Yesterday, I woke up at 6:00 a.m. to take the GREs at a strip mall in an industrial suburb of Worcester. If you have not woken up at 6:00 a.m. to take a standardized test in an industrial suburb of Worcester before, I strongly advise against it. It’s a little bit like waking up at 6:00 a.m. to take a standardized test in an industrial suburb of Worcester.
The GREs (Graduate Record Examinations) are harder than the SATs (on which I under-performed), and about as amusing as getting mugged at an ATM. So when I pulled up to the testing center last week, I started to consider whether or not going to grad school was worth reliving my SAT experience. Wasn’t I done with this?, I thought. Didn’t graduating from high school and getting a degree from a decent college mean that I would no longer have to agonize over piddling stuff like standardized testing? Didn’t that mean I was…well…a grown-up? In the eyes of ETS, however, being a grown-up means spending an unreasonable amount of money to do menial mental exercises while sitting still in a chair for four hours. Which I guess isn’t too far from the truth.
Utter whatever curse you want about the GRE, or the broader rise of standardized testing. Whatever insult you can level at it, the GRE probably deserves it. Particularly nasty is the verbal section’s dependence on archaic vocabulary. It is one thing to test for vocabulary words that people actually, you know, use—surreptitious, taciturn, gregarious—but then you get those words that even the most well-read English speaker cannot recall ever stumbling across—saturnine, esurient, peculation—and are punished for the egregious sin of not knowing something that is otherwise only recognizable to a professional English etymologist.
If you’re the sort who cares about fairness and merit in academia, you’re probably aware that this sort of test is especially unfair to students who speak English as a second language. Imagine that: you work for years to learn English, get a good score on the TOEFL, maybe even attend college in the US. Then you take the GRE and because you don’t know what “peripatetic” means you might has well be tossed in a volcano.
I exaggerate, of course. But many would agree that the GRE is a bad test of academic ability; it is more of a test of your ability to jump through bureaucratic hoops and cough up $150. The reputable Princeton Review Guidebook states outright, “the GRE is not a test of your intelligence or academic ability. It is a test of how well you take the GRE.” For example, let’s take a disheartening look at the skills needed to be a successful graduate student vs. the skills needed to succeed on the GRE:
- What you need for grad school: the ability to build and draw on your previous knowledge in order to solve problems
- What the GRE tests: the ability to take only one source’s word for it when answering questions
- What you need for grad school: the ability to use and cite resources in your writing
- What the GRE tests: the ability to write essays based totally on personal thoughts and opinions, unsubstantiated by research
- What you need for grad school: the ability to get along with committee and other department members
- What the GRE tests: the ability to work by yourself
- What you need for grad school: the ability to “skim”–to get through massive quantities of information and come out with the general argument
- What the GRE tests: the ability to pick through the structural nuances of individual sentences
- What you need for grad school: the ability to produce consistently good work over a long period of time
- What the GRE tests: the ability to artificially inflate your score by cramming and cranking out results in one four-hour session
- What you need for grad school: the ability to find creative solutions to problems and follow through through on a unique, self-designed research project
- What the GRE tests: the ability to write what you think ETS wants to hear (no creative interpretations on questions, those are “off-topic”)
You could protest. You could howl and throw a tantrum and vow to only apply to schools that don’t need a GRE score or just throw in the towel and take the GMAT or LSAT instead. You could fill with righteous anger and protest graduate schools’ dependence on a money-making racket disguised as a standardized test to judge another human being’s “potential.”
But, at the end of it all, you will still have to take the GRE to go to grad school.
I recommend getting a good review book, studying with friends who have strengths in different areas, and visiting your school’s career center to see if there are affordable classes or tutors.
Now that it’s over I can swear an oath to never ever not ever take a standardized test ever again. My wish for others is to prepare well and early, get through the GRE, and move on with their lives already. We are all much more than a test score.