Whenever you’re working toward improving a skill and pursuing a long-term goal, your path is likely to go through some periods of significant progress and other periods of stalled progress, or plateaus. This is often a natural part of the process of improvement, but sometimes those plateaus can be stubborn, and they may indicate you need to take a new approach. Plateaus can be especially problematic when the goal you’re pursuing is one with significant impacts on your life, as is the case when studying for the GRE.
The GRE has lots of downstream effects that influence your future path. Your performance on the GRE will determine what kind of grad school you get into, which will then determine the course the rest of your career takes. Therefore, as you go about your GRE prep, it’s crucial to be smart and responsive when you hit a plateau in your progress.
Luckily, people tend to hit plateaus in their GRE prep for a few relatively common reasons, and they can each be addressed in different ways. In this article, we’ll look at some possible causes for your stalled progress in your GRE prep, and we’ll offer solutions for changing your approach so you can start seeing improvements again.
Problem #1: You’re Focusing on Fundamentals But Not How to Apply Them
There are two main directions to focus on as you go about your GRE prep, which we might understand as theory and practice. The theory includes all the fundamental concepts and strategies related to the subject matter you’re going to encounter on the GRE. The practice involves applying those concepts and practice toward the actual kinds of questions you’ll encounter when you take the official test. Ideally these two directions would work in tandem, but it can be easy to focus too much on one or the other.
Let’s take Vocabulary as an example. Now, you might recognize you need to improve your vocabulary in order to do well on the Verbal section of the GRE. So in order to do that, you might invest countless hours working with flashcards and vocab lists in order to memorize the definitions of the kinds of words you’ll need to know to score well.
However, you don’t just need to memorize vocabulary words in general—you also need to learn how to put them into practice on the GRE. This can only come through a combination of expanding your vocabulary AND practicing actual GRE Verbal questions in which you draw from those vocab words to find the right answer. If you’re focusing entirely on learning the vocab but not on implementing it with regards to actual GRE problems, that could be a reason your performance is plateauing.
Problem #2: You’re Ignoring the Fundamentals
Another possible problem is the reverse of #1—that you’re focusing entirely on practice and not enough on theory. To continue the example above, if your entire GRE prep consists of taking practice tests, and you’re not spending any time separately expanding your vocabulary, you’re unlikely to see improvements. You need to strive toward a balance of deepening your knowledge of the subject matter and concepts covered on the test, and practicing implementing that subject matter on actual GRE problems.
Problem #3: You Need New Studying Tactics
All studying and all GRE prep isn’t the same. Some methods are more effective than others. It might be that you’re not practicing enough, but it might also be that you need some more variation and direction in HOW you’re studying. For example, if you’re doing all your practice problems untimed, then there’s a good chance you’re failing to make progress on the timing element of the exam. Conversely, if all your GRE practice is with timed problems, you may not be actually slowing down enough to learn the material more deeply, which will keep you from improving your score.
Problem #4: You Need More Advanced Problem-Solving Approaches
Even if you’re studying the fundamental concepts and working on applying them to actual GRE problems, you still may be hung up by not learning better techniques in your actual problem-solving approach. This is where an expert GRE tutor can really help. An experienced GRE tutor will know the every tried and true method for working with every type of GRE problem at every level of difficulty. A skilled tutor will pay close attention to study your approach and they’ll help you learn newer, more efficient, more powerful techniques so you can blast through your plateaus.
Problem #5: You’re Struggling with the Test Structure More than the Concepts
The GRE isn’t just a collection of universal problems—it’s a specific challenge with a specific structure. This structure includes the element of timing, as well as the various constraints the test poses and the tools it offers you. For example, the GRE offers the ability to skip questions, to flag questions, and to return to previous questions within the section you’re working on. The GRE also offers an on-screen calculator. And it allots a limited amount of time to answer all the questions. You need to be deeply familiar with all these constraints, and you need to become an expert at working with them as you apply your knowledge of the subject matter.
Learning to work with the actual structure and format of the GRE itself is a crucial part of improving your GRE score.
Hitting a plateau in your progress can be deeply frustrating and it can totally sap your motivation. Plateaus are natural, however, and they can even be useful, in the sense that they point to ways you can and should be improving your GRE prep. If you’re stuck and not making progress in your GRE studying, you should consider working with an expert tutor like the ones we offer at MyGuru. Our tutors will help you design a personally tailored study plan that works for your level of skill and your learning style, and they’ll be right there with you to help you adapt your approach to make sure you don’t stay stuck on any plateau.