In which the author, a 54 year old with 30 years in the field of mathematics education, takes the GREs, his first attempt at taking a standardized test in almost 30 years. Here is a list of the other posts in this series:
For some odd reason, I have decided to take yet another turn in my professional life that I hope will eventually lead to something called a “Ph.D.” which, from my cursory knowledge of Latin, means “Doctor of Philosophy.” This is perfect for someone like me, who tends to fein ignorance of the day to day practicalities of living to pursue “a higher calling.” There was only one program I was interested in, and I decided to apply after meeting one of the faculty members at a conference, with whom I developed a very nice rapport over fractions (well, what else would it be?)
In mid-December I sat down to fill out the online application form, which included the usual information (academic transcripts from my undergraduate and graduate schools, three personal recommendations, a 32,000 character essay and other such formalities, including a $175 application fee), when I encountered an unusual request:
The Graduate Record Exams was mandatory in order to apply for the program.
I immediately emailed the admissions office, explaining that perhaps my record of 30 years in education, the honors I received for my masters’ work in the mid-1990’s, as well as a record of numerous professional publications in major teaching journals, would obviate the need to take an exam, especially in light of the fact that I was applying to the education department, and we all know what educational professionals think of standardized tests.
I was wrong. Not only did I have to take the exam, I had to get my scores in immediately, if not sooner. This required hunting for an examination center posthaste within a 10 miles radius. This didn’t prove too hard, as NYC apparently has a lot of people who need to be tested in a standardized way (which I’ll elucidate on in a later post.) I plopped down another $180 (was all of graduate school going to be this expensive?) and got a date for the last week in January. It was the only open time available, and I convinced the admissions officer to accept that my scores a few weeks past the deadline by pointing out that the former city councilman in my district is now the mayor of our fair city (as you might have guessed, I am applying to the Graduate Center at the City University of New York , a.k.a. “CUNY.”)
I have not taken a standardized test in many a year; in fact, the last time I took one was to get my New York State Teaching License, which was more than 3 presidents ago. I did not prepare at all for those tests, because they were more along the lines of “general knowledge” exams, and if there’s one thing I have a lot of, it is “general knowledge” (I guess all those years of watching “Jeopardy!” finally paid off.) In fact, I would go as far as to say that I am pretty much educated beyond my actual intelligence, which means, of course, that I aced each exam without breaking a sweat.
But the GREs were going to be different: this was an exam that would ask a lot more than how to simplify a few fractions or pick out which was not the most appropriate response to a student whose pet wolverine consumed his homework. Nay, these were going to be long and intricate reading passages which demanding my best intertextual hermeneutical analyses. The math portion would require lightning speed computation, estimation and logic skills. This would surely push me to the limits of my smarts, especially in light of the fact that the computerized versions of these tests feature “adaptive” technology, which meant that the questions would get harder as I trudged through the test. I downloaded the helpful test simulation software provided by the College Board and sat down after eating dinner one evening to have a look at what this might be like.
They were hard. Mondo hard. Like, Teen Championship Jeopardy! hard. The reading passages were about very obscure subjects featuring complex details and discussed time periods and events that had been used as the plot lines for many remaindered books found at the local Goodwill. The math problems appeared extraordinarily ambiguous and hypothetical, and the idea of solving 25 of these in 35 minutes appeared to be nothing short of tortuous. I should also note that when I meant by “eating dinner” consisted of consuming 3 glasses of badass red wine, a half-pot of roast chicken with potatoes, and a side of massaged kale.
Perhaps my brain was more focused on digesting the sea of alcohol, protein, carbohydrates and lipids that were sloshing away in my stomach.
Maybe I need to take this a little more seriously.
About 2 weeks before the test date, I decided to take a few hours away from my Sunday and actually go through a timed exam. There’s a lot of traffic that goes through my apartment on any given Sunday, between my girlfriend completing household chores and her daughter doing whatever it is a 19 year old does on an extended college break does (which included catching up on situation comedies.)
The endeavor took up the better part of my day, which was interrupted by frequent trips to the refrigerator and bathroom, intervals of eye rubbing and head scratching, and finally, to help relieve some of the boredom, five fingers of 18 year old Scotch whiskey, straight up. I managed to pull off a 160 on the verbal and a 161 on the math, which, pegging me at the top 87%, would put me well on the way to admission. I figured having fewer disruptions and taking the test earlier in the day would work to my advantage, although not having a glass of whiskey to keep me company would definitely hamper my enthusiasm.
A week before the big day, I took another stab at any pretense of “preparing,” which consisted of beginning another endless practice test with its tedious passages on everything from a 16th century novelist (whose name would come in handy during the actual exam) to the phenomenon of icebergs that somehow found themselves melting away far from home. The prospect of more hours prepping for what was surely going to be 12 miles of bad road was not particularly inspiring, so I threw caution to the wind and focusing instead on kneading the perfect pizza crust for dinner. My only hope was a good night’s sleep followed by a liberal dose of both caffeine and egg protein in the morning.