Wednesday, May 14, 2008

O GRE, Harbinger of Doom

Coincidence, that "O GRE" spells out "ogre"? I think not.

Most of my peer group is done with this standardized test business by this point in their lives. It probably began fifteen years ago with some nice Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, progressed through all manners of state- and local-mandated curriculum based assessments, a Gateway test to see if you're really ready for the rigors of... 8th grade! Then the PSAT shows up, which really has no bearing on anything except whether or not your college feels like giving you a thousand dollars a year for free.

By that time, you're ready to face the granddaddy of them all, the SAT. Or maybe you're up against his brother, the ACT. Either way, no single test is as critical to so much of the populace as these college-entrance exams. Maybe the driving test, come to think of it. But the DMV doesn't care how many times you have to try before you get a license. Countless hours and dollars go into preparation for the SAT, such that by the time you're ready to take it, there's no way you won't know what's coming. No guarantees as to how you'll do, what score you get, or what super-elite establishments you may have the credentials to join once you take it. But you've at least met the guy before.

My impending endeavor is the GRE. If the SAT is the granddaddy of standardized tests, and to extend the metaphor way too far, the GRE is that guy who's vaguely related to your family somehow. You call him "uncle" despite the dubious at best evidence for blood relation. Maybe by the time you're twenty, twenty-two, you start to ask around about this guy. Your cool uncle Stan (short for Stanford Binet, naturally) pulls you aside and tells you what's up. "Uncle GRE? Sure! He's really a lot like your grandfather, but he's harder to get to know, so a lot of people never bother talking to him in the first place. Such a shame..."

I decided it was high time to orient myself and at least pull together some modicum of preparation for my last test. (Not true, really. I still have plenty of exams, and of course the dreaded Quals once I actually get into grad school. But it's the last standardized test I think I'll ever have to take.) And honestly... this is like the SAT over again, but with harder words. Still two sections that count, verbal and quantitative, plus a writing section that nobody cares about.

Naturally, I assume that the quantitative section matters to me more as an engineer. The one piece of advice I get, common among literally everyone I talk to about the GRE, is "don't fret the math section. If your major at all involves math, there's no way you won't do great on it." That's solid advice; everyone gets the same GRE. Doesn't matter if you're intending to study spectral field applications of tensors in grad school, or if you're pursuing degrees in medieval literature. But I started to get the kernel of doubt: well, I deal with a bit of calculus in my major, and a lot of plug and chug into correlations to calculate dimensionless quantities, but how much straight up math do I know?

When I saw the section in a GRE book about "the two special right triangles in geometry", I knew exactly how little I should worry.

The words are a different matter. I don't think, realistically, that a low verbal score would hurt my chances to get into grad school. I mean, look at the demographics of who exactly becomes engineering grad students, and English isn't even the first language for probably a majority of them. My quantitative score should be high, my grades are good, and I've done some decent research, so I'm probably in okay shape. But as long as I'm taking this test, I'm not going to embarrass myself and completely bomb it. So I invested in a GRE word book.

Some of them, I straight up don't know, like "contumacious", which has such a mess of prefixes and suffixes that there's no way I could have found the root and figured out it meant "rebellious". But I was impressed on an initial skim with the number of words that I did know, from unlikely geeky sources.

First, Latin: I didn't know what "peccadillo" meant, except that it was probably Spanish. But... "pecavi" is Latin for "I have sinned", so maybe it means something about sin? Yep. "Impecunious" clearly reflects the Latin root "pecunia" for money. "Meretricious" needs no introduction except for the Latin "meretrix", prostitute. (For the love of etymology, this further comes from "merere", to earn; literally, a meretrix is a female who earns.) Thank you, Dale Buff.

And second, role-playing games: "augury", "glibness", and "hoary" are "prediction", "quick-tongued", and "elderly white" respectively. Wouldn't have known those without a bit of D&D.

Currently listening: "Fall: Allegro" from The Four Seasons, Vivaldi

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