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

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

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

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

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

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

Davis: Thank God for that.

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

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

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

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

Davis: Yeah.

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

Davis: Yeah.

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

Davis: Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Davis: Correct.

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

Davis: Yeah.

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

Davis: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Davis: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Davis: That’s great.

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

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

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

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *