Meet Orion, your GRE expert: a master teacher with a perfect score

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.

Orion: I’m really happy to be doing this, Davis; this is going to be a lot of fun, I hope.

Davis: Yeah, that’s so cool. Any opportunity to pick your brain and get to know about your experience with the GRE. So first, I mean, how did you get involved with the GRE and testing?

Orion: That’s a bit of a long story, but I guess it’s important to get that out of the way first and foremost. I don’t want to bore the audience. So, I have been in test prep and education for about 20 years. Nineteen years, to be accurate, was my first job out of undergrad. I worked for the Princeton Review doing LSAT prep in Manhattan and the Bronx, and I cut my teeth working with all kinds of rambunctious high schoolers for about a year and a half and decided, okay, I might want to try doing things my own way.

And so, I quit that job and founded my own tutoring company, Stellar Tutoring. And I taught all kinds of Subject Tests: LSAT, GRE, GMAT, pretty much every standardized test under the sun. And I did that for several years as I was trying to subsidize my artistic pretensions. As an actor, I was trying to make it as a theatre actor in New York at that time. So, that was my way of keeping a roof over my head. And I was very grateful for the work. I did that for a while, became an adjunct professor at the City University of New York teaching math. That was an interesting story. I just responded to a Craigslist ad. And it turned out to be a CUNY faculty position. I showed up, and they said, “You’re not qualified for this job.” And I said, “You’re right, I’m not. But since I came down, I might as well give you my spiel.” And I gave them my spiel, and they hired me.

And I taught there for a few years, which was an interesting experience as well. I got more and more interested in potentially going to grad school myself, as I got into my later 20s, and decided to go back to grad school to get a doctorate in psychology, which I now have. I took the GRE myself at that point, after probably helping hundreds of other people prepare for that test over five years, got a perfect score, and then moved on to San Francisco to pursue my doctorate. When I moved out here, I still now live in the Bay Area, I decided to focus exclusively on the GRE; that was kind of my bread and butter, and I used it to pay my way through grad school.

When I first landed, I became the global master teacher for the quantitative section for Barron’s Test Prep. So, there are these online self-study programs. It used to be called Barron’s. Now, I think it’s called The Economist. And I was the guy in the quantitative videos doing all the explanations. And so, I reached an audience of probably tens of thousands of students that way and began to focus exclusively on the GRE.

Over the last 10 years, I’ve worked with thousands of students in person, both through private tutoring and then increasingly through my small group classes, which are based out of San Francisco. And I’ve helped thousands of students get top percentile scores on this test, even perfect scores. I’ve also worked with thousands of people to get into graduate school programs, which is really, really cool. And one of the amazing things about this Stellar system, if I may say so myself, is that I think it’s the only test prep system on the planet that has empirical validation.

Davis: So what do you mean by empirical validation?

Orion: Yeah. So, how do you know that any of this stuff works, right? I mean, if I were a customer in the market for a test prep system, I would want some reasonable assurance that this was actually going to help me get what I want, i.e., a higher score on the GRE. Most test prep companies don’t collect outcome data on their students; they don’t actually track the extent to which they improve as a result of engaging with their materials. What they generally do is offer a money-back guarantee, that if you don’t improve by, say, five points, you either get your money back or you get to take the course again for free, which I always thought was kind of baffling. Because if it didn’t work the first time, why would you want to do it the second time, you know what I’m saying?

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: So I think that’s more of a marketing approach as opposed to a scientific investigation into the effectiveness of the product. Does that make sense?

Davis: Yeah, no, that’s great. So, from tutoring multiple different tests in New York, paying your way through your first adventures, acting, teaching, going back as a grad student yourself, and having firsthand experience with this, what’s your unique take on the GRE? Like, as opposed to other test prep, because I know test prep is a huge industry, and a lot of people offer courses, a lot of people offer different strategies to improve your scores, like you were saying, but what’s your unique take? With all that experience you just shared, what perspective does that give you, that empirical validation, that effectiveness?

Orion: Okay, well, let me first finish by explaining what that empirical validation was. Okay. So, as I mentioned, I’ve been teaching small group classes for about four years prior to the shutdowns around the pandemic. I was able to collect pre- and post-outcome data for hundreds of students enrolled in my course. What I discovered is that, on average, students improved around three times the score guarantees of my competitors. That was the average actual improvement as a result of participation in that class, and I think that comes down to like 35 percentile points; it’s all on my website. I’m pretty transparent with the data. But that’s a significant improvement for a two-month engagement. Like, if your income went up 35% in two months, you’d probably be pretty stoked, right? So my average student’s response to engaging the stellar system is three times what other programs promise you with respect to their score guarantees, which is actually pretty incredible, in my opinion.

Davis: I just want to dig into this a little bit more. Because you were saying how one of the things that you’ve had that’s unique is this empirical validation. And that other strategies of other companies might not be as transparent or direct, saying, like, “Oh, yeah, just you know, you get money back if you don’t get the improvement you want.” So, the data that you’re getting, you’ve had your own personal “I’m going to test you before I take you on as a student, and then you’re going to share with me your test results after,” so you get that quantitative data. How is it that you’re comparing that to the results of other companies who are offering testing? Is it similar?

Orion: No, they’re not. That’s where I’m coming from. As far as I know, Stellar is the only test prep company on the planet that actually collects outcome data. One of the dirty secrets of test prep is that it often does not work. I mean, the vast majority of the students who contact me for test prep services at this point are not doing it for the first time. They’ve engaged services at some of my competitors, they’ve done exactly what they’ve told them to do, and they haven’t yet gotten the results they want. And I think that if some of my competitors were to try to collect empirical data on outcomes, it wouldn’t be as attractive as, say, offering a money-back score guarantee. Does that make sense?

Davis: Yeah, that makes sense.

Orion: So, what makes my system Stellar different from that of my competitors? That is a great question. I think Stellar is like the Tesla of test prep because it’s been reimagined from the most fundamental axioms of what test prep is supposed to look like. In almost every respect, it is completely reimagined. Most importantly, it’s always driven by empirical data. Like, for example, one of the easiest ways to accelerate your growth in GRE prep is to pay attention to base rates. What is a base rate? A base rate is how likely it’s like the encounter rate for a certain question type. Does that make sense?

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: Okay. So, the mistake that the vast majority of my competitors make is that they present all the material as if it’s equally likely to occur on the GRE, which is absolutely not true.

Davis: Okay, I’m sorry. Let me make sure I understand. So, you’re saying that, based on the base rates, based on how often certain types of questions come up, you focus your coursework? You weight it more heavily on the ones that come up more often?

Orion: Absolutely. I’ve gone through dozens of practice tests, developed and released by ETS, and 1,000 practice questions, not tests, but 1,000 practice questions developed and released by ETS, the makers of the GRE. I have diagnosed every single question that I’ve seen in these tests to collect this data empirically. And I’ve learned that some questions literally have a 100 times greater likelihood of appearing on the test than others. And it doesn’t make sense to delegate your attention and efforts as a student equally over all concepts when there are these vast disparities in the encounter rates of certain question types. So, the Stellar system incorporates that fundamentally into the test prep program. Question types with higher base rates are weighted more heavily in our practice sets and our practice tests, but also they appear earlier and more frequently throughout the program. So that you’re training and practicing with high-encounter questions far more than low-encounter questions. Does that make sense?

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: So, you just get more bang for your buck. This is part of like working smarter, not harder, which is a big part of what I do as an educator.

Davis: No, it sounds really exciting.

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 reduce carelessness on the GRE: understanding fail-safe behaviors

Davis: Hey everybody, this is GRE Bites. My name is Davis, and I’m an educator with over ten years of experience.

Orion: And I’m Orion, the founder of StellarGRE.

Davis: We’re here to bring you your weekly bite-sized episode on GRE prep and grad school admissions. Check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at And don’t forget, you can use the code “BITES” for 10% off any membership.

Alright, so today, I want to ask you about some of the major, you know, pitfalls, major hurdles, stumbling blocks that students taking the GRE generally encounter that bring their score down.

Orion: Yeah, there are a lot of them. I would say that the most challenging aspect of the test is the time limit. If you had all the time in the world, this would be a substantially easier process for the vast majority of students. It’s not so much that you get the question right; it’s that you have to get the question right in 90 seconds or less. And it’s that kind of pressure, that sense of subjective urgency that often drives carelessness, which is a huge obstacle to student growth as well.

Davis: So let’s talk a little bit about that.

Orion: In my experience, there are really only three ways that a student can get a question wrong on the GRE. The first, for lack of a better word, is ignorance, just like you just didn’t know that concept, or you didn’t know what that word meant. We didn’t have the equation; to be honest, those are the easiest problems to solve. You just throw some knowledge at them. And bingo, you’re ready to go. You don’t even need, to be honest, a GRE prep program for knowledge-based improvement; you can Google that for free. It’s like you, you don’t need to pay somebody to tell you what the area of a trapezoid is; that’s freely available. It’s the average of the bases times the height, by the way. So that’s, you obviously need to know some things to be able to get the question right on the GRE.

The second is deviation. So deviation means that you have a technique or a strategy that you should have used on a specific problem. But for whatever reason, either you went rogue and did it yourself, or you implemented that strategy incorrectly. So deviation errors are solved with strategy. So this is where the test prep systems start to come in. We want kind of clever hacks to get to the solution as quickly and reliably as possible. And you need to, as a student, rehearse those strategies multiple times. As a former actor, I know the value of rehearsal; you can’t do something once and expect to do it perfectly. Forever after that one event, you have to do it over and over again, until on some level, you can’t not do it that way. And if you’re making deviation errors, it means that there’s kind of, you need to rehearse more, basically. So let’s say you got the knowledge-based errors and the deviation errors out of the way.

Davis: So what is left?

Orion: Well, carelessness. Carelessness means you knew the concept, you used the appropriate strategy. But you still got the question wrong, but for a reason that’s kind of unrelated to what the question seems to be asking, like, it’s because you forgot the negative sign? Or you thought it was answer choice A, but you clicked on B by mistake, the silly little errors that we’re all prone to as human beings. These are the bugbear of top percentile scores because all students will get to a point if they practice enough that the majority or even the entirety of their error variance will be due to carelessness. That’s basically my experience at this point. It’s pretty rare for a question to come my way that I don’t know how to answer; I still get questions wrong from time to time, but it’s usually because I’ve made a small lapse in my mind behavior that resulted in the wrong choice being selected. Does that make sense?

Davis: Yeah, yeah. So what are some of the main drivers of this of carelessness being a factor for error? For example, like you mentioned that there’s a time constraint, is it? Is it just handling the time pressure that drives you to go too fast and make errors? Is it the fact that it’s also a long test and, you know, fatigue runs in? I mean, what’s the main drivers of carelessness?

Orion: So, you have this subjective sense of urgency, which forces people to move more quickly than they’re comfortable with. And if you’re really mindful about carelessness, it occurs when we’re mentally time traveling. Most students may only be a second or two in the future, but they’re not fully in the present moment. That means they’re thinking about the next step while they’re still completing the step they’re currently on. In that second of deviation from the present moment, that’s where they do something without realizing it, negatively impacting their performance.

Over the course of the test, which is rather lengthy, about four and a half hours, students become more and more fatigued as the test progresses. Students are actually hit with the hardest problems in the last hour of the administration if everything is going according to plan, because the test is adaptive. So, we also need to work that into our prep. This is important because the vast majority of my competitors with their self-study programs just present individual questions, like, with a timer on it, and a lot of students practice just one-off individual questions. “I could do this one question, this hard question, this devilish question in 90 seconds, therefore, I’m ready to go.” Not really, in my experience. Students really shouldn’t practice with anything less than a full practice set. They should be sitting down to do 20 questions in 35 minutes if it’s a quantitative set, and that’s the smallest quantum of prep that they should be doing. Because it’s really a whole thing. You don’t have to answer all questions in 90 seconds or less.

Some questions, you won’t be able to do that; some questions are going to take three minutes, some questions are going to take 30 seconds, it all kind of averages out. And then, of course, you should be practicing in approximating the actual exam, as you get closer to stringing those sections together into longer sequences to kind of practice the mental endurance necessary to stay acute and present for longer periods of time.

Davis: Alright. Yeah. No, that makes sense. So, you’re talking about, as a means of practical solution to the carelessness problem, is that you want to bake into the way that you study for it, building that endurance and doing whole sets at once. Are there any while you’re doing the actual problems, while you’re in there, what other practical solutions, you know, does the student need to be aware of to avoid careless mistakes?

Orion: Yep, great question. So, carelessness is usually the result of unconscious behavior patterns. And as a psychologist, I can tell you that unconscious behavior is one of the hardest things to alter, primarily because we’re unconscious about it. So the first step to alleviating carelessness is to make the unconscious conscious. And so, I highly recommend that every student start to create an error log, where you’re tracking why you’re getting questions wrong. First, categorize them as either ignorance, deviation, or carelessness. And then, for any careless errors, try to give it as specific a label as possible. This could be like, “I misread the question,” “I did the mental math wrong in my head,” “I clicked the wrong button,” no matter how small and insignificant it appears, give it a name. And track that over time. You probably know this, but it’s really hard for human beings to be random. We’re bad at that. When we try to be random, we actually start to exhibit patterns that we’re not even aware of yet. It’s all habits.

Davis: Exactly.

Orion: So in the beginning, it may feel like your carelessness is random, like it could happen at any moment on any question. But as you collect data over time, what my experience will lead me to believe is that the vast majority of your carelessness will occur in just like three to five different ways. And you’re not aware of that yet, because it’s probably still unconscious. So as you collect that data and see, “Wow, 80% of my carelessness is due to misreading the question, per se,” great, there are specific things that you can do to mitigate that particular example of carelessness. And those behaviors, I call fail-safes. Fail-safes are small; they should only take a second or two to do at most, objective behavior.

Davis: So what does that mean?

Orion: Objective behavior means that I, from the outside, should be able to tell whether or not you’re doing it. “I’m just going to be more careful” is not an objective behavior. Or “I’ll remember that next time” is not an objective behavior; you actually have to do something different for it to be objective. And what you’re doing should have prevented that carelessness on the previous question if it had been implemented at that time. Does that make sense?

Davis: Yeah, that makes sense. So, putting into place systems, you know, step-by-step systems, when you encounter a question, to avoid making the careless mistakes that you said objectively, anyone could see. Is he doing those? Is he checking off each item on the list to make sure that he’s not being careless, as opposed to just, you know, something in the air? Like, “I’m just going to focus harder.”

Orion: Yeah, because that doesn’t work. As a psychologist, if that worked, I would be out of a job, basically, you know. So, that’s exactly right. And these should be idiosyncratic. These fail-safes should emerge out of the data that each student collects for himself or herself. So there’s no like one-size-fits-all solution here. It may be in a future episode we’ll talk about common fail-safes for specific types of carelessness. But an individual student can make a mistake in any different way, but won’t that his or her patterns of carelessness will be embedded in his or her unconscious behavior.

So the first step is to make the unconscious conscious by collecting data, and seeing kind of how they cluster into clumps, basically, and then to create objective behaviors called fail-safes that address and mitigate the recurrence of those particular issues. And if you can do that, that’s really the difference between, let’s say, somebody who’s scoring around a 162, and somebody who’s scoring a 167 and above. What was the percent difference there? 160 to 162 is probably around the 80th percentile, and a 167 is around the 90th percentile. The difference between 80th and 90th percentile students is not their knowledge; they know the same things.

It’s usually how careful and consistent they are in the execution of their strategies. And it really has to do with consistency over hundreds of repetitions. The fact is that the difference between the 80th percentile and 90th percentile scores in quant are probably like two questions out of 100. So if you have those habits in place, and the habits to avoid carelessness become the new unconscious systems that you’re putting in place, then you can get those two questions right.

Hopefully, I don’t think that for most students, they’ll have enough experience and repetition to make those fail-safes unconscious. Keep them. So the idea is to actually keep them in the forefront of your mind. If you remember to use the fail-safes, then it should solve the carelessness problem. And so you just do those fail-safes on every problem for the rest of your GRE career, whether you think you need to or not. And it should mitigate the carelessness. If it doesn’t, you’ve got to fiddle with the knobs and find the behaviors that do.

Davis: Oh, that’s awesome.

Thanks so much. And thanks, everybody for tuning in. We’ll be back next week for another bite sized episode of Jerry bytes. If you have a topic you’d like to discuss on a future episode, let us know it’s stellar gr And if you’re interested in either GRE prep or grad school consulting, check us out at stellar Talk to you soon.

Accuracy versus efficiency on the GRE: the eternal struggle

Davis: Hey everybody, this is GRE Bites. My name is Davis, and I’m an educator with over ten years of experience.

Orion: And I’m Orion, the founder of StellarGRE.

Davis: We’re here to bring you your weekly bite-sized episode on GRE prep and grad school admissions. Check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at And don’t forget, you can use the code “BITES” for 10% off any membership.

Alright, so in previous episode, we talked about some of the stumbling blocks that students have, like carelessness. Today, I want to get into something that you’ve called the eternal struggle.

Orion: Yes.

Davis: First, can you just lay out what accuracy and efficiency are in the context of the GRE test?

Orion: Sure, yeah. Very simply, accuracy is the likelihood that you’re going to get a question correct. And efficiency is the likelihood that you’re going to answer more questions within the time constraint. So, I call it the internal struggle, because we can see that it’s something of a zero-sum game for the vast majority of students. When students slow down and they try to mitigate their carelessness, when they really try to get every question that they attempt correct, they obviously begin to move more slowly through the test. And generally, that results in them getting to fewer questions within the time limit on any given set, which can obviously lower their overall score. When they overcorrect and try to move more quickly, oftentimes, that’s where sloppiness or carelessness can come in. And so, they get to more questions, but it lowers their overall accuracy.

So, I often think of accuracy and efficiency like a pendulum swinging back and forth. And it’s for each individual student to find his or her sweet spot. And it’s going to be a little bit different for each individual person. So, in this struggle between accuracy and efficiency, the goal of GRE prep is to find an individual’s, you know, maximum, where they’re having the highest throughput of questions in the time limit that they can, while maintaining the highest level of accuracy that they can, getting the questions right as often as possible.

Davis: So, how do you get to that sweet spot?

Orion: That’s a great question. So, let’s talk about that. So, depending on where you’re starting, for most students, when they first come to GRE prep, it’s actually not a good idea to focus on efficiency. You don’t need to get to all the questions within the time limit. In the beginning, it’s a much better idea to focus on getting the questions that you’re attempting correct. And depending on where you’re starting from, that could only be a quarter to a third of the questions.

You know, maybe you’re a rock star, you’re walking into this test, and you’re getting, you know, 90% correct right off the street. But for a lot of students, the GRE is almost like a foreign language. They haven’t done standardized tests for many years. And so, it’s just about kind of getting back in the swing of things, as it were. That begins to switch once a student is able to answer at least 11 questions correctly within the time limit – 11 out of 20, so more than half.

Davis: Now, why is that?

Orion: This has to do with just pure probability. If we were in Vegas at a roulette wheel, you know, roulette wheels, basically red and black. And there was a 55% chance that it would hit on black versus a 45% chance it would hit on red. You would never bet on red, right? You should bet on black every single time. It will obviously come up on red, but over the long run, you should bet on black and you’ll make money that way, right? So when a student has an accuracy rate of over 50%, what that means is that that student is more likely than not to get a question right. So, it then makes sense to prioritize efficiency to get as many questions done as possible.

Davis: That’s right.

Orion: But until they’re more likely to get a question right than wrong, that shouldn’t be the issue. They need to focus on improving their accuracy until they’re at least over 50%. And then it’s like, push the questions as hard as possible. And that can be tricky. For the vast majority of students, to be able to answer a question in 90 seconds or less, 20 in a row, over a half hour, 35 minutes, it’s going to feel a little uncomfortable. One of my general rules of thumb is that if it doesn’t feel like you’re moving a little too fast, if it doesn’t feel like things are a little out of control, you’re probably not moving fast enough.

The GRE is kind of like a runaway train; you kind of have to grab on and hang on tight, and maybe four hours later, you end up at your destination. You know, it’s not on your timeline. It’s not going to feel comfortable. You’re not going to be able to double-check your work, say, or understand everything that you’re reading in the reading comprehension passages most likely; there’s going to be gaps in your understanding. It’s an inherently uncertain task. You never know if you’re getting anything right or wrong, and you just have to keep moving, hour after hour, question after question. So there’s a part of like surrendering to the pacing of the test, the duration of the test, that is appropriate with respect to efficiency. Does that make sense?

Davis: Yeah, just a question came to me. It’s like, okay, so you talked about reading comprehension, you’re not going to get it right. Is it true that some of the questions are baked in to kind of pull you away from being efficient and spend more time being accurate? Does that make sense?

Orion: That’s a good question. I think that that has more to do with how students approach the test than anything that’s inherent in the test itself. Okay. Like, for example, when it comes to reading comprehension questions, in my system, I use something called the citation technique, which basically means that there’s usually one, and only one, sentence in that text that provides a citation, provides a textual basis for one of the given answer choices.

And that’s what allows ETS, the makers of the test, to legally justify one of those options as the credited response. There is textual evidence in the passage, and it’s usually, not always, but usually only one sentence in that text. Now, reading comprehension on the GRE can span from two to five paragraphs and from two to four questions. But think about that, if there are four questions, that means that likely there are only four sentences in that passage that actually matter. But students will usually approach that passage and try to understand every part of that text; they’ll want to understand every sentence, every paragraph because they think, “Well, I don’t know if this is the sentence or the paragraph that’s going to help me get those questions right.” Yeah, that’s right. They don’t know.

But, again, if we were in Vegas, the odds are that that sentence doesn’t matter or that paragraph doesn’t matter. And the longer the passage, the more likely that’s true. So it’s not so much that it’s baked into the test. But it has to do with, let’s say, most students’ natural attitudes towards test taking. And I think, frankly, a lot of that has to do with anxiety. As a psychologist, I can tell you that when people are feeling anxious, a really good strategy for coping with that is to like, learn more about what you’re anxious about. This has to do with like, phobias. Somebody comes in, “I’m scared of snakes.” It’s like, “Yeah, well, snakes are scary. I get it.” So what’s the strategy? Are you going to read some books? Most snakes are harmless. Most snakes eat vermin. So they kind of help with the ecosystem. Some snakes can be very beautiful. And then you learn more about it, and you dispel some of the uncertainty that fosters the fear. Does that make sense?

Davis: And that generally reduces anxiety. So this attitude that I want to feel less anxious about engaging with this test by collecting more information, understanding more about what I’m dealing with, is a strategy for life. But it’s not a strategy for a time-standardized test.

Orion: That’s kind of suicidal, to be honest. It’s not effective when the clock is ticking.

Davis: That’s right. So no, that makes a lot of sense. Rather than seeking to have all the accuracy available to you for any question that can be asked in taking the test, you always have to keep in mind the efficiency aspect, so that you’re only gathering the information you need to answer the questions accurately.

Orion: That’s correct. And that means sometimes letting go of certain emotional coping strategies to deal with anxiety. It also often means learning new strategies to get to the correct answer as quickly as possible, bypassing math, bypassing comprehension to the extent that that’s possible. We’re not here to actually do math or to understand a passage; we’re here to click the right button to get a point, so that we get a certain score on this test and can apply to grad school and move on with our lives. Let’s be really goal-oriented and focused on our ultimate end here. Do you really care about that passage? Be honest, no, it’s just a means to an end. And if we can reduce our reliance on that passage and get to the end quickly and consistently, then we should do that; that’s in our best interests.

So, there’s getting to 55% accuracy, then prioritizing efficiency, which means kind of letting go of some of these attitudes or behaviors that might actually be more associated with emotional coping than test effectiveness. And then, finding that sweet spot, which is idiosyncratic to the individual. So, let’s say, for example, a student is getting to 17 questions out of 20 within the time limit. That’s pretty good and has a pretty high accuracy rate. If that student pushes herself to move more quickly to get to all 20, maybe she misses two more questions due to carelessness. But if she’s getting to three more, then it’s a net gain for her. Do you see?

Davis: So, she’ll get one more point. And it’s, it’s that kind of thinking versus that that’s more strategic and effective with the GRE, as opposed to ‘I need to get every question right.’

Orion: That’s a bit rigid. We kind of want to be like coaches at the end of a basketball game when the score is close. There’s a lot of fouling, there’s free throws, you use your timeouts; the goal is to get a win, not necessarily to get every shot in the basket, right, or play the most perfect, beautiful game by the rules. You want to, like you said, just do what it takes to win. We do want to use the rules, but fouling is part of the rules. So, that’s another thing that someone taught me once: if you’re not fouling, you’re probably not playing optimally. That’s cool. That was our part of the game.

Davis: Nice. Just real quick, how does that come into the context of the GRE?

Orion: That’s a great question. I don’t think we have time to get into that in this episode, but we’ll definitely talk about it in future episodes. On a high level, we don’t necessarily want to do everything the way that the test wants us to do it, or pulls for us to. Obviously, we don’t do anything against the rules. The fouling is part of the rule system. Do you see what I’m saying? So that you can be efficient in getting to all the questions.

Davis: Exactly.

Orion: Like, for example, many math problems are pulling for you to solve it algebraically, like in high school, show all your work, solve for x. But that’s not necessarily the most efficient or reliable means of getting to the accurate answer, the correct answer. Exactly. So, that’s what I say is kind of a foul because we are not engaging with the test the way that it officially seems to want us to engage with it.

Davis: Got it. I appreciate the insights.

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 practices to improve efficiency on the GRE: how to move more quickly through 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 in a previous episode, we kind of went in on the general approach for balancing accuracy and efficiency to get to the sweet spot where you’re, you know, really bumping up your percentile points 10%, up into the 90s. So let’s talk a little bit more about efficiency. What are some of the different strategies, specifically, to increase a student’s throughput to get to all the questions?

Orion: Yeah, I’ve mentioned this before; the hardest aspect of this test for the vast majority of students is the time constraint. If you can’t do it in five minutes, you kind of can’t do it with respect to the GRE. There are some exceptions, but most students should be able to do most questions in 90 seconds or less. And if you can’t, then it’s kind of a zero-sum game; you will get this question right, potentially, but you won’t have time to get to another question within that time limit. And so, you kind of are coming up against a ceiling with respect to your overall score. You’ve got to get to more questions within that time, which means you have to answer the questions you’re responding to more efficiently.

So, first and foremost, the student going in fully aware and prepared that this is a timed test. So, you have a 35-minute section knowing you have 20 questions. That kind of clock should always be there, like, okay, 90 seconds, on average, per question.

Davis: Yes.

Orion: But I do believe that it’s not helpful for most students to micromanage their behavior on that level. I personally don’t time my performance per question. I even toggle the timer off when I take the test because I find it to be very distracting. Counting down each second in the upper right-hand corner is just anxiety-provoking for me. I’ve been doing this for a long time, so I can imagine what it would be like for some of my students. That said, we can’t ignore the time limit; it’s a reality. What I personally do is toggle the timer off and check in every five problems. So, five problems is a quarter of that set. If I’m on a quantitative section, then I should be between eight and nine minutes deeper into the time, every five problems. So, I check in often enough to see if I’m on pace to get to all the questions within the time limit. And I check it often enough that I can course-correct as necessary.

So, for example, if I were to answer the first five problems and I check in and 10 minutes have passed, whew, it’s a little slow. I’m a little behind; I need to pick up the pace, but I still have, you know, 25 minutes left. I can save that circumstance. And if I check in and only six minutes have passed, great, I can chill out, I can calm down, I can go a little bit more into accuracy than I might otherwise be able to. Does that make sense?

Davis: Yeah. And so, you know, you’ve talked in previous episodes also about practicing the whole, the whole, the whole section at once to increase your efficiency to get to all the questions there. And then to put all sections together for four and a half hours. I mean, how much of it comes from just rote practice? I mean, how much does real practice affect, like just repetition, repetition, repetition, increase a student’s ability to be efficient and get to all the problems a lot, especially with the quantitative section?

Orion: In my system, every single quantitative question can be sorted into one of only 50 diagnostic categories. So, in the Stellar system, there’s only 50 types of quantitative problems on the GRE, which is actually pretty amazing. Given the fact that when you actually take the test, you’re only going to take 40 problems. So, you only have to prepare for 50 types of questions for a 40-problem math test.

Davis: Alright, so each of those questions of those 40 is generally different.

Orion: Generally, but not always, we’ve talked about base rates in the past. For example, the diagnostic category that by far has the highest base rate is a plug-in question. And those are usually between a fifth and a quarter of any given quantitative set, which means that four or five of the questions you encounter will be plug-in problems, and you can solve them using this one technique. Plugging in is by far the most useful and versatile quantitative strategy because, boom, you get four or five free points just by mastering this one technique. Versus, you might have to take several tests before you see one mixture problem.

Davis: Gotcha. Okay. So, the strategy, one of the strategies for increasing efficiency, is recognizing what types of questions you encounter and having a set, you know, solution that’s right to set a system of how to answer that. So that’s quantitative.

Orion: Hold on, let me expand on that a little bit. Because in Stellar, we call that diagnosing. So, a big part of what’s difficult in transitioning from test prep to the actual exam is, again, when you’re studying, you kind of know that this question comes from this chapter on probability or this chapter on combinatorics, or this chapter on averages. And so, you’re already kind of primed to know how to solve that problem because it’s contextualized in the test prep system. And that’s very different from the actual exam, where, boom, a question pops up on your screen, and you have to first figure out what kind of problem you’re dealing with. And that’s diagnosis. And so that’s also a key part of efficiency, is the Stellar system trains students to recognize empirical signs in that question, that are associated with one of those 50 diagnostic categories, empirical signs, meaning either English words, geometric figures, or mathematical symbols.

And so you can kind of scan the question and the answer choices, try to figure out which of those 50 buckets this question is in, and then boom, you actively recall into your working memory the strategies, the techniques, the fun facts about that question type, that were successful in solving similar questions in the past. And especially with quantitative, there are many mechanical solutions.

In Stellar, there are a lot of techniques where the only thing that changes are the actual values of the numbers involved; you do exactly the same thing every single time. And if you’ve done that strategy 10 times, it’s not going to be different the 11th time. So if you’ve over-rehearsed those approaches to those types of problems, that is far and away your best bet for improving your efficiency.

Now, that seems like it would build confidence too. So, if you’ve trained a way of thinking that’s diagnostic, and you have these larger categories, and more helpfully, you have specific strategies that can tackle categories, and you’re looking at the question, and you take away the guesswork, you say, “Oh, I know from this word, or from this symbol, that I use this solution.”

Davis: That’s awesome. In the quantitative section, I’m wondering how efficiency gains can also be made in the reading comprehension section, for example, or the writing even? Are there similar categories or strategies that take away the guesswork in the Stellar approach?

Orion: Oh, absolutely. So, there are three sections of the GRE: the quantitative, the verbal, and then the writing section. The writing section is the first section students encounter; it’s two 30-minute essay prompts. There aren’t any efficiency strategies for the writing section.

Okay, you actually want to use all 30 minutes to write as much as possible. And we can probably talk about that in a future episode. In the verbal section, you have 20 questions in 30 minutes. So that’s 90 seconds on average. And there are less standardized approaches or strategies with the verbal section compared with the quantitative, because so much depends on the actual words involved, the content of the passages that you’re given, and obviously those can’t be prepared in advance. One of the major efficient strategies for the verbal section is skipping based on question type.

So, there are three general question types on a given verbal section: there are vocab-based questions, which are easy to recognize, because there’s vocab there and in the answer choices. There are reading comprehension questions, which are easy to recognize, because it’s usually multiple paragraphs and multiple questions. And then there are what I call logical reasoning questions, which are similar to reading comp, because you have to read but it’s one paragraph and one question. These are things like, what would weaken this argument? What would strengthen the argument? What’s the relationship between these two boldface sentences? Got it, so there are three: vocab-based, reading comp, logical reasoning, and I highly recommend that students do each verbal set in that order.

Do all the vocab-based questions first; there’s going to be 10 of them. Then do all the reading comps; there should be about nine, and save the logical reasoning if there is one, because it has a base rate of around 5%, one in 20 for the variant. This is helpful because vocab-based questions should be more efficient than reading comp, because there’s just less to read and when you’re reading you’re not solving. Ideally, we want to shoot for answering those 10 vocab-based questions within 10 to 12 minutes of a verbal set. Because we need to bank time, aim to be able to read passages. I like also doing the vocab-based questions first, because it can give you the opportunity to say, “Oh, how deeply and how thoroughly, how carefully can I actually read these passages?” Because you’ll know exactly how much time you have left at that point, right?

Okay, so I did my first pass, I answered all the vocab-based questions. And there are three texts: there’s one that’s two paragraphs, with two questions; there’s one that’s four paragraphs and gets four questions; and there’s one that’s two paragraphs and gets three questions. So I have 15 minutes left, so I can really do five minutes per bundle. And that’s going to just off the cuff, give you a general impression of how carefully you can read any one passage.

Notice that I also mentioned paragraphs to questions; that’s also useful. So if you’re going to do all the vocab-based questions first, that means you’re going to be skipping through that verbal section, which means you will have at least encountered those reading comprehension questions already. You should skip over them on your first pass through.

But as you’re doing so, you can collect information on the number of paragraphs associated with that text and the number of questions associated with that passage, which can create this ratio of paragraphs to questions. You can then prioritize reading comprehension questions that have lower fractions.

Davis: Yeah, basically, we want bang for your buck.

Orion: Exactly. The best thing would be if it were one paragraph long, and we got four questions; that would be awesome. You start there, because that’s going to be still in the meaty part of your time limit. And we want to get more questions within the time, obviously. So this also helps you to prioritize effectively.

Davis: No, that’s great. These are great strategies.

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.

Why does the GRE exist at all?: understanding the origins 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.

So the main question in this episode is a little different from previous ones where we dug into the weeds. I just want to take a step back; this is for grad school admission, for getting a good score. That’s what Stellar GRE exists for, but why does the GRE exist in the first place? Why do you think the GRE exists?

Orion: Why do I think the GRE exists?

Davis: Yeah, do you have an idea?

Orion: Well, I mean, analogous to the LSAT, it’s like you come out; you need a standardized test for different colleges, presumably for different colleges, to admit you based on some kind of merit, namely, the score that you received on the standardized test.

Davis: Sure, seems that way.

Orion: And that’s where most people go, that the SAT is developed by the College Board. The GRE is developed by ETS, Educational Testing Services. But they’re both standardized tests for university admissions. And the idea here is that these tests are assessing, let’s say, college or grad school readiness, right? And research has indicated that these tests aren’t very good at doing that. So, for example, the SATs don’t generally correlate with college GPAs, for instance, and the GRE doesn’t correlate very well inversely with grad school attrition rates, which has to do with whether you finish the grad school program or not. So if these tests are designed to measure university readiness, they’re not doing a great job with that, to be honest.

Davis: So, okay, so you’re saying that the general idea most people have, and the main advertisement, is that these tests, you know, test you to see how prepared you are to succeed in college. And thereby, you know, you have that as a factor in your admittance process. But what you’re saying is that they’re not actually correlated with those success metrics. Once you get in, once you’re admitted to said college. And so what, you know, what would be a different take? Well, what’s the reason then for taking them?

Orion: Sure. I mean, again, if readiness were the primary reason why these tests exist, why, especially in the last two years, during the age of COVID, has there been a systematic move in many universities away from these tests? You know, the narrative is that it has to do with access to the tests. ETS did a really beautiful thing earlier on in the pandemic, where they laterally added home administrations; usually, you’d have to go into a secure testing environment to be able to take the test. But they worked with an online proctoring agency for students to be able to take the GRE from the comfort of their own home, so that they could continue to engage during the pandemic. That said, a great number of grad school programs waived their GRE requirements for the last two years. And ostensibly they were citing, you know, not every student has equal access to computers or the internet, which is true. But I don’t think that warrants 75% of universities waiving that requirement during that time, to be honest.

Davis: So what were the effects of waiving on admissions? Do you know it?

Orion: Yes, in general, programs that don’t require the GRE receive three to five times as many applicants as programs that do. Spoiler alert: students don’t like taking the GRE or other standardized tests. And if they can get what they want, i.e., apply and be admitted to a grad school program of their choice without taking it, they will take advantage of that. So, it’s in a university’s, say, “best interests” to forego the GRE requirement because it increases the number of applicants, and that obviously comes with application fees. And it makes sure that those universities have a better chance of filling their cohorts. And in recent years, that has been very difficult. Grad School Admissions across the board are going down, and they went down significantly during the pandemic.

I mean, the median cost for professional school like a business school is $150,000. And a big part of that is to be able to go there, make connections, go out after class; that’s going to be your cohort. Those are going to be your professional network for the next three to five years. You don’t get any of those intangibles on Zoom, right? So, the prospect of paying six figures just to engage in Zoom classes was less interesting to prospective students during the pandemic, and admissions were tanking. And I think the decision to waive the GRE was primarily motivated by the falling enrollment numbers in grad school over the last two years than any legitimate concern associated with access to computers.

Davis: So that’s interesting because, you know, I’ve heard you talk about this before, but I want to make sure I’m understanding it clearly right now, which is that, you know, it sounds like okay, we’re going to waive the GRE so we can get more people to apply and to come in, because we need that; we need to fill our cohorts. It almost sounds like the GRE is a deterrent, or has been used as a deterrent, or a reason not to admit people or to keep, you know, from it being too competitive or to over, you know, having admissions be overwhelmed.

Orion: Yeah, it seems kind of counterproductive.

Davis: So if waiving the GRE leads to more applicants at any given program, why don’t all programs waive the GRE, if it’s purely a financial incentive?

Orion: And I think the reason has to do with the realities of grad school, which is not all grad school programs are equal. And throughout the pandemic, applications to let’s say, top 10 or top 15 Business Programs remained constant.

Davis: Okay.

Orion: But applications to lower-ranked, less competitive programs tanked. And it was precisely those programs that waived the GRE requirement. It’s still required to get into GSB at Stanford, for instance, okay. GSB, the business school at Stanford University, is one of the most competitive grad school programs in the world. I think last time I checked, they have an acceptance rate of 6% out of, like, how many applications usually, I don’t know off the top of my head, but I would assume at least in the four figures. I think they’d probably get thousands per year. 6% is basically around one in 20.

Davis: Okay.

Orion: And these are not just schmoes off the street; these are usually very intelligent, hardworking, ambitious young people. And these top-ranked programs get thousands of applicants every admission cycle, and I don’t really envy their job; they have to say no to 19 out of 20 ambitious, intelligent, hardworking young people. That is not an easy job. And it’s made more difficult by the fact that there are few, we could say, objective and quantifiable parameters in the application materials, right? And so, if you’re on one of these admissions teams, and you have five otherwise completely equally qualified people, but one of the only empirical hard data sets that you can use to decide who to say no and who to say yes to is a couple of percentile points on the GRE, is that you as the GRE used in that way to say, “Oh, well, this person had the higher GRE.”

Davis: Sure. I mean, if we can potentially have a thought experiment where two applicants are exactly the same with respect to their undergrad universities, their GPAs, their extracurriculars, their CVs, let’s just assume that they’re identical twins, but one scored three points higher on the GRE than the other. Why not? If you are able, like GSB, to choose the cream of the crop, why not choose the slightly more competitive applicant?

Orion: I mean, that seems to be kind of common sense to me. But I think the main reason the GRE exists is again, so at these programs, the admissions committee have to reject 19 out of 20 people. And we’re talking about high-stakes, competitive academic environments, with deep pockets. And we also live in the context of a very litigious society. There’s very few objective, quantifiable parameters on an application; it’s like the GRE score and GPA.

Davis: Everything else is what, personal demographics?

Orion: Yeah, and Statement of Purpose essay, these are subjective, or rooted in identity. So the reason that GRE exists, especially, will continue to exist at the most competitive levels, is that it gives grad schools a legally defensible way to reject people without getting sued, right for being based on discrimination or totally. I mean, if you get rid of the GRE, what, it’s like, what’s the problem? You don’t like my background? You don’t like my gender or my sexual orientation or my race, or what, my plans for the future. That would be, it’s tricky to prove. There’s been some lawsuits recently in that direction to prove racial discrimination at the college admissions level. We can see that there are obviously differences in outcome when you look at the cohorts that actually get admitted, but it’s hard to actually prove that there were discriminative policies in place.

So grad school programs, the easiest way, for them, the least amount of headache, is just to say it has nothing to do with any of that stuff. It’s that you had a GRE score of a 161, and the average score was a 165. It allows programs to wash their hands of the vast majority of applicants without getting sued, which they have to anyway because they have to reject 95% of applicants. And so this is by far the easiest way to just thrash through the applicant pool. And that’s why the GRE isn’t going anywhere for the most competitive programs, which consistently still get high levels of admissions, even during pandemics.

Davis: Yeah, no, that’s really good. So, bottom line is that, you know, if you’re looking, if a student, you know, headed to graduate school, is looking to where they go really matters, that they’re really wanting to get that level of connection and, you know, the prestigious accolades that come from being in one of the Ivy League schools or these big graduate schools, then, you know, if they can, here’s a question, if they can bump their GRE score and get like a perfect score, which I know you’ve had many students do who’ve taken stellar GRE, they can get a perfect score, that top percentile, does that give them an edge in the admissions?

Orion: Great question. So as you know, I got a perfect score on my GRE and I was still rejected from more programs than I got accepted to. So that’s almost like, you have to have a stellar, like a really excellent GRE score. It’s more like this: getting even a perfect score on the GRE is not a golden ticket into the Chocolate Factory. It’s not like the schools were stumbling over themselves to get me on the phone and offer me merit scholarships and admissions letters. The GRE, the best possible outcome with respect to the GRE, is not the securement of a positive; it’s the avoidance of a negative, for okay, it’s for it not being a reason that they reject.

Davis: Exactly

Orion: Students are going to do all this prep, they’re going to spend all this time, energy, and money, just so that they can dodge a bullet. That’s the best possible outcome with respect to the GRE. And if you can pass through that filter, then maybe the admissions committees will look more closely at your materials to determine Goodness of Fit. Goodness of Fit is why people actually get in. The GRE is one of many reasons why students are kept out.

Davis: Oh, that’s, that’s hugely insightful. I hope everyone feels the same.

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.

GRE vs. GMAT: which test to take

Davis: Hey everybody, this is GRE Bites. My name is Davis, and I’m an educator with over ten years of experience.

Orion: And I’m Orion, the founder of StellarGRE.

Davis: We’re here to bring you your weekly bite-sized episode on GRE prep and grad school admissions. Check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at And don’t forget, you can use the code “BITES” for 10% off any membership.

So, Orion, today we are going to talk about… What do I want to ask you about? We’re going to talk about the GMAT and GRE.

Orion: That’s right.

Davis: So first, the difference between the GRE and GMAT – what is it? Should I take the GRE or should I take the GMAT? Why don’t you just… What does each stand for? What’s GRE stand for? What is the GMAT stand for now?

Orion: You’ve put me on the spot. I think the GRE stands for Graduate Record Examination. Okay. And the GMAT stands for Graduate Management Admission Test. I think that is correct.

Davis: So, management – so that’s business, so GMAT is for business school.

Orion: Well, that’s what I’m getting at. That’s the stereotype about the GMAT that we’re going to discuss today. So, the question of whether or not we should take the GMAT or the GRE is a question anybody interested in applying to graduate business school is going to ask themselves at some point. Historically, the GMAT was the test to take; it was the only test that business schools accepted. And so, the GMAT has long been associated exclusively with business school. What some people may or may not know is that about five years ago, there was a huge sea change in graduate school admissions where suddenly, functionally all the business schools in this country, and certainly 100% of the top 25 ranked programs, decided to accept the GRE or the GMAT for business school admissions. So now, anyone wanting to go to business school actually has a choice they didn’t have before: they can choose to take the GRE or the GMAT as well. Okay, so one or the other, not both?

Davis: Is there an advantage to taking one? Is there still preferential treatment towards one test or the other at most institutions?

Orion: Excellent questions. You definitely don’t want to take both; that doesn’t… You don’t get a gold star for doing that. And that sounds like just a path of pain. So, pick your poison: do the GRE or the GMAT. So, the second question is one that I get often from students who seem to believe that there might still be some, let’s say, residual preference for the GMAT over the GRE in business school admissions. And I don’t believe that that’s true. I can say that if a graduate program says in their admissions materials that you can apply with either the GRE or the GMAT, they are not legally able to discriminate against students based on which test they decide to take. So, they have to legally weigh those tests equally. Now, whether they do that in practice is a question that I can’t fully answer, but I know they’re not supposed to. Let’s put it that way. They’re not supposed to weigh the GRE lighter or heavier than the GMAT in business school applications.

Davis: Okay. Well, so is there a pro? Like, is one test easier than the other? Are there pros to taking one test compared to the other?

Orion: I’m so glad you asked that question because that’s really what we’re talking about here. Which one should I take? And I’m going to tell you that if you want to apply to business school, you should be taking the GRE.

Davis: Okay, why?

Orion: Well, I’m a GRE test prep company, so take what I say with a grain of salt. But I’m going to make, I think, a pretty strong case for why you should take the GRE over the GMAT. First of all, I believe that the GRE is a slightly easier test than the GMAT. Okay, I don’t think that the GRE is a walk in the park by any means. So even though the GRE is more generalized in terms of the knowledge base you’re tested on, and the GMAT

Davis: Is the GMAT more focused just on business practice?

Orion: Oh, no. Okay, let me walk that back a little bit. So the GMAT, like the GRE, is also an aptitude test, which means it doesn’t test specific knowledge. It’s not like the GMAT is testing your knowledge about loans or interest points, you know, things that are specific to the practice of business or management, etc. It’s very, very similar in terms of the content assessed to the GRE. The overlap, for example, in the quantitative sections of both tests is probably around 90%.

Davis: Wow. Okay.

Orion: Yeah. So they have far more in common than they have not in common. So, they’re both very similar aptitude tests. That said, I do believe that the GRE is slightly easier than the GMAT. And the reason for that is the GRE has fewer questions that involve the use of logic. Okay, so there is a test question on the GMAT called data sufficiency, which can be very, very difficult for many students to attend to. Because besides knowing the quantitative facts and knowing the little test prep hacks, you also have to be able to use logic on the spot to deduce the answer. So we’re putting an extra challenge on that type of question that doesn’t usually exist on the GRE. In fact, there are like less than 3% of questions on the GRE that involve some form of logic versus, you know, up to 40% on the GMAT.

Davis: So, the GMAT is slightly harder because you take the same material and you add this logical component to the question.

Orion: Exactly.

Davis: So if you had like, whatever, five, six types of questions that you could reliably practice on the GRE, you’re just adding a whole other set of types of questions.

Orion: Yes, this type of question, the data sufficiency, doesn’t exist on the GRE, but it does exist on the GMAT. I think that because of that, the quantitative section of the GMAT is significantly harder than the quantitative section on the GRE. There’s a second good reason why the GRE is a better test because the GMAT is good just for business school, the GRE is good for business school, and like everything else. So unless you want to become either a lawyer or a medical doctor, and you’re going to a post-secondary education, you’re going to be taking the GRE. So if you want to apply to like a dual degree program, like an MBA/MPP, Master of Public Policy, or an MBA/MFA, or something like that, you’re going to be taking either both tests for both of those programs, which, like I said, is not a very good idea.

When you take the GRE for both, you see, or if you’re like, I’m not sure if I want to go to business school in three or five years, I might want to go to business school, but I might also want to go to a master’s in psychology program, or I want to get my teaching certificate, etc. If you take the GMAT now, you kind of get locked into certain admissions pathways that you don’t with the GRE, so the GRE allows you to keep your options open when applying to grad school.

Davis: Do they, do each test have a similar time? Like an expiration date on each one?

Orion: Yeah, I think both are five years, five years. And a lot of people that I’ve worked with take the GRE right out of undergrad, it’s kind of like, you know, when you’re doing the dishes and your hands are already wet and soapy, and your wife just gives you another one to do, you know, it’s like, “Ah, I’m already doing tests, and I’m already studying things. So like, what’s one more test right now?” And I think that’s often a good idea. They’re already in study mode, they take the GRE, and that score is good for five years. So even if they want to take three to four years to get professional experience, which is a really excellent idea when applying for business school, they already have a score in their back pocket, based back from when they were active students.

The third reason why I recommend the GRE over the GMAT is probably the most important reason, which is that I’ve done some research on the top 15 ranked business programs in the country. So like, Harvard Business School, GSB at Stanford, Haas at Berkeley, etc. And I’ve collected data on the median percentile scores of successful applicants in all these programs for both the GMAT and the GRE. So these business schools are very good at publishing this kind of post-mortem data on their entering classes. And what I discovered is that, in pretty much any given year, in the last five years, you have to score higher on the GMAT to be as competitive at that program relative to the GRE by a difference of nine percentile points, which is huge. That is huge. That means that you can score a full nine percentile points lower on the GRE and remain just as competitive at those top business programs relative to the GMAT. And that’s without having to master that harder logic-based test.

It’s an easier test. It’s more widely applicable. And you don’t have to do as well on it to be as competitive at top programs relative to the GMAT.

Davis: Was there, just to kind of play the other side, any reason that the GMAT would be more beneficial?

Orion: I mean, not that I can think of. It’s even more expensive.

Davis: Oh, no way. And what about the time? Is it similar in terms of its time commitment, in terms of the length of the actual test?

Orion: Yeah, I think that both tests are around four hours. I mean, the GMAT is just a little bit more expensive, not a lot, but it is a little bit more. Both tests are about four hours. You’re going to take probably between two and four months to prepare for the exam, because they test very similar content. But the main kicker for me is that you don’t have to perform as well on the GRE to remain competitive for the top business programs. And that is hugely important because, as we talked about in the previous episode, one of the main reasons why these standardized tests exist at all is to give grad programs a legally defensible way to reject otherwise qualified applicants. And if you’re beneath the median for their successful applicants, then that’s already a liability. And the whole point of this is to dodge this bullet so that we can get the rest of our application in front of the committee so that they can see, hey, we’re a good fit. Remember, people get in because of goodness of fit.

Davis: That’s right. That’s right. Well, that’s super informative.

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 stop the bleeding on the quantitative section: you’re wasting more time than you think

Davis: Hey everybody, this is GRE Bites. My name is Davis, and I’m an educator with over ten years of experience.

Orion: And I’m Orion, the founder of StellarGRE.

Davis: We’re here to bring you your weekly bite-sized episode on GRE prep and grad school admissions. Check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at And don’t forget, you can use the code “BITES” for 10% off any membership.

Okay, so, today’s topic: we’ve discussed accuracy versus efficiency and time pressure in a previous episode. We haven’t yet delved into specific strategies for when you’re taking the GRE and you’re conscious of the time, but despite practice tests after practice tests, you just can’t seem to finish sections in time. What are ways to prevent time from slipping away?

Orion: Excellent question. As I’ve mentioned in previous episodes, the time constraint is really the most challenging aspect of this test. If you had unlimited time, this assessment would be significantly easier. The reality is that if you can’t answer a question in 90 seconds or less, you probably can’t answer it at all. That’s something I want to emphasize to students right away: practicing untimed individual questions isn’t a good strategy for GRE prep. It might give you a false sense of confidence. It’s nice to feel capable, a good ego boost.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: But knowing how to do it isn’t sufficient. When you face a section of 20 questions to complete in 35 minutes or less, it’s a totally different game. If you haven’t been practicing under these constraints, the experience will feel very different. Therefore, rehearsing under non-valid conditions can detrimentally impact your score in the long run. So, avoid practicing untimed individual questions.

Davis: Okay, yeah. So, the first point is about the way you practice, right? You’re suggesting not to practice one question at a time, even though it feels good to know how to solve a problem. And you’ve also said, regarding the 90-second rule per question, that in a previous episode, you mentioned not being overly focused on timing every single question, but rather checking in every four or five minutes.

Orion: True. We don’t want to micromanage ourselves question by question. When tackling the full set of 20 problems, the 90-second rule is a guideline. You can’t always adhere to it strictly, as some questions will take more than 90 seconds and others less. It’s a rule of thumb, meaning in general, you should aim to complete questions in 90 seconds or less. Otherwise, you can’t truly claim to have mastered the concept or the timing. Does that clarify things?

Davis: Yeah, no, that does. But in terms of the time being the most challenging aspect of the test, as you’ve already said, if you’re practicing sets of 20 questions in 35 minutes and still running short on time, it’s like a medical emergency – you need to identify the source of the bleeding. So, what are the common high time-drain issues that people encounter?

Orion: Yes, it’s a very common issue. People try their hardest to complete full quantitative sets but still end up five or six questions short. It can be very frustrating and demoralizing. I’ve identified five primary culprits of time sink in the quantitative section. When I work with a student struggling with timing, I go through this list. Generally, if a student addresses all five culprits, they’ll find it much easier to complete all the questions within the time limit going forward. Ready?

Davis: Yeah. What are these five?

Orion: Okay, number one, and most importantly, are rabbit holes. Rabbit holes are what I call situations where a student spends five, six, seven, or eight minutes on a single question. It’s a sunk cost issue. They start the question, spend three minutes, and then think they must get it right to avoid wasting those minutes, investing even more time. Sometimes they spend up to ten minutes on one problem. I’ve seen that happen. So, it’s crucial to avoid this. You might spend five minutes on one problem, maybe, if it’s the last one you’re addressing and you’ve been efficient with the others, but this isn’t something you can afford to do repeatedly over the course of a set.

Davis: So at what point do you pump the brakes? And you’re just like, “This question is taking too long. Let me just come back to it at the end if I have time.”

Orion: Yeah, my line in the sand is three minutes. So, if after three minutes, you don’t have a solution to a given problem, you should make an educated guess. It shouldn’t be totally random at that point. Have an educated guess, based on the work you’ve done thus far, and then you move on with your life. You’ll make a guess. You don’t just leave it; you definitely never leave a question blank, because you can’t lose points on the GRE, you just fail to gain them. So there’s no reason not to at least, you know, throw something in and see if it sticks, right? But the point is, you make an educated guess and you move on. You don’t tag it in your mind and think, “Oh, I’ll come back to this later.” Right. That’s done. You know, we’re rolling that up in a carpet, driving to the bridge, and we’re never talking about what happened here again. We’re not coming back to the crime. So the first one is just stop. Don’t fall down any rabbit holes. Be really disciplined about that three-minute line.

Davis: Yeah. Okay. All right.

Orion: Number two is double checking, triple checking your work.

Davis: You should just have the confidence to do the question once and move on?

Orion: Well, that is a different question. Whether or not you have the confidence is kind of irrelevant because that’s a felt emotional state. And that’s actually why students do a lot of these time-bleeding behaviors. They’re actually trying to feel more confident. I personally would also feel more confident if I double checked and triple checked my work to make sure I didn’t make any careless errors. The issue is, what’s the likelihood that I am going to catch a careless error in that double check, versus that’s another 60 seconds that I could have used to solve half of the problem? If I’m doing that multiple times over the course of the set, that’s, I’m not getting to three, four questions within the time limit. So whether or not you feel calm, confident, I’m just suggesting that you don’t have time to double check or triple check. If you do, that’s the accuracy versus efficiency game that we were talking about in a previous episode. Your accuracy might go up, but I think kind of negligibly. But your efficiency is definitely going to go down. Right?

Davis: So if you get to a solution, that’s your answer. Okay, cross your fingers, you’re not going to know if you got it right or wrong anyway, so you might as well click that button and move on to the next question.

Orion: Alright. So one, no sunken cost fallacy, no rabbit holes. Two, no double checking, no triple checking your work, trying to look for confidence, reacting emotionally. Three is what I call double solving. So, this is a little bit different from double checking. Like, okay, so for example, I have a number of really clever techniques to answer certain types of quantitative questions. And one of the most common ones is plugging in whenever there are variables in the answer choices, so instead of doing algebra, you pick numbers like two, three, and you kind of do the arithmetic instead. So double solving is okay. A student plugs in, like he or she is “supposed to” in the stellar method, and they get an answer, but then they think, “Well, let me just solve it algebraically as well, just to be sure that my clever technique still works with this problem.”

Davis: Exactly.

Orion: So, it’s not like they’re checking their work for carelessness, but they’re actually solving their questions with two different strategies, plugging in and algebra. And so they’re solving that question twice. If they’re doing that every problem, they’re actually trying to answer 40 questions within 35 minutes, which is less than a minute per problem. I mean, that’s just not feasible for anybody. So, you can’t double solve either.

Davis: Okay, no double solving. Number three, number four.

Orion: Okay. I know I said five.

Davis: You’re trying to remember what the fifth one is? Because I never had the fourth.

Orion: So, the fourth one is, don’t linger.

Davis: Okay. Is lingering different than rabbit hole, because you’re not emotionally committed? What’s the emotional reason?

Orion: Well, it’s also, all of these are emotional coping strategies at the end of the day, but the difference is, with rabbit holes or double checking, you’re doing something. With lingering, you’re just kind of… it’s like you saw the question. You think that it’s C? And you sit there thinking, “Am I sure that it’s C? I look at everything. Am I ready to move on? Yes, or is there anything else I have to do here? Okay, I think I’m ready to say it. C, right.” So, you could spend like four or five seconds, but over the course of 20… Well, that was closer to 10 seconds. And then, you know, 20 times that, it’s 200 seconds. That’s close to three and a half minutes. That could be another two problems. That’s right. So, the question here is, once we get to a solution, we move on to the next problem with purpose and without hesitation. So, it’s like you do the math, answer is C, C next, shake the Etch A Sketch. It’s done, redo, you click the button, and you move on to the next question before you even allow the opportunity to second guess what you’ve done.

Davis: Gotcha. So, you have to build on that time. You have to keep pace.

Orion: Oh, absolutely. There is a pace that you tend to find once you get in the habit of answering all the questions within the time limit. Like, for example, I generally spend about 34 minutes answering those 20 questions when I take problems myself. Yeah, you know, I never feel hurried, because I’m reliably coming in between 33 and 34 minutes. So I’m never running out of time, just coming close to the end. But I know that my pace is such that I always finish with about a minute left. And so, I kind of like trust that pace, which is about solving, reading, and moving on from problems. It’s not moving fast at all. I mean, if I really wanted to show off, I could probably answer the questions in half the time. But then, of course, I leave myself vulnerable to careless errors. So I deliberately move at a slow, constant pace, that’s still within the time limit, but that I feel is consistent and without hesitation.

Davis: Okay, so rabbit holes, avoid rabbit holes.

Orion: Yep. Sunk cost, you said, was double, like double checking, triple checking. Three was a little different, which is double solving using two different methods. Right? Four, you’re saying, is lingering; it’s like you’re not actually doing anything, but you’re still kind of running through some checklists in your head.

Davis: Yep, checking things out. You said there were five.

Orion: Yes, thank you for doing extra; it gave me time to remember what the fifth one was, which is rereading problems. So you don’t have time to be rereading, and certainly not rereading or rereading problems, especially if they’re paragraph long.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: So one of the things I talk about in my system is the benefit of continuous solving, which is something we’ll probably have to talk about in another full episode. But basically, it means that we solve as we go. Therefore, we don’t spend two, three minutes just trying to understand the problem and how all the different moving parts fit together. We’re doing the smallest next quantum of math all along the way, and so we never have to reread problems. So those are the five primary culprits of time delay, and if you can stop those five things, you’re going to free up enough space to answer several more questions within the time limit. That’s almost a guarantee. That sounds great.

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 quickly eliminate reading comprehension answer choices: mastering 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.

So, we’ve talked a lot about quantitative and recently about time, and then the pressures for time. So okay, what happens? How do you manage? What’s one of the time-efficient strategies? How do you manage it when you have these reading comprehension sections? We have, like, two to four paragraphs, and you have two to four questions. And that’s a big time sink that could potentially be an area for me, at least, as a big time sink. So what are the ways to eliminate wasted time? Are there shortcuts to getting the answers?

Orion: Sure. Yeah, reading comprehension questions make up about 45 to 50% of the verbal sections. You’re going to have a lot of them, nine to 10 of them. And they can be extremely time-consuming, almost by definition, because you’re going to have to attend to the text at some point. I don’t think that you can safely ignore the text entirely and expect to get all those questions right. You probably could get some of them, but you probably couldn’t get all of them. And the time you’re spending reading, you’re not spending solving, and solving is where you get points. You don’t get points for reading.

So, the first thing that you need to keep in mind with respect to efficiency on reading comprehension is you can’t spend too much time understanding or comprehending the text. I know they’re called reading comprehension questions, but the idea that you have to comprehend that text in full is probably a belief that is killing your efficiency on these questions. We can get more into that on a future episode. But it’s a good idea to kind of read the passage casually first. The keyword here is casually, like you would a newspaper article. When you read a newspaper article, you want to know what happened, so that you can summarize the event to a friend in one or two sentences. You don’t have to know all the specific dates, numbers, and statistics; you just need to know the gist of it. So that’s what we’re going for when we read the text of a reading comprehension question. Just understanding.

Davis: So, you still do read it first. You don’t jump to the questions first?

Orion: Yeah, people have different minds about this. But I’m a big fan of reading the passage casually first before attending to the questions. The reason for that is, if I were to look at the questions, two to four questions before going to the text, I’m not able to keep all four of those questions in my mind simultaneously. I’ll probably only remember the last one that I read. And then I’m actually more likely to find an answer to that one question. But I will also more likely ignore relevant information for some of the other questions because I can’t keep them in my working memory at that time. So, I’ll probably end up reading the passage multiple times because I’m looking for specific things, versus just wanting to understand what happened in this passage, with the expectation that I will go back to read parts of it, not the whole thing, but parts of it for detail, based on the questions that are subsequently asked. Okay, so I think it’s a little more efficient to do it this way. That makes sense too because maybe there are some tricky or baited answers that are honing in on easily misunderstood sections of the reading; it’s possible. And so, but then just to say that some of the answers that you might read could be red flags or red herrings, like false.

Davis: Awesome.

Orion: So, yeah, so this is a big thing about the reading comprehension. Besides the time it takes to understand the passages, the answer choices can be very difficult to decipher; some of them seem functionally identical to one another. A lot of times, students are trying to debate with themselves about which answer choice is slightly better or slightly less bad than one of the other ones. And there, it takes some time to kind of filter or parse through the answer choices themselves. And so I do have some strategies for getting through the answer choices of reading comprehension questions more effectively and efficiently.

So, once you’ve done a casual read-through, are there strategies where you can just process elimination? Just say, “Oh, that’s not an answer.” Yeah, if you read the passage first, then you can always eliminate answer choices that are what I call just bad, stupid, or wrong. Like, you’re reading this choice, and you’re like, “I just read the passage. This isn’t in there at all.” That’s a bad, stupid, wrong answer choice. So you’re going to use your common sense and your understanding to be able to eliminate things that have nothing to do with what you just read. And that’s probably going to be one or two answer choices. But there are three other ways that you can eliminate answer choices. On reading comprehension questions that have nothing to do with the text themselves, actually very little. And what I do is I filter all the answer choices through these three sieves. After I eliminate choices that are bad, stupid, or wrong, often there’s only one answer choice left, so this is very efficient. The first sieve that I filter reading comprehension question choices through is, are there any spoilers in this answer choice?

Davis: So what’s a spoiler?

Orion: So a spoiler is a small word. It’s usually an adjective or an adverb, like a modifier, that makes an otherwise defensible answer choice too extreme and therefore wrong. So, the thing about spoilers is that they’re going to be in answer choices that are like 90% right. Now, if you come into an option in real life that’s 90% good, like that’s a good option for you. But on the GRE, something that is 90% right is 100% wrong because that 10% spoils the rest of the 90%.

Davis: So that’s what we mean by a spoiler—exactly that 10%. If it weren’t for this word, this would be a perfectly accurate answer choice, but that one word screws everything up; it spoils it and exaggerates some element.

Orion: Yeah, these are the words that you hate when your partner uses them in a fight. So it’s like “you always,” “you never,” “exclusively,” “primarily,” “solely,” “most,” “least,” “more,” “less.” Comparatives are not necessarily extreme, but “most,” “least” are superlatives. Anything that’s really, really extreme. These are generally spoilers because they make that sentence more fragile. Like, it’s, if I were to say something like “all swans are white.” That’s actually a very fragile statement. Right? We just need one non-white swan in the history of swandom to disprove that statement. So it feels strong, “all swans are white,” but it’s actually a very weak statement. Right?

Davis: Right.

Orion: So a much stronger statement academically would be something like “most swans are somewhat white-ish.” But that’s also doesn’t contain a lot of information either, right? So it’s truer, but it’s not more useful. So that’s kind of interesting. So the line that academia walks all the time.

Davis: Okay, so spoilers—that 10%—that would just exaggerate it and make a statement weaker or less defensible.

Orion: Correct. In general, we want the blandest, vaguest answer choice because that’s the hardest one to disprove.

Davis: Yeah, that makes sense.

Orion: Okay. Number two is offensive language. Okay, now, I don’t mean swear words. GSA is not that exciting. What I mean is that we live in a very politically correct, litigious society. So if this answer choice, taken out of context, could be potentially offensive to any subgroup of humanity, it’s not going to be the correct answer.

Davis: Can you imagine the public relations disaster?

Orion: Yeah, it’s like ETS makes the GRE think this is true about this type of people. Now, you’re not going to find these answer choices on, let’s say, more hard science passages about quarks and fossils. I guess people can still get offended about those things. But it’s harder, right? So you’re gonna find them in the softer ones, right? Literature, history, texts, arts, humanities, in general.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: And I’m not talking about like, very, sometimes it has to do with very clearly identifiable groups of people. But sometimes it’s like plumbers from Phoenix, you know what I’m saying? Or school teachers in the 18th century. So it doesn’t mean you’re generalizing or lumping a whole group of people. And you’re saying that this group of people is or is not a certain way; there’s going to be somebody out there who is going to be offended at that statement. And so it’s better to just write that one off and not go down that road.

Davis: So spoilers, things that exaggerate, make it weak, offensive language, meaning that if you could take this sentence or a response out of context, and any group of people would be offended by it, be really sensitive, like read them to be offended.

Orion: Yeah. And then third, thirdly, is copy and paste, which means like what it sounds like it means. This means that a word or usually a phrase has been copied directly out of the text and pasted right into the answer choice, like word for word, letter by letter. And the reason why this is a trap, is because if that answer choice were correct, it would actually cease to be a reading comprehension quiz. It would be an eye exam, right? Like, I wouldn’t even need to be able to read English. I could say these symbols in this paragraph here look like these exact symbols in this answer choice. Therefore, there’s some kind of textual basis for this answer choice—click. So the way that copy and paste traps work is they generally involve sticky words or phrases, sticky words or phrases, or words or phrases that you don’t see or hear or read every day. So they’re going to stand out in your memory. You know, you read something about that in there. So then you just think, “Oh, I know I read that,” because you didn’t necessarily like understand it.

Davis: Correct.

Orion: Maybe you didn’t understand it, or you’re running short on time, or the other answer choices don’t look so good. So you know that there’s something about that in there. And this mostly looks like the text. So why not go for it? The issue is that generally, if you look at that answer choice more closely, they’ve changed one or two small words to create a significant deviation in meaning from the actual text. So we don’t really want an answer choice that looks like the text; we want an answer choice that means the same thing as the text but doesn’t look like it. So it’s like if we took that line, Google translated it into Swahili, and then translated it back into English. So all the words are different, but it should have more or less the same meaning.

Davis: Yeah. So, is that 100% true? In your experience, that any answer choice that has cut-and-paste sections from the text will be an incorrect answer?

Orion: I’m loath to say never because that’s a spoiler. Okay, but so there actually are some cases where spoilers are correct, or copying and pastes are correct. And those are “not” questions.

So sometimes you’ll get a reading comprehension question that’s like, “Which of the following would the author not agree with?” or “This passage does not provide evidence?”

Davis: Oh, I see what you’re saying. And then they do the copy and paste, but they change one of the qualifiers before or after. So if you have a not problem, you actually want to choose the problematic answer choice. So you would be attracted to the spoiler, that offensive language, or the copy and paste in that very specific example.

Orion: So there are always exceptions to the rules, generally.

Davis: Yeah. All right. Well, that helps.

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.

Master test anxiety with a mental trick: certain thoughts are not your friends

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.

In today’s episode, we’re going to recap many topics we’ve discussed in other episodes, such as time management, emotional responses, and various traps people fall into. A lot of it comes down to, as you’ve said, underlying emotional coping mechanisms that we have when taking a test. This often boils down to a basic feeling of anxiousness and test anxiety. People don’t like to be under pressure when taking a test. So, what are some mindfulness strategies? What are the basic things you can do to address the root of test anxiety?

Orion: Yeah, that’s a big one. Up to 20% of students’ scores are based on performative factors. This means that it has less to do with what they actually know and more to do with how they’re showing up on the day of the exam. 20%. That’s a huge proportion of the variance. There are three main performative factors on the GRE: test anxiety, sustained mindfulness, which means being consistently in the present moment and is related to mitigating carelessness, and concentration endurance, which is about maintaining focus for four and a half straight hours. These three things can detrimentally impact students’ scores if not addressed proactively.

Davis: So today, we’ll talk about test anxiety, specifically how to master it. First of all, I’ve got some bad news, which is that you’re probably going to have some degree of test anxiety. It’s not realistic to anticipate that we can eliminate this entirely because people care. You’re not just going to go in and not care at all about how you do.

Orion: Well, that’s a good point. Maybe the anxiety is a sign that this is important to you. Which makes sense. You’ve probably spent two to four months preparing for this. You’ve spent a lot of time, energy, and money taking the test and preparing for it. You want to get into grad school, and your future is riding on it.

Davis: Exactly.

Orion: It’s a high-stakes testing environment. So it makes sense that you would care about it. People are involved.

Davis: Yeah. So what we’re talking about is how to remain present to the process while remaining more or less outcome independent.

Orion: That’s hard to do. Because it’s like, “Alright, I’m not outcome independent. I need to get a 165. Or else, none of this matters.” I understand that. That’s the goal. And I work with students to score at that level all the time, but thinking “I need this score, or everything is pointless” is just putting a lot of unnecessary pressure on a student. I don’t think that pressure squeezes out better performance.

Davis: So okay, what are the thought patterns that a person can self-reflect on and identify as anxiety? These are factors that aren’t actually going to improve my performance. I need to mitigate them somehow.

Orion: Yeah. So, we’re not going to be able to get rid of anxiety entirely. But we do want to lower it to, let’s say, manageable levels, right?

Davis: So how do we do that?

Orion: My other hat is that I’m a clinical psychologist. And one of the things I often tell my clients is that behind every feeling is a thought. Sometimes that thought is very quick, and we miss it. Sometimes that thought is more or less unconscious. But behind every feeling is a thought. We know this because thoughts move like lightning, whereas emotions, though they can come on very fast, are still significantly slower than mental impulses. Okay? Now, you’re free to think whatever you want, Davis. That’s your right. Within the privacy of your own mind, you can think whatever you want. However, you are not free to feel however you want as a consequence of what you choose to think. In the context of the GRE, or just in general, if you’re thinking thoughts like “I can’t do this,” “I’m running out of time,” or “I’m going to fail,” then you feel anxious, nervous, and so on. That’s my point. You’re not free to feel confident if you are allowing yourself to think and believe those thoughts. You can think those thoughts if you want to; I wouldn’t recommend it. But you’re not free to feel confident because the feeling follows the thought, exactly tied to that feeling. If you allow certain thoughts.

Davis: That’s right.

Orion: So certain thoughts are not your friends. These thoughts, which you know, you probably have your own idiosyncratic variations, listener, but they generally fall under “I’m running out of time,” “I can’t do this,” “I’m failing,” “everything has been pointless,” “I’m not going to get into grad school.” They start to catastrophize, potentially, like projecting into the future a negative outcome much further down the road, which obviously demotivates effective behavior in the present moment because it’s all lost anyway. What’s the point? What’s the point of continuing? I’ve had students just get up and walk out of the test because they weren’t doing well. They were convinced they weren’t doing well, even though they didn’t have that information yet. Maybe they got a couple of questions that they didn’t know the answers to. But that started as a negative thought spiral.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: And then they got to the point where it was like, “It’s pointless. I’ve already blown it. So there’s no point in me continuing,” and they just get up and walk out of the testing center. I can understand it from within their emotional, subjective experience. Not super effective behavior, but, you know, I can understand why someone might feel that. So, just baseline, is it possible?

Davis: So, you blow five minutes on, like, the second question? Is it possible to still come out with, like, 165 or higher on what it is? I remember when I took the test myself 11 years ago to get into grad school. I was about 10 or 15 minutes into my second quantitative section, and the screen just went black in the middle of the test day. Like, do you get a redo? You have to call an administrator over?

Orion: Well, you know, I fiddled with the mouse, keyboard, and monitor. It’s like, I didn’t understand what happened. And, you know, I hurriedly got up to try to get the proctor’s attention, but he was on the phone and couldn’t help me for a few minutes. Then he eventually came back over and said, “Oh, yeah, this happens all the time. You must’ve just nudged this cable with your foot without realizing it,” and he put the monitor cable back into the desktop. Suddenly, the screen came back on. But I lost six or seven minutes in the middle of my section. And I was, you know, I could feel the fury building inside of me because I felt like I was doing very well at that administration.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: But then I was like, “You know what? There’s still time on the clock. I haven’t lost this game yet. So now, we just have to do everything like it’s at 1.5x speed.”

Davis: Right, right.

Orion: And so it’s like, time for me to put my game face on. Michael Jordan with the flu, and then I got a perfect score. So, it is possible, but it took recovery. It depends on what you do with that thought pattern once it’s had to do with my being able to wrest control of my thoughts in that moment because I was certainly being pulled into anger and panic. But I had to, like, block those thoughts energetically and replace them with thoughts that could still motivate and support effective behavior. “Nope, there’s still time on the clock. This is just a greater challenge, which means it’s just going to be a greater glory when I’m victorious at the end of the day.”

Davis: So, I mean, does that mean that how to master your anxiety? Is that just a force of will? Just, you’ve got to block the negative thoughts?

Orion: And, well, that’s part of it.

Davis: So what is the strategy?

Orion: The “wax on, wax off” strategy that I work with my patients and my students who come to me for testing anxiety is block and replace. It’s just a bread-and-butter cognitive-behavioral therapy technique, which is two parts, like it says. First, you’ve got to block those thoughts. You actually have to actively resist them. You see it, you recognize what it is, and then you say, “No.” You say, “No, that’s not true. No, I don’t want to think that.” And you don’t want to think that because you know where that thought leads you; that thought will predictably lead you to anxiety and panic. And that’s not what you want to feel in that moment. You want to maintain guardianship of your emotional state. And you can’t do that if you allow any thought to come into your mind and proliferate.

Davis: And, to be fair, I believe that your students are not actively evoking these panic-inducing thoughts in their mind, but it’s natural to the circumstance that you’re taking on.

Orion: Yeah, they show up uninvited.

Davis: Yeah, that’s what I’m saying.

Orion: Yeah, the negative thoughts show up uninvited. They don’t knock; they barge in. But if someone were to, like, if you were to come home one day, Davis, and there was a strange man in your living room that was not doing cool things, would you say, “Hey, honey, it looks like we have a new roommate. Would you like a cup of tea?” You’d be like, “What are you doing in my house, man?”

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: And you might not have been looking for a fight, but you have a fight on your hands, and you defend your house and home. Right. So you weren’t looking to think these anxiety-provoking thoughts. But there they are. That’s what they do. They show up uninvited, those thoughts. So it’s like, you have to say, “What are you doing in here? You don’t belong here. Get out.” Right? But you can’t just say no. So you also want to replace it with a thought that is the least pathological alternative that still fits the facts of the case. So, if you have this thought, like “I’m running out of time, I can’t do that,” you don’t want to block and replace that with, “Oh, I have all the time in the world, and I can do anything,” right? Because that’s just as unrealistic as the negative; we can be unrealistically positive too, right? So we want to replace it with something that still fits the facts of the case but doesn’t provoke a strong emotional bond. “There’s still time on the clock. Let’s see what I can do.”

Davis: Exactly. “That was unfortunate. I lost five or six minutes, but there’s still time on the clock. I can do this. I’ll just have to move a little bit faster. I can adapt and roll with it. And I can see that I can still make this work.” That’s not blowing sunshine.

Orion: Well, so the question there is if someone says, like, “I can do this,” as opposed to “Let’s see what I can do,” do you see a distinction there? Like, between one being that kind of pathological positive, I think “I can do this” is firmer and stronger. I would probably use that in that moment. I think maybe as a chain, I can start with, “Let’s see what I can do. No, I can do this. I just need to adapt this a little bit. And I can still emerge victorious.” So, this block and replace thing, you might have to do 100 times a day. But once you get better at, like, domesticating certain negative thoughts, you don’t have to do it as often. And the idea here is to block and replace them as early in the process as possible, so that they don’t trigger the concomitant emotional reaction, right? So that the feeling doesn’t come in.

Davis: Exactly. So if you can throw that thought out and replace it in the first few seconds, then maybe you can maintain that emotional equilibrium, which is going to help you to just objectively move through the test, according to your true capacity because the affirmative thought will also carry with it its own emotional weight and momentum, which will keep you going forward.

Orion: That’s also true. I often tell students, like, in the absence of complete information, why not assume you’ve done everything right? I mean, you’ll find out soon enough if that’s true or not. If it’s not true, there’s nothing you can do about it anyway, right? So why not assume that that random guess was correct, to master the anxiety and get rid of some sure emotional baggage around it?

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.

Breaking down the GRE writing section: there is no man behind the curtain

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, we’ve talked some about the quantitative and the reading comprehension sections. There’s also that last piece, which is the essay writing section, the writing section. So, let’s just start real basic: what is the writing section in general?

Orion: Yeah, it’s last, but it’s also technically first in the test. So, the first thing that students are going to do when they sit down for the GRE is take two 30-minute essay prompts. So, the first hour of the test is spent writing essays. And the essay section, the writing section, doesn’t get as much airtime as, say, the quant or the verbal sections. And there might be good reason for that. I mean, some programs are like, “There’s a writing section on the GRE?” And for some programs, it’s literally the only thing that matters for their grad school admissions.

Davis: Fascinating.

Orion: So the writing section has a huge amount of variability with respect to its importance to specific grad school programs. So, that’s something that you students should do some due diligence on: trying to figure out how important the writing section is to your programs of interest. It might not be relevant at all, in which case, you can kind of coast through this section, which would be good to know.

Davis: So, but, so it’s like, what, two three-sentence writing prompts, but most, and you’ve got a half an hour, and you have to write, what is it, three, five-paragraph essays? What are you looking for?

Orion: Well, the two prompts are a little bit different. One is called the issue prompt. And the other one is the argument prompt. The issue prompt is very similar to the writing section on the LSAT, if you took it back in the day. It’s usually a one-line philosophical statement that doesn’t have a right or wrong answer, something like “The ends justify the means,” or “To prepare for peace, a nation should prepare for war,” something like that. And then you just have to give your take on the subject, you have to pick a position and then back that up with evidence.

Davis: Okay.

Orion: The second essay prompt is called the argument essay. And in this, you’re not so much coming up with your own argument; you’re evaluating somebody else’s argument. So, you’re going to get a little pretext like, “The following was a memo that was released by the mayor of a small town last week.” And then there’s going to be a paragraph in which the mayor advocates for a new bike helmet safety law and provides some examples of why this should be on the books. And your job is not to agree or disagree with whether people should wear helmets and bike or a small town; you should be there to evaluate the logical cogency of the mayor’s argument. It’s a hypothetical logical argument. But in both cases, we’re really striving for a well-crafted, thesis-based, five-paragraph essay.

Davis: Yeah, but this, okay, so this isn’t, but this isn’t a situation like in high school, or like in college, where you get to have an advisor, you get to spend some time doing this, write a first draft, write a second draft, and go back and forth. So, you have 30 minutes to write this on a prompt you’ve never seen before. If you’ve never seen it before. It’s, I mean, like, it’s hard. What’s the hack? How do you break it?

Orion: Well, it’s kind of like in high school a little bit in that, you know, how different teachers had different things that were important, and that factored into their individual grading patterns. And over time, you would kind of learn what that teacher liked. And, you know, if you were savvy, you would kind of give that teacher what he or she wants. Just, especially if you didn’t care too much about that class, you just like, let me just do what I need to do, get the grade, and move on with my life. That’s what we’re going to do here with the GRE essay set: is we just need to figure out what the graders care about. And then we’re just going to swallow our pride, give them what they want, get the score that we want, and move on with the rest of our lives.

Davis: Who’s the grader? What do they care about?

Orion: Who do you think the grader is?

Davis: Well, it’s definitely, you know, there’s got to be a human involved at some point, but it’s also like, so much is automated these days. I’m guessing a computer’s involved also.

Orion: You are correct. So, technically speaking, there are two graders for your GRE essay. There’s a human grader that has been trained by ETS to grade essays, and there is a computer algorithm.

Davis: And you’ve done that before.

Orion: Oh, yeah, I started my career as an essay grader. A long time ago, I got paid $1 an essay.

Davis: Yep, so you’re wanting to move quickly through.

Orion: That’s something that you should know: is that graders are incentivized to move through your essay as quickly as possible. And let me tell you, when you have a stack of 500 essays on exactly the same subject to go through, oh my gosh, there’s nothing that you can write that I haven’t already read. I’m not reading your essay to understand or appreciate your essay; as a grader, I’m reading your essay, so that I can figure out as quickly and reliably as possible, what number to give it, so I can get one more dollar and move on to the next desk. I mean, that’s just the situation. I’m not, as a grader, there to understand your essay; the grader is there to score that essay. And let me tell you, after you’ve read 10,000 essays, you don’t have to read much of an essay to reliably sort it, like, “This is a five, this is a three, this is a six,” like, you know what they feel like.

Davis: What’s the point spread that you could get?

Orion: The essay is a scaled score of zero to six in half-point increments. So, the big jump is between a four and a four and a half. A four is like the 55th percentile, and a four and a half is like the 86th percentile.

Davis: So, there’s a big point.

Orion: Yeah, the standard distribution of the percentiles for the essay is huge. It’s not normalized. So, and 4.5 is generally the median for pretty much all grad school programs in the country. So if you get a 4.5, you’re probably good to go.

Davis: But can you get a perfect score on the GRE?

Orion: Oh, you certainly can. So, you can nail out sixes, you can, but you know, it’s harder and harder the further you go because, like, a five and a half is the 98th percentile. Okay, and a six is the ninth. So, it’s like those last couple and the five is a 92nd. So, those last three scores are like smushed into eight percentile points.

Davis: Well, you’ve had students get a perfect score.

Orion: Oh, yeah, absolutely.

Davis: So, what’s the what’s, what’s the hack?

Orion: In fact, the writing section is the easiest section to get a perfect score. So, let me tell you, so, it’s like you have these two graders, you have the human, and you have the computer algorithm, which ETS calls the E-rater. And these two entities are both going to be scoring your essays independently. That’s kind of why it takes two weeks to get your official scores because the computer can grade it lickety-split, but the human still needs to put his or her eyes on it.

Davis: Well, how do they reconcile the two scores at the end?

Orion: Well, according to ETS, 98% of the time, the human and the computer agree completely. Okay. If there’s more than a one-point discrepancy between the human and the computer, it goes to a second human, and then the score becomes the average of the two humans, okay? Which rarely happens, what, less than 1% of the time? It seems like so. The human is there to be a CAPTCHA. Basically, I’m not a robot, okay. But they’re trained by the same people. The algorithm is written by ETS, and then the graders are trained by ETS; they’re looking for the exact same thing.

Davis: Exactly.

Orion: So if the human and the computer agree 90% of the time, it’s not that the computer is doing what the human is doing. The computer can only do what it’s programmed to do; it has no choice. It’s because the human is doing what the computer is doing. So even though technically a human and a computer grade your essay, we really need to prioritize the computer because the computer can only grade as it does. And the human will. It is trained to grade as the computer does. So the computer’s way of looking at it is paramount.

Davis: Okay, and so what is it?

Orion: It’s a great question. So if you were to put yourself inside of a computer’s consciousness, this is a fun thought. It’s all quantitative. You’re just looking for yes or no, on certain numbers, certain metrics? Well, yes or no is actually a qualitative question. That’s, well, you need a metric or not, correct? So within a computer’s consciousness, the only thing that really is observable, the only thing that exists, is quantifiable data, that which can be counted. So what are some of the things that can be counted?

Davis: Oh, you got, I mean, you got everything from characters, words, different types of punctuation that can be counted. You got paragraphs, like the inputs on a computer; that’s what can be counted.

Orion: Correct.

Davis: So those things completely determine your overall score.

Orion: It could do vocabulary too, right? I mean, it could pick up, to an extent, like, variety is a metric for unique word count. So, for example, there is a copy and paste macro on the essay, and you could write a paragraph and then copy and paste that 20 times in 30 minutes, and now you have this 50,000-word essay, but its unique word count is, right, 50 words. So it can check for repetitiveness. It can also check for spelling or grammar. Maybe I mean, it can, there’s certainly, we know that most writing processors have a spellcheck or grammar check. However, the GRE is not a Test of English language mechanics. It’s actually illegal for them to grade you on spelling or English grammar.

Davis: That’s great.

Orion: So throw those out. Here, remind you, yes, worry about that. You don’t need to worry about you. Don’t need to spend time backspacing and correcting misspelled. Those things are tested on the TOEFL, which is a test of the English language, which is another one and ETS’s test. The ETS makes the TOEFL and the GRE; they didn’t want to brand confusion. They don’t want to compete with themselves.

Davis: So, the GRE is an aptitude, not an achievement test. It is not there to test you on how well you’re doing what’s grammar; it’s, it’s there to see if you were, let’s say, prepared for the rigors of graduate school.

Orion: So let’s just get, I can’t talk about the whole thing here. And now, but the number one quantifiable metric that determines your overall score in the essay section is, far and away, total word count, total word count, as long as they’re not repetitive.

Davis: Yes, and you want to kind of write the same thing in slightly different language.

Orion: Yeah, we want to, on some level, I tell this to students, embrace your inner B student. The inner A student, a perfectionist, is going to want to make sure everything is spelled right. And everything makes sense and have a very strong coherent argument. But that means that you’re going to write significantly less than a student who is a little faster and loose with the spelling, doesn’t know if it doesn’t make 100% sense, the argument. This much B-level writing will always beat this much A-level writing. So want to embrace our B students. In fact, if you can write 800 words within the time limit, on recognizable English, about something that kind of has to do with the prompt, you’re probably going to get a four and a half, which is the threshold of competitiveness for the vast majority of programs.

Davis: 800 words?

Orion: Well, now, it can’t be about something totally off subject or unreadable because then the human CAPTCHA will flag it, right. And then it will be gibberish, it’ll go to the second human grader. And we’re like, What is this nonsense, and then you’re going to be in that boat, right? But as long as it’s kind of having to do with the prompt, and we understand like the spelling, the grammar is good enough that we can kind of appreciate the intended meaning. We’re good to go.

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.