Study Like an Athlete: What Competitive Running Taught Me about the GRE


Manhattan Prep GRE Blog - Study Like an Athlete: What Competitive Running Taught Me about the GRE by Tom Anderson

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Study Like an Athlete

The GRE is not just any other exam. The Quant section contains questions you ostensibly learned how to do in fourth grade—some of them on topics like even numbers and factor trees. Underneath that elementary veneer, though, there are often some challenging inferences you have to make. The GRE Verbal section also tests you on reading and processing an incredible swath of information: passages cover every topic from pre-industrial leisure practices to radiation patterns in the Crab Nebula. Because of this breadth of content and the quirky questions asked about that content, the GRE is an exam you should practice for rather than just study for. Think of it more like a performance and less like a test.

Whether you used to be a ballet dancer or a basketball player, a jiu-jitsu champion or a top-ranked basket-weaver, your journey to success in this extracurricular area may be more helpful for you in framing your GRE practice routine than any relevant experience in your academic career.

In my own practice for the GRE, I found it more helpful to draw on the routines I’d learned as a long-distance runner than the (admittedly very bad) study habits I’d developed as a student.  Here are a few big ideas I learned as a cross country and track athlete:

  1. You’ve got to start by putting in a base.
  2. To get better, practice interval training—focus on mastering the race in small chunks before putting them all together.
  3. In the final week, the training should taper off to give you time to recover.

Now, let’s talk about how those work in the realm of GRE practice.

Putting in the Base

When training for a long-distance race, an athlete’s first step is to put in a “base.” For the first few weeks of practice, runners just need to run. They run slowly, easily, taking frequent breaks, and never holding themselves to cutthroat time goals. Early on, the goal is just to get comfortable running.

Likewise, on the GRE, your first 3-4 weeks of study should be largely untimed. You should be solving a lot of problems and covering a lot of content, but the challenge level should not be overwhelming. You might even consider doing an untimed practice test along the way. Your goal for this stage is to get sharp on a broad range of content and to make some of the tasks so easy and so internalized that you don’t have to think about them much.

Take for example, this problem from the Official Guide. You could solve it if you like.

Manhattan Prep GRE Blog - Study Like an Athlete: What Competitive Running Taught Me about the GRE by Tom Anderson

If you solved it successfully, you probably drew on several skills. (Oh, and you can check your answer at the end of this blog post.) Here are a few steps you probably took to get it right:

  1. Knowing the area and circumference formulas and copying them out.
  2. Recognizing that the problem can be solved by plugging in—with numbers or variables.
  3. Plugging something from one equation into another, and applying PEMDAS correctly.
  4. Executing several algebraic manipulations (multiplying both sides, dividing both sides) without making a mistake.
  5. Comparing your work with the answer choices and zeroing in on the element being asked for.

It’s reasonable for a few of these skills to push you out of your comfort zone. But you don’t want to encounter difficulty at each step along the way. By building a base, you make at least 2-3 of these skills feel easy and automatic. If you cruised through skills #1-4 on the problem above, you had a lot more mental energy to think about #5, allowing you to make a more careful, reasoned decision for your answer. No matter how much you study, some of the GRE will feel difficult. By putting in a base, you make the easy stuff feel really easy so that you have more left in the tank to “finish the race” even when the going gets tough.

Interval Training

Later on in a given cross country or track season, our coaches would break out the “interval workout.” They came up with all kinds of cute names for these, but they were always some variation on the same idea: break a long race down into each of its component parts and run each of them at your goal race pace. If the goal was to run a 4:00 mile (faster than I ever went, for sure), an interval workout would break that down into four 1:00 quarter miles with little rests between. These intervals were designed to be repeated ventures “out of the comfort zone.” Early on, one could only make it through a few intervals before gasping for breath. By doing them over and over, though, a runner could push through to a new plateau. It was always surprising when, late in the season, many of us found we could string these intervals together in a race and run at the goal pace for the whole thing.

“Interval training” is a great way to approach GRE practice “late in the season” when you’re really trying to master those time goals. Take a given Quant section—roughly 7 QC questions, 5 multiple choice questions, 3 data interpretation questions, and 5 more multiple choice questions in 35 minutes—and do each part of that Quant section, separately, with its own little time goal.

Interval 1 – 7 QC questions in 10 minutes
Interval 2 – 5 multiple choice questions in 10 minutes
Interval 3 – 3 data interpretation questions in 5 minutes
Interval 4 – 5 multiple choice questions in 10 minutes

Do a few variations on these. Try doing 3 of those QC sets back to back, with short rests between each interval. Try alternating between data interpretation and QC with little 2-minute rests in-between. One way or another, push yourself slightly out of your comfort zone for short, timed chunks of the test. If you can do them all within their time limits, you can do the whole set that way, too.

The Taper

Before any big race, whether it’s a 5k or a marathon, the most competitive runners “taper” for their final week of working out. In that last week, they go from running 40+ miles per week to running as few as 10-20 per week. There are all kinds of physiological reasons for this taper, but the idea is to get in just enough practice to keep lithe and limber while cutting down the overall strain to allow the body to recover.  

Interestingly enough, it’s not just the procrastinators (like me) who are tempted to put in the brunt of their GRE study in the final week before the test. Some of my most sedulous students—those who have been consistently putting in 10 plus hours of GRE prep per week for 2 months of study—are sometimes tempted to “amp it up” and get in a little extra practice in the final week. Time and again, this rarely results in the breakthrough they think it will.

Make it a rule:

No practice tests within a week of your real test.

It won’t do anything but tire you out and make you second-guess yourself on areas where you struggled.

You should actually be solving fewer problems in the last week of study than you did in the weeks before. In the last few days, take it really easy. Go out and have a meal you enjoy. Go for a walk in the park. Solve a few old problems you saw on your first practice exam. Play around with flash cards a little bit. But seriously, lay off the heavy-duty timed practice. Chelsey Cooley has a great little guide about what to do in that last week. Check it out if you’d like some more guidance in how to effectively taper.

Good Luck on the Race!

However you prepare for the GRE, draw on routines that work for you. There is no need to study for this test in the same way you study for every other old test—particularly if you’ve been a less-than-stellar studier in the past. If you haven’t already, start putting in that base. Good luck! 📝

Answer to the Circle problem above: A

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tom-andersonTom Anderson is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in New York, NY. He has a B.A. in English and a master’s degree in education. Tom has long possessed an understanding of the power of standardized tests in propelling one’s education and career, and he hopes he can help his students see through the intimidating veneer of the GRE. Check out Tom’s upcoming GRE courses here.

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