Monthly Archives: November 2009

The Purpose of the GRE Test

If, like me, you have recently completed taking (or are preparing to take) the GRE–the Graduate Record Examination–you may be asking the same question I am:  what, exactly, is the point?

ETS, the nonprofit company that creates and delivers over 50 million tests world-wide (to the tune of $150 a pop–$7.5billion ain’t a bad gross income for a nonprofit, eh?) states the purpose of the GRE is this:

“…measures verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, critical thinking, and analytical writing skills that are not related to any specific field of study.”

Let me tell you this:  when re-studying algebra, geometry, exponents, square roots…etc.,  after having nothing to do with them for well over 18 years (okay, that’s not entirely true–I took the GRE test thirteen years ago, prior to applying for PA school–I would have re-studied these things at that time, too) it definitely feels like approaching subjects that are not related to any specific field of study.

Sure, if I were planning to suddenly become a quantum physicist or a hoping to apply to Harvard’s mathematics department, I might care about being able to approach this type of equation without a care in the world:

y. For x = (1,1), and y = (4,5),
|x – y| = √([1–4]2 + [1–5]2) = 5

But even after attending PA school and practicing medicine for five years, I never had to calculate anything more complicated than converting pounds into kilograms and computing milligrams per kilograms for writing prescriptions.

And, yes, I have to admit (as a writer) that, after studying pages upon pages of three- and four-syllable vocabulary words, I am proud to know the meanings of words like recalcitrant, pusillanimous, esoteric (get it??) and punctilious.

But, really, what most of us slaving over this ambiguous measure of intelligence walk away with is a sense of insufficiency.  We know we are being compared, statistically, to all of those other test takers out there who happen to be engaging in the same  masochistic exercise at roughly the same time.  We know we are being asked to exemplify mastery over topics we will have no use for (most of us, anyway) for another decade or two or, perhaps, for the rest of our lives (until our kids get into junior high, that is, and they need help with their algebra homework).  We are being asked to pretend that our knowledge of reducing fractions and square roots has anything to do with, for example, our desire to go forth and study women during pregnancy, childbirth and motherhood and their interactions with the medical systems during these integral times of life. 

Integral times…integral…integers…oh, shit…maybe there is a link there after all…


So, anyway, where was I?  Oh, yes, lambasting the GRE-taking process:

It would be improvident of me to disregard those folks who happen to score well on all aspects of standardized tests like the GRE.  We’ve all heard it at least once–the brilliant son-of-a-gun who nails a perfect score on the GRE (or SAT, GMAT, MCAT, LSAT, etc), thus proving their capacity to go forth and rule the world or take down Vegas in the swoop of a well-planned Black Jack hand.  Yes, in fact, those people exist out there.  Kudos to them.

But for the rest of us poor test-taking schmucks who truly believe in our capacity to study and (dare I say?) make a difference in our chosen field of interest, how are we to interpret the test preparation and test taking experience?  Moreover, how are we to think of ourselves when those test scores come back–telling us that a certain percentage of people out there are smarter than we are and a certain percentage less-so?  Do the perfect or near-perfect score recipients have license to snub their scholarly noses at those of us who squeaked by with lower scores?  Is the risk that would-be scholars with solvent potentials cut their own throats and turn tail–returning to the world of unsatisfactory career trajectories and extinguished dreams–all because of a 60th percentile (40th? 80th?) result?

How do we translate those ambiguous ratings into intellectual capacity, future potential and self-worth?  Perhaps the more appropriate question:  how do colleges and universities translate those numbers into future potential?



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