Thursday, November 20, 2008

The GRE: a guide for dummies (Part One)

I'll be taking the GRE on Friday, and still feel much less than prepared. I had printed out the pool of possible essay topics about two months ago, but have not looked at the list since. My excuse is that there are over 300 topics, so I could not feasibly prepare for each adequately anyway.

For a gal who loves words and literature, I also have a strange liking for Math. Back in my high school days, I had won Math contests, beating out senior high students when I was in 8th grade. But it's been years and years since I've cracked open a Math textbook. In the practice GRE tests that I've taken, I'm lucky to get 75% of the questions correct. What scares me about the new computerized method of testing is that I won't be able to skip a difficult question and go back to it later. I must give a response before carrying on, and the question that I get subsequently depends on whether I get that first one right or not. I haven't quite figured out whether it's worth it to spend a lot of time on a question just so I would respond correctly, or if I should give myself a time limit for each question and just carry on come hell or high water.

Other than shuffling through a box of vocabulary flashcards, I started my preparation for the test in earnest only this past week. One of my classmates glared at me as though I was a lunatic when I told her. "People prep for months and months!" she reprimanded. I was trying to act nonchalant, but I was not hiding my panic well at all.

Oh, and another thing -- not all test prep books are created equal. My suggestion for anyone reading this who also might take the GRE sometime in the future: Get the Barron's book, and nothing else. I have bought the Kaplan's, and have borrowed the Pearson and the Princeton Review versions as well, and they seriously do not come close to the Barron's for helpfulness. The Barron's book instilled fear in me, certainly, and I've done horribly on the practice tests presented in the volume, but I think I'm better for it. The other books do not reflect the level of difficulty of the GRE, and would give all test-takers a false sense of their abilities. For instance, when I said that I was lucky to get 75% of the questions right, I was talking about the Barron's. When I did a practice test from the Pearson book, I scored top marks because the questions were ridiculously simple. And trust me, the GRE is many things, but simple it is not. Plus, the Barron's book is the only one that gives sample essay topics that remotely resemble ones that could actually be drawn from the pool.

This is beginning to sound like a product review.... Here are some other pieces of advice to those contemplating taking the GRE: 1) Contact the schools you're applying to in order to inquire which sections they care about and to gauge how much time you need to devote to prepare for each section. 2) Start studying early. 3) At the last minute (like the day before the test), the worst thing to do would be to procrastinate, so don't!

I've sadly not followed any one of the three pieces of advice. And this blog-post is evidence of my procrastination. I'm dumber than the dummy who needs such a guide to the GRE. I need some common sense.

* Part two of this "guide for dummies" will follow after I've taken the exam.... Wish me luck because that's all I'm counting on at this point....