What makes for a top scorer: the psychology of high achievers

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 stellargre.com. And don’t forget, you can use the code “BITES” for 10% off any membership.

Alright, today, we have another listener question.

Orion: Yay.

Davis: Exactly. We’ve received an email from this woman, and I’ll read it to you. It says, “Hi, Orion and Davis. I never thought in my life that I could binge-listen to GRE podcasts.”

Orion: Oh, that’s sweet.

Davis: “However, I’ve really enjoyed hearing the questions asked and answered on your show. I started listening just this morning, and I’m almost at the last episode. Digressing, I wonder, as a psychologist, if you notice any patterns among your top-performing students? In other words, are there one or more qualities, habits, etc. that your top or perfect-scoring students share, including how they respond to your material and certain characteristics of their personalities? With appreciation.”

Saira, thank you so much. Now, I’ll hand it over to Orion.

Orion: It’s a great question. I’ve worked with thousands of students over the years, and some of them have achieved perfect scores. It’s really exciting.

Davis: When that happens, what fraction of your students would you say achieve a perfect score?

Orion: It’s quite rare to get a perfect score. I could probably count on my fingers the number of people who have achieved absolutely perfect scores. But, many have achieved top percentile scores, which is different from perfection. Achieving a perfect score is extremely difficult.

Davis: Okay, so less than 10 out of all of your years of experience, are perfect scores. But let’s discuss top scores. Are they similar in their characteristics that she’s asking about?

Orion: Oh, yeah, I mean, the difference between someone scoring a 170 on all sections of the test is significant. I’ve worked with many individuals who achieve perfect scores on two out of the three sections, which is relatively common. However, getting a perfect score on all three sections is extremely challenging. Still, to score two out of three, or even one out of three, or to achieve a 98th or 99th percentile score, you don’t necessarily need a perfect score on certain sections, especially the verbal one. There are many similarities between perfect scores and top percentile scores. This goes back to the idea that the GRE is a game of seconds, much like baseball is a game of inches. Usually, the difference between someone scoring in the top percentile and another scoring perfectly is minute. The student with the perfect score simply made one less careless mistake over the four-hour test compared to the top percentile scorer. It’s not that they have different approaches necessarily, they’re doing everything the same. The difference is that the one with the perfect score makes one fewer error throughout the test compared to the top percentile performer.

Davis: And so, how would you interpret this as a psychologist? How would you describe the ability to make fewer careless errors? What kind of quality or habit would that suggest about a person? And if she also asks about personality, how would you relate that to being able to perform like that?

Orion: Yeah, well, I think if we’re going to discuss personality traits, conscientiousness is probably a good indicator of someone who will approach the test with systematic meticulousness.

I have two responses to this question. First, it’s absolutely essential for those aiming to perform at the highest levels to minimize carelessness. The difference between achieving a top percentile or a perfect score and just performing well lies in the ability to make fewer careless errors throughout the test. Carelessness is intriguing because it can potentially occur at any step of any problem throughout the entire test. However, in reality, it doesn’t. It’s challenging for humans to act randomly. Even if students feel that their careless mistakes appear randomly – that is, unexpected or unpredictable – it’s primarily because they haven’t gathered enough data. Students aiming for top percentile or perfect scores should maintain an error log. With sufficient data, they’ll discover that the majority of their careless mistakes fall into just a few specific behaviors.

For example, I have a personal issue with comparing negatives; I often get it wrong. Instinctively, I tend to think that negative four is larger than negative two, which isn’t accurate. Being aware of this prompts me to slow down and implement a failsafe. Whenever I’m tasked with comparing negatives, I address this inherent blind spot in my thinking, which is no longer a liability for me.

To meticulously, fastidiously, and conscientiously examine your own behavior, identify patterns, and systematically address these emergent phenomena is what differentiates the great from the merely good.

So, it’s not just about being meticulous in terms of acquiring all the necessary knowledge or understanding systems for taking the test. What I’m noticing from what you’re saying is that it’s also about having the interest and courage to go the extra mile during the GRE prep period, using it as a time for self-study and self-reflection. It’s about learning about oneself and applying those same strategies to recognize and monitor one’s own mental processes while taking the test.

Davis: I think that’s well said.

Orion: Now, the second way I’m going to respond to this might be a little counterintuitive. But a personality trait that I’ve personally found to be beneficial for achieving perfect scores, or for those in the top percentile, is humility. Let me explain what I mean by that.

Back before COVID, I used to teach an in-person class in San Francisco. I did that dozens of times with hundreds of students. In one class, there was a bright young man who was already scoring in the mid-160s when he joined. He aimed for an even higher score, possibly a perfect one. During the first few weeks of the course, he was hesitant to adopt some of the strategies and techniques I recommended. I could understand his perspective to some extent, as his natural approach to the test had already placed him in the 90th percentile and above.

So, on some level, it wasn’t broken. But he was also in that class, I assume, because his approach had only taken him that far. He was looking to go a little bit further. He would challenge almost everything I said in front of the entire class, making it challenging for me to keep my cool. About three or four weeks in, after he questioned another one of my suggestions to the class, I told him that the only way he or any other student could prove my recommendations wrong was by doing exactly what I told him to do.

The fact of the matter is, he believed he knew as much as I did about potentially acing this test. He was selectively choosing the strategies he thought would work, without genuinely exploring the methods he believed, ad hoc, wouldn’t succeed. This approach resembles contempt prior to investigation, which is illogical. He wasn’t fully embracing the open humility that’s essential for a student. Indeed, it’s challenging to be a student. It’s hard to admit, “I might not know as much about this as someone else,” and to willingly adopt their framework or discipline. So, I do hold great sympathy and respect for my students; it’s not easy.

But I asked him, just as an experiment, to follow every single recommendation I made on his homework assignments down to the letter for the next week. I promised if there was no improvement in his score, I would refund his money. I think out of spite, he was ready to follow through because he wanted to prove that even if he did exactly what I suggested, it wouldn’t work and he would be proven right. Until he did that, there were too many confounds in the experiment. We didn’t know if I was mistaken, or if the errors were introduced by him deviating from the recommended approach.

Long story short, he came back the next week having done exactly what I’d suggested, and he answered every question correctly. His attitude shifted significantly from that moment on in the class. He became one of my biggest supporters, both in that class and afterward. He was one of the students who achieved a perfect score on all three sections of the test. The situation was reminiscent of the saying “trust, but verify.” It was hard for him to trust initially, but he rationally understood my perspective. When he trusted and verified that my approach yielded the results he desired, we encountered few issues thereafter. I’m grateful for his openness and humility in considering the possibility that he didn’t already know everything.

Davis: No, I completely agree; I think that’s more important than anything else is that willingness to be a student to give to extend trust to the point of experimenting with it, and taking something at face value and putting it to the test, going through with it and seeing what it gets. And this is maybe a difference between stellar GRE and some of the other big-name prep companies out there; as you know, they’ve got their big name behind them that they throw around as a reason to trust them. Whereas for you, for example, you’ve got transparency in the results in the margin of improvement, as well as not only your own perfect score but a number of students who have also achieved perfect scores.

Orion: That’s right. We’re the only empirically validated test prep company in the world, as far as I’m aware. And that’s huge.

Davis: So the trust that Orion is asking for here, ladies and gentlemen, is not necessarily unwarranted. And you’ve heard it here as well, that, you know, if you come in challenging it, do everything that is recommended. And then if you don’t get an improved score, you know, there’s a money back guarantee. We have a 15-point score guarantee, which I think is the largest score guarantee of any of the major players in the online self-study program. So we put our money where our mouth is, but to be real, our average score improvement is higher than that.

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

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