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Imagining Stupid Things You Can Do to Mess Up Your GRE

Take a few minutes to consider what crazy things people do to blow the GRE exam totally. By being aware of these catastrophes, you may prevent calamity from finding its way into your test-taking experience.

Losing concentration

When you're in the middle of an excruciatingly boring Reading Comprehension passage, the worst thing you can do is let your mind drift off to a more pleasant time (last night's date, last weekend's soccer game, the time you stole your rival school's mascot and set it on the john in the dean's private bathroom). Even if you have to pinch yourself to keep from falling asleep or flaking out, stay focused. The GRE is just a few hours of your life. You've had horrible blind dates that lasted longer than that, and you managed to survive them. This too shall pass.

Panicking over time

Every section of the GRE has a specified time limit. The on-screen clock (which you do have the option of turning off, in case it's driving you crazy) displays the time you have remaining. You know going into the test exactly how many questions are in each section and, therefore, how many minutes you have per question. It's not as if this is some big mystery.


Dumb, dumb, dumb! Cheating on the GRE is a loser's game — it's just plain stupid. Apart from the legal, moral, and ethical questions, let's talk practicality: You can't predict what types of vocabulary words will show up in the questions. What are you going to do, copy a dictionary on the palm of your hand? All the math formulas you need can't fit onto the bottom of your shoe. Copying everything that you think you may need would take more time than just learning it. Besides, the GRE tries very hard to test critical reasoning skills, not just rote memorization. The test never asks a question as straightforward as, "How many degrees in a triangle?" The questions require thinking and reasoning, not just copying down a formula.

Worrying about the previous sections

Think of the GRE as three separate lifetimes. You are reborn twice and get two more chances to "do it right." Every time the computer prompts you to go to a new section, you get a fresh start. You have one verbal section, one math section, and one analytical writing section. The computer is inexorable. You can't go back to a previous section if you suddenly recall a vocabulary word that had eluded you (such as inexorable, in the previous sentence!) You can't double-check your arithmetic on a math question. Forget one section as soon as you enter the next. You can't even go back to a previous question in the same section, let alone an entirely different section. Think of this as you would a new boyfriend or girlfriend in your life: Out with the old and in with the new.

Fretting over the hard problems

The GRE contains some incredibly hard problems. If you get the first few questions on the exam correct, the computer assumes that you're a genius and confidently offers you real mind-bogglers later on. If you miss the first few questions, the computer takes it easy on you and gives you a kinder, gentler exam (and, alas, a lower, wimpier score). Suppose that you ace the first few questions and then get some super-hard questions. Of course, you have to answer them because the computer doesn't let you go on until you punch in an answer. But if the question is just way, way beyond you, make a quick guess (emphasis on quick!), go on, and don't fret. A ridiculously few students get total 800s every year. If you get into the 700s or even the 600s, you are in a super-elite club of only a few of the thousands of students who take the GRE annually. Just accept the fact that you can't be sure of your answer on some of the questions and learn to live with your imperfections.

Rushing through the confirm step

When you answer a question, the computer gives you a second chance. Your screen offers you a Confirm button that you have to click on before your answer becomes permanent. Life has so few second chances; take advantage of this one. Keep reminding yourself that the exam is not like a paper-and-pencil test, in which you can come back at the end and double-check for careless mistakes. You make a choice, confirm that choice, and that's all she wrote.

Stressing out over your computer skills (or lack thereof)

Can you type, even a little bit, in a one-finger style? If so, you have mastered all of the computer skills that the GRE requires of you. Before you begin taking the test, you complete a very brief tutorial (no, the time spent on that does not count as actual testing time) that refreshes your computer abilities, and you have the Help key available to you at all times during the actual test.

Ignoring the five-minute breaks offered

You are offered a short break (usually five minutes) between sections (Verbal, Math, and Analytical). If you don't take those breaks between the sections, you'll be sitting still for hours. Even just standing up, swinging your arms, and grumbling a little bit will make you feel better.

Scheduling the test at the same time as your best friend

Depending on the size and availability of the test center, you and your buddy may be able to take the test at the same time. Big mistake. It's only human to try to compare your progress with your friend's. Unfortunately, you and your friend won't get the exact same exam. Your questions will be different. If you see your buddy zooming through the material with a big smile on her face, you may depress yourself unnecessarily. (Maybe she missed the first few questions and now is getting a much easier exam than yours. You never know.) The GRE is one place where the buddy system just doesn't work.

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