On Deliberate Practice and Improvement
Or: How to Get Your GRE Quant Score from the 73rd percentile to a perfect score.
The GREs, or the Graduate Record Examination, is a widely used standardized test that many prospective graduate students have to take as part of the admissions process. Prior to taking it myself, I had heard classmates and graduate students characterize the test as being easy, comparable to an IQ test, with the only difficulty being the trickiness of the logic behind the math and verbal questions.
I hadn’t done any math since high school. I had a strong feeling that that part of my brain had stagnated in the four years I had left it untouched. Even in my daily life, I dreaded making mental calculations of money and time; I inevitably calculated even the simplest arithmetic problems slowly and often to erroneous conclusions.
More than that, I distrusted IQ tests as measurements of capability. I had never thought of myself as exceptionally smart, and had always held a realistic — near pessimistic — view of myself as someone who succeeded through dogged industriousness and conscientious self-improvement. In high school, I had managed to achieve slightly higher scores than my more intelligent peers simply because I worked harder. Equipped with a realistic view of my limited intelligence, I put in twenty hours to achieve a 95%, compared to the five hours my friend put in to achieve a 94%. 15 hours for a 1% advantage might seem to some as diminishing returns, but that was the way I had learned to operate.
Still, peers assured me that the math content tested on the GREs was of the simplest variety- akin to Grade 10 level math. I enrolled in my first GRE prep course, and took the afternoon-long assessment practice test.
My quantitative score? 44th percentile.
I was undeterred. Obviously, a first pass at the GREs with no prior contact or understanding of how the questions were structured was not going to be representative of my actual future test scores.
A year passed before I began studying again. In the meantime, I had changed my plans and had decided to extend my undergraduate degree by another year in order to go on exchange. In the spring of my fourth year, I began earnest preparations.
I had known friends who had taken the GREs with only a few weeks of prep behind them. It came as no surprise that some had done very well with little preparation. These were the same classmates that I knew learned more efficiently than I did, and were able to mentally manipulate and grasp concepts more flexibly than I. In other words, they clearly had higher IQs.
So I had a lot of ground to cover. I could barely remember algebra, I was shockingly clumsy at simple arithmetic, and I didn’t think I had ever actually learned probability. My strategy of dogged, repetitive practice kicked in — the only strategy that I had ever depended on for academic success.
I spent three months following a regimented study plan, doing practice tests and weekly lesson plans. I was learning a lot of the math for the first time (or I had long forgotten it, and was past the point of being able to recall it). This made for slow learning, and while I could successfully answer straightforward questions, I would often fall for the GRE’s tricks and traps.
I all but ignored the verbal section, save for a few quick lessons to acquaint myself with the question and testing structure. The good thing about a test like the GREs is that the average test-taker will generally need to concentrate more on one section rather than both. Some test-takers are especially strong in math, and less so in english/reading comprehension. Having done a major in literature, that part of my brain was well-exercised.
Near the end of the summer, right before I left for exchange in Singapore, I took the GREs.
One essential thing to know about the GREs — the test is adaptive. Depending on how well you do on the previous sections, the following domain-specific section (e.g. verbal only, or quantitative only) will increase in difficulty. This is why doing well on the first part of the test is a double-edged sword. The harder the next section is, the more assured you are that you’re doing well for now. At the same time, you have a guarantee that the next 20 questions will be more difficult than what you’ve faced so far in the test.
Moreover, every test is equipped with one superfluous section that is included for the purpose of validating questions that will be used in future tests. This section is unscored and doesn’t affect your results. However, you have no knowledge of when in the test this section will appear. This section is also of easy to medium difficulty, and is not adaptive.
So there’s a psychological aspect to the test. If the superfluous section occurs near the beginning of your test, you may be tricked into thinking you haven’t done well on the first section (because it won’t increase in difficulty). If you do well, there is added anxiety in knowing that every question is now meant to be more difficult than before.
My practice scores for the Quantitative section hovered somewhere near the 75th percentile, ranging from 69th to 80th percentiles.
On test day, I scored disappointingly at the 73rd percentile, a score I knew I would have to defend as part of my application.
It wasn’t the score alone that disappointed me. It was the effort-to-result ratio that seemed powerfully off, to fly in the face of my personal philosophy of achievement and success. I had studied far more than other people, and I also felt like I had studied as much as I could. Three months of work. A 73rd percentile.
I flew to Singapore. I didn’t stay down for long. I attributed my low score to the fact that I hadn’t had time to master the math tested on the GREs. I had only had time to become familiar with it, and had spent less time doing actual GRE-type math questions. I also knew that I had been nervous on test day, nervous during the actual test, and anxious each time a new question had been presented. These were things I could change.
I had two solid months to prepare before I took the test again. Armed with knowledge of what I could do better, I started practicing again.
I was undeterred by the first lousy practice test score — something around 65th percentile. I was out of touch, that was all. But the weeks went by, and the distance between me and my second (or last) chance at a better score was decreasing. At the same time, my scores barely improved.
My test scores continued to hover around the 75th percentile mark. On a particularly low day during this process, I put together the pattern of my results, going way back to when I had first started in the beginning of the summer. Assembled together, the history of my scores provided a demoralizing truth. The scores were resilient against increased effort. The GRE was working as an IQ measure — it had successfully calculated and re-calculated my verbal and mathematical ability, going back to May.
I realized, then: this was the ceiling of what I would ever achieve.
It was at this time that I happened to pick up Angela Duckworth’s Grit: The power of Passion and Perseverance. In this book, Duckworth details the defining quality that experts and goal-achievers all manifest: a dogged perseverance, day in and day out, in achieving long-term passionate goals.
Through reading Grit, I came to understand my progress (or lack of it) as a matter of arrested development. I had plateaued. And so, I had given up.
I began to understand many things in my life as a matter of plateauing. I had never become exactly adept at piano. Nor, speaking Chinese. Nor, playing badminton. In all those areas, I had practiced with dogged repetition for some amount of time before standing back and surveying the effort-to-results ratio. Then, I had determined that my success in those areas were a matter of talent, and I lacked it.
Although there is some truth in that assessment, I was missing something else. The idea of deliberate practice. In Grit, Duckworth details the findings of Anders Ericsson on what makes experts experts. One crucial characteristic is experts’ use of deliberate practice. Practice that is incredibly focused, that is done with a specific goal in mind, that is followed by immediate feedback and adjustment to such feedback. It is practice that is targeted at refining specific weaknesses, and becomes more refined each time you do it.
Three weeks before my second — and last — chance to test, I started practicing deliberately. My newfound determination wasn’t really due to faith in my ability to improve. Instead, I threw myself into a new strategy out of the thrill of having absolutely nothing to lose from trying something different.
I narrowed down my weaknesses.
Although I wasn’t very strong in math, and it was my inclination to work until I was a general expert in algebra, averages, and speed questions, a realistic look at the problem of a low score revealed that math ability wasn’t the sole culprit.
For one thing, I wasn’t making full use of feedback. In the past, I usually completed section after section of 20 questions each, saving a review of the answers for the next day. By that time, it was usually just to check where I had gotten a question wrong, and if there was a big flaw in my reasoning. I began doing questions one by one, reviewing the feedback after each and every question. Although this vastly slowed the amount of work I could do in each study session, I also found that I was starting to improve on my responses within each section of 20 questions.
For another thing, I was nervous. I went into math sections knowing that I would make mistakes. I had gone into the actual GRE test fearing a negative test score. Each time a difficult math question had appeared on the screen, I held my breath in fear that it would ask me something I wouldn’t understand.
Based on online reviews of prep companies, it seemed that Kaplan’s test bank offered questions that were usually more difficult than those on the actual test. I purchased a subscription to the test bank, and, for the next two weeks, began doggedly doing the most difficult questions in the bank. These were questions that were ranked “extremely difficult,” and they were far more difficult than what you would usually be asked on the test. They were even more difficult than perhaps the one or two hard questions you would get on a real test. They often took me ten minutes each to do, and I would usually get them wrong. Nevertheless, I would check the correct answer, and I would do another one. And another one.
The questions were humorously difficult. I would often laugh while doing them. I would often get them wrong. Soon, however, I began to recognize general patterns. I started getting half of them right. I started understanding the structure of what a difficult question entailed, how many steps they usually held within them. At the same time, I occasionally practiced verbal questions and essay questions whenever I did a practice test.
I took the test again on October 28th, 2016.
By this point, I was well-versed with how the test was run. I was well-versed with the structure, and the questions, and I thought of myself as a question-answering robot. I had done these questions so many times that I couldn’t bring myself to be nervous anymore.
It was over faster than I thought it would be.
I held my breath before clicking to find out my quantitative score. A combined six months of practice came down to this moment.
I had scored 160 out of 160. A perfect score.
I know that a test score is just a test score. I also know that the GREs don’t matter all that much, in the grand scheme of graduate school admissions. I also know that for some, the test is a breeze, and they never would have considered it to be an obstacle.
However, this was a personal obstacle and a personal accomplishment. For the first time in my life, I had consciously confronted a plateau and I had pushed past it to become, at least on paper, an “expert.”
Three months later: I’m currently interviewing for graduate programs, an exciting time during which I get to meet my idols — researchers whose work have inspired me.
Each prospective supervisor has selected me based on a review of my application. What my application — a combined package of, among other things, an essay, recommendation letters, and GPA— tells them is that I have all the makings of a successful student. My GRE scores are the cherry on the top, assuring each professor that I have “natural” aptitude and expertise in the two domains that fuel successful psychological research.
What this simple score, printed on a piece of paper, fails to disclose is that what looks “natural” is anything but. It is the combined effort of six months of practice, both undirected and deliberate. It is also the result of failure, plateaus, and determination.
It is a deception in two ways.
As a score of ability, it hides just how slowly I gained expertise, how much more work I had to put in to achieve scores comparable to other high achievers in my field. It hides that I am perhaps a slow study, and that other things may be difficult for me further down the road.
At the same time, the simplicity of those numbers — 97th, 99th, and 99th — hide my greatest strength: my ability to harness all my effort and resources towards surpassing personal limits. It hides, for now, what is in fact the most potent determinant of my future success in my chosen field: Grit.