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Are You Ready for the GRE?

by Emily Willingham

So you're planning to apply to graduate school, but you haven't set foot in a classroom in more than a decade? The first rite of passage most graduate schools require for acceptance is taking the Graduate Record Examination, or GRE. Many of us thought standardized tests were behind us as we crossed the stage in black robes to accept a hard-earned bachelor's degree. Then we found we needed more than that piece of paper to stand out in a crowd, and now the GRE hovers in of our path, the first trial by fire we must confront.

For some, standardized tests are easy and don't cause intense anxiety; others would rather step on a rusty nail than subject themselves to exam torture. Regardless of the group you're in, you still must ask yourself a few questions. For example, how long has it been since you took an algebra class? Do you know formula for the circumference of a circle? What does “luculent” mean?

The GRE is a straightforward test with math requirements that don't exceed a basic knowledge of algebra and geometry. But if years have passed since you've had to recall the Pythagorean theorem or look up a word in a Victorian novel, a little preparation is a good idea. A good place to go is the GRE source: the Educational Testing Service (ETS) . This site offers all the information you need on testing times and locations, preparation techniques, and -- most important to the test taker -- sample questions.

Also available are test-prep services, for a price. If you have taken the test in the past and not done as well as you would have liked, one of these courses might be worthwhile. Too, if you know yourself well enough to realize that you won't study regularly in preparation for the test, these classes offer a good structure for re-learning the basics. Some test-prep services give information on-line about their courses.Two sites that include sample test questions, test-taking tips, and other useful information are Kaplan and the Princeton Review.

The last opportunity to take the paper-and-pencil version of the GRE is April 10, 1999, in the United States. After that, your only choice will be to take the Computer-Aided Test (CAT). Taking the GRE CAT has benefits and drawbacks, depending on the individual. One drawback may be that you must take the test on a computer. If you're not handy with a computer or a mouse, learn it now. The last thing you want is the extra anxiety of learning computer basics while you're taking the test, even though the testing preliminaries include a tutorial. Another drawback is the cumulative nature of the test. Every question on the paper-and-pencil test carries the same weight; on the GRE CAT version, if you answer a question incorrectly, your next question will be easier and accorded less weight, so your performance at the beginning of the test can really affect the outcome. Also, you cannot go back and change an answer once you've entered your choice.

But taking the GRE CAT also has benefits. First and foremost, the test schedule is far more flexible. Testing takes place several times a week at many testing centers, rather than once every few months, and you need not schedule half a year in advance. The GRE CAT is shorter, giving test-takers only one set of questions each from the verbal, quantitative and analytical groups. But an “experimental” section from one of these groups is also included, and the test-taker does not know which section is the trial. At the end of the test, before the computer calculates your score, you do have the opportunity to decide that you don't want this test to count. If nerves or lack of preparation make you feel that you did poorly, choosing this option might be a good idea.

One feature of the GRE CAT can be either its best or most intimidating characteristic, depending on the test-taker. The computer can calculate and report your score to you within minutes of test completion, rather than the weeks it takes to report a pencil-and-paper score. For some, this feature is instant gratification, while others would rather have the breathing space. If you need to prepare for the GRE CAT by learning to use a computer, a good choice might be a software program that offers test preparation especially for the GRE CAT version. Local computer software stores and bookstores carry these programs. Look for products that not only give you practice in test-taking, but also include complete practice tests that will calculate your score for you. They'll give you a good idea of how well you'll do.

Using these preparation resources and perfecting your test taking through practice can diminish the stress and help your performance. So don't wait until the week before the test. Start right away. A good beginning could be looking up the word “luculent.”

Emily Willingham returned to school in 1996 after a seven-year hiatus. She is currently a Ph.D. candidate in biological sciences at UT Austin.

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