Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Test Preparation

If you are wondering why I have been so quiet on the blog, it is because I have been consumed with study. Last week I took the Graduate Record Exam, an unfortunate requirement for entry into the PhD program I wish to pursue. For the three weeks prior to that, I buried myself in math tutorials and vocabulary flashcards. No one saw me for anything social other than Thanksgiving and a dinner date or two with my husband. Daily, my children pulled at my legs in an effort to distract me. They were incredibly tolerant as I banged my head against a stack of notebooks and study guides. One afternoon, my daughter silently removed a growing collection of coffee cups from beside my computer in a sort of unspoken empathy for what I was undergoing. I called out to her as she retreated back to her own studies.

“Hey, you know that fear that you’ll fail? You ever get that?”

“Yeah,” she said. “All the time.”

“You ever afraid that people will think you’re stupid?”

“Totally,” she agreed, and then added woefully, “Now you know how I feel.”

“I get it, Sweetheart. I really do. I am right there.” I have a new respect for my daughter’s frustration with school and I worry that if I do get accepted into graduate school, I won’t be taken seriously.

There is nothing like a standardized exam to reflect inability and create self-doubt. I have never been a supporter of these kinds of tests. While I realize that these tests are the best numeric measure we have to sort and rank ability, they really only show one true thing: who tests well versus who doesn’t on a particular time during a particular day. Knowing this, I still studied four to six hours a day (plus editing a couple of papers for work and raising children) during the week for a math test score that would be ignored by an engineering department, slightly frowned over by someone in the humanities, but that would thrill me completely. (The test center calculates verbal and quantitative while you wait.) During study sessions, my main mistakes were not that I could not retain formulas, processes, or figure out what steps to employ in a lengthy word problem; my weaknesses always boiled down to details. Checking my work, I found consistent mistakes in basic addition and multiplication. Sometimes, I transposed figures incorrectly. How frustrating!

I complained to my husband that what I know how to do is not measured well in these tests. I can define British closed punctuation, reduce a paragraph of weak writing into two sentences, draw comparisons between literary works, and discuss the entry of softcover books into American readership in the 1960s. I can mentally calculate my budget and make plans with a rotating list of priorities, check my accounts online, and see that my figures match without having used additional software to balance the checkbook. When I read, I collect books in themes, and will independently explore the role of women in ancient China, American slave narratives, or coming of age experience according to gender and region. If I encounter an unknown word, I use a dictionary or research etymological origins online. I can even quickly assess and address croup, split-open chins, sick dogs, and some plumbing problems.

No, this stuff does not show up in a standardized exam. Instead, what I had to prepare for were analogies between words, a curse for the right brain that sees multiple possible relationships between close fits in the answer key. There were fill-in-the-blank exercises and antonym exercises (which could be more broadly interpreted than desirable). In math, I reiterated the formulas for the slope of a line, calculated probability, and used the Pythagorean theorem to answer questions that at first seemed to lack all the needed information. Now, none of these things I’ll need to discuss Faulkner or mass communication campaigns, but the practice of studying for these aspects of the test was a great glimpse into how I work and what I really wished could be measured.

When I did not know something, I took an online tutorial. I set up countless practice tests, checked for progress, noted weak spots, and addressed those areas. I followed a study chart that I had set up to organize the three weeks I had between registration for the exam and its administration. Between problem solving sessions, I created note cards for mathematic formulas and new vocabulary. I quizzed my English professor husband on contexts of words to develop better understanding of meanings and usage. And I did all this while still keeping a reasonably clean house, hot meals on the table, and meeting the punctual requirements for picking up children from school or being home for the bus. This was the test—can I handle this much study and still be a dutiful mother?

Yes, but that does not mean I will always have a pleasant demeanor, be available to chaperone field trips, or that a little extra dose of televised PBS won’t come in handy as a distracter during a rough spot. I did take some time off after the test to spend extra moments in coddling and play. Both the children needed this. My son was particularly amused and grateful for a short afternoon baking muffins; he talked about it the other night as I helped him wash his little wiggly toes in the tub. I hope he understands that my moments of unavailability will reward us as a family later in life—better jobs, better education. Those hard choices we make to better ourselves—I wish the GRE tested for that, too.

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