I took the GRE! Yeah I know that’s a long story, and I’m not going to get into the reasons behind it. Suffice it to say it was a last-minute decision. I had just over a week to prepare. I hadn’t had any math or science whatsoever since first semester of senior year of high school. So yeah, work cut out for me.
Verbal: I have good verbal skills. I string together interesting and accurate chains of words, come up with colorful ways of expressing things, and can come up with good similes. My spelling’s OK and my grammar is nazi-level. However, I don’t have a huge vocabulary, and that’s what the GRE seems to be largely testing. Of course, I speak foreign languages, so I can figure out some things, but at the end of the day, I use $3 words but not $4 ones. I like to think this is because I never felt a need to learn bigger words, if no one’s going to understand them, especially since most of them are mostly just synonyms for more democratic terms. More likely, it’s because I am not, as an adult, an avid reader. I was a huge reader as a child, but as an adult it’s just not how I want to spend my time. I don’t like to feel idle, or physically stagnant. (Of course I can sit at my computer for hours, but at least I feel productive.) I do read, but it’s mostly confined to public transportation situations, more nonfiction than fiction, and, while I do enjoy the books I read, I don’t often read for pleasure.
Tangent: Maybe my aborted reading career is one of the major factors in my writing style. An adult take on a juvenile vocabulary. Like those people who build insane statues out of legos.
Like, ok most of my work is pretty small-scale, but I am a regularly published and paid writer, which is far more than most aspiring writers can say, and if I were someday famous enough to be invited to speak to some students or something about becoming a writer, what would I say to them? “Well, the most common advice to aspiring writers is to read a lot. But I like never read, it’s totally not my thing.” “I guess everybody says to write a little each day, but yeah, I mean that sounds like kind of an utter waste of time, I mean unless you just really suck and need the practice.”
Back to topic.
Quantitative: OK, here we run into problems. I was never Bad At Math. I was pretty good but not brilliant. Like, at my high school there were two AP calculus classes, and I took the easier of the two and got B’s and C’s, but it was still AP calculus. (I dropped it 2nd semester at the teacher’s suggestion, since I was going to music school and would have no reason to take the AP exam.) I just had an extreme disinterest in it, because it burdened me with the bulk of my homework, and was boring. Even if you can find math interesting in theory, Math Class is very boring. And I haven’t used it since then. I mean, I know how to solve for x, and that the Pythagorean theorem tells me that the diagonal of a square is longer than its sides. But nothing more complicated than that.
Analytical: This is essay writing. Essay writing is not a problem. I used to teach a TOEFL class on essay writing. Of course that’s different, since it’s for Speakers of Other Languages, but still- the format is the same.
So as soon as I decided to take the GRE, I went out that very night and bought a test preparation book. I decided that would be the most efficient way of doing things, since I was in a hurry and had Absolutely No Clue. Like, I knew it was supposed to be a hard test, and it was like the SAT’s except to get into grad school instead of college, but that’s all.
Why did I think I could pull it off? Because I have another talent you don’t know about. I am good at standardized tests.
I’ve scored high on everything I’ve ever taken. The Stanfords when I was a grade school student in Jersey, the IGAPs when I was a junior high/highschool student in the Chicago suburbs, and the SATs and ACTs, all with no studying whatsoever besides classroom-based preparation. I think I pretty much always scored around the 98th percentile of everything. Am I that smart? I dunno, they say some people are just good at standardized testing, just like other people are good at winning scholarships. I’m not sure precisely what the skill set is- calmness and confidence, being able to formulate the best guess when you don’t know the answer, stuff like that I guess.
So I started on the book- I think it’s the Barron’s, I forgot already, they’re all the same after all- with the diagnostic test, and was very dismayed. It was HARD. I knew very few of the vocabulary questions, and was flabbergasted by the math. They were, like, trying to make me find the area of a triangle and stuff. All I could remember was πr2, and I wasn’t sure if that was for the circumference or the diameter. Of a circle, not a triangle.
The essays seemed quite doable, just a matter of finishing them in the allotted time.
My scores were pretty dismal. I don’t remember the exact numbers, but the vocabulary was around the 87th percentile, and math was around 25th. OK, for vocabulary that’s fine, but not flattering for a professional writer, or for somebody who’s used to always being in the 98th percentile. For math- ouch. I knew I’d be bad, but I didn’t know I’d be that bad.
I was taking the test for a particular program (again, long story), and while I didn’t actually need good scores- 40th percentile or above on vocabulary and EITHER quantitative or analytical- I had dug a hole for myself by telling the director of the program, since I was trying to get them to let me in even though I was underqualified, that I was expecting to do well on the GRE. (All I knew was it was a standardized test!) So thanks to my big mouth, I actually had to prove myself.
I took one week off of everything to study. I did not work any day jobs or do any gigs besides my church job. I did not practice opera or train. I dropped my current project, working on band booking, which is why we only have one upcoming gig. I basically spent 6-8 hours a day studying. Mostly math, although I spent at least one full day on verbal, and then some on writing and looking up words in the vocab list. My days went something like: sit at desk and study. sit on bed and study. go back to desk and study. Occasionally, for something really different: walk to Starbucks and study.
Of course I already know the test-taking strategies, but it was still helpful. I did learn things, and get a feel for how the exam worked.
I did a practice test that came on the CD rom with the book. I did much better: 98th percentile on verbal, 39th-ish I think on analytical. Better but worrisome. I couldn’t say I was going to do well on the GRE and come back with a 39th percentile score.
Taking the test was $160 and I had to go to this testing center by Penn Station. I really had no idea what to expect. I had only ever taken standardized tests in school- even the SATs were conducted in our high school cafeteria, and we were told how things would go down. I didn’t know if I had to bring my own pencils or scratch paper, could drink water, how long my breaks would be.
It ended up being even stricter than I could have imagined, although all the people working there were really nice. They were Trinidadian or something and very cheerful. The man checking me in said that there were 5 Whites taking the test today!! Like a family reunion of cousins I haven’t met yet! (I like to think I’m related to everyone who has the same last name as me.)
So, all your stuff went in a locker, everything except the key to the locker. No water bottles, no phones- the thing that seemed over the top for me was that they said I could go in with my cardigan, but once inside, I could not take it off, unless I came outside, took it off, and checked back in again. Zikes. I opted to take it off. Oh and as you’ve guessed by now, I had to use THEIR scratch paper and pencils.
The test was so hard. I had always thought “biting your knuckles” was just an expression, until I noticed the back of my hand had tooth imprints.
Verbal: hard. There were fewer words that I recognized than there had been in my studies.
Analytical: so-so. I struggled with the opinion essay, mostly because I realized several minutes in that I had read the question wrong, and had to reformulate. I ended up with 4 long, solid paragraphs, instead of 5. The critical evaluation essay felt really, realy easy.
Quantitative: Jesus. I’d read that the questions get harder if you get more right. I must have had some lucky hits, because things got psychedelic real fast. There was a question that had a number with an exclamation point after it. I was like “WTF does that even mean?? Somebody’s really excited about 88?!” (I’ve since been informed that it’s a factorial and means 88 x 87 x 86 etc etc.) My problem in the practice test had been that, while I got the concepts, I didn’t take the time to check my work, and made a lot of stupid calculation errors. (You can’t use a calculator on the GRE.) So during the test I tried to be more careful and not rush through the questions- but my time was running out, and most of the questions were of the genre that I would be able to figure them out if I took a ton of time to stare at them and do a little trial-and-error, but not just get them right off the bat. I started getting upset when I realized I was behind the clock. After awhile the questions got easier, so I guess I got some of those tricky ones wrong. :)
After taking some extra experimental questions, which I don’t think count towards your score but they didn’t make it clear, and filling out a survey or three, you’re offered a delicate choice: you can choose to have your test scores sent to the institutions of your choice, or not. But you can’t see your scores until you decide. I decided yes- good or bad, I wasn’t going to have time (or money) to take the test again.
And then I got my scores. Right there, on the screen, in that moment.
690 Verbal, 700 Quantitative. That’s 96th and 71st percentile, respectively.
I was a little cross-eyed for a minute there. Of course the percentile ratings are skewed in a different way than the verbal. (I have two hypotheses about this: either a lot of foreign students take the exam and lower the verbal curve because English is their second language, or simply more engineers are required to take the exam than creative writers.) But I did not in my wildest dreams expect to do better on Quantitative than on Verbal. And not to get above the 70th percentile, when I had projected close to the 40th.
Here’s my explanation:
Verbal: I did 30 points worse than on my practice test. I think this is just chance. Reasoning skills or no, a lot of it simply comes down to vocabulary, and I just happened to be offered more words that I knew in rehearsal than I did on opening night. I made educated guesses at the others and guessed wrong. No biggie because it’s a small difference.
Quantitative: I suspect this was something of a fluke. Like, I made REALLY lucky guesses. Plus, a friend who had taken the GRE told me that the first 5 questions count the most towards your score, and I recall those being pretty easy for me. My guesses were all educated ones- even if it was one of my few very very fast “OMG I’m behind schedule and I don’t know this one, just say anything” clicks, even those were considered. Eg, “It looks like the answer to this triangle problem is probably one of the ones that contain a square root,” or “Well I don’t know what a number with an exclamation point after it means, but I’m sure it’s a really big number!!” (You use an exclamation point when you want to augment something, right?) And I do think I benefited from taking time to check my work, while inversely, the speed with which I had to answer the remaining questions forced me to use every test-taking strategy in the proverbial book. That said, if I took the test again without further preparation, I expect I might do slightly better on verbal, but significantly worse on math. LUCK.
Analytical: essays have to be read by an actual person (I think they are graded by both a person and a computer), so it takes awhile to get those scores back. Probably within the next week though. I feel really good about it except my first essay being not a 5-paragraph essay, which I think will hurt me, even though they were long paragraphs and I used flashcard words.
Well that ended up being long, but I just wanted to share my experience! I take a sense of adventure in all kinds of new activities, however dull they might sound to other people. :)