How to Write the GRE Exam (And Not Die)

Last week, I wrote one of the scariest exams any undergraduate student will ever face.

This bad boy.

For those of you who didn't give up most of the freedom of your 20s in exchange for disapproving sighs from a thesis supervisor, the Graduate Record Exam is a four-hour exercise in misery that determines whether or not a particular student is clever enough to move on to graduate programs. Some graduate programs don't require this beast of an entrance exam, but since people who work in admissions departments apparently feed on human misery, the test is being expanded each year to encompass every subject you could ever hope to study at a post-undergraduate level. It's international, too, to if you think you can make a daring escape to the universities of Tanzania or Botswana, you are sadly mistaken. 


Which means no bitchin' futuristic space campus for you.

Before I go into any further into my experience with the test, fair warning: I will not be disclosing any details about the questions that appeared on my tests or the writing prompts I received. For one thing, I paid just enough attention to all the legal documents I signed to know that publishing or disseminating test material is illegal, and two, I have no interest in being a party to cheating. So if that's all you're looking for, turn back now. 

And also, shame on you.

The first thing you need to know about the test is that it cannot be written at your university - that's a conflict of interest. Instead, it has to be written at a designated test facility, which, in practical terms, means you'll probably be writing it at a desk in a random rented-out industrial garage. In my case, the local test centre was crammed into a side office in a childrens' tutoring centre, which means that as I was writing the test, disinterested eight-year-olds were banging their mushy little heads on their desks just on the other side of the wall. As far as test conditions go, it left a lot to be desired. 

If you keep it up, Timmy, you'll never have to worry about scoring well at university someday.

Now, I'd read about the exam's security measures on their webpage prior to showing up to the test, but I didn't take them all too seriously. My high school had sent out similar memos that promised everything from calculator inspections to naked squat-and-cough cavity searches before final exams, but none of those security measures ever seemed to materialize. At best, a bored teacher's assistant would remove obvious hidden cheat-sheets from the gymnasium bathroom stalls and pretend not to notice when some brave soul turned up with a full plot summary to The Catcher and Rye scrawled on his forearm (the joke being, of course, that that book has absolutely no plot). So when it came to the GRE, I figured things would be pretty much the same; a test proctor might scan the room every now and then for obvious cheating, but other than that it would be just like every other exam I've ever written. 

I have never been so wrong. 

These people are wasting their talents on test security.

This exam is supposed to be preparation for graduate school, but the only thing it really prepared me for is being wrongfully convicted of a murder and processed into the criminal corrections system. When I first arrived at the testing centre, I naively blundered into the main testing centre office; since I had cleverly opted to write my exam at 5 o'clock in the evening, I expected to find one or two other students seated at computers, with a single, haggard-looking proctor pretending not to play solitaire on her own computer at the front of the room. That is not the sight that greeted me when I walked in.

This. This is what greeted me. 

The first thing I saw when I walked in the door was a handful of employees, all huddled up and carefully scrutinizing a bank of security camera monitors pointed at the hapless test-takers inside. I had been warned before arriving at the centre that being videotaped was a distinct possibility, but again, it's not something I ever thought they'd actually go through with. Every single test-taker had more than one camera trained on her, ensuring that every nose-pick and butt-scratch would be caught on film for the proctors' viewing pleasure.

Participants were actually graded on nose-picking depth and technique.

The other thing you need to be aware of before the exam (because you're the sort of person who reads mandatory test information carefully) is that you cannot bring any of your own possessions into the test room. Nothing. Zip. Zero. Zilch. Not a pencil, not a water bottle, not a spare mote of dust is to be brought into the exam with you. The test centre does generously allow clothing to be worn into the examination, though I got the feeling that this was a begrudging allowance on their part.

But really, no one needs to see this without clothes on. 

After all my possessions had been locked away in a locker, out of the reach of my cheating, cheating heart, I was allowed to walk into the test room. Ha! Just kidding. First, I was plunked out into the hallway and handed a typed copy of an oath that essentially promised I would sooner light myself on fire than smuggle notes into the exam. Merely signing this oath was not considered a sufficient promise to refrain from cheating, however. Oh, no. I had to handwrite that fucker, in cursive, word-for-word, copying it down on a sheet of paper and then signing it. I got no more than three words into the task when I realized something. 

I don't remember how to write in cursive. 

Be honest, you don't remember this shit either.

I had two minutes to go until exam time, and there I was, sitting out in the hallway like an idiot, painfully tracing out an approximation of what I remembered a cursive letter "o" to look like. It wasn't going well. I figured that was it for me - I was going to be forever barred from graduate school because I couldn't handwrite a short paragraph. The bards will write cursive poems about me, just to mock me. Out of desperation, I resigned myself to just scribbling down the oath in a series of letters that sorta, kinda looked like English letters, hoping that the exam proctor would interpret me as 'eccentric' and not 'irreparably brain damaged'. I signed my name at the bottom and turned it in. 

Two minutes later, the proctor was back, telling me there was a problem. 

Oh, shit.

See, the signature on all of my exam-related documents absolutely had to match the signature on the passport I was using for ID. And this wasn't just the 'fuck it, I'm not earning enough money to care about credit card fraud' signature check that you'd get from your local cashier. They scrutinized it like I'd hidden the location of the Holy Grail within its loops and pretentious squiggles. This was a problem for two reasons:

1) My passport is nearly five years old, dating back to when I was a child of sixteen.

2) When signing the passport forms, I was so freaked out by the 'DON'T LET YOUR SIGNATURE GO OUTSIDE THIS BOX OR WE'LL KILL YOUR WHOLE FAMILY' warning that I fucked it up. Not wanting to get a new form and go through the whole tedious process of filling in my information all over again, I instead morphed my fucked-up signature into a bizarre version of my signature that has never, ever been used since. 

My actual signature (artists' depiction).

I was then forced to re-write my signature, over and over, until I was able to match the one seen on the passport. Which means, in essence, if you're going to pose as somebody else to write the exam, don't worry if you can't forge their signature right off the bat - you'll be given plenty of time to practice until you can get it just right. The next step is to pass through a security system that would make an airport jealous - metal detectors and all - and step into the actual exam room.

Seen here.

The exam room was, bar none, the hottest room I have ever been in that wasn't actively on fire. I briefly wondered if I was being punished for having aspirations of higher learning. The place was so hot, there was one employee whose job was just to walk around the room, collecting castoff pieces of clothing and taking them back into the office as the test-takers gradually sacrificed their dignity to the heat. It became blisteringly clear to me why my test was limited to four hours; it had nothing to do with seeing me perform under pressure, and everything to do with getting me out of the room before my brain actually started to cook. 

This is your brain in the GRE.

Despite spending my formative years listening to whiny pop-punk music at eardrum-blistering levels while I did homework, the quasi-adult version of Janel is completely incapable of performing any sort of cognitive function if there is background noise going. Luckily, the staff at the centre understood my freakish need for complete and total silence, and test-writers were provided with industrial-grade noise cancelling headphones for the duration of the test. Perfect. All I had to do was get through the next four and a half hours in total silence, while slowly roasting from the inside out. I could do that. 

Piece of cake.

The first few sections went by uneventfully. It's hard to judge how well you're doing on this test, but I had a pretty good idea that I wasn't failing spectacularly. 

Then a few things went sideways all at once. 

Math has never been my strong suit. Not in high school, not in my computer science days, and not now. Don't get me wrong, I'm not the sort of person who breaks down into weeping hysterics when asked to calculate sales tax without a calculator. I can take a derivative and find a limit and all sorts of other useless things that will have no benefit to me in my chosen career. What I cannot do is race through tricky math questions quickly. Unfortunately for me, that's sort of the entire point of the math section. 

Doing math at the speed of Janel.

The heat and pressure were starting to get to me, but instead of turning my carbon-based body to graphite (that's a science joke, folks), I reverted to the age-old infantile strategy of chewing on things to cope with stress. I was hesitant to chew on the test centre pencils that had been in God-knows-how-many sweaty hands. Chewing an article of clothing was an option, but I was mindful of the cameras; the test administrators had the right to intervene if they noticed any unusual behaviour on my part. Lacking other options, I started to gnaw on a scab on the back of my hand. 

Maybe I won't add a picture this time.

Gross? A little. Relatively harmless? I thought so. Right up until I hit a particularly tricky question with less than five minutes to go, and bit that scab right off, opening the wound up again. If you've ever had to do a finger poke for blood typing or blood sugar testing, you know that hands bleed like nothing else. Within a few seconds, I had blood everywhere. And it showed no signs of stopping. 

Picture unrelated.

Stopping the test for any reason means cancelling your score and walking away to re-do it at another date, and I had spent so much time preparing for the test that that wasn't option. I was also under pressure to not act suspiciously. So I sat in front of the computer, frantically doing math with one hand, while trying to pretend that my frantic sucking on my left hand was a simple case of nerves and not a desperate act of necessary vampirism. I heard the exam proctor slow down a few times as she walked behind me, but I managed to get my bleeding wound under control just in time for my ten minute break.

Should have claimed I was trying for a PhD in hematology.

The next piece of insanity during this test comes with leaving the room. Test takers have the option of leaving the room for a ten-minute snack/beverage break, and since I was slowly turning into a giant piece of dried people-jerky, I definitely needed the break. But getting out of the room wasn't so simple. Before I could leave, my ID and signature were scrutinized again, just in case I was a total stranger who had bent the laws of time and reality to crawl into the room through the air ducts, unnoticed. I re-hydrated within full view of the exam staff, only to undergo rigorous ID checking again upon re-entry, just in case I was some kind of master changeling who'd managed to shift form right before their very eyes. 

Not this changeling.

I got back to my seat and before I knew it, the long-dreaded test was over. Done. Finito. This is a computerized test, which means results are available instantaneously once you hit the 'send scores' button. As I mentioned, it's difficult to judge how well you've actually done on this test, which made the final test screen even more difficult. As a final way of grating your fragile nerves and tormenting your nightmares forever, the GRE ends with two choices: you can send your scores, planting them onto your permanent record for graduate schools to mock forever, or you can invalidate the scores and walk away from the last four hours of your life, taking your chances with the next exam. There is no way to un-do this decision - if you decide to send horrible scores, the graduate schools you applied to will laugh as they set fire to/wipe their butts with your application, because you can't cancel those scores ever again. If you choose not to send good scores, you are out of luck. You have to come back and repeat the whole ordeal. 

I stared at those two options for longer than I stared at any question in the test, trying to make up my mind. Ultimately, I shrugged my shoulders and nobly decided "Fuck it, I'm not sitting in this goddamn steamroom again if I don't have to" and clicked send.

Me, at that moment.

Long story short, I did well. Very, very well. Much better than I ever hoped I could score, and I am definitely in no danger of having to write that test again. The staff who had so carefully scrutinized my every move for possible cheating now tried to hide their giggles as I did a ridiculous happy dance out of the room (complete with another ID check), collected my things, and danced out into the night where my mom's minivan awaited.

Grad school, here I come.



7 comments

  1. I remember it well. I took the dreaded GRE in 1975 and it sounds about the same today. If this will make you feel better, I now only have occasional nightmares about it.

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    Replies
    1. Good to know! 40 years of nightmares sounds pretty reasonable.

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  2.  I totally support GRE/GMAT based exams when a student is going to enter into programs of such a higher academic level.

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  3. An interesting read for me as I'd never even heard of the GRE before! I'm glad there's no such thing in the UK as I don't think I'd have coped with the stress of even the simplest of extra tests on top my degree, let alone one this important. A big well done to you for doing so well!

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  4.  I am getting a jump on the GMAT because I wanted to start applying to get in an MBA program as soon as possible. I have been taking an online GMAT prep course to help me prepare for the test, as it being online has been very convenient for me.

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  5. I got into MBA through online GRE training program and some useful CDs. This content helped me though. Do keep up this good work.


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  6. Interesting to see how this will shape up in the future. At the moment, most people applying to B-school with the GRE are those who are also using their GRE scores to apply to specialized master's programs in other business areas

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