Let me start with a disclaimer that it was not my original intention to take the GRE with such little preparation, and I would not recommend that others do so. However, if you are in my shoes, or just want to see how someone could be so naïve, this post is for you!
The Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) is a standardized test used by graduate schools, kind of like the SAT, but for Masters and Ph.D. programs. The full test consists of three sections, verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing.
With the whole Covid-19 situation, two major changes came to the GRE this year. First, the GRE switched to offering an additional at-home test, to be monitored by ProctorU. Second, many graduate programs that have historically required the GRE suddenly switched to make the exam optional. This is not particulary surprising considering the exam is usually shown to have little to no indication of grad school success.
An aside: Why I am applying to graduate school
Currently, I am finishing up my senior year at the University of Texas at Austin (UT), but this past summer I applied and was accepted into the 5-year integrated Master’s program at UT, which means that I would receive both my bachelors and masters degree in computer science after my fifth year of studies. Deciding on applying to grad school was definitely a journey, but after completing 3 internships so far while in college, I realized that there was still much more I wanted to learn and experience in college before heading out into the “real world”. Topics such as design, artificial intelligence, and robotics were concepts I had brushed against during my undergraduate career, but I had not explored them nearly as much as I wanted to. And while a career in academia does not hold much appeal to me (yet), I still wanted to have the opportunity to learn through a graduate school program, hence why I decided to pursue a master’s degree.
While I was originally set on following through with the five-year master’s program, much has changed in this past semester, and I decided to apply to another graduate program. The main reasons for why I had that change in attitude are:
- I did not have the necessary experience for the classes I took this semester, which led to a lot of stress and frustration on my end. While I definitely made a mistake when registering for these courses, looking back I cannot understand why any academic advisors or professors did not warn me against taking them. In hindsight it is very obvious that there were prerequsite courses not on the syllabus that I should have taken first.
- I have been pretty disappointed in the course offerings so far in my program. One of the main reasons why I ended up taking less than ideal courses was because only 4 of the offered courses actually fit my schedule. In addition, there just is not a very diverse course offering in general amongst the graduate level computer science courses
- Online learning has not been great. Because of this, I decided to do an internship next semester rather than school, meaning it would take me an additional 1.5 years to get my master’s degree at UT, which is not much different from doing a different program that takes 2 years.
- I have been in Austin, TX for the past 3.5 years of my life and have lived in Texas for much longer before that. I would love to be able to have a change of scenery and try out a new place to live and work.
- This past semester had really deepened my appreciation for the field of human-computer interaction, but UT does not have many courses within the department, and it can be hard to find acceptable courses to take outside of computer science that fit the degree plan.
- If I don’t get into a graduate school anywhere else, I can always fall back on the 5-year master’s program (or just graduate with my bachelor’s), and it won’t really hurt my job prospects as a software engineer.
Where I messed up
Remember what I said at the beginning of the post, how many programs were waiving GRE scores? Sadly the master’s program I was applying to was one of the few that opted to keep them in. This alone was enough to give me pause about whether I really wanted to apply or not. I started my application a few days after the portal opened on October 1st, but I held off finishing it because I was unsure if I was committed to taking the GRE or not. The test cost $205, and most people who take it spend additional money on study materials, and many weeks studying. As I had my hand full with schoolwork this semester, I put off thinking about it, and procrastinated doing any sort of prep work.
It was soon mid-November and I decided that I did not want to let one standardized test get in the way of applying to my dream grad school program, so I went ahead and signed up to take the test as a way of forcing myself to follow through with the application. As I said before, the registration fee is not cheap, and I knew that I would not be able to justify spending $205 just to not submit. The portal said that scores must be submitted by the application deadline and because the application was due December 1st, I signed up to take the exam online on November 28th, giving myself almost 2 weeks to study, and a little bit of leeway in case I had to postpone the test date by a day or two.
However, a few days later (and before I had begun studying), I was jolted out of bed at 4 am by a sudden burst of anxiety that came with the realization I had never confirmed the date that GRE scores had to be sent in. To my horror, I found on the application FAQ page that scores had to be received by December 1st, and they recommended taking the test at least three weeks before the deadline to ensure that scores were received in time. At this point, I was only 13 days before the application deadline, and the ETS website stated that GRE scores took 10-15 days to be reported. I was really freaking out. I think my browser history from that morning does a good job of telling the story.
As you can see, I went from googling how long scores take to be sent, to how to refund my registration fee in record time. I quickly found that I could not get a full refund from ETS, and was faced with a dilemma. Should I take the test, with minimal preparation and the possibility that my scores are not even sent in time, or should I give up and accept that I was not going to spend any more time or money on the endeavor? I eventually concluded that this test would not break me and that I would do everything I could to make my application strong, despite my GRE situation. With this renewed determination, I set my test date for three days later, on November 21st, and went to sleep after lots of tossing and turning.
How I studied
Most of my studying could be characterized as “somewhat organized panic”. I was able to borrow some GRE prep books (specifically these two books from ETS) and used those as the basis for my studying. The first day of studying I spent entirely on quantitative reasoning, working my way through example problems, and reading the explanations for the ones I got wrong. Since I have taken some sort of math course nearly every semester of college, I definitely had a good baseline knowledge, but quickly found certain areas that I had forgotten. Geometry and exponent rules were two such areas for me, and I made sure that I worked through nearly all of the examples for those topics.
On the second day of studying, I started by working on more quantitative problems until I felt confident in my ability to not make a complete fool of myself. Afterward, I immediately switched to the verbal reasoning section and worked my way through some examples there. I found that I was much more confident in this section, but did not always know some of the more obscure vocabulary. However, I decided that I knew enough to not spend any time memorizing vocab and instead continued looking through sample problems. Before falling asleep I laid in bed studying the criteria for the analytical writing section and read through all of the examples in the prep books that had received a 6 - the highest score. I kept reading essays until about 2 am, at which point I decided that getting a full 8 hours of sleep was much more important than a few more practice questions
The day of the test
Going into the test I was very nervous. This was my first time using the software ProctorU, which is notoriously buggy. I had read plenty of ProctorU horror stories on r/GRE, and I knew that if my scores were canceled or delayed, I would have no hope of getting them in before the deadline. I spent 30 minutes in the morning cleaning off my desk and removing everything from my room that I could so that I would not be accused of cheating. Before the exam I was asked to show my entire desk and room to the camera and had to use a whiteboard to write down all my work. I had a scary moment when my computer lost internet connection for a few seconds, but outside of that, everything went smoothly software-wise.
The test itself was, thankfully, very similar to most of the practice questions I had studied. First was the analytical writing section, which had me writing 2 essays with about 35 minutes for each. I structured my essays based on the examples I had read, but had not actually written any practice essays before this. I definitely took a while to start writing, which caused me to have less time to edit and review my essay.
Next, I had two quantitative reasoning sections, both of which went by much faster than I thought they would. I wish that I had timed myself at least once while studying so that I could have gotten used to the time frame during the actual exam. Finally, I had three verbal reasoning sections which went ok, and I completed those without any surprises.
Once I finished, I got my immediate scores for the verbal and quantitative sections, but had no idea what they meant. I had not looked up the scoring framework beforehand and had zero context. At that point, I was too tired to care and took it easy for the rest of day so that I could destress after the 4-hour long exam.
I got very lucky with a lot of things. My test had no problems, my scores were reported in just 9 days, and I was able to get through the test without having a mental breakdown. Here are the official scores I ended up receiving:
|Verbal Reasoning||161 / 170||88|
|Quantitative Reasoning||160 / 170||72|
|Analytical Writing||4.0 / 6.0||55|
Overall I was pretty happy with how I performed. Considering I had only 2 days to study, I was not expecting to score in the top ~30% of test-takers. However, the graduate program I am applying for is very competitive, and my scores are below the average for applicants. I hope that they are good enough to not be a deciding factor for acceptance or rejection, as I feel that my GRE scores may be weak, but the rest of my application will make up for it.
Would I recommend other people take this approach?
This situation happened due to some bad assumptions made by me regarding the application timeline, and a refusal to let the GRE test defeat me. It caused me a lot of stress, and I think I could have done a lot better if I had studied for even just a few more days.
However, a lot of my feelings regarding the GRE will likely be defined by whether I get into the program or not. If I get in, I will be happy that I did not waste any additional time studying for GRE, a test which I believe provides no value for anyone accept for ETS - the company that charges $205 for the exam. However, if I get rejected, I will spend the rest of my life wondering whether I would have been accepted had I only spent just a few more days studying for the GRE. I will find out by the end of March 2021 what the result is, and hopefully, I will return then to update this blog post.
Update - July 5, 2021 - I did not get in lmao
If you are reading this blog post because you are preparing for the GRE, I wish you the best of luck and hope that you have given yourself more time than I did!