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The GRE is a Thinking Test


Many students prepare for the GRE with the same mindset that they’ve adopted toward tests throughout their academic lives. In college and high school, much of the preparation for an exam was often focused on memorizing rules and content and answering questions directly relevant to this content. Many test-takers assume that this same approach will apply to the GRE: do questions from certain topics, memorize the approach, and keep applying it each time that topic is tested again. Though it’s without question that having a systematic approach toward questions is beneficial, attempting to use this exact approach on all questions will often lead you astray, especially as the questions become more difficult and more nuanced.

Why is the test like this? Because the whole point of the exam is to address your reasoning skills, not your memorization skills. Yes, you will be expected to know certain algebraic and geometric principles and you will need to memorize vocabulary, but, once you’ve mastered these, the aim of your preparation should be to think flexibly and creatively in situations that test these concepts. When clients start working with me, I often have them do a few questions, and what I notice is that, when students have previously been exposed to a concept, they try to employ the exact same approach when they’re in a comparable situation, even if it means neglecting some information in the question or simply eschewing (there’s a GRE word!) common sense.

Content mastery is certainly as essential component of your preparation, but once you’ve reached that point, you need to use these skills within a problem-solving framework. Good problem-solving skills certainly benefit from recall of similar situations, but, more importantly, they rely on your ability to interpret the data given to you with an unbiased and critical eye. These are skills you’ve implemented your whole life, but if you try to pigeonhole questions into a certain strategy, you’ll end up preventing yourself from employing these abilities, ultimately leading to a sub-optimal approach and, usually, a sub-optimal score.

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