Like many seniors, I decided I want to attend graduate school and rack up more student debt. To get into grad school you need a good GPA, professors willing to write supportive letters of recommendation, a curriculum vitae, and, oh yes, decent Graduate Record Examination (GRE) scores.

The GRE, run by Educational Testing Service (ETS), is much like the SAT, only harder. Of course, it's not like graduate schools pay as much attention to your GRE scores as they do your GPA. At some schools they pay more attention. Yes, that's right: there are many graduate schools that pay as much or more attention to the scores you get on one five-hour test as they do your 3600 classroom hours.

I knew I had to do well on the GRE to have any chance of getting into grad school, especially my top choice. Like many students, I went to a free Kaplan practice test on campus last October. Kaplan is known as a top-ranked coaching organization. ETS does not teach any preparatory course for their test, likely for conflict-of-interest reasons.

I showed up at the campus center and took the Kaplan practice exam. Scoring was in flux because ETS had just changed their scoring system, and Kaplan had no real data on how to grade by the new system. I did pretty well, but I knew I needed to take this test extremely seriously and my math was rusty. I signed up for a Kaplan course and got their prep books.

That's when Life overwhelmed me for a month and a half. I had no focus outside of schoolwork and other obligations. I talked with one of my professors, who said, "You need to just take the test and get your scores in." When I started looking at application deadlines for graduate schools, right after Thanksgiving, that's when I started to panic a little. Don't wait that long.

I ended up scheduling my test a mere seven days later. This is, for the record, crazy. I had not taken any of my Kaplan coursework yet and wouldn't have time to do it before the test. I ended up using their test-prep books, drilling every day.

I got my scores online over two weeks later. While I would have liked to have done better on the essay section I am generally satisfied with my scores. For somebody who didn't actually take a testing course I think I did very well. My professors seemed pleased.

ETS has very serious non-disclosure agreements so I can't tell you much about the test itself. The ETS website does mention that the test includes a quantitative (math) section, a verbal section, and an essay section. Kaplan people will tell you that the math section doesn't require anything beyond high school math. At the test center, don't try to sneak anything in -- they'll almost certainly catch you and you'll be out $160.

If you want to go on to grad school and pile up some more student debt yourself, here's what I suggest to prepare for the GRE:

  • Plan in advance. If at all possible, give yourself a month or two between signing up for a test and actually taking it, so you have time to study.
  • Study hard. There are several different services that can help teach you how to take the test and what kind of questions to expect. There's even a course here at UMass Boston that I didn't know about beforehand. If you're nervous, get a service.
  • Take practice tests. Give yourself time trials. If you answer the questions but need a lot of time, try to speed things up.
  • Memorize the program names and codes for the schools you want to attend. At the test you can designate up to four schools to receive your test scores for no additional charge. After the test ETS charges you $23 per school.
  • Get a good night's sleep. When you go in to take the test, make sure you've had enough sleep and eaten enough food to keep your focus. They do have bathrooms, water, and short breaks.

I do recommend some three credit courses here as well: a Critical Reading and Writing class for short essays; math courses up to 114QR; and English 308, Professional Editing (don't take this one just for the GRE!). There is a core studies class that teaches how to recognize English word cognates, which would probably help too.

One final piece of advice: if you have a lousy day at the test center and you know you've done horribly, you can always choose to retake the test another time. Sure, you'll be out another $160 and another day of your life, but you can regroup, re-center, and retry. Do not let $160 get between you and the grad school of your dreams. It's your future, so understand your choices.

I won't know if any grad school will accept me until March. Wish me luck!

 

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