With the glut of materials available on the market—from the paperbound travesties to ETS materials—the self-learner has never had more resources at his or her fingertips. The point of this post, however, is not to invoke caveat emptor (buyer beware), but to focus on the learning process that happens when we try learning on our own, outside of the classroom environment.
So, let’s come up with a hypothetical student—I’ll call him Felix. Felix has procured the usual material—Barron’s, Kaplan, ETS. He has prepped at home, studying on average a few hours a week, and has made his way through the books, a lesson at a time. Yet, Felix still feels ambivalent about his progress. On the one hand, he is learning the concepts covered in each chapter, whether they happen to be properties of triangles or elimination techniques in analogies. Yet, when he tries to take any of the timed tests, he does not feel he has made any real progress; much of what he has learned has faded as soon as he moves on to another lesson. As a result, Felix resolves to dedicate himself with renewed vigor, covering each of the chapters again, before attempting to return to the dreaded practice exams.
Like many students, Felix has a strong work ethic and is able to diligently go over many of the concepts covered on the test. However, in applying what he has learned, Felix could do so more effectively. Currently, he is thinking in a very linear fashion, or a step at a time. Felix should break out of his mold and not be afraid to throw himself, so to speak, into the unknown of a timed test, in which a diverse range of question types await.
Failure Can Be an Opportunity
In his recent non-fiction bestseller The Genius in All of Us, writer David Shenk makes the case that genius is not an inborn capacity, but something almost any of us can cultivate. To illustrate this, he uses the quintessential genius of all-time, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Shenk asserts that instead of possessing a talent bestowed on him by the gods, Mozart’s genius, Shenk asserts, emerged from his environment.
Wunderkid or WunderDad?
Mozart’s father, Leopold, was not only a musician but also the preeminent music teacher of children. Beyond training Mozart in the most effective techniques of the time, Leopold also drilled him hours a day. Just as importantly, Mozart was constantly called on to perform, whether in the company of family members or for the royal courts of 18th Century Vienna. Had Mozart simply practiced his scales and never been forced to perform, his path to genius would not have been assured. In essence, Mozart was always on the precipice of failure, as admiring audiences gaped at the young Wolfgang’s seemingly effortless facility. Had he not consistently delivered onstage, his career—one that was very lucrative —would have fizzled. In the end, this constant pressure forged the genius that today many construe as an innate capacity.
This same pressure—Shenk calls it deliberate practice—can be seen in many of the greatest athletes. They didn’t just perform exceptionally on game day; they treated their training sessions as though those very sessions were the game itself. Whether storied legends, such as Ted Williams, or today’s greats, such as Tiger Woods, great athletes have only been able to attain their true potential by diligent practice in an environment of constant pressure.
When studying for the GRE, we too must perform. And nothing hones one’s skills as much as the high-pressure environment of the timed test. Hiding in lessons, doing only basic problems, we do not grow. We are in a safe place. Luckily, unlike Mozart, we have the luxury of making mistakes while prepping at home. We also have the invaluable opportunity of learning from those mistakes.
Don’t Worry – I Didn’t Forget Felix
So, let’s get back to Felix. He has read this post and has devised a new study plan. He now takes a timed-test twice a week. The mistakes he makes inform his study sessions. For instance, Felix notices that he misses a lot of quantitative comparison problems with variables. He goes over the relevant chapters from his test prep books. But he doesn’t stop there—as soon as he thinks he’s gotten it, Felix throws himself into any quantitative problems with variables he can find. He works through many such problems in the ETS book, Barron’s and Novas. When he makes a mistake, he goes back and understands why his answer was wrong and does his best to understand why the correct answer is the right one.
In some cases, Felix is unsure of how the answer was derived. Most likely, these are higher-level difficulty problems, and Felix can return to them later. Regardless, Felix has now made progress in a specific area. He follows the same strategy with mixtures, permutations, and he is able to make progress.
This approach carries over to verbal. Felix reviews each mistake, makes sure he learns any unknown vocabulary and does his best to understand the correct answer. When he finds an area in which he struggles, he targets those question types from his material and becomes much better at them, making sure to take a test at least once a week.
It is easy to slog through GRE material without making much progress. It is just as easy to avoid subjecting oneself to high-pressure environments by taking a timed practice test. But it is in straining and trying one’s best, even at the expense of failing, that we learn.
At the risk of totally compromising my air of objectivity… Magoosh offers a timed testing environment, the ability for you to review different question types, and a constant feedback mechanism to see how you stack up against others. It’s the performance stage, the ideal arena in which to hone your skills.
Whether or not you use Magoosh, ETS, or Barron’s (don’t venture too far beyond those), remember to challenge yourself daily, knowing that mistakes are opportunities to improve. Following such a regimen could very well help you become a Mozart of the GRE.