Facing the GRE

Recently, I decided to apply to graduate school to pursue my Masters in Library Science. I’d finally gotten tired of kicking my heels and waiting for a decision to hit me, and though I still have a great deal of fears and second thoughts, I’m willing to shove those aside long enough for me to at least try getting my MSLS.

Unfortunately, the school I’m applying to requires a GRE (Graduate Record Examination) score which necessitates that I pay $180 out of pocket and start studying things I haven’t attempted since high school. Upon learning of this requirement, I immediately called the school and tried to cajole them into waiving the requirement. “Are you sure it’s required?” I asked in my most soothing, wheedling voice. “I mean, my GPA is 3.92 and I’ve worked in a library full-time for over two years. Is it really necessary?”

Yes. Yes, it is.

Needing to take the GRE has put me into contact with numerous GRE-related opinions – the majority of them negative. People seem to regard the test as some sort of ogre fully capable of giving them panic attacks and ruining their lives. It reminds me of how everyone in high school treated the SAT – without a good score, we would never get into the college of our choice and would surely end up working at McDonalds. And while a “good score” should have been subjective, it really wasn’t – you needed to aim for 1600. Anything less was a failure though you might scrape by with 1350 or higher (I’m using 2005 SAT standards.).

I’m not entirely sure where this overinflated estimation of the SAT started or why getting a perfect score became life or death. Perhaps it was because my generation was the first one to be matriculated into the yearly standardized testing regime, which is full of anxiety on all sides. Perhaps it was because Rory Gilmore was on Gilmore Girls with her perfect scores and her perfect skin. Perhaps it was because no one really understood the need for or importance of the SAT and so had no choice but to fear it. Regardless of the reason, we did fear it and our SAT score quickly overtook our GPA (or anything else) in importance.

Since then, I’ve developed far greater lassitude towards standardized tests, partially because I’m almost 30, partially because it’s been a solid 10 years since I last took one, and partially because as an educator I know how useless they are. I simply cannot muster the energy to fear the GRE, even if a certain score is necessary for me to move on with my career.

Which is why when I spent almost three hours this past Thursday night taking my first practice GRE test from The Princeton Review without any prior preparation or studying, I was calm. Utterly calm. I remained calm when I learned that my computer, either because something wasn’t configured right or the test wasn’t compatible with my Mac’s OS, wouldn’t upload at least half of the questions, forcing me to simply skip them. I was calm when it quickly became apparent that I didn’t remember any geometry and thus could not calculate equations about right triangles or circles. I was calm when I learned that I hadn’t correctly understood one of the writing subjects, netting me a failing grade. I was beyond calm when I learned that I got a 152 Verbal, 131 Math, and 3.5 Writing. In fact, I was proud! To get into my program, I only need a 150 Verbal, 140 Math, and 4 Writing – which I almost got without any preparation whatsoever! Failing wasn’t failing – it was proof that I could take this test and excel; all I had to do was study a little. How different from my response at “only” getting a 1200 on the PSAT.

Taking a standardized test as an adult is much preferable to taking one as a “young adult.” As a “young adult,” I had very little control over what would happen once I got my test score. Would I be praised? Would I be punished? Would I be allowed to take the test again? Would I be forced to take it again? Would it make me worthy of what I wanted? I don’t feel that same sense of anxiety, even at the thought of not making the minimum requirements on the first attempt. I’m an adult who doesn’t have to answer to anyone and who has her own cache of disposable income – I can easily take the test again and buy any and all test prep material that I want. I don’t have to ask for permission or praise, and I know that this test isn’t the end of the world. I work full-time at a library already. Failing this test won’t make me lose my job, which is really all I care about.

It also helps that I know who I am, what I want, what I think, and have incorporated at least two-thirds of the GRE skills into my daily life for the past 10 years. Studying for the GRE isn’t like studying for the SAT where I’m trying to cram dozens of vocabulary words and equations in my head and very rapidly learn new, potentially useless skills. As you may notice, I have a fairly expansive vocabulary, capable of retrieving and using words like “necessitates,” “cajole,” “subjective,” and “matriculated.” In my practice test, I didn’t miss a single “Text Completion” question, which is vocabulary-based. I had an almost perfect score on my “Issue Essay,” most likely because I write about issues on a daily basis. In math, I was able to correctly calculate percentages because I’ve had to do so in my developmental work. While the GRE isn’t a real reflection of the work I do or will do, it nonetheless includes many skills I use on a daily basis. That takes out much of the fear.

Of course, when I’m finally sitting in that test room in October, a good portion of my confidence will likely vanish. Instead, I will feel hot and uncomfortable. I won’t be able to just shout things like, “This question doesn’t make any freaking sense! Why would you be deliberately obtuse in a test situation???” or get up to get a water and eat ice cream. I may not have enough room to scribble notes and calculations, and my test-mates may be loud, sick, or smelly. The familiar anxiety that I will somehow at the last minute become magically incapable of remembering something/everything might overtake me, causing my stomach to churn and knot and giving me a five hour stomach ache. These are all plausible and even likely.

Nevertheless, I’m still not afraid. I’m not 17 years old anymore worrying about destroying the first step of my future with one fatally mis-filled circle. I’m not concentrating on stacking up to the fictitious and unflappable Rory Gilmore. I’m not without options or a safety net. I’m just a person taking a dumb mandatory test, and when I’m done, I will grab my keys and cell phone from the attendant, go home in the car that I own, and spend the rest of the night eating pizza and binge-watching Netflix. That’s it. And knowing that makes this whole situation so much easier to face.

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