Lessons from taking the GRE

I recently took the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). The GRE aims to test aptitude for college graduates in three sections : quantitative reasoning (math), verbal reasoning, and analytical writing. Like most standardized tests, the GRE also measures test-taking ability.

Before the exam date, I took many practice tests which made me aware of the challenges of each section. The math questions in the quantitative reasoning section were not difficult. The problem was time. I had to work fast, without making mistakes. There was not enough time to double-check each answer; I had to go straight to the next question. When I was taking the practice tests, I wanted a perfect score. I spent too much time struggling to solve the hardest problem, and there would not be enough time left over to complete the entire section. The goal of a perfect score became the enemy of a very good score. It took a change in mentality to excel at the math section of the GRE.

Our goal should never be external - to get a perfect score, to impress the audience, to win the audition. When our goal is external, we panic or give up hope when we encounter adversity. We all know the feeling when we make our first mistake in an audition and our mind lets us down. “We’ll never win the audition now,” we think. External goals make every competition a psychological battle.

Rather, our goal should be to do the best we can in every situation through applying our skills to the fullest. On the GRE, this meant skipping problems that were not instantly solvable and only returning to them after I had finished all the others. In an audition, this means avoiding thoughts like, “this passage must be perfect.” This will paralyze our thinking as we perform. Instead, accept every phrase in the performance as a challenge for which daily practice has given us the proper tools.

If we are not prepared or we do not have a good reed, accept that, and say that we will play smart – taking slightly slower tempi, for example – and try to give ourselves the best chance of giving a good performance. Do not let our weaknesses dominate our thinking during performances. Think, instead, of all the skills that we bring with us in every concert.

The best possible attitude is to see the test, concert, or audition as something fun. Why is it fun? Because it will challenge us to stretch ourselves, to apply all of our skills to their fullest potential. Just like a test, a performance can be seen as a game in which the goal is simply to play. A victory then becomes the pleasant result of having played the game well.