By JEFF PICKELL
You’ll never know how many words you don’t know until you begin to study for the GRE. The GRE is the Graduate Record Exam and it must be completed before one applies to most graduate schools. It is basically the stupidest test ever and it has been proven not to accurately predict that which it seeks to measure, i.e. the probability of success for a given student in grad school.
Nevertheless, I have paid the $130 registration fee, $40 for the study manual, $5 for the flash cards, and plan to pay a high school student, who has agreed to tutor me for the math portion, a generous sum of pizza and a bowling ball. I also plan to pay many hundreds of dollars for the privilege to apply to several top level creative writing schools.
College is stupid like that. Colleges are supposed to have the smartest people in the world under their employ, but to get into them, you have to pay for and do reasonably well on the stupidest tests ever devised. I’m currently in the process of writing out about 500 vocabulary flash cards to use to study for the verbal portion of the exam, which is comprised of 30 questions and administered over the course of 30 minutes.
Part of the verbal portion consists of analogy questions, which take this form: “Blank is to Blank as Blank is to Blank.” So, for example, you’ll get a question like “Cascade is to Cataclysm as: a) Defeat is to Debacle, b) Chagrin is to Desultory, c) Saccharine is to Turgid, or d) Unctuous is to Ersatz.”
Now, a sensible grad school candidate would know that a cascade is a small stream of water and that a cataclysm is classically defined as a huge %#&@ flood, so it would logically follow that the best analogy in this situation would be to compare a defeat, or a sensible loss, to a debacle, or a huge %#$& blowout.
Sadly, a sensible grad school candidate is a thing of myth, like a unicorn or a Superbowl victory for the Lions. Here was what I thought were the definitions of “Cascade” and “Cataclysm” before I began studying for the GRE:
Cascade: A word pretentious writers use to describe what sun rays do.
Cataclysm: The Bush Administration.
And here is what I thought “Defeat” and “Debacle” meant:
Defeat: Canadian parlance for “the feet.”
Debacle: The Bush Administration.
Given that, how could I have possibly known exactly what the best analogy was unless I had consulted a dictionary beforehand? I’ve never heard anybody use “cataclysm” to describe a flood. I mean, I had a pretty good idea of what the words meant, but was damned by a lack of specific dictionaryological knowledge. Same thing with words like “sordid,” “torpor,” “perfunctory,” “garrulous,” and “cat.” I know pretty much what they mean, but I couldn’t sit down and write out a word-by-word definition for you.
How the designers of this test think that happening to know the definitions to obscure words indicates how well I’ll do in grad school is beyond me.
Anyway, after taking a few practice quizzes and panicking, I called Melissa Stewart—a professor up at Adrian College—for advice. Melissa is a very smart, caring, and friendly person, or in GRE talk “Melissa is to friends as flypaper is to flies.” When she was studying for the GRE, she threw a giant pizza party and all of her friends got together and helped her write out a thousand flash cards. After a month or so of studying, her verbal scores improved dramatically.
Well, Jeff is to friends as Jeff’s friends are to being slackers who are already eating pizza, so I’m pretty much left to myself as far as the flash card writing is concerned. Which is a good thing for me, because the study strategy I find most effective is to write things down over and over again.
But to memorize all 500 of those cards—man, is that ever daunting. And don’t even get me started on the math section, which to the layman could almost be mistaken for an extended verbal section, what with all the Xs and Ys to the power of Ns they throw around over there. I hate what math has become. It is worse than French.
Luckily, my professors say that to get into a good creative writing grad school, I can pretty much bag math. The challenge is to score high enough on the GRE to demonstrate to admissions officers that I’m not a complete pinhead.
Which, distressingly, is not something I’ve done with this column. Back to the library.– May 16, 2007