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The Notorious G.R.E.

On Saturday afternoon, I took a peaceful drive down to Lombard to take the GRE. Some might consider my decision to skim practice tests to get an idea of what might be on the test, rather than studying my ass off, a poor idea. I’m of the mindset—perhaps motivated by overall laziness—that standardized tests should assess actual intelligence.

If I spent three months studying my ass off, I’d forget most of what I’d learned thirty seconds after the test. Because I don’t give a fuck about, for instance, SOH CAH TOA. I haven’t had reason to use it since I first learned it in high school, so I’ve had no reason to commit it to memory. I’m less interested in getting into the greatest grad school of all time than in providing an accurate reflection of my knowledge, not a reflection of what I can quickly learn and then forget about. Maybe it isn’t an airtight philosophy, but fuck you.

So, I pulled into the parking lot of one of the few corporate centers designed by M.C. Escher, quickly drank a cup of coffee (my performance-enhancing drug) before entering the building the required 30 minutes before the scheduled test time.

I entered the four-building center at ground level and found myself on the third floor. A circuitous hallway eventually led into an indoor courtyard of equally confusing design, with bizarre staircases leading to the wrong buildings. When I finally got the “second floor” and wormed my way to another maze-like corridor to the door labeled “Prometric,” I felt like I’d finished section one of the test. What a relief that I didn’t need to ask for help. They would have thrown me out.

I don’t know if you’d call it a lobby or an anteroom, but it had sparse décor—bare white walls, the same thin, gray, industrial carpeting that seems to exist in every office—and not enough chairs arranged as far from the desk as possible. The disinterested girl behind the desk asked for my ID, made me fill out a form in which I had to rewrite, in my hand, a lengthy statement agreeing to their policies. Section two already? As I filled out the form, I noticed others getting called individually into the mystery room beyond the door behind the anteroom desk.

When I returned the form, the woman told me to lock away all of my possessions. She indicated a bank of small, gray lockers I hadn’t full absorbed when I first entered the office. From the unoccupied lockers, keys with comically large, numbered placards hung from little Master locks. I stuffed my coat and wallet into a small locker and kept the key in my shirt pocket. Then, I sat back down and tried to get myself into an appropriate Zen space. The anxiety of not relentlessly studying for the test had started to get to me—I knew I’d tank the quantitative reasoning sections, but what if the essays had impossible prompts with topics about which I knew nothing? What if the verbal section was well beyond me?

Unfortunately, my unofficial meditation was interrupted when a woman burst into the office and tried to jam her coat and huge purse into one of the little, cubby-sized lockers. She fidgeted noisily with the locker door and her possessions. Crinkling leather, plastic smacking. In her growing frustration, she started trying to slam the door, to no avail. Finally, she demanded to no one, “Is there some kind of trick to this?” Another test-taker went to help her and discovered the tragically basic problem: the latch doesn’t release (and therefore won’t catch) unless the lock is removed, which the woman hadn’t done. She’d failed Section 3.

My anxiety only increased when one of the test-takers called into the mystery room didn’t close the door all the way. Through the gap, I heard a polite woman demand that he pull out his pockets to show her they were empty. I heard snatches of words and phrases like “videotape” and “unauthorized materials” and “Are you the person registered to take this test?”

Why should I have felt anxious about this? I was exactly who I said, I’d intentionally left my phone in my car and had only brought in my wallet—which contained my needed ID—and coat. I had nothing in my pocket but the locker key they told me to take. I had no reason to be nervous, but I have pretty serious problems with authority figures. I don’t like being treated like a criminal when I’m trying to take a test. A few years ago, when I took the LSAT—back before I realized how much a halfway decent law school costs—I just flashed my ID and went into a giant Northwestern lecture hall filled with hundreds of others. There was no gestapo treatment.

When the woman called me into the room, I saw for the first time that she was a pleasantly plump old lady. She was kind and good-humored, but that only made it creepier that she made me stand on an X while she waved me with a metal detector baton, snapped my photo, and recited the litany about how I’d be videotaped throughout the test, so if I even thought about cheating, they’d have evidence right there. She hadn’t me two pencils, a scratch booklet, and told me to keep those items and my locker key visible on the desktop at all times. After that, I had to sign in and note the time. She assigned me a computer number and had an assistant lead me into the testing room.

I put on the provided pair of noise-canceling headphones and got started.

I don’t know if this is a legal or ethical thing, but I did sign a document saying I wouldn’t even hint about what is on the test, but I don’t think I’m bound when it comes to reporting my scores, which flashed on the computer at the end of the test. On a scale of 170, I got 160 for verbal reasoning and 147 for quantitative reasoning. Verbal is about where I figured; quantitative is a bit higher, although according to the percentiles, it’s embarrassingly low.

If I may toot my own horn, I think I did pretty well on the essays. Learning the skill of quick impromptu essay-writing in AP English back in high school, it turns out, has become one of the most essential skills I possess. It’s very easy to deconstruct a claim, construct an argument, organize my thoughts, and present counter evidence (then skewer it) in much less time than allotted. I won’t get those scores for a few weeks, but if I did as well as I think I did, I hope the programs for which I applied—all creative writing—will ignore my inability to factor binomials.

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