Studying for the GRE at Forty

This is not a book review, unless you actually want to read a review of the Princeton Review’s Cracking the New GRE 2012.  This happens to be what I’m reading these days.  I’m thinking about going back to school for a master’s or a Ph.D., and that means taking the GRE.

I’m a good test taker.  Very good, in fact.  Something about the weird psychology of multiple choice exams — picking the best answer and ruling out the fakes — has always come easy to me.  But in recent days, the Education Testing Service, the Princeton Review, and even the New York Times have warned me that as a person who hasn’t been a student in -umm- a very long time, I shouldn’t be cocky.

The last time I took a formal, day-long examination was in 1996, the bar exam.  And the last time I took a “bubble” test?  The LSAT, 1992.  That would be 19 years ago.

The GRE is premiering its new and improved version beginning in August.  Now, I was pretty happy about taking the old GRE.  I’m actually good at those analogies and word puzzles that most people hate.  The idea of a new test scares me.  I’m an old-timer taking a brand new test.  And it’s been many, many years since I needed to know how to calculate the angles in a triangle.

I can do it.  I just need to get used to the idea that the test is taken on a computer (they didn’t have those in my day, heh heh heh), and actually adapts each section based on how you answer.  Princeton Review cautions that taking a test on the computer is harder than we might think, because we’re used to scribbling on the test form, crossing out answers, etc.  Can’t do that anymore.  Plus we’re actually given a limited amount of paper, so we either have to budget our scribbles, or stop what we’re doing, raise our hands, and wait for a proctor to come around with more paper. Damn them.

And even if I think taking a 4.5 hour test is no big deal, the Times cautions me to think again.  Sure, I work all day in front of a computer.  But when was the last time anyone timed my work?  And when was the last time I had to work for hours without getting up, checking email, or answering the phone?  A very long time.

Recently I had the experience of coordinating a group of 27 education experts (nearly all university professors) through the process of writing a series of paragraphs, in a specific format and using a specific program, and under considerable time pressure.  Most of them, even with their many, many years of experience, couldn’t do it.  Actually, they completed the task eventually but with a lot of hand-holding and hair-pulling (mine, not theirs).  Why?  They are used to working on their own time, writing their own way, and reviewing their own work.  And the greater the expertise, the more difficulty they had with the task.

I’m not saying I’m an expert — but when the Princeton Review tells me I need 4-8 weeks to study, I figure I better respect the book.  The Times informs me that older test-takers score lower, on average, than younger test-takers.  In other words, the 40-somethings score lower than the 30-somethings, who score lower than the 20-somethings.

So while a part of me scoffs at the idea of making vocabulary flash cards, I’ll do it anyway.  And here’s the thing.  Studying for a test after all this time is kind of fun.  Kind of exciting.  I actually like doing equations and figuring out word problems.  And I’m a serious enough test-taker that I don’t just want to be good enough.

I want to crush this thing.

I want to tell the New York Times what they can do with their statistics.

The only question is whether, at 40, I have the stamina to keep up.

  10 comments for “Studying for the GRE at Forty

  1. July 27, 2011 at 9:06 am

    Good luck when you do take it! I took it about 4 years ago on a computer and it wasn’t so bad. It was a little disheartening in the math section when I’d notice the questions would get easier sometimes, telling me I’d been screwing up the previous ones. But otherwise it wasn’t really a different test taking experience than any multiple choice test.

    • July 28, 2011 at 8:02 am

      Thanks! One thing they’ve changed apparently, is the questions don’t change mid-section, but after you complete one section the other sections change. The good thing about that (aside from what you said) is I guess before, you couldn’t go back to questions in your section, but now you can. That seems like a big improvement.

      The problem with taking a new test is the scoring is completely different, and no one has any benchmarks for what’s average or excellent. The grad schools just have to see what comes in.

  2. July 27, 2011 at 10:04 am

    I’m getting ready to take the GRE after a mere eight years without standardized tests (and that was the SAT – to mark myself as a youngster) and reading that article in the nytimes nearly sent me off on a panic attack. I used to consider myself a skilled test taker, but now I’m not so sure…I took the literature gre last year (so I guess I have taken a mult choice test pretty recently) and while I didn’t do badly, I couldn’t help wondering if I would’ve done better if I’d taken the test when I was more in practice. I’m starting prep for the general GRE now, and I think I’ve got to try and view the preparation more like you do – as being kind of fun rather than a new way of torturing myself.

    I do feel lucky, though, that because I’ll be taking the test in Albania I’ll be doing the paper-based version. When I did practice tests a couple years ago I could never get over having to look up at the screen, then down at my paper, then back up at the screen. What a waste of time and easy way to make mistakes.

    • July 28, 2011 at 7:58 am

      Good luck! I sort of thought this would be easy until I read that article and thought about when the last time was I took a 4+ hour exam. With work you never concentrate on anything for long. I didn’t think of the computer as being a challenge until I realized you’re limited on paper and you can’t cross out answers unless you write them out yourself (which the guide book recommends). I hope it goes well!

  3. July 27, 2011 at 8:20 pm

    I loved this post because I too am thinking of registering for Ph.D after a long gap in my studies. Wondering whether I’ll be able to manage it with a job and family. Oh for the carefree days of yore…

    All the best to you.

    • July 28, 2011 at 8:05 am

      Thanks! It seems like a big commitment but an exciting one. I don’t have kids so that makes it a lot easier for me; but I know there are people with families who go back to school all the time. Good luck!

  4. July 28, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    Good luck! I took the GRE about 10 years ago, at age 39. It was all computer then, too, and all the things you mention would be exactly what I would caution. Lots of practice tests made a huge difference to me! Oddly enough, I did better on the math than the vocab although I felt like I was re-learning my high school sophomore geometry class and that’s not really where my skill set tilts. Still, it made me stand out among library school student wannabes, so it all worked out.

    I did enjoy the test prep, too, but felt really geeky saying that. I’m glad I’m not the only one.

    • July 28, 2011 at 4:39 pm

      I’m more of a word person, but what I love about math is the rules are specific, you just have to learn them. With vocabulary it’s a matter of what they put on the test on a given day.

  5. July 30, 2011 at 9:25 am

    I think it would be funny if you wrote a book review of Cracking the GRE, but I’m weird.

    I actually have been timing myself at work (anal and weird), and I’m appalled at how long things take me. But I think you’ll be fine. Your mind might wander, but you won’t actually be able to do anything besides daydream or work on the test. It’s not like you’ll be able to check your email or make a phone call (not unless you want to get throttled).

    My only unsolicited advice (since you seem to have things well in hand) is to get enough sleep the week before the test. Good luck!

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