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

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

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

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

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

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

Davis: Yeah.

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

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

Orion: Of course, you have.

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

Orion: Oh, my goodness.

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

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

Davis: No.

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

Davis: Well, that’s a good point.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Davis: Yeah.

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

Davis: And so, what does that look like?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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