The More I Study the Worse I Do


@inflammatorywrt is not unique. She’s been studying for the GRE, like a lot of us. Reading blogs, taking practice tests, relearning geometry, and practicing strategies, all in the hope of improving her score. But, she feels like she is doing worse now than before. Sound familiar?

Worry not my test-taking brethren! Many students do worse on practice tests and practice problems after they begin preparing for the test. It doesn’t matter if they are studying for the ACT, SAT, GMAT, or GRE, student performance can dip at the beginning of preparations. This is disconcerting and counterintuitive; we expect to improve with study, not get worse. Fret not! It is only a dip, and I’ll tell you why.

Why Me?

Once you decided to take the GRE or GMAT, what was your next step? Usually, students take a practice test or solve a few practice problems. But, once they see these results, they realize that they can’t take the test next Thursday as they had hoped. They realize that this is nothing like their Introduction to Sociology final and that they will need to learn strategies, figure out how to deal with the time limit, and make stacks of flashcards to learn new words. Usually after this reality check, they enroll in a class, purchase a test prep book, or hire a tutor to prepare.

All of these are important and crucial steps to take–probably steps that you’ve taken. But, tragedy struck…Lower scores on practice tests! More wrong answers! Less confidence! But why?

Why Now?

Let’s reflect on what has changed. You need to look back over what you have done and consider what really led to the drop in your score. This is the time for honest reflection, so that you can climb out of this score slump.

You are learning how to apply the strategies that the book or course recommends. This is the most common reason for score dips. With courses and test prep books, you are learning a new way to approach problems; you are learning strategies for specific question types and shortcuts to find the right answer. An adept application of these skills takes time. Be patient as you are learning these strategies. Once you are more comfortable with the different question types and common wrong answers, and everything else you need to know, your score will begin to increase.

You are timing yourself to practice pacing. Answering questions is one thing, but answering them with a time limit is a whole other can of beans. In my class, I don’t enforce time limits when introducing a new question type. But, once students are exposed to all aspects of the question, I set a timer so students can work on pacing. For some, this leads to a drop in their score; the time pressure can really diminish their results. With practice, though, they learn to cope with the time limits.

You paid for test prep software that tracks your progress. The case may be that you are getting a more accurate picture of your abilities and skills. Whether it is test prep software or a new tutor, you are no longer in charge of keeping track of your progress and results. I’ve had students like this: before they signed up for my class, they had worked on practice problems and had maybe taken a practice test, but when asked about their results, the answers tended to be more anecdotal than based on fact. So, the difference might be that your abilities are rigidly defined by the new software–no fudging the results allowed.

You are working on problems that are more difficult. Maybe this is too obvious to say, but sometimes anxiety and frustration can really hamper our thinking, so I’ll say it: Your score may have dipped from working on higher difficulty problems. Also, some test prep books have easier problems than others. So, if you have recently switched from one book publisher to another, this might explain the change in your score.

What Now?

Don’t worry. Just keep practicing. In my experience as a teacher and tutor, a dip in scores quickly disappears the more students practice. Consider how you are spending your study time and where you are studying. All of this will affect your performance. Make a change if you think it will lead to more focused, productive studying. Finally, just remember: you’re not unique. This is fairly normal.

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