There are two games you must win if you want to score well on the GRE. The first is what I call the “outer” game. It consists of the how-to’s for getting right answers — the x’s and o’s, if you will — including math concepts, vocabulary, formulas, strategic elimination strategies, time management, and other such tangible applications. The outer game is where GRE students spend most of their time, and it’s what our online GRE prep courses do such a great job of teaching.
However, equally important to your success on test day is your ability to conquer the “inner game” of the GRE. This is what takes place between your ears — your anxiety, your nerves, your overall worry. If you’re not able to tame those emotions both during your preparation in the weeks leading up to your exam and on exam day itself, then it may not matter how much you’ve prepared for the outer game because you’ll have a hard time staying calm and thinking clearly to transfer that knowledge into right answers.
Students often overlook this crucial component of their GRE preparation, to their detriment. I don’t want that to be your story.
Worrying about the GRE: Will it help?
There’s a great movie that came out a few years ago starring Tom Hanks called “Bridge of Spies.” The character played by Hanks is a lawyer recruited to defend an arrested Soviet spy in the American courts. As the plot heats up, there are numerous times when the spy’s life is in jeopardy. Yet, the spy always appears to have a calm, even-keeled demeanor. Confused by this, Hanks asks him: “Aren’t you worried?” Each time the spy responds: “Would it help?”
I love that! The retort has stuck with me because it’s so true. No matter what’s happening to us in life or how high the stakes appear to be, the act of worrying itself doesn’t really help at all, does it? In fact, it’s often counter-productive. Worrying raises our blood pressure and stresses our health. It keeps us from thinking clearly. It bogs us down and often keeps us from taking the action that actually could help the situation.
And when it comes to the GRE, worrying is the surest way to lose the inner game we’ve been talking about.
But the good news is, you can bring your test anxiety under control with a few proven mindset shifts. Here are three ways to worry less about the GRE for a higher score on test day.
#1: Prepare well, and then trust your preparation.
The Greek poet Archilochus famously said: We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training.
How true that is. When it comes to the GRE, preparation (or training, to use Archilochus’s word) and worry have an inverse relationship. The less prepared you feel, the more worried you are about how you’re going to do. Conversely, the better prepared you are, the less anxiety you feel. The graph looks something like this:
The performance of elite athletes illustrates this perfectly. I used to assume that star athletes felt incredibly nervous in the biggest moments. When Michael Jordan was standing at the foul line trying to sink a shot to win the big game, wasn’t he a nervous wreck? Heck, my heart rate went up just watching him — and I was sitting comfortably on my own couch! But no. It turns out that the best athletes actually feel calm in those moments because they default to their training. Michael Jordan shot tens of thousands of foul shots in practice, so he could literally make one with his eyes closed (which he famously did in a real game once). At the most important times, professional athletes are confident knowing that they’ve prepared well, and they can trust that preparation to carry them through.
So for you on the GRE, put in the work. Prepare to the best of your ability (perhaps by taking our comprehensive online GRE prep course). And then once you’re done, trust that preparation. You’re ready for whatever the GRE can throw at you, so there’s no reason to worry!
#2: Take the focus off yourself.
Worry is a self-focused emotion. I’m so stressed out about the GRE. What if I get a bad score? My future depends on how well I do on the GRE. What if I run out of time? I’ve never been good at math. I…. Me…. etc.
That’s an unhealthy mindset to have when preparing for the GRE. Not only unhealthy, but unhelpful. So take the focus off yourself. Instead, think about how doing well on the GRE can benefit others. In “Learn the Secret Ingredient for Dominating the GRE” I talk about the importance of connecting with your “Why” for wanting to go to grad school in the first place. Perhaps it’s to provide a better life for your kids. Maybe it’s to make a positive impact in the lives of others through social work. Or perhaps you want to become a nurse to help others live healthier lives. Whatever it is, there’s almost always a larger purpose that graduate school can help you achieve. Focus on that, and it will take a lot of the pressure off because now it’s no longer about you.
#3: Adopt a healthier “big-picture” perspective.
We tend to worry the most when we blow things out of proportion. One of the best ways to worry less about the GRE — and really, anything in life — is to remember where it fits into the bigger picture.
Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the moon, said this about looking back at Earth from space: “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” Ultimately our time here on Earth is short, and life will go on tomorrow whether you do well on the GRE or not. The sun will still rise. You’ll still have food to eat and air to breathe. And frankly, that’s more than a lot of people in the world can say. Having lived in Madagascar, one of the poorest countries in the world, I saw first-hand what it was like when most people don’t even finish primary school, let alone high school or college. So what a privilege it is for you to even be thinking about going to graduate school! Doing so puts you in the top percentage of people worldwide in terms of education and career prospects.
It’s important for you to do well on the GRE, I get it. You should do well. But don’t blow the GRE out of proportion. Once you realize that the worst-case scenario of a sub-par GRE score may not ruin your life as much as you think it will, the worry starts to go away. And that’s a much more positive place to operate from.
Consider the following two GRE candidates. Candidate A walks into the testing center fearful and dreading the experience. She’s worried that she’ll see questions she doesn’t know and won’t get the score she needs to get into her target graduate program. Conversely, Candidate B wakes up the morning of her test full of energy. This is the day she’s been working toward. It’s time to put her preparation to the test, and she’s confident that she’s ready. No matter how it turns out, she know she’s done everything she can to put herself in the best position for success. It’s game day. Bring it on!
Which candidate do you think is more likely to perform to the best of her ability? My money is on Candidate B. Even if the two candidates studied the exact same amount, Candidate B’s mindset is much better, and that makes a huge difference. I want you to be like Candidate B. I want you to walk into the GRE testing center from a place of confidence rather than from a place of fear or worry. I want you to be positive and optimistic as you’re preparing for the GRE, and clear-headed and self-assured when you sit down to take the real thing. To do that, move beyond worry by taking to heart the three tips presented here.
About the Author
Brett Ethridge is the founder of Dominate Test Prep, creator of the industry’s most effective online prep courses for the GRE and GMAT. He’s an avid tennis player, a huge Duke basketball fan, and is passionate about empowering students to dominate their standardized test and get into the graduate school of their choice.