Captain's Log

En route USA #02 – Exams.

Click here for Part 1 - Choices.

Once you’re set on colleges, take a look at their deadlines and start registering for the mandated exams. The General GRE is pretty much a standard for all STEM courses. Business and management courses will need GMAT. Specialized courses like pure sciences, literature and mathematics might need a subject GRE but few universities have begun phasing them out recently. Except very few cases, which differ with each college, you will almost certainly need to take a language test, either TOEFL or IELTS. Go figure.

The GRE and TOEFL are conducted by ETS and have very similar patterns in terms of the registration process, score reporting and the actual centres that the exams take place in.

GRE stands for Graduate Record Examination and has 3 sections – Quantitative Reasoning, Verbal Reasoning and Analytics Writing Assessment – Quants, Verbal & AWA. You can score a max of 170 each on Quants and Verbal with AWA scored on a scale of 0 to 6 with 0.5 increments. This is where it gets interesting. Even if you leave the entire exam blank, you would still score 130 in each section. This is not the JEE where we scrape over 50% and get a decent rank ’cause they just give you like 77% for showing up. Also, you can miss a few questions and still get a perfect 170. This is all due to something called Multistage testing, a form of computer-adaptive testing.

You have a total of 5 sections lasting 35 minutes each with 2 quants and 2 verbal which will be scored and 1 experimental section which could either be quants or verbal which doesn’t contribute to scoring. It only exists for ETS to test out newer questions. Unfortunately you never know which section exactly is your experimental section. It doesn’t follow any specific order or pattern. However, the subsequent sections are chosen based on your performance in the prior section. So if you’re acing the first section, you’re going to get a tougher second section. But do not worry, all questions aren’t uniformly weighted and this tougher section will have questions worth more marks. So you can mess up a few and still score a lot. Number of questions does not equal number of points. Right as you read that, was there a voice in your head that asked you to strategically make a few mistakes on purpose so that the system thinks you’re dumb and doesn’t increase the difficulty of the next section? Congrats, you’re a classic victim of the Indian educational system. You’re not preparing for the exam. Do not try to hack the exam. Prepare the subject and do your best on every question honestly and you’ll get exactly what you deserve. If you make mistakes on purpose and get the dumbfuck section of questions, you never know, you might not be able to get a full score even upon answering all the questions correctly.

The Quantitative section is high school level, basic aptitude and verbal. If you’ve managed to pass 3/4 years of undergrad math with matrices and calculus, this should be too easy. You get 35 minutes for 20 questions. They give you an on screen calculator. The first question I had in quants asked me if √(2x²) and (√2)x denote the same thing. C’mon. So don’t shell out lot of money for guide books and Magoosh GRE OnlinePrep accounts. Most people mess up because they make minor mistakes in mental math due to the pressure of the ₹13,000 exam they are taking which will cost ₹13,000 more to retake. So the best thing to do will be to download the practice exam that ETS gives you for free when you register. Get used to how the windows look, how the calculator looks. Practice doing 1+1 and 7×3 on the calculator and switching through sections. Just look at the screens without ever attempting a single question. Familiarity breeds comfort. Comfort will let you think. Plus, its aptitude. Aptitude can be so much fun, they are essentially tiny puzzles. So a week before the exam, you could just download some math puzzle app on your phone. It doesn’t have to be a GRE prep app. GRE has no advanced math in it. It’s basic arithmetic, some stats – mean, mode, standard deviation stuff and reading pie charts and graphs super fast. So yeah, download a nice colorful app and try out absolutely random math questions whenever you get a break in-between Instagram and Whatsapp.

The same applies for the verbal section too but that is notoriously tougher. But then most universities focus on your quant score more because the independent language exams give a more comprehensive reflection of your abilities. So you don’t need to stress out as much. I took a look at top 1000 common GRE words on the cab ride to my exam centre but not one was useful. That turned to be an utter waste of time. I’m not entirely sure how one would prepare for a verbal exam. Listen to a bunch of Shashi Tharoor interviews on YouTube maybe.

The AWA was my favourite section of them all. It has you write 2 essays and they are always the same type. You could google for details about them but don’t look up “must do’s” or any such tips. One article provides you with a statement and asks you to discuss your opinions on it. You could either agree or disagree and then elaborate within the word limit. Some websites would urge you to “stay positive” and always agree but screw that. I specifically disagreed on a question which asked me something like should humans intervene if a species is about to go extinct for reasons that had nothing to do with humans at all. Or something to that effect, I do not remember. We all want to save the animals but I tried to stand out and go the other way and I think I did a pretty decent job. So, just be honest and try to justify your opinion from multiple angles with a lot of common sense. Don’t use unnecessarily flowery language unless you’re super sure of what the words mean. The second article provides you with a statement and has a following argument that either supports or negates the statement. Your job is to either justify how the argument supports the statement or point out all the flaws in the argument that do not necessarily do what they intend to such as ambiguities or counter-intuitive statements. Basically you’re checking the quality of the argument, whether its good enough in supporting the statement or strong enough to question its validity. I personally felt like pointing out the flaws would be easier because humans as a species are more prone to do that and went straight to nitpicking but it worked ’cause I legit felt the argument was super weak. Again, be honest with what you think and explain in words you know of. Definitely proof read. I have a habit of using both the American and British spellings of words like color and favourite interchangeably within the same passage, so I had to look for that. Check for “its” and “it’s” and “your” and “you’re”. We are so used to autocorrect catching our frequently typed mistakes that we become blind to them. Definitely proofread.

Right after you hit submit on the last section, you’ll be asked if you want to submit your score. Unless you feel your performance was abysmal and you have the time and money to retake the test, hit “yes”. You’ll be asked to enter the name of 4 colleges you want to send the scores to for free. Pro Tip : Stick to your plan. Each college you pick here saves money. Don’t get overconfident that you’ve done too well and score report to Harvard, Duke and MIT. Unless you had previously planned to apply, that is. And you’re done.

TOEFL was fun. You’ll have the same kind of security measures as with the GRE. You’ll be around other people taking the exam and will be able to clearly listen to all of them. Try not to. The difficulty levels of reading and listening sections are very similar to the “Section A – Comprehension” questions we are used to since middle school. At least when I took the exam, I wasn’t asked about any highly frivolous words. Writing section might vary but the one place to focus most on is the speaking section. Certain universities expect a minimum score in the speaking section in order to apply for teaching assistantship positions on campus, some even for getting an admit itself. Pro-tip : You will always assume you’ve done worse on the speaking section than you actually have. You’re asked a question, there’s barely a few seconds to think about it and then you’re asked to answer into a mic following a beep. So its perfectly natural if your tone comes out robotic and lifeless. Maybe you stutter a bit. As long as everything is within reasonable limit, you’re good to go. It is the test for English as a foreign language, so they do cut you some slack. For some of the questions, you get about 60 seconds of recording time to answer. I finished what I had to say in about 40-45 seconds and waited in silence for the timer to run out. I wasn’t sure if that was a good thing then, I just didn’t want to add filler just for the sake of avoiding the pause and I guess it worked. In hindsight I think this could’ve been avoided had I taken IELTS where I will be interacting with an actual person. And that’s TOEFL. Also, you get to pick 4 universities to send the scores for free with TOEFL as well but it is to be decided and submitted in the website 24 hours before you take the exam. Same applies for the subject GRE as well.

Should your program require an additional subject GRE (most don’t or at least it is only recommended and not mandatory), you will need to take that as well. But beware of deadlines. Unlike the General GRE and TOEFL which are available all year, subject GRE is given just once a year in India, usually on the 27th of October. In the United States and few other countries, it is given thrice a year but in most places, it’s just one time in a year. It is a written exam with multiple choice questions and negative marking. a format much more closer to home. It will need a more traditional sense of preparation, mostly on the fundamentals of the subject. Detailed syllabus is given on the ETS website and if you stick to it, you should be fine.

The General GRE gives you the scores for quants and verbal immediately once you’re done entering the college names. For the AWA score, TOEFL and sGRE,  you will need to wait a minimum of two to three weeks. Subject GRE scores can get especially delayed. Uploading the PDFs of these scores will only count as “unofficial score reporting” and the universities will consider your admissions packet complete only upon official score reporting which involves paying ETS to send score reports to colleges that you had left out of the four free slots given to you. This could take a week as well. So my recommendation would be to be done with all the exams with a good week or two before the admissions deadline.

Alongside preparing for these exams, you will also need to spend a little time to write out your statement of purpose and request letters of recommendations. The process is fairly straightforward with little variations from one college to another. Details in the next post.

Click here for Part 3 - Essays.


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