Tuesday, July 30, 2013

All you need to know about the GRE

If you’re thinking about applying for grad school, one of the first things you should plan for is taking the GRE (Graduate Record Examination). There are very few schools that won’t ask you to send them the results of this exam with the only exception that some might ask for GMAT – basically the same thing, only focused more on math than its competition, usually required by MBA programs. Check out the websites of the schools you want to apply to and see which test they want you to take and then start working on honing your test-taking skills!

Here are the answers to some of the most common question about the GRE.

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By U.S. Navy photo by Photographer's Mate 2nd Class Tiffini M. Jones. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

How important is the GRE in admissions process?

My wife used to be on a student advisory board of one of the most prestigious American universities as a student who reviewed graduate applications and recommended them to be admitted or not. So this is what she found.

There are so many applications that it is hard to keep track of everybody’s grades, test scores, personal statements, etc and what you want to do as an applicant are two things – not screw up a part of your application terribly (that immediately eliminates you) and somehow find a way to stand out from the crowd – this could be a stellar resume followed by a really good personal statement.

When it comes to GRE results, they can unfortunately do you more harm than good. Basically, if you have very bad results, that may raise a red flag, and if your results are really good, you might get a “Oh, nice” from the person reviewing your application. If they are just average (as, by definition, most of them are) nobody will look at them twice.

If you’re an international student, universities will tolerate lower verbal scores but don’t expect them to overlook your bad math results if you’re applying to an MBA program. In short, if you’re applying to a program in humanities or social sciences they won’t care much about math, the sciences/MBA programs will put less emphasis on the verbal part, and you want to at least get an average result on both not to raise any alarms about you application. Which brings me to the test structure.

What does the test look like?

The test is roughly divided into three parts – verbal skills, quantitative skills, and analytical writing. If you want to get into the nitty-gritty details (and you should), you can find it here. As someone who took this test five years ago - and aced it, if I may add - I can tell you that it is quite difficult and you should take it seriously. Remember, it’s not the thing that will get you into the program but it might be the one eliminating you from further consideration.

The verbal part consists of multiple-choice questions that refer to academic-level texts about science, literature, art, etc. that you are supposed to answer in a very short time window. The articles are not simple and you need to be focused throughout to be able to answer the questions (the answers tend to look alike and they are designed that way to confuse you). Also, you’ll have to learn a lot of “big words” – they’ll ask you for synonyms, antonyms, logical reasoning (if A then B questions with long words in between), and stuff like that.

The quantitative section is basically a code for high-school math so I won’t dwell more on that. GMAT will require you to know this at an A level, so watch out! Also, these are also multiple-choice questions; they don’t care how you got the result or even if you guessed it! This may come as a surprise to many international students.

Analytical writing is just that. You’ll have to write two essays – one analyzing an argument, one analyzing an issue. More than form, you’re asked to show critical thinking and that you can demonstrate it in writing in a coherent manner. It doesn’t have to be perfect or very long, it’s not a term paper and they know it’s written in haste.

The test takes around 4 hours to complete and, depending on where you’ve registered, it can be paper-based or computer-based. It is administered by ETS or their affiliates which can differ greatly in their practices around the world. For example, I took the paper-based version (now almost extinct but still going strong in some countries) and in my experience it was easier to navigate and quicker to finish than the other one. I did a lot of practice on computer-based mock tests from previous years and the thing about them was that I had to answer every question before getting a chance to answer the next one. I think this has now changed  for more info check out the ETS website.

You can take the test quite often during the year (3-4 times in some countries), especially the computer-based version. The paper-based test is only administered in a few countries and they’re phasing it out, slowly but surely. Of course, if you’re already in the United States, only sky is the limit! Also, you can retake the test and choose to send only the results you pick. Check out what’s available in your location.

How do I prepare for the GRE?

Well, practice makes perfect. I did great on the test although I’m not a native English speaker, and what I did was get a lot of mock tests from my academic advisor and solve them, a few every week. You can find (or purchase) a lot of stuff to help you along the way but, honestly, I wouldn’t bother spending money. Just learn how to solve this particular type of test and make it a routine because you won’t have much time to think about the best test-taking strategies while you’re rushing from one question to another. You can also find some documents for free online, like Math Review or Practice Book for the Paper-Based GRE.

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By Tbuckley89 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

How long will it take to prepare for the test?

Very hard question to answer  This depends on where you are with math and if English is your first language. If it is and you are a college graduate, I would say from a couple of weeks to a month. If English is your second language you might be in it for a couple of months but it all depends on your individual circumstances. Here’s an interesting discussion about this.

How much does it cost and how are the results distributed?

This is a question usually asked by international students not familiar with standardized tests in the US. As of July 1, 2013 the price is $185. Why? Because they know you’ll pay anything, that’s why. The way this works is you do the test and they send you the scores by mail but you can also access them online. When you apply for the test you give the names of four schools where you want them to send your results. If you want to add more schools, you can do that, but that privilege will cost you additional $$$. The schools should get the results of the computer-based test within a couple of weeks and the paper-based one within six weeks.

What is the GRE Subject Test?

In addition to the general GRE test, students can take subject tests in specific areas: biochemistry, cell and molecular biology, biology, chemistry, computer science, English literature, math, physics and psychology.
These paper-based tests have their own fees and are offered only in October, November and April. Contact the schools you’re applying to in order to find out if you’re required to take a subject test.

Can I cheat?

You can try! I get this question sometimes from people, so that’s why I want to address it here. Honestly, if you’re taking the computer-based test I sincerely doubt you can even think about that but it is possible with the paper-based version. I did see some people copy their friend’s work when I was taking the test but I would definitely advise against it. Not only is it bad from the moral point of view but it is also something you can’t rely on. Just imagine if you get caught! The future of your academic career shouldn’t depend on your ability to get away with being a cheat… Oh, I almost forgot, there have been a lot of interesting stories coming out of Asia about unusually high scores for years now.

Ok, if you stuck around this long and you’re an international student, here’s a bonus section!

TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language)

If you’re not a native speaker, and you haven’t spent a year studying in an English-speaking country (South Africa doesn’t count, for some reason) you’ll have to take this test. The universities want to make sure you can attend classes and write well in English.

In my experience, there are a lot of people who pass this test and get accepted to universities without being fluent in the lingo. I’ve had a few people in my classes during grad school who struggled quite a bit during the first semester but you could tell that by the end of the first year the progress was amazing. So, unless you want to study creative writing, you should be fine. Plus, if you’re good enough to do well on the GRE, TOEFL will be a walk in the park. Here’s some info on what’s a good TOEFL score.

One thing, though. It will still take you good 4 hours and about the same amount of money (it varies by country) you paid for the GRE to check this off your list. And yes, it’s the same company behind it. Another thing to have in mind is that you will be required to speak during the test, so do work on your accent a little (they just need to be able to understand you clearly). You won’t be talking to a live person but your answers will be recorded and reviewed by ETS people. Also, you should practice listening because they will require you to provide answers about something you just heard. Analytical writing (less difficult than the corresponding GRE section) is there, too. The test can be computer-based or internet-based, no paper version is available. Here, get some practice. Might want to do some listening, as well.

Also, check out how to do research and find a graduate program that suits you!

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