Having decided to back to graduate school, I registered to take the Graduate Record Exam. It’s a requirement for all the PhD programs that interest me, so there was no way out of it.
I took the test a couple of years back when I was playing with the idea of going back to school. My scores weren’t as high as I would like, but I didn’t study all that much for it — just a few hours in the couple of days before the test.
This time around, I’m much more serious about entering a PhD program, so I invested money and about 10-15 hours of study a week for two months before the test. During the test, I felt the pressure of time in each section but didn’t feel the test was any more difficult this time around. I felt the money and time I invested to deepen my preparation were paying off — that is, until I finished and saw my scores. The essays have to be graded by a human being, of course, but both my verbal and analytical scores were lower than when I last took the test!
Yes, that’s right. I spent money and time to prepare more and did worse! This is Exhibit A in my case that the GRE is a scam.
The GRE claims to provide an indication of how well a student will do in graduate school. But I’ve been to graduate school for my master’s degree and can tell you that knowing the definition of some obscure word that no one beyond the top 1% of the most hibernated on the planet use or deciphering a simple math question asked with tricky wording under a time crunch do not prepare anyone for graduate school. In fact, the only thing I can determine the GRE measures accurately is how well one can take the GRE.
So if the GRE doesn’t make a difference in grad school, what does? Here’s my top-three list:
1. Hard work
In grad school, I observed that master’s programs are like indentured servitude whereas doctoral programs are outright slavery. Though not a slave to my major professor since I was after only the master’s degree, I still had to work hard to complete the program.
Early in my grad school days I learned that graduate credits are not the same as undergraduate credits. You often have the same book and course content, but you do at least twice the work, having extra homework problems or special assignments that the undergrads don’t have. And then there is the research, which is no fly-by-night and run-from-your-garage sort of gig. You’ve got to do what is needed to make measurable progress in reasonable time. That means no slouching!
There’s no way the GRE can really test that. I worked hard prepping for two months for that test and look where that got me!
Speaking of no slouching, grad school requires perseverance. You got to have grit to see your journey all the way to the end of the road, because very often the plans you make — especially in terms of research — don’t go the way you planned. Sometimes the answers you need aren’t immediately forthcoming, and you have to keep searching until you find them. There’s no back of the book to check for the answer, and very often you begin looking without really knowing where to look.
The endurance and tenacity needed to complete grad school go way beyond what any timed test can ascertain. On a standardized test, you can complete your section that lasts 30 or 35 minutes, and it’s OK to give up because you’re done. Grad school is a very different animal. I remember weeks of doing research followed by even more weeks of writing and rewriting again and again my thesis.
The essay portions of the GRE are only a half hour each, and there’s no way they can reveal anything more than the ability to construct a basic structure for a document. Producing a thesis requires so much more. I can only imagine that is even more true for a dissertation.
3. People skills
And then there were the endless confrontations with my major professor. Let’s just say we didn’t get along. I just didn’t take well to cutting remarks about my religion. Were my major professor to get that treatment, it would just motivate him to prove the other person wrong. Because it would work for him, he thought it would work for me. But instead it motivated the man I was 15 years ago to find the nearest cave and wait until the storm blew over. Some times that saw me through, and other times I needed to grab my rain gear and face the storm.
Problems like that aside, no one succeeds alone. Everyone needs help along the way. There’s a whole host of folks who support different steps along the journey in a grad program, and knowing how to work with people effectively to procure the result you desire is essential. I learned early in my career that appreciating the “invisibles” — the ones who do the jobs no one else wants to do or who do important work back stage or outside the limelight — can often be the difference between having a really easy job or a really difficult one.
No standardized test can certify the ability to work with people. But that fancy piece of wallpaper in my office that says “Master of Science” might. So might the decade I spent working in industry.
Could I score higher on the GRE? Probably. But when I consider the time I would need to invest to do it, I’m not sure how to make that work. I have to spend a minimum number of hours working so I can pay rent and other expenses. If I had that paid for and could spend whatever time I needed to do it without sacrificing this sleep thing I love, I could score higher. I could do just about anything.
But my end goal is not getting into a particular program or even getting the PhD degree. My end goal is a full-time job teaching college-level engineering classes. The PhD degree is just one step along the way to make myself more competitive. Certainly graduating from a top name school carries some weight. But there’s other factors, like building a good network of contacts, that play just as much if not more so into getting the job I want.
I won’t be scammed into spending more money on a test that scores me lower after I spend substantially more time preparing for it. All told, all my scores for different test administrations are in the same neighborhood, so I’m resigned to take my GRE scores as they are and do the best I can with them. I’m going to play to other factors that influence the outcome I want, some of which are real strengths for me.
The top three qualities I’ve mentioned for grad school success are among my strengths. The decade I spent working in industry taught me that I don’t have to be the smartest person in the room to succeed. I can be (and am) a work horse and keep working hard, persevering until my goal is reached. I also persevere in continuous improvement efforts, always looking for and striving after that next level of performance. And forging partnerships with the right people can help with achieving that success as well.
If a particular school or program is insistent that I have a higher GRE score for admission, then to me that simply indicates that school is not somewhere I am supposed to be. Doors will open to the place where I need to be and close to the places where I do not need to be. That’s been true all my life, and I don’t see why that should change any time soon. So now I move on to the next step and whittle down my list of potential schools for applications!
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