Taking the GRE… 37 Years After the Last Time

Maria Shine Stewart describes taking the exam almost four decades after her first try.

January 22, 2019

How relative life is. As a vintage person, I have been given my share of advice like “don’t put your undergraduate year of graduation” on the CV or résumé -- as if that omission will somehow successfully mask the reality of what or who I am. Wearing hand-me-downs and reading literature, l have felt comfortable with the world that was all my life. Think historic preservation. Fine cheese. Delicious wine. Museums. Symphonies.

Old isn’t necessary bad -- unless your Graduate Record Exam scores are 37 years old. So I recently retook the GRE. Though a number of doctoral programs in English that I was considering don’t require the scores and I was tempted to remove from consideration any that still did, logic dictated otherwise.

I was proud of my old scores, even though I know they carry no ultimate meaning. I have a lot of self-doubt and always have, and good scores are validating (despite their actual validity or reliability, statistically speaking). But whether we are talking cholesterol, blood sugar or the GRE: scores of more than three decades are just plain old. Alas, that remains the case even if the paper they’re printed on is still supple and colorful and the test taker well versed in academic argumentation.

In the interim, I taught, worked as a professional writer and editor, taught a whole lot more, earned two master’s degrees, recovered from a serious accident, helped family out, and reached an age at which retirement is not going to happen. I have much more to give creatively, and as I’ve put in my graduate personal statements: “I’ve reached the end of the runway as an adjunct faculty member.”

If, like me, you have wondered if it’s too late for a terminal agree, I understand. If you’ve stared at newly minted Ph.D.s and wondered if you are still minty enough, you might be. Just know what’s changed.

In the old days, it was a paper test.

In the new days, it is online unless one gets special exemption (and that is only available if arrangements are made well in advance).

In the old days, there was one right answer.

In the new days, by and large, there is still one right answer, though don’t read too fast in the event you are asked for two.

In the old days there was no strip search at the test facility.

In the new days there is no strip search -- but a wand was used as a security device, my little ring was scrutinized and I could not wear a watch.

In the old days, I was adept at playing the college game of taking tests in class. I see that gaming face in the expressions of my students who relish this as a “break” from the ambiguities of writing. Believe it or not, binaries are refreshing for many students. And who does not like a gold star, a bold 100 percent, preferably in red, or even an A-plus written at the top of a piece of paper?

In the old days, as a curious polymath, I loved all the courses I took in school -- even math.

Today, I’m the tax preparer, do the business side of a small business, am entrusted with the calculation of grades and proudly took or passed statistics at the graduate level three times. (Twice I bailed, not failed. On the third, I sailed.)

In the old days, writing was done with an implement one could sharpen or fill up.

Nowadays, the computer keyboard allows for speed, but feelings remain an un-erasable part of the Aristotelian triangle. I was a little surprised at how I felt in the analytical writing section. The fact that I write regularly, with some suppleness, and teach introductory courses in writing made little difference. I did not want to fake it; my heart told me to write one way in response to the first question and my head dictated another! To answer my truth would have taken a book chapter, so I tried to argue the answer in a way I do not really believe. The timer, which one can watch ticking away, made me do it.

By the second analytical writing question, I shifted my stance. “I’m just going to write and think as I like to, regardless.” My reward was a sense of flow and discovery -- but I have no clue which question was answered better; the scores are averaged.

Full disclosure: I did run out of time in one quantitative section; I should have followed my son’s advice to skim the math questions first and attack the easiest, rather than taking them one by one in sequence and pondering too long the lovely geometric shapes.

As this column winds down, of course you want to know the numbers but are way too polite to ask. They were strong at verbal, not entirely representative in math and somewhat lower in analytical than you’d expect from someone who has written for a living.

Tests -- like colleges, like degrees, like any human -- are imperfect. And test takers? If they’re anything like me, perfection will elude them, too. The best payoff of having jumped this hurdle is that my EQ (empathy quotient) has deepened, not that there’s an actual test for that. Yet.


Maria Shine Stewart is a licensed professional counselor and adjunct lecturer in writing.


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