Davis: Oh, man, that’s awesome. So thanks for clarifying how this wonderful gift of life, that repetition, facilitates improvement. Thanks for clarifying that and how we can use it on the GRE.

Thanks, everybody, for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with another bite-sized episode of GRE Bites. If you have a topic you’d like discussed on a future episode, let us know at And if you’re ready to take your prep to the next level, check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at You can use the code “BITES” for 10% off all memberships there. Talk to you soon.

Is it a good time to go to graduate school?: understanding the economic moment

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.

When’s the best time to go to grad school considering the larger picture and things happening in the world?

Orion: It’s an excellent question. I think that right now is actually a great time to go to grad school. There are a number of very simple economic reasons behind that. When we’re in a bull economy, when there’s lots of money, when the economy is robust, now that is not the time to go to grad school. That’s taking yourself out of the job market. It’s reducing your lifetime earnings. Because the getting’s good in those moments, the currency is flowing, as it were. You don’t want to take yourself out of that situation. To prepare for that moment, it’s a good moment for action.

By the same token, if market conditions are poor, if hiring is stagnant, if you’re in a bear economy, it’s often a good idea to kick the can down the road. In a few years, if you can go back to grad school, learn some skills, and increase your future salability by having a graduate degree, then hopefully, in one to three years, for getting a master’s, the economic conditions will have improved, and you will be in a better position to make good use of those conditions.

Davis: So, okay, let me just get this straight. You’re fresh out of undergrad, looking at your options. If you have a marketable skill that can enter the job force in a moment of national or global economic prosperity, go jump into the job market and defer your future education for a little bit. Just because, like you said, the getting is good.

Orion: Well, I would say that if you have a marketable skill that you can profitably leverage in the market, regardless of what’s going on globally, you should take advantage of that. Because the whole point of grad school is to prepare you for that. And if you can get it without going through the preparatory phase, so much the better. You’re not going to save just years, but hundreds of thousands of dollars, and you can cut right to the chase. And there are opportunities for folks like that even during recessions, even during a bear market, because it depends on individuals and skill sets and things like that. There’s always going to be opportunities; there are just fewer opportunities on the whole when we’re dealing with a recession and in a bear market. But then, in this case, when we’re dealing with the recession and bear market, if there are people on the fence who would like to go back and, if you’re saying, increase their skill set, continue their education, prepare themselves for higher earnings later, this is the time to do so, because it’s not a very favorable time to enter into the job market. There’s another great reason why now is a great time to consider grad school, which is that grad school is at a discount.

Davis: What do you mean grad school is on sale, my dude? Is that because of what student loan interest rates are?

Orion: So, most people are going to be taking out student loans in order to go back to grad school. And student loans, I think, are fixed at around six and a half percent, which is high, but not as high as, let’s say, credit card debt, for instance. So, folks should always be very cognizant and prudent about taking on hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt at, you know, a six to seven percent interest rate. That said, by recent estimates, we’ve surpassed 8% inflation, and it’s going up to, you know, close to 10%. So, if inflation is outpacing interest rates, then basically the money is on sale on some level. Like, if you don’t take out the debt, your money will deflate in value faster than the interest will accrue.

Davis: That makes sense.

Orion: So, yeah, okay. So, you also don’t have to pay the loan back right away. So, hopefully in a few years, inflation will have gone down so that your money will be worth more later, to pay it back, as opposed to right now.

Davis: So, student loans – how does this work with, like, government incentives for student loans or grad school? Does that fluctuate over time? Are there a few grad school interest rates that aren’t fixed for grad school? Is that the same for undergrad?

Orion: No, undergrad is different. So for grad, they call them Grad PLUS loans. Okay. And when I was in grad school, they were fixed at around 6.5%. That may have changed, but I do know that they are fixed. There are some incentives in certain professions for loan forgiveness. Like, for example, I got my degree in psychology. If I were to have worked at certain, let’s say, community mental health centers for a certain amount of time, then they would have forgiven the remainder of my student debt, because it’s sort of like a public service. There’s also always the military. I was tempted by the military as well; they often pay for higher education. The military offer was phenomenal.

So, I was now close to $100,000 in debt, and they said, “We’ll just make it go away. We can just push a button, and that debt, no one has to know about it; you pay for it with four years, or well, you get, yeah, eight years or whatever, if you’re potentially more”.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: And you might be deployed; you don’t have a lot of control over that. I mean, it’s the military; you kind of give over a lot of your rights and freedoms to enter into that organization and to serve its interests. But it was also a six-figure salary. It was an officer commission. I mean, it was, it was pretty sweet. And I did consider it for a while.

Davis: I have personal friends, one really close, who went straight out of undergrad into the military to pay for his undergrad student loan. And he ended up going to officer training and ended up with eight years, but he wasn’t in active duty by the grace of his circumstances. It can be a good option for some people.

Orion: I’m not putting down the military here. But it’s interesting that you bring this up about the timing of when to go to grad school as a consideration for making the choice to go. So, in my understanding, it’s like, you know, you’re coming out of undergrad, and you could just have academic aspirations, you want to study and arrive at the peak of your field of interest. You have, you know, kind of just like, well, there’s nothing else to do, can’t get a job. So, let me continue school, kick it down the road, like you mentioned. And then there’s also looking at grad school seriously, as, as a resume builder, as a toolkit to make your future marketability in the job marketplace as high as possible.

And that’s interesting. That’s the best reason to go back to grad school, in my opinion. The first one, not so much. I usually tell folks who want to pursue their passions to get a library card because they can do that for free, on their own time. It’s true, and not necessarily surrender years of their lives and hundreds of thousands of dollars. Following your passion, to my mind, is not a sufficient reason to go into grad school with all of its liabilities. The second one is good. It’s better, because you’re basically hoping for better economic fortunes in the future. Now, it’s interesting, because I mean, we’re talking about grad school. It could be a one-year master’s program, or it could be like an eight-year PhD program, right?

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: And the hundreds of thousands of dollars price tag is usually for a quality grad school, or is that just kind of a general across the board? No matter? You’d be surprised that the top-ranked programs in most disciplines are not much more expensive than the 50th ranked programs.

Davis: Dang. Okay.

Orion: Grad school is, it’s a racket, man. Every GRE really matters to get into those top levels. The GRE does really matter because those are the programs that will probably never waive the GRE requirement, because they have so many applications. The GRE requirement has been waived in recent years, but usually for lower-ranked programs who are kind of desperate for enrollment. And so they’re trying to remove the obstacles for the applications.

But Stanford, Harvard, they’re never going to be at a loss for interested people. And so they will almost certainly always require the GRE because they have to find a legally defensible way to reject otherwise qualified applicants. And so that’s just how it is. But it’s interesting because this could be a one-year ordeal, it could be a seven-plus year ordeal. And now you have to have considerations over the course of a lifespan. Because it’s one thing to spend, let’s say on average, five years of your life in your 20s preparing for your career versus in your 30s versus in your 40s.

Davis: So, there is some flexibility to defer grad school for a good economic moment. But there’s generally a window that people can go back to school at any age. But on the whole, people don’t because they use grad school as a springboard for their career. And the middle ages of their life is when they get to reap their harvests. They’ve done their preparations when they’re younger; that’s generally not the best time to be preparing; you should be reaping what you’ve sown at that point, you know what I’m saying?

Orion: Yeah. So that’s why the vast majority of people go to grad school in their 20s, which kind of makes sense. So if you’re 20-something and you’re considering it, you have some flexibility. You don’t necessarily have to go this year if the larger economic forces don’t make sense, but you probably don’t want to defer it six years. So it’s a bit of a gamble. But right now, the financial situation is so bad, that it will probably improve in the future. You know, it’s like regression towards the mean. Inflation is at record highs. So it’s unlikely that next year will be even higher; it’s most likely that it’s going to come down. So this is the time when money is basically on sale. If you can invest the currency into a fixed interest rate that is lower than inflation; does that make sense?

Davis: No, it makes a lot of sense. I appreciate your time explaining this topic.

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.

Best numbers to plug in on the GRE quantitative section: how to stress the system

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 talked about different sections, and one is the quant section, which often gives people a lot of anxiety. We’ve talked about different tools. I’m interested in today specifically to pick your brain about when you have the type of quant question that gives you variables. And rather than getting an analytic solution, where you’re solving the equations for a general solution, it’s much simpler to just plug in a few different numbers and hone in on one of the multiple-choice answers quickly. In that kind of situation, what are the go-to numbers when you’re just plug-and-play, and you want to get…?

Orion: It’s a great question. Let’s start with the first thing that you have alluded to. But I want to make sure that everybody understands what you’re talking about, because some people might not. So, there’s a lot of algebra on the GRE. And in the stellar system, we try to forego 99% of all algebra.

Davis: Why is that?

Orion: Because algebra, in most cases, is abstract. It’s kind of infinite, because an algebraic variable can represent, in many cases, an infinite number of values, which doesn’t give students great odds. If you try to solve questions algebraically, you kind of have to derive the one correct value out of the infinity of incorrect values in order to get that point. And the only way you can do that is by understanding in depth the equations that are in play in the problem, and then solving it algebraically to find that specific value.

And the other reason why I don’t like the algebraic solutions, in general, is that I’ve yet to encounter a person who is more accurate and more efficient with algebra than with arithmetic. Even the biggest math hotshots that I have tutored in my time, and I’ve tutored several of them who knew way more about math than me. Some of them were committed to doing it the hard way. They still couldn’t beat me on the GRE quant section on some level, because over a long enough timeline, over four hours, over hundreds of questions, they’re just slightly more likely to make a careless mistake on the level of abstraction using algebra than the level of concreteness using arithmetic.

Davis: And this points out something that has been a source of frustration for me, but it’s understandable in the context of the GRE test, of standardized tests in general, which is the test is not after your innate or intimate knowledge of the math, no, at the core of a question, or it’s after your ability to recognize a problem, solve it quickly and efficiently under time, in the scope of the larger test.

Orion: Yeah, it’s not really a math test. Like if you get to a certain level, it’s like Neo at the end of the Matrix; you can see the code, you can kind of see through it. Math is the means by which they are attempting to assess an aptitude, which is a general ability, simply, but you know, they have to do it in something. They can’t just scan you for general ability; what does that look like?

So, on some level, they use words, and that’s the verbal section; on some level, they use quantitative concepts and numbers, that’s the other section. So, but those are just like a means to a greater end. Now, how successful the GRE is, in assessing that general ability, is another question. And in many respects, we know that there are some significant failings in that assessment, but it’s not a completely terrible tool.

So, back to the question at hand, which is, we understand the GRE is not testing a person’s ability to understand and recognize the math at the core of a question. Because, at the end of the day, it’s just whether you got the question right or wrong, and how much time it took you. It’s not even about that. It’s like you can do the question right and hit the wrong button. Sometimes what I tell students is the GRE is a button-pressing task. And the only thing that matters, these days, is you push the button that gets the credit.

And so even if you’re a math whiz, there are certain strategies that can help you be much more efficient. Sure, use less mental resources and therefore be less prone to hitting the wrong button. Keep your field clear so that you’re just honing in on the right choice with the mental capacity to still just click the right button and move on to the next question.

So, one of these is, instead of solving it algebraically and understanding the math at the core, you can solve it arithmetically, with arithmetic, to hone in on a multiple-choice answer, or even the multiple answers too. So that’s absolutely correct.

So, rather than do the algebra, we’re going to do arithmetic instead. And we can do that by plugging in our own values. And plugging in is like the staple technique of most test prep systems. So, I don’t think I invented it; I don’t know if anybody invented it. But it’s the bread and butter. It’s the most useful quantitative technique on standardized tests because you have a calculator.

And it’s the most useful technique because about a fifth to a quarter of the questions on any given set will be amenable to this technique. We know that they’re going to be amenable at a glance; in the solar system, we call it structural diagnosis, where you try to figure out the way that a specific question is being presented. And the easiest way to figure that out is to look at the answer choices. And frankly, if there are variables, letters, for the most part, in the answer choices, you know that you can plug in, funny and it works because remember, an algebraic variable represents every value in a specific domain of numbers. And so if that variable represents every value, then any value that we choose will work, because any is always contained in every. So we don’t have to really worry about it so much. So by plugging in concrete values, we can transform abstract algebra into concrete arithmetic, and then just generally add, subtract, multiply, and divide our way to an answer.

Davis: I’m imagining it serves a lot more than to pick really simple numbers that may make the arithmetic really simple and show us a direction to choose the next number if we’re going to plug in more than one. We don’t always do this, right? So, what are those numbers?

Orion: You’re absolutely correct. So, if we’re only plugging in once, or for our first round of plugging in, as indicated, we want to use the nicest, easiest numbers that there are, because the test is hard enough. Why are we going to go out of our way to make it harder on ourselves? So, the nicest, easiest number that there is, is the number two. I love the number two.

Davis: So, real quick here, why avoid zero or one? Is it because they’re weird.

Orion: Okay, there we go. Zero and one are very important numbers for us. But they’re important because they do such unusual, unique, and unexpected things in arithmetic. And so, they’re unlike really any other numbers that exist.

So, we’ll get to that in a second. But two is the best one to use. Because it’s small, it’s even, we use it all the time. It’s a relatively low magnitude number; calculations can go fast and accurately. So, if you can use small positive integers, 2, 3, 4, etc., if you have multiple variables. Now, if you have variables in the answer choices, but it’s a choose one problem, which they call a problem-solving, so there are five options, only one of them is correct, then a lot of times you can get away with just plugging in once. You plug in numbers, like two or three for the variables into the question, you solve for that, and then you realize that the answer choices are really just that target number in disguise. You can plug the numbers into the answer choices to transform them into values. And then, you choose the one that matches up with the number that you’re looking for. More or less, right?

Davis: Yeah, no, that makes sense to me. And if anyone wants to understand this more in-depth, it’s best to get your hands on some practice questions, and sign up with GRE to understand how this works in principle, but if you already know what we’re talking about with StellarGRE.

Orion: Yeah, I mean, the great thing about Stellar is that it’s a very, very, very regimented system. It’s like there is a protocol for every question on the entire test. And if you recognize what kind of question you’re dealing with, and you just activate the protocol, and you kind of do what you’ve rehearsed, it’s going to make you feel, you’re going to see all the code behind something like that. I mean, a lot of the test is about realizing how the test is attempting to trick you, misguide you.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: And if you can, just, if those attempts become invisible to you, through your training and your rehearsal, so much the better, right?

Davis: Okay, so back to plugging it. So you plugged in the first two, for example, two, three, or four? If it’s a single answer, you match it up, boom, you got your answer. You’re done.

Orion: Yeah, but sometimes there are questions with variables, the answer choices that are “choose many.” These are multiple answers, which are kind of “choose all that apply,” or in my system, quantitative comparisons. Technically, you’re only choosing one, A, B, C, or D for quantitative comparison, but I’d like to think of quantitative comparisons like old-timey scales. So the pans can go up and down. This one could be heavier, this one could be lighter, or they could be the same; it could be more than one thing. So in my system, quantitative comparison questions are considered multiple answers. Anyway, for these questions, it’s imperative, always, always, always, to plug in twice.

Davis: Why is that?

Orion: Well, if we plug in once and we get an answer, we haven’t really proved that it has to be that value. That has to be correct. We’ve more or less demonstrated that it could be that it could be this, it could be true that A is the correct answer, or it could be true that quantity B is larger, but we haven’t really conclusively demonstrated that it is true. So if possible, we want to stress the system, we have a tentative hypothesis. But if we keep plugging in nice, easy numbers, 3, 4, 5, we’re unlikely to get a different result. And so, they’re too similar in nature.

So for the second round of plugging in, it’s really important to try to stress the system as much as possible. Because if we stress the system, and it breaks, great, we know what the answer is, the answer is D on a quantitative comparison question. And if we stress the system as hard as we can, and we still get a consistent result, that’s actually still not proof, but much more convincing evidence that we hit upon the correct solution. So not every number is going to stress the system; we want to use numbers that are weirder than other numbers because they’re more likely to provoke something that is unexpected or different. Does that make sense?

Davis: Give me the weirdest number you’re going to use.

Orion: Yeah, so we have a list of five I’ve rank-ordered them. And one is more than 213, et cetera. So we can just kind of go down this list in a mechanical fashion when we’re plugging in for our second round. And you’ve already mentioned two of them.

So the weirdest number of all is zero. That is a freaky number, dude, it’s the valueless value, it kind of doesn’t really make sense, breaks math in a lot of cases and a lot, a lot of the identity properties dividing by zero, a calculator will blow up. Anything times zero is itself; there’s a lot of weird exponents and arithmetic things involving exceptions that involve zero, right, so if you can use zero always use zero because it kind of destroys math, and it’s very easy to use. Number two is number one. Also, because of its identity properties, that’s weird and annoying for number one to be number two, but then after zero and one, it’s numbers between zero and one, which sometimes people call fractions or decimals.

But as a math nerd, I’m here to say that that’s technically not accurate, like the number two is a fraction, two over one, the number two is a decimal, it’s 2.0. And those aren’t weird numbers; I decided that two is actually the nicest number that there is. So numbers between zero and one are often expressed as fractions or decimals. But it’s not that expression that makes them weird. It’s the fact they live between zero and one on the number line. It’s like a haunted neighborhood. They’re good numbers, but that just makes them do weird, spooky stuff, right?

Mostly with exponents and radicals and things like that, they move in the opposite direction of all other positive numbers. Number four are negatives, mostly because people forget about them. We like to use positives because we deal with positive quantities in real life. And we’re more fluent with them in our calculations. And number five is what I call pushing the extremes, which means either really, really big or really, really small, depending on the context of the problem. And this one is number five, because even if you can’t use the other four, you can always, always, always push the extremes, because big and small are relative terms that are dictated by the question itself.

Davis: So there’s, even if it’s like numbers between zero and one, well, a really, really big number could be 0.99, and a really, really small number could be 0.01. So you can always find something that’s big or small in a given domain.

Orion: That’s right. So those are the five again: 01 numbers between zero and one, negatives, and pushing the extremes. You can go down that list in a rank-ordered fashion, somewhat algorithmically, at least in the beginning, until you get a bit more advanced. There are some advanced considerations, but they don’t get you through like 97% of the time for that quarter of the quantitative questions.

Davis: You can use plug and play.

Orion: Yeah, you can’t plug in on questions that don’t have variables. But think about it. This one technique is applicable to up to a quarter of the problems.

Davis: Yes, that’s a lot of bang for your buck.

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.

Don’t clip coupons on the quantitative section of the GRE: shortcuts cost you

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.

Again, we’re talking about this week’s strategies for the quantitative section primarily. I’ve heard you use this phrase before, which is “clipping coupons,” and it’s something to avoid. The way I understand that is, you know, thinking that you could, rather than writing out certain steps, just do a little bit of mental math, hold an answer in your head, and somehow skip forward a few steps and be faster on it. But that’s something you’ve expressly said not to do.

Orion: Yes.

Davis: Please elaborate. Don’t clip coupons, correct?

Orion: So what you just described is one example. For example, rather than writing things down, doing a little bit of mental math or arithmetic to save the few seconds of actually making the math explicit on your piece of paper is an example of basically taking a shortcut. I call that clipping a coupon because it doesn’t really save you all that much. In terms of time, it saves you fewer than five seconds, maybe even less. And that’s primarily why people don’t clip coupons in real life, either.

Like, I mean, do you clip coupons? Don’t you like saving money?

Davis: Dude, it’s just not worth the time.

Orion: Exactly. Like, if you spend a half hour clipping coupons, that’s going to save you $4. You’re basically working for $8 an hour, which is less than half of minimum wage here in California. That’s not a really good use of your time. Do you see? So, plus, half the time I’ve tried to clip coupons, I ended up losing them or not having them when I need them in the store. Remember to bring them, and often you don’t. It’s a huge hassle.

Davis: So basically, it’s not worth it.

Orion: Yes, and on a very absolute level, you can save some money. But if you take a more economic, holistic view, you’re actually, on some level, losing money. Because what if you spent a half hour of time on an extra half hour on your side hustle, right? Your job? Like, how much money are you going to make in a half an hour versus how much are you going to save by devoting that half an hour to clipping coupons, right? You’re actually losing money. In that perspective, diminishing returns on your investment of time, that half an hour would be much more profitably spent increasing your income than attempting to reduce your expenses.

Davis: So in the context of the quant section of the GRE, rather than thinking, “Oh, I can just take a shortcut, do a little mental math,” what are the examples of clipping coupons there in the GRE?

Orion: Clipping coupons is generally a last step. So, most students, before they work with me, get into questions slowly. They reread problems multiple times, try to think out solutions all the way to the finish before they get started. For these students, the hard part is understanding how to solve the problem. On some level, they believe that understanding how to solve it is actually the crux of the question. Once they reach that understanding, they rush through the actual solution, through the steps they need to pass through to safely arrive at the conclusion. Right? And it’s in passing through those steps that students try to save seconds. They’re trying to clip coupons here.

Davis: Why?

Orion: Because they’ve spent minutes, sometimes, in preparation for the solution. They spent minutes reading and rereading, thinking, and considering. Then, once they’ve hit upon a solution, they’re like, “I don’t have the time; I need to pass through this as quickly as possible.” So, my approach is basically the complete opposite. We get into questions fast, sometimes without even knowing how or why anything we’re doing is used. As soon as you can do something, reading the question for the first time, start doing that; it’s continuous solving.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: So, we read until we can do something, then we stop and force ourselves to do it, suspending judgment as to whether or not it will be useful. We basically solve the question continuously but in a state of relative uncertainty, with, let’s say, the faith that everything will come together in the final analysis.

We get into questions within seconds, but we move through each step slowly and carefully. We recognize that, with enough preparation, understanding how to solve a problem is something we can master. We can look at a question, based on our structure and content diagnoses, recognize the type of problem we’re dealing with in seconds, cue up the relevant strategies in our working memory that have worked in the past, and boom, we know how to solve the question, sometimes not even reading it, in a matter of seconds, at a glance at times.

So, Stellar students, after a sufficient amount of time, don’t get stumped on how to solve the problem. More and more of their error variance becomes due to their own carelessness. And obviously, the faster you go, the more likely you are to make careless errors.

Davis: We did an episode about that, you know, the battle between accuracy and efficiency.

Orion: That’s really why it’s not worth it to clip coupons on the GRE. Saving those few seconds by skipping one step will triple or quadruple your careless error rate, making it more likely that the student will blow the point.

On the very last step, students tend to clip coupons because they can see the finish line. Carelessness is always caused by mentally time traveling, as I think I’ve said in the past, which basically means students are thinking about what they’re going to do while they’re still doing something else.

Sometimes they’re mentally time traveling just a second ahead of where they are. Their hand is writing something, but they’re thinking about what they’re going to write next.

Davis: Yep.

Orion: And then, their hand writes something else. It writes what they planned to write on the next step, on the previous step, and that’s where carelessness comes in, without awareness, because the person is not in the present moment. They’re only one second ahead of the present moment. But that’s enough of a gap to create the opportunity for carelessness to rear its head.

Davis: And the whole question can be destroyed, basically.

Orion: That’s right. So that’s also why we talk about how the GRE is really a measure of sustained mindfulness. It’s like, how can you stay on the razor’s edge, in the present moment, not one second ahead of yourself or an hour behind yourself? For four straight hours, it’s extremely hard to do.

Davis: So, clipping coupons, what does that look like?

Orion: It’s often mental math. It’s relinquishing fail-safes. As I think I’ve mentioned in a previous episode, our objective, idiosyncratic behaviors, should prevent the manifestation of carelessness if utilized, like mouthing the number that you mean to write in that step, keeping yourself focused as you’re writing it.

Davis: That’s a great one. I mean, I call it vocal self-talk. I look like a maniac when I take the test because I’m using all these behavioral tricks to keep myself on the straight and narrow, because I realize I’m the greatest source of my own error, right? And then, if you do something like that, which you call a fail-safe?

Orion: Yeah, a fail-safe is quiet self-talk or sub-vocal self-talk, so you’re not bothering other people. But what that does, right, is it gives you the opposite of clipping a coupon; you’re giving yourself that point of reference if all of a sudden you’re mentally time traveling.

Davis: But you’ve already been saying, you have a point where you can see there’s an error there, and you can check it, safeguard against it.

Orion: Yeah, that’s right. And often, people jettison a fail-safe, like sub-vocal self-talk, because it does slow them down. But that’s by design. Solving questions at the rate of speech is actually a more humane way of solving prompts at the rate of thought, which moves like lightning and can very quickly and without warning, go off on tangents that aren’t really useful to students.

So, by slowing things down, students are more likely to avoid unproductive tangents and are also less likely to make careless mistakes. But by design, it does slow them down. And so, if students start to get panicked or anxious because they’re running out of time, or they just become impatient, the fail-safes are usually the first things they throw overboard. But they’re so light, they only take a few seconds to do; they’re not actually saving the ship by throwing them overboard. They should be throwing the heavier stuff overboard, and the heavier stuff includes things like rereading problems multiple times, double-checking your work, or solving questions both algebraically and using the plug-in strategy, or something like that. Those are weighty things that take much longer, sometimes even minutes, to accomplish, and are more likely to save the ship than throwing off the bunting, you know, which are the little fail-safes that only take a couple of seconds to do anyway.

Davis: So again, it’s about investing our effort and time in something that’s going to give us a positive return on that effort and time, as opposed to a diminishing return.

Orion: Of course, that’s right. I mean, that’s just optimization in anything, right? We want to give our time and energies to the things that have the best possible chances to create the biggest positive result for us.

Davis: That’s right.

Orion: I mean, Stellar is all about data-driven empirical science. It’s like we’ve got it down to an art. It’s like, do these things, and on the whole, statistically speaking, this is your best possible chance of getting the most questions right in the shortest amount of time, consistently. That’s it. That’s why people pay me money. Anything else is just like snake oil salesmanship.

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.

How to get a real break on the GRE: take advantage of 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.

Okay, so you’ve talked in a recent episode about how the real challenge of the GRE test is sustaining mindfulness in the present for four hours, and that this can be the make-or-break quality for a person taking the test. So, for four straight hours, are there opportunities for breaks, or is it really just four hours nonstop?

Orion: Well, it’s sort of like sprinting a marathon the way the test is officially constructed. So, we say four hours as a nice round number, but the actual test is closer to four hours and 15 minutes, or four hours and 20 minutes, depending on whether you get a verbal or quant as your experimental section. In between most sections, you get a one-minute break. Then, about halfway through the test, you get a 10-minute break. If you’re taking the test at the testing center, that 10 minutes goes by ridiculously fast. It’s going to take you a minute to get out of the secure testing environment, another minute to access your things in the locker where you have your snack or your bottle of water, several minutes to go down the hall to use the bathroom, and then you have to add all those minutes back to put your things away and reenter the secure environment.

I’ve actually heard stories of students who didn’t make it back in time from the bathroom during the 10-minute break; the tests had already begun. So, they’re not allowed in — they are allowed in, but they just lose time. The test is like a moving train, and it leaves when it’s scheduled to depart. Then, nothing’s stopping it, right, until it rolls into its terminus. So, there are very few opportunities for legitimate breaks on the GRE. That said, I have discovered a kind of chink in the armor, as it were. There’s an opportunity for students to get longer, more substantive breaks over the course of the entire GRE by taking advantage of, I guess, a flaw in the construction of the test.

Davis: I’m guessing you’re talking about the park screen?

Orion: Well, yeah, yeah, I call it the park screen because where you can take this break in Park Forest, you can park yourself there for several minutes without being timed.

Davis: So the park screen is?

Orion: Let’s figure out how to recognize it. So most screens on the GRE have a timer in the upper right-hand corner. And when that timer, whether it’s a timed quantitative section or one of your breaks, reaches zero, the test will automatically present itself, regardless of whether you’re ready. Regardless if you’re sitting in front of the computer, that’s the moving train; it will just keep rolling along. However, for whatever reason, there is one screen that exists between sections that, for whatever reason, the ETS programmers forgot to put a timer on. And if you don’t manually advance the test, you can sit there for as long as you like. And that’s why I call it the park screen.

Davis: So how do we recognize what it looks like, and when does it come up?

Orion: So let’s say we’re finishing our first verbal section, the timer is counting down 5, 4, 3, 2, 1, 0, and at 0, the test will automatically progress itself to a screen that’s mostly blank. It’ll be mostly white, and it’ll have in black text, right in the center, something along the lines of “You have now finished a verbal section.” And people are like, “Yeah, no kidding. I mean, I just spent the last half an hour straining my brain. This is not news to me that I just finished the verbal section.” So, this page does not contain any interesting information. And so, a lot of students just hurry past, but that screen does not have a timer on it. That screen of boring, obvious information is the park screen. And unless a student manually hits the right arrow to advance the test, which then puts them into the one-minute official break with a timer on it, a student can sit there in front of the screen indefinitely.

Davis: If they’re in a testing center, will someone come over eventually if their test is not progressing?

Orion: Well, yeah, we don’t want to tempt fate here, right. So, this is not illegal in any way, because it’s just the nature of the test. But we also don’t want to, let’s say, abuse this privilege, as it were. So, I usually recommend that students park on each park screen for about three minutes, because they’ll also get the minute of the official break. And then they’ll also get the minute of the official instructions for the next section, which they shouldn’t be reading. So, a three-minute Park screen break, plus these other two, gives them a five-minute break between sections, which can be enough to mentally recharge. I have a whole kind of ritual that I do during this time to sort of let go of what I previously did and prepare myself for what is to come. But it’s not enough time to, for example, you’re not allowed to get up, and you’re allowed to get up. I mean, it’s not a prison; they can’t keep you in the room against your will.

Davis: So, is this a good time for like a bathroom break?

Orion: No, it’s not. Because if you leave the testing environment, there’s the potential for that to be flagged as a non-standard administration. And you also can’t just get up and leave, even if you’re in the testing center. You’re supposed to sit at your computer, raise your hand, and a proctor comes and escorts you personally out of the testing center. And that proctor is supposed to make note of the status of your test at that time.

Davis: So, I think that’s more of tempting fate. If you try to turn a park screen into a bathroom break, right?

Orion: Go to the bathroom right before you take the test. Plan to go to the bathroom during your 10-minute break. Those are real human considerations, right? But you might need to plan to go two hours in a chair.

Davis: Yep. Will the proctors notice?

Orion: Probably not. Because in the testing center, there are usually 30 to 40 desktop modules that are somewhat semi-private. I mean, it’s under the Panopticon of the proctor, so there are cameras and two-way mirrors and things like that. But they’re not tracking everyone. It’s not like somebody’s looking over your shoulder the entire time.

And again, we’re not doing anything wrong, because this is built into the administration of the test. It’s not like we’re cheating or doing some sort of secret code to turn the timer off. There’s no timer. And what I often say to folks is that if anybody brings that to your attention, you just say, “Oh, I didn’t realize that this screen didn’t have a timer on it. I was just waiting for the test to progress. I didn’t know I had to do anything,” because there are no explicit instructions. So, that’s the way to cover yourself if there is any kind of squirrelyness about this. And I’ve suggested that students make use of the park screen for now over a decade. So, I’ve worked with thousands and thousands of students personally, in my classes and in my tutoring, and I think that one student in about a couple of thousand, in over 10 years, had a non-standard administration. And it was investigated by ETS. And ETS said that there was, it was flagged by the proctor. He was subsequently investigated by ETS, and ETS found that the student did nothing wrong.

So, it’s a legal maneuver. It’s just not one that is very common. It’s not illegal, but you’re also, I guess, not supposed to draw so much attention to it.

Davis: Yeah, yeah.

Orion: So that’s why we don’t want to tempt fate by turning it into a 30-minute break. That’s going to vary. Obviously, we do a non-standard administration. We don’t want to be getting up and walking around. We should be sitting there and using that opportunity to breathe, to recalibrate, to let go of what we’ve done, and to prepare ourselves for what is to come, but to give ourselves a real rest, because otherwise, it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to get that on the GRE. Always under the clock. You always question the clock, and this is a brief space where you can find some respite from that. It’s really important because, generally, students are good for the first two or three hours. They’re powering through on that momentum. But then they start to flag after hour three, and unfortunately, that’s when they’re hit with the hardest problems on the test. If they’ve done everything right, that’s when they’re going to get the hardest second quant and the hardest second verbal sections.

So, if they’re not pacing themselves and keeping some gas in the tank, as it were, they can do very well on the first several sections, and then just get hammered by those really tough problems in the final hour. And using the break screen helps to prevent that occurrence.

One final thing I’ll say about this is that it’s important to rest before you get tired. It’s like I had a gym teacher in high school who told me, “Orion, you need to drink water before you get thirsty.”

Davis: Absolutely, if you’re thirsty, you’re already showing signs of dehydration.

Orion: Exactly. And that’s a problem – dehydration is not going to be solved on the spot. Even if you’re chugging water, it’s going to take time for the water to disseminate through your systems, right. So, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure here; you want to be drinking water continuously so you never get thirsty, which is a sign of dehydration.

Davis: Good idea.

Orion: If you wait to rest until you get tired, it’s like with dehydration. Even taking a 10-minute break at that point is probably not going to be sufficient to sharpen your mind, to clarify your senses, and to give you that sense of freshness again. So, even though it may feel like you don’t need it at the moment, I tell students that it’s important to rest continuously before they get tired. That way, they should never get tired and can finish the test after nearly four and a half hours, about as fresh as when they began. And that’s really important again because, if everything goes according to plan, the hardest, most challenging questions come in the final hour.

Davis: That’s right.

Orion: And that’s what we have to prepare for if we want to achieve a top percentile score.

Davis: So, one last question for me on this episode is, you mentioned all of this in the context of a testing center. But is it possible to take the GRE not at an official testing center but at your home computer?

Orion: Yeah, a lot of people are doing that these days. The break screen still exists, and the same caution, I would say before, applies. It’s like the virtual proctor is probably proctoring your test and dozens of other tests simultaneously. That proctor is not watching you continuously. You don’t really know when they’re checking in. But if they check in and you’re like walking around the room and the test isn’t progressing, that’s going to be a problem. So, we don’t want to tempt fate. Don’t do anything that’s going to call attention to the fact that you’re taking advantage of this aspect of the test construction. Sit in your chair. Don’t go more than five minutes. Don’t do anything weird or suspicious. But take that mental break.

Davis: Absolutely.

Orion: Take that mental break because the test is hard enough as it is.

Davis: Awesome. These are tips that I’ve only ever found at StellarGRE.

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 prepare for the GRE writing section: understanding the grading system

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 talked a lot; we’ve had multiple episodes, I think this is close to Episode 20 now, and we’ve talked about the quantitative section a lot and general strategies a lot. One thing we haven’t got into so much is the writing section.

Orion: We talked a bit about how the essay was graded in one episode.

Davis: Oh, yeah, that’s right. And the computer, the algorithm called the e-rater. So it’s one out of 20 truths. Let’s make it two out of 20. What are the tips and tricks? What’s something that you can give these people in a 10-minute episode of GRE Bites on preparing or strategy for the writing section?

Orion: I will give the people my strategy. As I mentioned in that previous episode, your essays are graded by a computer, called the e-rater. If you go to the ETS website, they make no bones about this. They don’t really shout it from the mountaintops because having someone’s writing graded by a computer makes folks understandably nervous that it’s going to be misunderstood. A computer can’t actually read; it can only simulate reading in a very rudimentary way.

So your essay is going to be graded by this computer. And if we can understand how the computer uses its grading rubric, we can write in such a way that what the computer goes looking for, it finds and says, “Wow, this is a great essay, according to my standards, my computerized standards, I’m going to give this essay a great score.” That’s our goal by kind of hacking the writing section of the test. And if we put ourselves in the computer’s perspective, the only thing that is perceptible to a computer is quantifiable data, right? That which can be counted. If it can’t be counted, it’s completely invisible to a computer.

So a lot of things that are very important to writing for a human being, like persuasiveness or cogency, are such high-level abstractions that they are, to us, like infrared light; we can’t see it, it functionally doesn’t exist at all.

So there are many ways that you can quantifiably count a piece of writing, but by far, the most important factor that goes into a student’s overall score is total word count.

Davis: Yeah, yeah.

Orion: Which I mentioned in previous episodes, total word count is the king; longer is stronger, maybe that’s what it’s all about. So the more words that you can write in the time limit, the more likely you’re going to get a higher score on the writing section.

Davis: Yeah, the reason I’m smiling is that the writing section, and particularly StellarGRE’s approach to the writing section, is just – it’s like you mentioned in a previous episode, it’s nice to see in the code, and you just cut right through all the BS and all the weight and baggage, because you’re not going to find this anywhere else.

Orion: No, and this is, it’s, I mean, you’ve got to get to this section in the GRE full tutorial, but word count, you quantify it. So for example, the computer, for example, is not fact-checking.

Davis: So, quantifiability, you’ve got total word count, and you’re aiming for what word count?

Orion: Oh, that’s a good question. So, if you can write in recognizable English, on something that kind of has to do with the prompt, at the level of around 800 words, you will likely get a five, which is the 92nd percentile. That’s just incredible. 800 words is the threshold that we are shooting for in our essays, and a computer could quantify grammatical or spelling errors, but those things are not being looked at.

Davis: Are those things being graded or weighted on the computer?

Orion: Good question. A lot of students worry about their spelling and grammar and syntax and take time away from the 800-word goal to go back and delete, delete, delete, and retype it.

Davis: Yeah, not a good idea.

Orion: So you do not gain points for spelling, grammar, or syntax. You can lose points. But according to ETS, as literature, you can only lose points on those reasons if the spelling, grammar, syntax, etc., is so bad that it detracts from the intended meaning of the sentence. That’s somewhat vague, but in my experience, that basically means that you have to spell more words wrong than right. They really err on the side of giving students a very wide berth when it comes to spelling and grammar.

Davis: Why is that?

Orion: Because this is not actually a test of English spelling, grammar, and language mechanics. That’s the TOEFL, which is another test developed by ETS. And so, they don’t want to have brand confusion in that sense. But also, the TOEFL is an achievement test, which is if you know the rules of English grammar, conjugation, and vocabulary, you should do well because it’s testing you on your English language mastery.

The GRE is not an achievement test. It’s an aptitude test. It’s intended to test students’ potential for performance in a future achievement context, i.e., grad school. So, the more it actually grades hard, concrete knowledge, the more it deviates from its intended purpose. And also its psychometric validation and its legal basis. It would be unethical and illegal for ETS to grade essays as an English language test for the reasons I basically spelled out.

Davis: So, in terms of those metrics, we’ve got an 800-word count. Don’t let minor spelling or grammar issues detract you from hitting that goal. It won’t quantify truth or falsity in some of the information you’re writing down, that’s right. What about quotations or source material, like trying to hit a certain threshold in the writing section of how many references to outside material?

Orion: You definitely need evidence to back up your arguments. That’s what I call it, and evidentiary sentences are one of the four types of sentences that the algorithm is programmed to identify, though it does so very rudimentarily. But what I do want to focus on in this episode is the word count. Okay, 800 words, because 800 words doesn’t sound like a lot. But in my experience, most students need several attempts to hit that threshold. And that’s just an initial threshold; if you can write above 1000, 1200 words, so much the better. But 800 is like our initial target for word count. And, as I said, in my experience, students need multiple attempts to get there.

Because it’s very hard to write, right off the top of your head, on a subject that you’ve just seen moments ago, and you probably might not ever have considered in your entire life. And you’re under a very strict performative evaluative context; it’s hard to be loose and flexible, and to just let it flow. And that’s really what we’re talking about here.

So, if you’re having trouble reaching that word count target, I have a little trick that I suggest to students to kind of get the creative juices flowing. And it’s basically a five-minute free write. So you can do this before a practice test, you can do this even before the actual exam, let’s say in the parking lot outside of the testing center, or, you know, a few minutes before you start your at-home administration, which is basically you open up a blank Word document, set a timer on your phone for five minutes, and then keep your fingers moving. You have to keep typing, you cannot stop typing, you cannot stop typing even for one second, and you don’t have to worry about punctuation or spelling. It doesn’t really have to make sense.

It doesn’t have to be interesting; it can be repetitive; in fact, repetitive is better. You see what I’m saying. That is a skill, to be able to get out of your own way, and to just let the content flow through you. It is a very useful skill for grad school because you’re going to be doing a lot of writing in grad school. And if you don’t figure out how to produce copy, you’re going to hate your life on some level. And it’s extremely useful for the GRE because what we’re saying doesn’t even really have to be true, it doesn’t really have to be interesting. It doesn’t really have to be cogent and consistent. It just needs to be a lot. And so it’s like this sphincter that can be relaxed and all of this content allowed to flow.

Davis: Quantity over quality.

Orion: Absolutely. I tell students they want to embrace their inner B student because this much B-level writing will always beat this much A-level writing. The B student, or BS student. Well, I mean, it’s a little bit of both in this case. That’s good, that’s fine. But you just were talking about sphincters and all.

Davis: Yeah, no. Walked it out.

Orion: The A-level students often, through their own perfectionism, shoot themselves in the foot. I’ve worked with many high-quality writers and often writers who pride themselves on their writing ability who struggle on the GRE, right.

It’s slow, it’s self-reflective, it’s a walking, it’s your writing and editing at the same time, and that’s what we want to avoid. We want to just get the content on the page, and there’s an extent to which they’re proud of their ability, and it might be justifiable, but they’re also identified with the quality of the content. It’s hard for folks who pride themselves on their writing ability to write under that ability, yeah, you raise the inner beastie, like you’ve got to keep those writing skills sharp, but use them in a context where there’s actually a human being who can appreciate how good your writing skills are. Don’t be so misguided and benighted by that private identification that you’re unwilling to change your strategy. Like you said, at the beginning, you just have to put yourself in the framework that a computer is grading this on an algorithm; it can only grade what it can quantify. And for certain reasons that you talked about earlier in this episode, it can grade those things that we might pride ourselves on that a human would be put off by, correct.

Davis: That’s right.

Orion: So the five-minute free write is designed to get the creative juices flowing, to practice allowing the censor to recede into the background, to not judge your content as you’re producing it, and to produce as much as possible within a given time. And this is awkward and difficult to do the first few times, if you’re going to have a blank, but you’re going to have to keep on drawing a blank and I’m still drawing a blank and the blank is still happening. And blank, blank, blank, blank, blank, blank, blank. Whoa, now I’m rhyming, and it’s like, you have to just power through it. And it’s gonna feel weird the first few times you do it. But again, if you can, it’s like a switch in your mind that you can learn to have some measure of agency and control over, and then you just flip the switch and boom, out come the words. I’ve had students who could write 2000 words in a day. And that half an hour, half an hour, 20 minutes, 30 minutes, each essay. I mean, that is beyond that’s unusual. That’s definitely like a 99% outlier, right. But it’s possible.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: So it’s really about getting out of your own way and producing as much content as possible within a given time limit. That’s your best bet for hitting a top percentile score on the writing section of the GRE.

Davis: That’s right. And again, these kinds of tips and tricks that you’re getting here are only found at Stellar, only. No one else will talk about this. I’m serious. It’s wonderful and it works. I know from personal experience.

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.