Your GRE Problem Log and the Myth of “Practice Makes Perfect”

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If you’ve ever played a sport, learned a language, or played a musical instrument, you’ve heard the old saying: “practice makes perfect.” Unfortunately, that saying is misleading. It’s possible to practice something for years and never get any better. (Just ask my childhood piano teacher!) What actually matters, what actually makes you improve, is one specific thing that happens during practice: how you react to your mistakes.

Everybody makes mistakes when studying for the GRE. In fact, people who end up earning higher scores make just as many mistakes, early on, as people who end up with lower scores. That’s great news—we can’t predict your success based on how many mistakes you make! But what does matter is how you react to the mistakes you make.

Here’s the wrong way to react to a mistake.

You solve a problem, and then immediately check the answer key. Uh-oh—you got this one wrong. You flip to the back of the book and read the explanation. Oh, okay—it looks like the equations were supposed to look like this, instead of like that. These equations make perfect sense, now that you’re looking at them. Got it. Time to move on to the next problem.

If this seems familiar, you’re not alone! It’s an easy, straightforward way to practice, and it lets you get through a lot of problems quickly. The problem is, that’s not how experts behave. Just practice won’t make you a GRE expert—you need to practice like an expert in order to become an expert.

Practicing like an expert is hard, and frustrating, and it isn’t very fun. In order to become an expert, you’ll have to spend a lot of time thinking about your mistakes. That can be tough! Here’s the basic mindset: GRE mistakes happen because of your behaviors. You have the power to change those behaviors, and when you do, you won’t make the same mistakes again. However, that means you have to understand the mistakes you’ve made, and understand why you’re making them. That’s where your GRE problem log comes in.

Decide how you want your GRE problem log to look. Pick something you’ll find motivating. You could use a handwritten notebook, an Excel spreadsheet, or even a set of index cards. The first thing to do is to build a new habit. Every single time you do a GRE problem, take a couple of notes on it. While you’re still getting into the habit of problem logging, keep it simple—don’t burn yourself out! A very basic GRE problem log could include just a couple of things:

  • Where you found the problem, so you can find it again
  • Your takeaways from the problem
  • Whether you want to redo the problem again later

Once you get used to writing down the problems that you solve, step up your problem logging a bit. Start by pushing yourself to understand your mistakes on your own, rather than reading explanations written by somebody else. When you miss a problem, resist the temptation to immediately check the back of the book! Instead, try a different way of solving the problem, or try solving the problem without a timer. You might be surprised by how many problems you can solve if you give yourself extra time. If you figure it out, then try to work out how to do it more quickly! Or, use the explanation in the book as a hint. Maybe if you know what the right answer is, you can figure out why the GRE thinks it’s right. On Text Completion or Sentence Equivalence problems, try ‘cheating’ by looking up the definitions of unfamiliar words as you solve a tough problem. That can be enough to let you figure out the answer on your own.

The next step is to achieve better understanding of your mistakes. Remind yourself that mistakes, even careless ones, happen for a reason. If you can identify that reason, and think of a way to address it, you can avoid that mistake next time. To get there, add two things to your GRE problem log. First, each time you miss a problem, identify the root cause of your mistake. Did you not know how to do the math? Was there a word you didn’t know? In that case, you’ve identified something you need to learn—go learn it! Or did you make a process mistake—did you misread something, or did you make a bad assumption? Write that down in your GRE problem log. Once a week, look through your log and try to identify patterns. Those patterns reflect behaviors that you can change.

Here’s an example: suppose that you keep a problem log for a few weeks, and you notice that you keep missing Quant problems by misreading the question being asked. Don’t just tell yourself that you need to read the question correctly next time. Instead, change the behavior. What could you do to keep yourself from misreading Quant questions? Try this: every time you do a Quant problem, start by writing down the question you’re being asked. Draw a box around it on your scratch paper, then check it a second time before you submit your answer.

With a little introspection, you can come up with similar ways to address other types of mistakes. Logging your practice, identifying and understanding your mistakes, and then addressing them promptly—that’s how experts in every field practice, whether they’re expert pianists, dancers, athletes, or GRE students! Invest a little time today in creating a GRE problem log, and you’ll be rewarded in the long run with a boost in your GRE score. 📝


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Chelsey CooleyChelsey Cooley Manhattan Prep GRE Instructor is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in Seattle, Washington. Chelsey always followed her heart when it came to her education. Luckily, her heart led her straight to the perfect background for GMAT and GRE teaching: she has undergraduate degrees in mathematics and history, a master’s degree in linguistics, a 790 on the GMAT, and a perfect 170Q/170V on the GRE. Check out Chelsey’s upcoming GRE prep offerings here.

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