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Grit is the underappreciated secret to success on the GREI believe the most important factor in determining your success on the GRE is one very few people think about: the amount of grit you apply to the preparation process. Of course, raw intellectual horse power (perhaps as estimated by IQ score), previous academic coursework, and implementation of a GRE study plan are critical to scoring well on the GRE. But having grit is a foundational component.

What is grit?

Grit is a term coined by a psychology professor named Angela Duckworth who works at the University of Pennsylvania. Angela has found that “grit—a combination of passion and perseverance for a singularly important goal—is the hallmark of high achievers in every domain.” She’s also found scientific evidence that grit can grow. You can read Angela’s book or the many articles that have been written about grit to learn more.

Truly having grit requires three things: a) having a goal; b) being passionate about reaching that goal; and c) persevering to reach that goal. Grit is about understanding what you want, being passionate about it, and overcoming obstacles to achieve it.

There is a mountain of peer-reviewed academic research to support the idea that many forms of personal, academic and professional success are driven more by grit than by traditionally accepted factors like intelligence or talent or even raw effort. This means that, for example, college students with higher GPAs may display higher levels of grit, but not necessarily higher IQs.

Why is grit particularly important when studying for the GRE?

Although it may seem like an IQ test of sorts, the GRE is really a test of critical thinking and academic proficiency in math, reading, and writing. It’s a test you can prepare for by building skill, not a test that’s measuring something fixed about you that you can’t change. This means that it’s is a test for which you can and must prepare. It is also a test generally taken by young professionals or motivated college students and is almost always layered on to an already busy schedule. So while Angela Duckworth might make the point that grit is always an important key to success, I would argue it’s particularly relevant to success on the GRE because you are going to have to find the time to study, motivate yourself to stick to your study schedule, and display the perseverance to continue practicing and looking for solutions when you encounter topics or concepts you aren’t understanding.

How can a GRE test-taker become “grittier” as they prepare for the GRE?

Many people have an intuitive understanding of “grit” as a concept that includes working hard towards goals and sticking with it until you reach your goal. This is not wrong, but it’s too general. Here’s how to become “grittier” when preparing for the GRE.

Always keep your long-, medium-, and near-term goals in mind.

Grit involves working towards goals. In the context of studying for the GRE, you might think about your target score as your primary “goal.” And it’s certainly important to have a clearly established target GRE score to work toward. This score should be based on your target graduate programs and the strength of your undergraduate degree, major, and GPA. You’d be surprised how many GRE test takers don’t really have a target score, and thus have trouble measuring progress.

However, it is the medium- and long-term goals you set that might provide the “passion” required to truly be approaching the GRE preparation process with grit. Fitting GRE prep into a busy schedule is not easy. Part of the secret sauce of the “gritty” individual is finding a way to pursue goals with passion. If, when preparing yourself to study for a few hours on a Sunday, you reflect on not just your target GRE score, but also your dream graduate school program and your long-term goal as a career as a tenured professor of Psychology (for example), you might find yourself with more energy and focus.

Embrace the struggle that is required to build the skills you’ll need to perform well on the GRE.

Preparing for the GRE is often not easy. You should expect that you’ll hit plateaus where your practice scores don’t improve, or spend hours not understanding certain problems or concepts. The gritty person doubles down and overcomes these obstacles either through independent practice and review or perhaps by seeking external help from classes, tutors, friends, or family. Think about these obstacles as necessary challenges on the path towards an excellent GRE score.

Realize that when it comes to performance, effort is twice as important as talent.

One of my favorite grit-related concepts is the idea that effort matters more than talent. In fact, effort matters approximately twice as much as talent.

This is important to realize because it can be frustrating to imagine that others who are just more talented (you think) or naturally intelligent don’t have to struggle or study, while you do. But grit requires sustained effort over time, and the importance of sustained effort, which I discuss in this blog article on the importance of effort relative to talent, can actually be described using mathematics.

First, imagine that PERFORMANCE = SKILL x EFFORT. So, in the context of studying for the GRE, if you already are very good at math and reading comprehension, you have a lot of academic skill. But you’re still going to have to put forth effort during the studying process and when taking the official GRE to perform well.

Next, realize that SKILL = TALENT x EFFORT. So, feel free to assume that some people have a natural talent for math. That may be true on some level. But to get to any given level of math skill, effort is still required. And, if you have less talent, you can still attain really any level of skill by putting forth more effort.

Finally, using a little algebra, we realize that PERFORMANCE = [TALENT X EFFORT] X EFFORT, or, PERFORMANCE = TALENT X EFFORT2  . Effort, in this formula, is twice as important as talent.

Summary

Preparing for the GRE is not easy. You are probably busy and managing many priorities, yet for most people, substantial studying is required to score well. Realize that approaching the process with grit is a key to reaching your target score.

About the Author

Mark Skoskiewicz is the founder of MyGuru, which provides customized in-person and online GRE tutoring. He graduated from Indiana University and holds an MBA from Kellogg at Northwestern University.