Taking the GRE

Hello everyone!

You may have noticed that I have not been posting that much of late; this is not because I’ve given up reading or thinking about things. It’s because I’ve come across a new hobby (running) and was preparing to take the GRE.

Running of course didn’t much interfere with the process of blogging, but the GRE did. I got a few different books and worked them over for the past two months (McGraw-Hill stood me MUCH better for reading/writing sections, and Grueber’s did a little better for math—though the reading/writing sections were so poor in the Grueber’s that I can’t recommend it). I got my pretest routine down. I researched my route to the test center. I did my best to get ready under the circumstances (full-time job, holiday celebrations, etc.). And given that I spent so much time and energy getting ready for the test, I figure I better put together some of my thoughts on it.

I grew up in the era of paper-tests and I was so used to taking exams like the GRE in a common, timed setting that they didn’t throw me off as they did many other students. I had always chaulked this up to the fact that I had been so heavily exposed to standardized tests (which was intentional on the part of my upper-middle class school district) and to some innate aptitude for them (an aptitude for which I could in no way claim credit), but my recent experience with the GRE has made me think that there’s more afoot than this.

It’s not hard to guess that smartphones and other gadgets make cheating much easier; combine that with the recent scandals about college students taking the SATs for high schoolers, and it’s pretty obvious that security during standardized tests has become a big deal. As a result, companies that offer testing venues beef up their operations so that big organizations like ETS won’t blame them if someone’s cheated on the exam. When I took the GRE I had to put my belongings into a locker; I could enter with only my driver’s license and the key to that locker, both of which had to remain on top of the desk. No calculators, no pencils, no scrap paper, no drink containers, no snack bars, nada (though they did provide me with scrap paper and pencils at my desk). I had to sign in and out, and demonstrate my empty pockets to a camera every time I entered the room. I sat in a little cubicle with a computer screen, keyboard, and camera overhead so that I couldn’t talk to the other testees. Not that this last would have necessarily helped me—I had the impression from other people in the waiting room that there were other tests being given, and so the people with me weren’t even taking the same exam I was. Whether or not they were taking the GRE, the others were not on the same time table. We started our tests whenever we were through checking in, and my computer would tell me when a particular section was over; I was scheduled to start at 830, but it didn’t much matter that I actually started around 850.

This style of testing has lots of advantages—it lets companies like Prometric offer different tests simultaneously, which makes scheduling the test easier (more tests offered+more testing windows per day=more flexibility for the testee) and cuts the cost of administering tests like the GRE (though I seriously doubt that ETS passed any savings on to me). But as I found out, it makes taking the test a rather different experience. Aside from taking the test on a computer (a difference that my test prep materials had prepared me for), it meant that I was taking the test alone instead of taking the test as an individual within a larger group.

During high school midterms and tests like the SATs I sat in open rooms with large groups of students. I may not have recognized them individually, but we were all recognizable; we were all setting ourselves to the same task. At a certain time we would all put our noses to the same test, and after a certain period we would all be released from the strain of that effort. During the GRE I realized that I missed that communal sense of focus, the sort of shared mood of taking a test. I may not have had the distractions of yawning co-testees or class clowns during the GRE, but I actually kind of missed those things. I realized after I got out that I had been looking forward to the nervous glances and smiles, to the sense that I was taking the test with other people, even if I was working alone on the problems I was completing.

This was a partial explanation for something I experienced during the GRE. When taking a test in public, so to speak, I always felt a certain sense of stoic decorum; even if I flubbed a question I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it and distract someone else. But in Prometric’s carefully created sense of being in a bubble, there wasn’t that unconscious social awareness of being in a group. When I missed a question it threw me off, and I found myself fighting the childish urge to sulk, slouch, and flub the rest of the test on purpose, a sort of what-the-hell, no one is watching kind of feeling. I was able to get through, but my mood was a sort of unpleasant focus, as though finishing out were my best means to thumb my nose at whatever malign fate (or whatever foolish, overconfident part of myself had lead me to underprepare). I was in a state of negative flow—I was completely absorbed, after a fashion, in the test, but I was not happy about it.

So the big question is: how did I do? At least for the reading and math sections I got my scores back immediately (one of the mixed blessings of electronic testing—I’d almost rather wait a few weeks to adjust my expectations before learning my scores), and I’m happy with them. And that is food for thought. Of course we’d all like to fly through tests knowing that we’ve gotten the answers correct; even the risk of overconfidence seems preferable to a constant fight against self-recrimination (“how could I have forgotten to look over that section more carefully during my review process?”) during the test. But maybe that’s all a part of it: they aren’t testing your ability to bisect angles and suss out nuances in reading passages as much as they’re seeing how you hold up under pressure. And maybe a state of negative flow is the best way to get results; maybe that is the essence of high-level execution (Reggie Miller never seemed happy when he glared at Spike Lee, but it’s impossible to argue that he was never successful). This is something I’ve thought about a lot; sometimes I do feel like I focus the most when I’ve made an error that my coworkers/supervisors have seen and commented on. I may not be happy about it, but I feel like I bring up my game a bit more. It seems like a stressful way to perform in the long term, but at least this time it seems to have worked out.

*Reading this over I have to report some autocriticism as someone who has just recently finished studying the Analyze an Argument section of the GRE. There are plenty of other alternative explanations for my discomfort during the test, not the least of which was the fact that I took it in the morning. In high school I was used to getting up and thinking in the AM. Not any more. I also made a few other blunders, like eating an insufficient breakfast, not wearing a light, removable sweatshirt in case I got too cold or hot, and drinking two quarts of protein shake for energy, which rendered me one of the squirmiest testees in the room after about twenty minutes. Or, you know, it could just have been a harder test, one that took me closer to my limits than I’d like to admit. All that being said, I stand by my statement that my subjective experience was most influenced by the fact that I took the test alone and not, as described above, as an individual within a group of others focused on the same task.

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