What Tom Hanks Can Teach You About Taking the GRE

As part of making sure you’re fully prepared for these tests our teachers often sacrifice their time, energy, and sanity and brave the Prometrics centers so that we can report on not only the content of the test be the experience of testing. This post is from one of our fabulous GRE teachers, Kara, who recently went in to take the actual GRE; here is her report:

All the advice I needed to take the GRE I learned from Hollywood.  With its momentous drama and unpredictable comedy, my test-taking experience had all the components of an Academy Award winning film (with the exception of a hunky love interest… after all, there is only so much you can deal with on test day).  Certain memorable lessons of Hollywood—clichéd though they may be—are unabashedly applicable to making it through your GRE in fine form. Here is a recap of my latest GRE experience, peppered with insights, observations, and relevant movie quotes:


“May the Force Be with You”

Physically, mentally, and emotionally preparing to take the test

Stuffing your face with omega-3 fatty acids is not a substitute for real test preparation, but that didn’t stop me from scarfing down a bagel with cream cheese and lox on the morning of my GRE test.  That being said, it is always good to eat a hearty breakfast before a test  and—if you’re going to spend the next four hours intensively thinking and staring at a computer screen—you might as make it a decadent one.

I arrived at the testing center thirty minutes before my scheduled start time, as required.  My eyes were immediately drawn to the sign that read, “No food or drinks allowed in the Testing Center”.  I slowly lowered the coffee in my left hand as I walked up to the registration desk.  The woman at the desk gave me a stack of papers to read and sign and told me to go finish my coffee someplace where she couldn’t see me.  And let’s be honest, I’d be a goner by 9:30am without my morning cup, so I was thankful.

“You Can’t Handle the Truth”

Dealing with rigid and unpleasant security procedures

I later clarified that I was allowed to store snacks in a locker with my other belongings and munch on them during the sole ten minute break in the test (provided that I ate outside of the office).  Everything besides my official ID, the locker key, and the clothes on my person had to go in the locker, including my belt, bag, and sweater.  Unfortunately, you are not able to bring a just-in-case-you-get-cold sweater into the testing room.  You have to choose between wearing the sweater the whole time or not having access to it at all; I opted for the latter.

I was ushered through an extensive security process which included not only metal detection, but also turning out my pockets, rolling up my sleeves, and lifting up the cuffs of my pants.  They subsequently confirmed my identity and snapped a less-than-flattering picture of me (see image for rough facsimile).


“Mama Always Said Life was like a Box of Chocolates.

You Never Know what You’re Gonna Get”

Turning the unfamiliar into the familiar

Once the bureaucratic portion of the morning was finished, it was time for me to put my test-taking skills into practice.  Naturally, I had no way of knowing what specific questions would be on the test. Despite not knowing the exact questions I was about to face, I reminded myself that I already had both the content knowledge and practiced skills to take on any question.  I was escorted to carrel 10 just as the testing program finished loading up and then there I was – just me and the next four hours of my life, face to face.  After reading through several pages of policies and preliminary instructions, I started the first section, Analysis of an Issue.  I read the prompt and proceeded to brainstorm my essay with the pencils and eight page 8.5”x11” blue book that had been provided as scratch paper.  After a few minutes of thinking, I started to type.  I was on a roll—fingers flying and writing like an average sesquipedalian.  With 32 seconds remaining, I glanced at the clock and began my essay wrap up process.  With 12 seconds remaining, my computer screen suddenly went black.


“Houston, We Have a Problem”

Reacting to an unexpected crisis

This is every GRE taker’s worst fear: you spend countless hours studying and preparing for a test, you arrange your schedule and mental state around your test date, then just when you get in your groove, the computer crashes.

And yes, it happened to me 29 minutes into my test.

 I calmly exited the room to let the administrator know what had happened.  She fiddled around on her computer for a minute and then walked me back to carrel 10—my home away from home.  Despite the administrator’s assurances that I would not need to restart the test from the beginning, the situation looked pretty grim to me as I watched her reboot my computer.

Three minutes later, the computer presented me the picture ID from earlier and asked me to confirm that I was, in fact, the young woman with sleepy eyes and a bad hair day being displayed on the screen.  When I returned to the Analysis of an Issue screen, I found that I had 30 seconds remaining and—to my great relief—all of my work except for two sentences had been saved.  I took a deep breath and finished Section 1.  Now, I only had Sections 2 through 7 to go.


“There’s no crying in baseball!”

Getting past a tough moment

People are easily jarred and thrown off their game when hiccups happen during their test—a computer crash, a question you can’t figure out, or a sudden realization that there is not much time remaining in a section.  Failure to get past that moment can be debilitating to you as a test-taker and devastating to your scores.  If something unexpected comes up. which it inevitably will, take a few deep breaths and put whatever happened out of your head so that you can focus on the remainder of the test.

The moment I took to calm and ready myself after the computer crash was crucial to my later success on the test, which went by with relative ease.  My Analysis of an Argument was, understandably, riddled with accusations of fallacious conclusions and erroneous reasoning.  It was followed by alternating Verbal and Quantitative sections (V, Q, V, Q, V).  Only two Verbal sections and two Quantitative sections are scored, but every GRE test includes an unscored section which is used by ETS as a laboratory for new questions.  My unscored section was clearly one of the Verbal sections, but unfortunately there is no way to know which one it was.


“I see dead people”

Maintaining focus when you feel like you’re gonna lose it

Towards the end of the test, I began to feel a pull to read less carefully and select answers more haphazardly with less thought.  However, with the end in sight, it was especially essential for me to maintain my concentration and push for those final points.  Just like in basketball or soccer, this is test endurance.  The GRE only has one significant break (10 minutes after Section 3), but there are optional one minute breaks in between every section.  Although I was eager to be done with the test, those breaks were critical to my testing experience.  Rather than rushing through, I used those minute breaks to breathe, stretch my arms, relax my shoulders, and clear my head in preparation for the next section.

In the test finale, you are given myriad options including the opportunity to discard your results in the event that you think that you completely bombed the test.  I declined to discard the blood, sweat, and tears of my last four hours and the computer subsequently rewarded my decision by displaying my predicted Quantitative and Verbal scores on a 130-170 scale (the official Quant and Verbal scores, in addition to the Analytical Writing score, become available on your GRE account about 10-14 days after the test).


“I’m the King of the World”

Celebrating and not stressing about your scores

When you’re done, you’re done, and that is worth celebrating!  Happy with my score and relieved to be finished, I signed out, grabbed my belongings from the locker, and walked out of that office building in Downtown Brooklyn never to look back.


For information on Bell Curves preparation that could help you take the next step in your GRE score, visit us at gre.bellcurves.com.

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