Fearing Your GRE Potential
Climate change is a very serious issue, but as a resident of Madison, Wisconsin, I sometimes grumble that global warming can’t come soon enough. It wouldn’t be a true Wisconsin winter if we didn’t get at least one blizzard in March, and I found myself last week shoveling desperately through a waist-high mound of heavy, densely packed snow deposited by snowplows at the foot of my driveway. My usual strategy in such situations is “stay in the house until the roommate has to go somewhere first.” Unfortunately, he was out of town, so I had to excavate the driveway myself if I wanted any shot of pulling my car out of the garage.
I get the feeling that many of you view the taking GRE the same way I view shoveling snow: as a chore. Something unpleasant that takes a lot of time and work, that you have no choice about, and that if you were king of the world, you’d never have to deal with.
You might expect that, as a professional GRE teacher, I’d be disappointed that so many of you are as excited to study for the GRE as you are to clean the bathroom. And in some respects, I am. As I wrote recently, I honestly believe that studying for the GRE is a valuable experience, and I’d like for more of my students to be excited by the prospect of becoming smarter and cleverer.
In another light, however, I actually wish that GRE students viewed the test more like a chore. Chores have something going for them: nobody doubts their ability to complete one. As much as I loathe shoveling snow, I knew after a set amount of unpleasant labor, my driveway would be clear and I could pull my car out and move on with my life. We all dread mowing the lawn, folding laundry, and unloading the dishwasher, but we never entertain for even a second the possibility that we won’t be able to bring any of these chores to a successful conclusion. Nobody approaches a loaded dishwasher thinking, “Oh man oh man oh man THIS MIGHT BE THE DISHWASHER THAT ENDS ME.”
By contrast, a staggering number of GRE students fear exactly this: that the GRE will be the end of them. Some of you call the GRE a “chore,” but in actuality you don’t view it as a chore at all. You view it as a trial. You think that, maybe, you won’t succeed. And I know that on some days, the “maybe” tilts dangerously toward a “probably.” Watching my students suffer because they fear their own potential is the most heartbreaking aspect of my job.
Yesterday morning I was lucky enough to TA a practice test for Jesse Evans, one of the best teachers in the whole company. While talking about the despair that shrouds a lot of students who take their first practice test, Jesse uttered a line that I and the other TA’s promptly confessed to each other we were going to steal. The line was this:
“Don’t confuse being uncomfortable with being incapable.”
This was such a simple statement that I was simultaneously blown away by Jesse’s wisdom and stunned that I hadn’t come up with it myself. When you take the GRE, many things about it make you feel uncomfortable: using math you haven’t touched in eight years; reading prose full of words you don’t know; working with question formats you’ve never seen before, and the list goes on. But just because you’re uncomfortable with something doesn’t mean you’ll never be able to do it. If you knew the formulas once, you can learn them again. If you don’t know the meaning of a word, you can memorize it. If a question format seems weird now, it won’t seem weird after you’ve done a hundred problems that use it.
Outside, in the bitter cold, with my nose running and my muscles burning, I felt the keenest discomfort as I hacked through several feet of hard, nasty snow. But I never doubted for a second that someday my ordeal would be over and I’d be able to say, “I did that!” as I got in my car and caromed triumphantly through the gap in the snowdrift. Don’t read too much into your own discomfort on the GRE. Just because you’re uncomfortable doesn’t mean that you’re incapable.