Cracking the GRECracking the GRE by The Princeton Review

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Compared with Europe, America has a strange fixation with standardized tests. Administrators and bureaucrats seems to view these tests as tools of accountability, allowing for standard measurement across the system with no possibility of error. But the result is often quixotic: the attempt to come up with a test that creates a normal curve in scores, a test immune to differences in social and cultural background, and a test that measures something predictive of future success, irrespective of the field or career.

As far as these tests go, the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) is well done. The math sections only include the most basic techniques, focusing instead on tricky word problems or painstakingly lengthy operations, which theoretically would put all students—regardless of math background—on an equal footing. The essays focus on equally fundamental skills: creating and defending a thesis, and critiquing somebody else’s thesis. The verbal section is a straightforward vocabulary and reading comprehension drill. In sum, as far as possible, I think that the GRE is focused on fundamental skills needed for study.

The catch, of course, is the “as far as possible.” For no matter how much the test-makers try, a physics major and a history major will not be on an even footing in the math and verbal sections. What is more, by making vocabulary such an integral part of the exam, people from more privileged backgrounds—whose well-educated parents work white-collar jobs—have an obvious advantage. This is not to mention the upper hand that the well-off always have in competitions of this sort: the time available for studying (without worrying about multiple jobs or rent), and the resources (private tutors and so on) to prepare adequately.

In any case, can even a well-designed test give valuable information at the graduate school level? For lower-level education, where students are taught the basics of academic skills, a general test seems more plausible. But as students apply to Masters and Doctorate programs—the final steps of vocational and academic specialization—the usefulness of a generalized skill exam is far more questionable. The ability to write an essay in 30 minutes taking a stance on a randomly generated quote (one of the essay tasks) is perhaps hardly related to the ability to, say, write a detailed exploration of the post-Soviet period in Poland.

Granted, I can see why admissions offices like tests such as this one. First, it is a quick and easy to cut down the hefty stack of applications. What’s more, the GRE scores do provide a standard measurement across varying backgrounds (but what is it a measurement of?). And even if the admissions office sees the GRE as purely pro forma—something that is not uncommon—the obstacle of a $205, 4-hour test may help whittle out those less interested in applying.

However convenient it may be for these admissions officers, I personally cannot help being frustrated with exams like this. At present, Educational Testing Services (ETS), its creator, is the Standard Oil of the testing business. To apply to any institution of higher education in the United States, you must pay a toll—in time, stress, and money—to this organization. If I thought that this ritual improved educational quality in any way, I would tolerate it; but I have trouble believing that.

ETS is not the only entity that benefits from this arrangement, since the competition for scores gives rise to innumerable test-prep companies and products, such as this book. I have used the Princeton Review on numerous occasions, and have consistently appreciated their prep-books. This book provides quite a bit of value for the price: including dozens of specific techniques, and 6 full-length practice tests.

Because the Princeton Review can’t use real ETS questions, they must come up with their own. And this is no easy thing, since their questions must replicate exactly the look, difficulty, and type of questions on the real thing. For what it’s worth, in my own experience I have found that the real ETS verbal questions are easier than the Princeton versions, while the ETS math section is more difficult than Princeton’s—though admittedly this difference is fairly small.

A world where we didn’t have to spend months preparing for standard exams would be ideal. But in the world we live in, Princeton Review books are a valuable aid.

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