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The GREs Are: A) Stupid and Dumb, B) Dumb and Stupid, or C) All of the Above

October 5, 2011

EJ Dickson ’11

Last Friday, I woke up at 6:00 a.m. to take the GREs at a strip mall in an industrial suburb of Cleveland. If you have not woken up at 6:00 a.m. to take a standardized test in an industrial suburb of Cleveland 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 Cleveland.

The GREs (Graduate Record Examinations) are harder than the SATs, and about as amusing as getting mugged at an ATM. If you are good at taking standardized tests, you will probably not have a problem with the GREs. If you are bad at taking standardized tests, the GREs will be considerably more difficult. They will make you frustrated and anxious and dry-mouthed and dizzy and unreasonably furious at people who use words like "flocculent" in casual conversation.

Ever since my senior year of high school, I have always been terrified of standardized tests. After I scored abysmally on the quantitative portion of the PSATs, I spent months freaking about the real SATs up until the test date, and I remember doing practice problems all the way to the testing site. "The slope of the hypotenuse is -2x + 3," I muttered to myself, rocking back and forth like a patient in a mental health care facility. "Juan has 14 marbles, so Elspeth has 3." I did this the whole way there until my dad, who was driving me, tuned me out by blaring the Doobie Brothers on the radio.

Of course, all of the tutors and test prep books and study sessions were for naught, as I scored just as well on the quantitative section of my real SATs as I had on my PSATs (I did, however, get a perfect score on both the writing and verbal sections, which means that if I make millions on my first novel, I will end up losing all of it because I can't do my taxes). It was frustrating to be told by my guidance counselor that my college options were limited because I couldn't take tests or do algebra. Even though I ended up going to my first-choice college -- where few people care if you can do algebra, as long as you can write a haiku or paint a picture illustrating the concept of algebra -- the experience left a bad taste in my mouth.

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 good college mean that I would no longer have to agonize over stuff like standardized testing? Didn't that mean I was...well...a grown-up?

To be fair, I'd gotten myself back into this mess the moment I decided that I wanted to go to grad school. Although I'd assumed that getting into a graduate program was like getting cast in an elementary school production of Bye Bye Birdie (i.e. pretty much everyone gets in), I slowly realized that not only would I have to take the GREs, I would also have to compete with older and more experienced applicants, who had houses and families and stock portfolios and problems with their eyesight and long, snowy white beards that went down to their orthopedic shoes. These people were real grown-ups with real careers, while I am a 22-year-old whose professional writing experience is limited to making poop jokes on her blog. I realized that I would only stand a chance against these real grown-ups in the applicant pool if I did well on my GREs.

Of course, this was easier said than done. Although I'd purchased a Princeton Review test prep book a few months before the test, I maybe got through about one-quarter of the practice problems before I started using it as a coaster, mostly for booze. "If Maria has twice as many oranges as Luis, and Susan has eight more oranges than Gordon, how many oranges does Gina have?" I'd slur, my scrap paper sliding down my chest. In keeping with ETS' emphasis on multiculturalism, I took to replacing the names in the word problems with the names of the human cast from Sesame Street.

By the time the test date rolled around, I was shaking in my leopard-print mules. Not only was I woefully unprepared to take the exam, I was also woefully unprepared to deal with the stone-faced staff members there. After patting me down, searching my pockets and putting me through a metal detector, the lady informed me that I would get one ten-minute break during the whole four and a half hour test. "What if I have to go to the bathroom?" I asked in a small, panicky voice. They looked at me contemptuously, like I had just announced, with great pomp and circumstance, that I fully intended on soiling myself.

When I finally started taking the test, I encountered a series of other difficulties. Aside from not knowing the answers to some (okay, most) of the questions, the format of the standardized test itself allowed no room for creative interpretation. Unlike the tests I took at Oberlin, I couldn't answer difficult math problems by drawing pictures or singing a song. In the same vein, I couldn't respond to an essay prompt about the Alaskan wilderness with a four-paragraph treatise on the Berenstain Bears; instead, I had to write what I thought ETS would want, which ended up being an enumeration of the pros and cons of salmon farming.

Ultimately, the GRE was an exercise in trying to satisfy the prodigious needs of ETS, who was, for the time being, my needy, demanding, whiny-voiced lover. I couldn't say the math problems out loud because ETS didn't like it; I couldn't pick a word for the fill-in-the-blank section that made the sentence more interesting, because it would make ETS angry; I couldn't pound on the keyboard and yell, "What is this f***ery?!?!" when I saw a particularly esoteric vocab word, because if I did that ETS would drag me away from the computer and whisper, "Jesus Christ EJ calm down you're only embarrassing yourself act like a grown-up for God's sake."

But ETS is correct in his/her/hir assertion that I am not a grown-up, because a grown-up would not even consider doing any of these things. A grown-up would sit in his/her/hir seat and stay quiet and subject his/her/hirself to a series of menial, useless, unrewarding mental exercises that ultimately yielded no satisfaction and no discernible end. And in the end, for the next four and a half hours, this is exactly what I did.

Of course, because ETS is a heinous bitch who is impossible to please, ultimately my grown-up behavior was all for naught. I did horribly on the quantitative portion, worse than expected on the verbal, and I'm sure whoever grades my salmon farming essay will pass out from boredom by the first sentence, effectively terminating my chances of a decent writing score.

But my scores were secondary to the fact that for four and a half hours, I had behaved like a real grown-up, and when I got back to my office, I continued to do so by sitting in my chair and staying quiet and working. While my work was easily more stimulating than answering reading comprehension questions about early Olmec architecture, I cannot deny that it would have been nice if I had a bottle of pinot gris and the human cast of Sesame Street to keep me company.

Unfortunately, a grown-up doesn't have that option, because a grown-up has responsibilities. And honestly, when I retake the GREs on November 30th, it will be the least of the many responsibilities I now have, which are starting to pile up like the dirty dishes in my sink.

As a grown-up, I will have to know that getting the things you want out of life is not like the casting process for a high school production of Bye Bye Birdie. I will have to know that if I want to go to graduate school, and if I want to excel at my chosen craft, I will sometimes have to sit still and stay quiet. I will have to know the definition of "flocculent." I will have to pretend to care about Alaskan wilderness preservation, and how many stupid dumb marbles Elspeth has.

For the record, though, "flocculent" is an adjective that describes "a wool-like or fluffy appearance," and in the future, I totally intend on using it to describe the texture of my friend's cat's bowel movements. I may be a grown-up, but my eyesight's not totally gone yet.

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