Perfect Practice Makes Perfect
I don’t remember the first time I heard the saying “practice makes perfect.” However, I do remember my fourth-grade choir teacher. She had a habit of abruptly stopping us young songsters mid-verse and saying, “practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.” Halted mid-Michigan while singing the names of the fifty United States in alphabetical order for the sixth time in a row, my 10-year-old mind was clearly marked by the impossible expectations this phrase conjured. Perfection was already an unachievable standard. Now our practice had to be perfect too? This was no show choir. After all, the group included the likes of me, who had previously been assigned to the xylophone for failing an interval singing test. My schoolmates and I coped with this absurd edict through sidelong glances, snickering, and after-choir fits of mimicry.
With time and maturity, I’ve realized there are other interpretations of this mantra. What if it’s not about perfection at all? What if it’s about process? And preparation? Our choir teacher clearly wasn’t expecting us to attain perfection at all moments (or ever, really). But she did remind us to be actively engaged in our practice as best we could at any given moment.
The Real Meaning
Choir practice was our opportunity to gain comfort with the “little things” so that we could turn our attention to other challenges. Simply memorizing the ordered alphabetical list of the fifty states wasn’t sufficient. When the conductor’s wand went up, the list needed to exit my mouth with comfort and confidence. Then, I could concentrate on other aspects of my performance, like phrasing and dynamics. Once I became accustomed to the list, I began to learn the song in a whole new way. The turns of melody fed back into the words, buttressing and enlivening my rote memorization. The sustained tones of “Nebraska, Nevaaaaaaa-da…” prompted my brain right past (what had been) my major stumbling point, seamlessly flowing into the staccatos of “New Hampshire.” The “little things” weren’t really little at all. And they were adding up.
For study sessions when you sit down to a group of GRE problems – whether a practice set, a single verbal or quantitative practice section, or an entire practice exam – here are some “little things” to incorporate.
Simulate the GRE Test Environment
- Silence your phone. Turn it face down and place it out of reach.
- Use the clock/timer. Pay attention to the time and use it to guide your pacing. More on pacing below. (If you must use your phone timer, turn off the notifications. Even if you don’t answer the ping, it will distract you from the task at hand.)
- Eat and hydrate before. Remember that on test day, you won’t be able to bring snacks or beverages into the exam room. You’ll be limited to 1-minute breaks between sections and one 10-minute break mid-test.
- Wear noise-blocking headphones. Or pick a quiet spot where you won’t be interrupted.
- Use scratch paper (or a small dry erase board) to work through problems and make notes, even if you are working from a book. This is a different process than marking up a problem on the book page. You won’t be able to mark up the computer screen on test day!
Set the Tone
If this is a timed practice, or an actual exam, do this “off the clock,” during the tutorial instructions or during the breaks before the timer begins counting down. This should only take a minute or two.
- Don’t jump right in! Before looking at the first problem, transition from the rest of your day to your practice session. Take a few deep breaths. Visualize yourself smoothly answering the questions and performing your best on the GRE.
- Remind yourself of timing benchmarks and pacing.
- Mentally review solution strategies in your head. Remind yourself to apply them as part of your approach to each question.
- Approach the questions one-by-one, as you will encounter them on the exam.
- Approach the questions in an order that suits your strengths. For challenging or confusing questions, make the decision to skip the problem and come back to it later. If you have a rough guess, mark your tentative answer and come back to it later.
- Flag the questions you skip or guess, so you can easily return to them.
No need to rush before you’re ready! The timer is meant to support your process, not to rush your practice. Often, you will want to work through problems with an eye toward understanding and skill-building rather than pushing your pacing. You may still want to time yourself, without expectations, simply to get a baseline sense of how long questions take at a leisurely pace. As you continue to practice and build skills, you’ll see this amount of time diminish.
- After one pass through the questions, note the time and the number of questions left unanswered. Use this information to make efficient decisions about how to allocate your remaining time.
- After finishing, evaluate your pacing. Write down the number of problems you completed (and how many problems there were total), the amount of time you spent in total, and how many “passes” you took through the section. Compare this to your performance and fine tune your pacing approach for next practice.
So What’s the Moral?
Should you be perfect every time you practice for the GRE? Absolutely not! Your practice will look different on different days. You’ll end up practicing in different situations, in different ways, with different mindsets. The ultimate goal, though, remains the same. Practice to become comfortable with these “little things,” allowing you to focus on, and even enjoy, the more challenging aspects of the exam. Aim for that sweet spot between routine and flexibility. You’re practicing to achieve a level of preparation that supports a reliable, comfortable approach and that supports your ability to confidently and creatively cope with any questions that come your way on test day. The little things will add up. And you’ll be singing your way through the exam… from Alabama to Wyoming, if you will.