Posts Tagged ‘what’s it really like to take the GRE’

So you put your life on hold for months in order to open scary doors and windows in your brain that are closed for a reason.  Your family hates you.  Your friends fear you.  People who have graduate degrees who never had to take the GRE laugh at you.  Your hair is just slightly green.

Now what?

Day of the test: disregard everything you read on the ETS website about what to bring to the GRE.  Depending on the testing center, you get zip.  Zilch.  And maybe a little humiliation.

I work nights, so my sleep schedule is a little different from everyone else’s anyway.  Despite the admonitions in the GRE study books stating not to do any studying the day before, I went over my copious notes.  Slope of a line, anyone?  Area of a triangle?  No, no, that’s the perimeter!  My notes were filled with cute little tips like: Don’t be stupid, you fool!  In fact, I had even illustrated them.  A little court jester told me the ten different things to keep in mind when comparing two quantities.  He was not a nice court jester at all.  He was hateful.

I also took another timed practice test in the book.  The bad thing about the online practice test is that, although it does help you get familiar with it, it Doesn’t Give You The Answers.  And if you don’t know what you got wrong, how are you ever going to learn?

I do wish I had had a little more time to study for the verbal section, considering that’s what I want to get a degree in, but sadly, the verbal studying had to suffer because there was no way I was flunking out on math.  (There must be something wrong with me.)  Over the few months of prep, I basically read the instructions, did a practice essay that can’t be graded, and read through the mini-dictionary.  Day before the test, all I studied was math, though.

Then I took a nap and stayed up all night re-watching the Harry Potter series so my brain could rest and I wouldn’t oversleep my test or be groggy.

As suggested on the ETS site, I ate a little for breakfast, but not too much that I’d get sick from nerves.  But.  Oh no!  I drank a cup of hot chocolate.  Then I packed myself a drink and a snack and an extra sweater and some pens and a watch without a calculator and a good luck charm (a sarcastic sheep).

Now, if you haven’t had to take a standardized test in forever and a half (can’t you just see how much studying I did for that math test???), you might be unpleasantly surprised when they hand you a contract and force you to write a full paragraph–in cursive.

Wait, what?  Cursive?  Like, what I haven’t used since third grade, that cursive?

And I panicked.  I couldn’t remember how to make a cursive I.  It was the first letter in the paragraph.  I had flunked the GRE because I couldn’t get through the door.

A minute later the little old lady came out to ask if I was done yet.  I was still struggling to make cursive r’s.  I gave her a harrumph.  She went away.  She came back.  I said, I have to pee.  She said, No.

My contract looked like a five-year-old had written it.  It’s tough to remember 3rd grade when a little old lady keeps interrupting and glaring at you!  She made me put all my belongings in a locker, including the snack and water the GRE website specifically told me to bring.  Oh, please, little old lady, I’ve gotta pee, but what if I get thirsty???

No water.  No peeing!

She took my photograph and my ID.  She made me sign something so she could check my signature.  My hand was shaking and cramped after the cursive exercise, and honestly, how was I going to get through a five hour test if she wouldn’t let me potty?

She finally let me go.  It was still twenty minutes until my test was supposed to start, so really, she shouldn’t have given me a hard time.  But she wanted me to start early.

But then we hit another snag.  If I wore a sweater, I was not allowed to remove it during the test, no matter how hot I got.  But they wouldn’t let me feel the closed room for the temperature.  Now, I get cold.  So I had brought one short-sleeved sweatshirt and a sweater.  She made me go back to my locker and leave one there, including my watch, my bracelets, and my own earplugs.  Then she stole my sweater and checked it on every side for crib sheets.  She checked the pockets.  She made me turn out my jeans pockets, including the coin one, lift my pant legs, stick my hands in my back pockets so she could Look Inside (what a creepy job you have, lady!), and then she WANDED me.  Yup.  This was more extensive than airport security.  The only thing she didn’t do was actually frisk me.

At the break time, you have to repeat this process just to get out.  To which I reply: Wait, how could I have swapped bodies with someone inside a locked test room???  This included a signature check.  And then you were allowed your break–except half your break was already used just to get out of the room!

Super-sonic pee break.

Then back to the wanding, pocket-searching, signature checking little old lady.  I suppose that I could have been up to no good in the bathroom.  Most little girls are.  You go in, you play in the sink, you splash water, you body swap with your Mensa-smart twin sister, and then you go home while she finishes your test for you.

After all of this, it didn’t matter what was on the test at all!

Halfway through the third section I started to pray that it was experimental and would not be graded.  That meant that the final math section should appear easier.  But it wasn’t.  The third and fifth sections of the test made no sense.  Now, there’s two options for this: either I did so well on the first math section that they amped up the second.  Or: I soooo failed the first section that they put baby arithmetic on the next section.  Baby arithmetic is my Kryptonite.  I honestly have no idea if it was easy or hard math, and that just went to show me: it didn’t matter how much I studied.  The final eight problems out of twenty were all exponents.  So it wasn’t even very well-rounded.  Say, if a student doesn’t understand exponents in trigonometry, the next question should be something like: Let’s count paper coins!  But alas, it was like my random question generator got stuck.

But: I passed.  Verbally, I did great.  Mathematically, I don’t have to kill myself, and I also never ever ever need to learn math again unless I decide I hate myself and want to give myself a reason to die.  And that’s all that really matters, right?  Separating the people who commit suicide from the ones who are just plain masochistic.



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There is a grand and mythic test.  It decides your fate, your future, and whether or not you’re worth the air you breathe.  It’s called (dun dun dun!) the GRE.

So what’s it really like to study for the GRE?  It’s like having your brain stuck in a blender and transported through a wormhole back twenty years.  Honestly, I started having flashbacks of the first time I learned all this.  Suddenly I was sitting in Mr. Bragg’s 9th grade Geometry class next to the window, while our teacher played with a basketball, and I met my future locker partner for the first time.  Suddenly I was standing in my grandparents’ blue/green carpeted kitchen in the 80s, just barely taller than the counter, learning to make Tang for the first time.

I had to turn off the creative side of my brain entirely.  It kept calling to me: Come out and play!  And I had to be a ninety-year-old grumpy woman and tell it to get off my porch.

Now, you can study for these tests, sure, but for a non-traditional student, you’ve got to be prepared for the hellish wasteland that is your memory.  The last time I took any math class was 16 years ago.  I took geometry 20 years ago.  Algebra (the only math I actually kind of like) is barely on the test at all.

The creators of the test claim that you’ll be using only elementary and middle school math.  Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha snort (oh no, she just died! medic!).

I work at a library and thankfully had access to several different review books by different publishers.  My favorite book to talk about liked to set out what appeared to be straight-forward questions, and then in the answers, the editors would laugh and make fun of you.  “Ha ha, I bet you chose answer D, but in reality, that’s WRONG! Ha ha ha, tricked you!”  I was also lucky enough, at that point, using that book, to have a math genius who was willing to help me out, and who finally took that book, flung it across the room, and explained that I didn’t need to be treated like a fool to re-learn a few math concepts.

Actually, re-learning some of the concepts was fascinating.  (I’m not being sarcastic or anything here!)  If I had been taught this way in the first place, a lot of the math would have not only made more sense, but it would have been more fun and more logical in how to use it in real life.  Unfortunately, my public school teachers were not taught to teach us the logic behind the math.  All I knew was how to show my work, every single step.  And on a timed test that only cares if you can guess what the correct answer is, this is Not Helpful.  Besides, it had been 16 years since my last math class, and I Had Not Used Math Since.  AND, even worse, if I could pass the GRE and if I could get into a university graduate program in language arts or writing, I would Never Have To Take Another Math Class As Long As I Live.  So where’s the incentive?  I could easily go back and re-learn the fascinating parts of the math and spend five or six years doing it.  But there are really no math games out there, and until someone invents The Most Fun Atari Math Game Ever, or a way to publish Fun Math Problems for Grown-Ups next to the crossword puzzle and word search in the daily paper, the only people who are going to benefit from the GRE test are the people who put together said test.  It’s a test designed to Simultaneously prove that you can CONFORM and get the right answers while Thinking Outside the Box.  This is a paradox.

The question becomes, for students hoping to get into an arts program, When do you stop?  How much is enough?  You can keep studying until you get a perfect score (at which time they’ll change the format of the test), or you can decide what’s Good Enough.  The biggest problem was that, once I got to the end of the math review book, I found out that I had re-entered all that information into my brain, but that those TYPES of questions (straightforward concepts) are not on the test at all.  They aren’t testing if you can use the math; they are testing if you understand WHY the math exists in the first place.

Also, as a non-traditional student hoping to get into an arts program, I’m currently working full-time, doing a little elder care on the side, writing and publishing short stories, submitting queries for novels… and what I found when I had to lock my creative side in a Jack-in-the-Box and be all dull and studious was that I hated who I was.  I became dull and drab and watched more television because I didn’t have the energy to be creative after studying for about five hours a night.  I didn’t have time to make Christmas pressies for my sister’s children.  My responses to stupid questions were less malleable and probably less kind.  And all because I was using a side of the brain that I (through genetics) am not supposed to be relying on for anything except to keep me from death.

Coming up in Part 2: I took the test, I passed the test, it nearly killed me.



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