When I was 30, I went surfing for the first time, and I fell in love. And, like many people in love, I made an impulsive commitment whose consequences I did not fully understand: I decided that I was going to learn to surf well.
It turns out that surfing is really hard, and 30 is not the ideal age for trying to master a demanding and dangerous sport. But it also turns out it’s still worth it, both because surfing is awesome and because there’s a lot to learn from trying to acquire a complex set of new skills—and a number of those lessons transfer surprisingly well to students studying for the GRE. Plus, good news for students: unlike learning to surf, studying for the GRE won’t result in actual, physical scars!
And so, in no particular order, 8 lessons about studying for the GRE from my obsessive, somewhat misguided quest to become a decent surfer.
Lesson 1: You can do it by yourself, but it’s probably better if you don’t.
My first surfing “lesson” involved being given a list of the top ways to die while surfing and then being pushed into a six-foot wave. After that, I was on my own for the day, and for a number of days after that. I learned mostly by trial and error (and there was a lot of error; I have the scars to prove it). I made progress, but slowly, and I acquired a lot of bad habits that I’m still working to correct. When I did finally get some instruction from professional teachers and patient friends, I improved a lot faster and did so in a much safer way.
Studying for the GRE is similar. Yes, you can totally do it on your own. But it will probably take you longer, and you’ll fight hard for realizations that an experienced friend or teacher (or awesome free online resource/blog) could have helped you to reach much sooner. Don’t be shy about seeking out help.
Lesson 2: Don’t try to learn everything all at once.
When I did finally take some lessons, I had a really great teacher who threw tons of information at me. So many areas of skill and knowledge go into surfing well, from the minute physical adjustments required to maneuver a board to knowing how to read ocean conditions and time your approach to a wave. I’d get overwhelmed by all I had to learn and end up learning nothing. And then I got some advice from another teacher that really helped. We were working on my pop-up (the fluid motion that takes you from lying down to standing up as you catch a wave), and he’d break down the ten components of my pop-up that weren’t working properly. Before I went for another wave, though, he’d tell me to pick just one of those things and focus on that. So I might go for four or five waves just thinking about changing my hand position, or not pushing from my feet, until I’d improved that one component. Then I’d move onto the next. It took a lot of repetition, and I improved slowly, but I did actually improve.
I always remind my GRE students that they’ll run out of time before they run out of things to learn. And if you keep thinking about that seemingly endless number of skills you need to acquire, you’ll not only feel overwhelmed, you’ll be less likely to get better at any of them. Instead, prioritize: pick one or two things to work on each time you study. Once those are solid, pick another two. Chip away at this big, complex task bit by bit, and you’ll see your performance improve.
Lesson 3: Manage Your Expectations
The first time I went surfing, I caught a big wave, got into a crouch, and rode all the way to the beach. This gave me the very wrong idea that surfing would be a quick study. Then I spent nearly a year not catching waves, getting hit on the head by waves, falling off my board, getting hit on the head by my board, etc. On one particularly bad day, I started angry-crying from frustration, and my surfing buddy threatened to never surf with me again. So I worked on adjusting my attitude. I tried to accept that I wouldn’t get better quickly, and I would probably never be particularly good. Being content with a slow path to decent was a more realistic outlook. To embrace this, I had to let go of my pride; I’ve always considered myself a good athlete, and it was tough to keep doing a sport that I was resiliently bad at. But I liked it enough to keep trying, and once I lowered my expectations, I was immensely happier doing it. Also, my friends continued surfing with me.
The lesson here isn’t to have low expectations for your GRE score. It’s good to set ambitious goals as a way of inspiring yourself to work hard. But if those goals are no longer serving you—if they’re discouraging you, or if your single-minded pursuit of a benchmark score is ruining the rest of your life—then it’s time to readjust. Remember that your score is only one component of your application, and a GRE score is not a measure of your intelligence or worth or likeliness of succeeding in life. It’s a measure of how good you are at taking the GRE.
I believe that anyone can achieve any score on this test given enough time and effort. But the amount of time and effort required varies from person to person, and sometimes it’s so much time and work it’s just not worth it. It’s up to you to decide how to balance your score goals against the commitment you want to make. And as you negotiate this balance, be kind to yourself, and be reasonable.
Lesson 4: Watch Where You’re Going
Eventually, things started to come together: I began to figure out how to pick a wave, how to catch it, how to stand up on it, even how to turn. And I got so focused on doing all those things that, once I was standing, I’d keep staring intently at my board or at the wave, and I’d run right into a rock or my long-suffering surf companion. Another surfer began shouting, “Look up! Look up!” every time he saw me.
The GRE lesson is simple. Things will start to come together. You’ll learn the content, you’ll learn the strategies, you’ll start solving more and more problems correctly. When that happens, don’t forget to watch the clock! As you get more confident, you also run the risk of getting more stubborn, which will lead to your wasting too much time solving problems you should have skipped. Look up!
Lesson 5: Relax into the Terror
Here is a short list of some things that have gone wrong while surfing: a big hurricane swell has forced me onto rocks; I’ve fallen off a steep, tall wave and been dragged underwater for a good 100 yards; the leash connecting me to the board has gotten wrapped around a rock and held me under.
In all of these situations, the solution is the same: relax, both physically and mentally. If you’re being dragged underwater, kicking and struggling will only waste oxygen. You’re not going to win against a wave; you just need to wait it out until the water releases you. If you’re caught in the rocks, you’re going to get badly hurt if you’re tense when you hit them; if you’re relaxed, you’ll get out with a couple bruises. And in any scary situation, if you panic, you’ll make bad choices; if you’re calm, you’re better able to make the quick calculations that will turn a potentially fatal incident into a funny story.
Of course, being told to relax when you’re scared is like being told not to think about an elephant. Now you’re thinking about an elephant. It takes practice and will to train yourself to be calm in a crisis. The trick isn’t to not feel fear; it’s to lean into that fear, to accept that you’re in the grip of forces you can’t control, and then to go with that flow, making the best decisions you can within those constraints, as calmly as possible.
So if studying for the GRE makes you nervous, or math inspires terror, don’t tell yourself not to feel anxious or not to feel fear. Inevitably, you will, and fighting those feelings is what leads to panic and paralysis. Instead, let that fear come and go like the weather. Take some deep breaths, relax, and then do the best you can with the skills and knowledge you have at hand. Focus on what you can do, and let go of what you can’t. Don’t remember the volume of a cylinder? Skip that problem and save time for the next one.
Here’s the funny thing: getting dragged by a big wave can be terrifying if you’re kicking and struggling and running out of breath. But getting rolled around in a lot of turbulent foam can also be really fun if you relax your limbs, conserve your breath, and do your best to just enjoy.
Lesson 6: Breathing Matters
Speaking of which, breathing is so important! Surfing, you have to paddle really hard to catch a wave, and then (if you’re me) you have to concentrate really hard to get on that wave correctly and stand up. I find I can get so focused that I hold my breath—and then if I fall and get pushed underwater, I’m already out of oxygen. So I remind myself all the time to keep breathing and to breathe deeply.
Taking the GRE, breath is energy. Take a deep breath before and after every problem. Don’t get so tense and so focused that you’re holding your breath or breathing shallowly. It may sound superficial, but if you commit to doing this consistently, you’ll find you have a lot more stamina and make fewer errors.
Lesson 7: Celebrate Small Wins
I remember the first time I stood up on a wave and didn’t fall off. I shouted and waved and asked everyone if they’d seen it. Of course no one had seen it, because it was a short, dinky wave and my performance was in no way impressive. I fell off every other wave I took that day, but I went home super-psyched nonetheless.
Studying for the GRE can be a long, difficult, and sometimes bleak road. You may hit a plateau and not see your score increase for some time. You may get overwhelmed by the distance between where you’re at and where you want to go. If you’re going to stick it out through tough stretches, it’s really, really important that you keep reminding yourself of what is going well. Even if it’s something small, like not making the same error in simplifying a fraction, or remembering a geometry rule: be psyched about that. Keep reminding yourself of all the ways, big and small, in which you’re improving, even if that improvement hasn’t yet yielded tangible score improvement. Trust that, with time, it will.
Lesson 8: Find the Fun
I am by no means a decent surfer yet, let alone a good one. But I’m going to keep paddling out, because I get a little better every time I go; because I believe that someday, I will be halfway decent; and because I’m having a great time along the way.
I’m not going to lie and tell you that studying for the GRE is a blast. But you should find ways to make it not painful, whether that’s studying with friends, rewarding yourself with food treats (my pick), or fantasizing about how cool your grad school life will be. And if you decide to take a study break and go surfing for the first time, hit me up for advice. I have in-depth knowledge of really stupid mistakes that I’ve had a lot of fun making. 📝
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Cat Powell is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in New York, NY. She spent her undergraduate years at Harvard studying music and English and is now pursuing an MFA in fiction writing at Columbia University. Her affinity for standardized tests led her to a 169Q/170V score on the GRE. Check out Cat’s upcoming GRE courses here.