Making Friends with the GRE: How To Overcome Test Anxiety and Perform at Your Best
“I can’t stop trembling….can’t eat….cry for little or no reason….I am so nervous.” All of this from Janelle, a prospective graduate student on her response to scheduling a GRE test date. I was not surprised that Janelle was nervous as almost all prospective graduate students are a bit anxious about admissions’ tests. However, Janelle took “anxious” to a whole new level. It was clear to me that I would need to develop a somewhat different plan of action to successfully help Janelle perform at her very best on this exam.
My first step was to listen carefully as Janelle shared all her feelings and fears. She said that she actually felt better just by having someone listen without judgement. I told her that I would brainstorm some options and we scheduled a follow-up meeting.
I decided to “borrow” some of the techniques I use to deal with speaker anxiety in the public speaking classes that I teach at the undergraduate level. I was planning to use cognitive restructuring-- changing the way we think about something.
At our next meeting I told Janelle that I had developed a three stage strategy to position her for success. I asked her to think about the GRE process like the development of a relationship. In other words going from the acquaintance level to friend level to intimate level. We were going to “Make Friends with the GRE.” Here’s how we did it:
STAGE 1: Aquaintance Level----This is the “getting to know you” stage of the process.
• Understand the GRE Testing program- Research the GRE general test and the discipline-specific subject tests especially in terms of available test administration dates, time limitations on retakes, score delivery options, etc.
• Determine which tests are required by the schools/programs of your interest—Check the admission criteria and the application deadlines to determine which tests are required and the application deadlines so that you can schedule the appropriate exams to meet all of the criteria of the school/programs of your choice. Keep in mind that while the GRE general test has multiple test administration sites and dates, the GRE subject test administrations are often scheduled only 2 or 3 times per admission cycle. Advance and careful planning is necessary to meet these deadlines so that you do not find yourself in a situation where your application is not complete by the deadline date. Many programs will only review complete applications.
• Learn even more by surveying and requesting feedback from others who have taken the exam. They may well have some tidbits of advice for you. They may alert you to specific pitfalls to avoid. Keep a list for future reference.
STAGE 2: Friendship Level--- This is the “let’s become friends” stage of the process.
• Visit the ETS website to learn about the GRE subject tests offered and to access the associated subject test review books which will provide details on the content areas for the test, the weights assigned to each topic, as well as a practice test. This will provide you with a guide on what to study as well as how much time to allocate to specific topics. The subject test practice book can be downloaded from the web free of charge or will be mailed when you register for the exam.
• To prepare for the GRE general test, you should invest the time to diagnose the skill areas that need the most attention by identifying areas of weakness that require intensive review. These may include, but are not limited to, reading for meaning, analyzing and general organization of your ideas in short essay format, general mathematics, algebra, geometry, charts, etc.
• Take advantage of the diagnostic services offered by ETS which includes GRE’s Diagnostic Tests and Score It Now!, the online writing practice. Check out these low cost options on the ETS website.
• Make use of the GRE Powerprep software for reviews of the verbal and quantitative measure sections of the GRE exam.
• Be prepared to write 2 timed essays. One essay will present your perspective on an issue and the second essay will assess your ability to analyze an argument. You can practice typing an essay response under timed conditions using GRE Powerprep software or you can pay for Score- it -Now! for online writing practice. The analytical writing measure serves as an assessment of critical thinking and the following analytical and writing skills: articulation of complex ideas, clear and effective examination of claims and evidence, supporting ideas with relevant reasons and explicit examples, preparing a well-focused and coherent discussion, and displaying mastery of standard written English.
• Throughout this entire stage use positive self-talk as a confidence booster. Place the emphasis on all of the progress you have made and continue to make.
(On a side note, I made sure that I was always available for confidence boosting and positive feedback)
STAGE 3--- Intimate Level---- this is the commitment stage of the process.
• Become comfortable taking a computer delivered, timed, online exam by practicing in that type of environment. If you only practice using a review book, the new delivery format may increase your level of anxiety and, as such, may impact your performance.
• Look back at how far you have come and continue to invest in the relationship you have established. You may even learn to enjoy the challenge and the rewards that the relationship may bring.
• Last but not least, allow yourself enough time for the relationship to strengthen (prepare and study for the exam) and take hold.
At this point I am sure you are wondering if Janelle was successful. Yes she was--she handled the stress very well and was accepted to her top choice schools. I was certainly proud to have helped her achieve her goal.
By Carol Drummer, Former Hofstra University Dean of Graduate Admissions, who for 10 years reviewed and signed off on over 4500 admissions decisions per year and has taught communications and rhetoric since 1991.