Monday, October 7, 2013

A Student Mom: Taking the GRE

One of my biggest fears about this whole application process was studying for and taking the GRE (I'm not even sure what GRE stands for, but it's the general grad-school entrance exam that most non-professional programs require). When I was in undergrad, I had a bunch of friends who were preparing for grad school, and I vividly remember their GRE study sessions: reviewing arcane vocabulary words (did you see what I just did there?) with endless flashcards, desperately memorizing geometric equations, and most of all, stressing out because this test DETERMINED THE FUTURE! I knew I wasn't going to grad school at the time, so I felt grateful that stress wasn't mine.

If I had chosen to do an online or more generic program, maybe I never would have had to take the GRE. Because honestly, when I realized I would actually have to take this test to get into my program, I just about dropped the whole idea. I mean, I hadn't taken a standardized test in nearly ten years! Also, the math section! Guys, a ton of the math on this test is geometry. I took geometry in 8th grade. Do you know how many years ago that was? (More than I'm willing to say online). Thanks to AP credit, I didn't have to take a single math class my entire college career, so it had been a loooong time since I had to think about any of this stuff.

Needless to say, there was some anxiety on my part.

But, I plucked up my courage and pulled myself together and found myself some prep books and flash cards and set myself to studying.

One of the advantages to doing this whole application process now, as opposed to when I was still an undergraduate, is that I could allow myself to focus entirely on studying for the GRE instead of also worrying about classes and papers and grades. Of course, I was also heavily distracted by caring for a rambunctious toddler, so pick your poison, I guess. I just had to be very studious during nap-times. I could usually take and review at least one practice section per nap-time (Side tangent story: I remember at some point during this process hanging out with a bunch of other moms and listening to them talk about the various TV shows they watched during their kids' nap-times, and how they could usually fit two episodes in a day, more if they ignored their kids. I remember feeling self-righteous but also a little bit jealous because I used nap-times to review quadratic formulas and write practice essays. What I'm saying is that it takes some dedication, this whole going-back-to-grad-school thing. It's not an easy thing.)

My husband was very supportive and involved (maybe too involved) in my preparations. He kept giving me lectures about how I needed to take more full timed practice tests in one sitting. A full practice test takes around 3 hours and 45 minutes, and I'm sorry, but no stay-at-home-mom ever has that kind of chunk time, unless you are a mom with a world-champion napper (my kid naps for two hours tops) or you're able to focus between the hours of 10 PM and 2 AM. I did get a babysitter once so I could take a full practice test (a fellow student-mom who understood my conundrum), and my husband was around for one Saturday where I got a practice test in, so I took at least two full practice tests. My husband thought I needed more (after all, he took one full practice test every week for about four months before he took the LSAT, but he is also an overachiever), but in the end I felt like I had done enough to review and improve.

The test itself was also around four hours (more, if you count the time I had to travel to and from the testing site), so I had to schedule it carefully for a day my husband would be home the whole day. I forgot how intense this kind of testing can be, but it was intense and scary and then they threw a triple parabolic function at me (!) and there were moments I thought I was going to just fail the whole thing. But then my score flashed up at the end, and I realized I had pulled off not just a good enough score, but a pretty darn great score. I felt vindicated and oh, so relieved. There I was, out of school for three years with a brain fried by the all-consuming demands of a baby, yet I had pulled off a score that any student would be proud of. It was a pretty great moment for me.

So, for any other moms out there considering the GRE (or whatever grad-school entrance exam), here are my pieces of advice:

-Get the study aids. I went cover to cover on the Kaplan GRE prep book, plus used flashcards (not Kaplan, I don't remember which brand). I can't say if some are better than others, but anything is better than nothing.
-Give yourself time. I started studying last January, and took the test in May. I was super rusty at first, and it took me time to ease my brain back into working like this. I worked out a loose study schedule and stuck to it. That worked for me.
-Take as many practice tests as you can. There are free ones online (at least for the GRE), plus the ones that came with my study materials. It was good to use a variety, because I found some practice tests to be easier and some to be harder than the actual test turned out to be. And yes, try to take at least one or two practice tests in test conditions (timed, all in one sitting, no interruptions from little people demanding food and entertainment, etc.).
-Figure out a target score. I emailed the admissions people at my school so I knew a base score to work with. It helped to have a goal like that.
-Don't stress too much, and keep a balance. Once upon a time I was a perfectionist student who stressed over getting perfect grades and perfect scores. But I'm a mom now. My family comes first, always, before this dream of grad school. I tried to never let GRE prep get in the way of being a mom.

And to any other moms out there, good luck! It can be done!


  1. I have no idea how you studied for a standardized test with a child! When we were prepping for the LSAT it seemed so consuming and overwhelming. A cute toddler distraction may have pushed me over the edge:)

    1. Yeah, I'm not sure the GRE is quite as intense as the LSAT. Also, I wasn't trying to apply to any kind of impressive program, so that took some stress off of the studying. Also, considering how well you're handling law school with two kids, I'm sure you would've handled LSAT prep with one just fine :)

  2. These are some great tips! Thanks for sharing your in-the-trenches wisdom!