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How to Leverage Psychology and the Science of Skill Acquisition to Improve Your GRE Score

studying for GREThere is certainly a lot of content you must master to earn a high score on the GRE. Your mathematics, verbal reasoning, reading comprehension, and writing skills will be tested and obviously are key to earning a 90thpercentile GRE score (or better).

That said, while many GRE tutors offer useful guidance around learning key concepts, they “miss the forest for the trees” so to speak when offering advice about how to prepare for the GRE. The importance of psychology and the science of learning when it comes to standardized test prep can’t easily be overstated. Simply thinking about your potential to score well and how best to study in the right way is the foundation to getting a great score. Three specific things to keep in mind are: a) the right mindset is critical b) lengthy, monotonous study sessions can be counterproductive and c) eventually, you’ll need to build mental stamina to perform at your best on the day you  take the GRE.

The right mindset is critical for success on the GRE (and it’s called a growth mindset)

Your overall mindset and approach to the testing process is critically important.

Avoid assuming you have a natural talent around some topics covered but will have a really hard time with others (although perhaps on some level that’s partially true, it’s almost certainly an overblown, unhelpful, and limiting perspective) because from day one, you are already admitting defeat on some level with certain topics. The idea that some people are naturally talented in this or that area, and that this natural talent is what in large part allows them to succeed or fail in that area, is called a fixed mindset. Conversely, the idea that hard work and practice build intelligence and skills is called a growth mindset. These terms and the theory behind them were developed by a Stanford Psychology Professor, Dr. Carol Dweck.

In other words, there really aren’t “math people” or “writing people.” In general, skills are built through practice over time. The skills and knowledge required to earn a 320, 330 or higher on the GRE don’t go too far beyond what is learned in U.S. high schools. Even if you are starting from a somewhat deficient point, your mindset should be that, through practice, you’ll be able to build the right skills.  

I have not been able to find any scientific studies specifically focused on the impact of a growth mindset on GRE scores, but many studies have measured the positive impact of a growth mindset on academic performance more generally. This article on the growth mindset by Education Week discusses how a growth mindset helped students living in poverty perform as well on a standardized test as students whose families had an annual income that was 13X higher. This is a remarkable statistic given the typically powerful impact of wealth on academic achievement.

When learning new, difficult things, shorter, more intense sessions are generally more productive. Also, cover more than one topic in each session. Finally, test yourself frequently.

One critical mistake many students studying for the GRE make is setting aside one day to study each week. It’s a temping strategy, because particularly if you are a working professional, you don’t have much time to study and you want to ensure you put the proper focus into the process. It seems logical to head to the library at 9AM on Sunday and leave six hours later. But that is just not the most efficient way to study. As this research-backed article by the American Psychological Association makes clear, spacing out your study sessions improves your ability to retain information. The process of stopping and starting helps the brain build new neural connections and better implant a concept or fact in your mind. So, if you need to study for 12 hours, consider 6 two-hour sessions instead of 2 six-hour sessions.

You would also be well served to cover more than one topic in each study session. This is called interleaving, which TestPrepChampions defines as “incorporating multiple topics into your study sessions and then alternating between them as opposed to blocking out a longer period of time to work on just one topic.”  Lots of science suggests that incorporating multiple topics into a single study session is more conducive to learning than plugging away at one topic for multiple hours. And I think this is intuitive. At some point, if you are doing 50 practice problems on the same topic, it might seem like you’ve retained the information, but your knowledge may be superficial. You don’t understand the concept on a deep level, you are just mechanically repeating the process. And of course, although, for example, GRE quantitative problems all come in one section of the exam, quantitative topics will appear randomly. All the algebra problems don’t come in a row. You’ll see algebra, and then geometry, and then probability, etc.

Finally, there is lots of science around the effectiveness of active learning relative to passive learning. Passive learning would be, for example, reading about how to do a math problem. Active learning would involve frequently creating “mini tests” for yourself that force you to work through problems. I was exposed to the power of frequent “mini tests” when I took an online Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) called Learning how to Learn, taught by Barbara Oakley.

Once you’ve mastered key academic skills, focus on building your mental endurance and ability to concentrate to perform well on test day.

Brett Ethridge from Dominate the GRE posted a really interesting video on this page about how having mental endurance is a required skill for performing well on the GRE. His advice is, the GRE is a grueling, four-hour test. Having the mental endurance and stamina to focus and concentrate for 4 hours is a skill, and as such, students need to practice building that skill.

On some level, this advice conflicts with the advice offered in the previous section. That section implied that you shouldn’t study for too long at one time. And when you are trying to learn new concepts, this is certainly true. But as your test day nears, you need to begin to think about how best to maximize your performance on that day. And I agree with Brett that your study sessions should increase in length as test day nears. On the day you take the GRE, you’ll need to focus for 4 hours. So as your next date gets closer, 6, 5, 4, 3 or 2 weeks away, you should begin taking more full length practice tests and get more comfortable concentrating for 4 hours in a row.


Although without a doubt, studying concepts and facts is critical to success on the GRE, if you ignore higher level psychological and “learning theory” considerations, you’ll be at a disadvantage. Addressing these foundational factors will allow you to get far more out of each hour you spend building algebra or verbal reasoning skills.

About the Author 

Mark Skoskiewicz is the founder of MyGuru. You can learn more about our GRE tutoring and professional GRE tutors here