Taking the GRE when you’ve been out of school for a while: what to expect as an older student

Davis: Hey everybody, this is GRE Bites. My name is Davis, and I’m an educator with over ten years of experience.

Orion: And I’m Orion, the founder of StellarGRE.

Davis: We’re here to bring you your weekly bite-sized episode on GRE prep and grad school admissions. Check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at stellargre.com. And don’t forget, you can use the code “BITES” for 10% off any membership.

Orion, I wanted to ask you today about what might be a unique situation for some, but was not unique to me, at least when I joined your in-person class years back, which was, you know, the difference between approaching the GRE coming right out of college, going right into grad school, and being in the workforce for a number of years and then deciding, “Hey, you know what, I actually do want to see what my options are back in academia or get a different degree for a different profession.” So, what is your perspective? Any suggestions, any tips, tricks? For those of us who come back to the GRE after some time off?

Orion: It’s a good question. Folks of all walks of life can take the GRE. When I was teaching my in-person classes in San Francisco for many years, I would say about a quarter of my students were either still in college undergrad, or they had graduated in the past year. And this is one way to go about doing this. These folks generally were actually not interested in going right into grad school. But their mind was, “Well, I’m a student now. I’m kind of in the habit of taking tests and preparing for tests. So what I’m going to do is I’m going to strike while the iron is hot, I’ll take this test now while I’m still in student mode, get the score that I need. And I’ll just put it in my back pocket because scores are valid for five years. And within five years, if I did go back to grad school, I think I’m going to go back within the next five years.” And that’s actually a decent strategy.

However, I think the average age of my student was around 26, which suggests that they’ve been out of school for several years. That’s because about half of the folks who took my program were seeking an MBA. And MBAs are different from, let’s say, Ph.D. grad programs. MBAs really do want to see real-life professional experience on your resume or your CV as part of the application process. That’s much less important if you’re going into, let’s say, a pure science Ph.D. track. They want to see if you’ve published, they want to see if you had a master’s, like an honors thesis, they want to see if you’ve presented or if you’ve worked in various laboratories. They don’t need to see real-world professional experience as much as, say, an MBA program does. Does that make sense?

Davis: Yeah. Yeah, that does make sense. So, in the case where you’re coming back after a time, you know, what are some steps to—it can be daunting—I mean, what are some steps to kind of dusting off those old study habits, that old mindset of being a student taking tests?

Orion: A lot of folks reach out to me after they have been out of school for many years, sometimes, I am contacted by students in their 40s, who are trying to do a career change in midlife. I went to grad school at 29. So this is kind of my second career.

So I know a little bit about that. I usually reassure these folks by saying it’s actually, in some respects, a benefit that you’ve been out of school for so long, because you’ve probably already forgotten a lot of the things that I would tell you to unlearn. Anyway. The fact of the matter is, is that, for example, on the quant section, which is generally where people are most concerned, everything that you need to get a perfect score you learned in seventh, eighth, and ninth grades; it’s arithmetic, which I don’t care how long it’s been since you’ve done math, you haven’t forgotten arithmetic. Algebra, but as we’ve seen, in the Stellar system, we reduce 99% of algebra into arithmetic by plugging in. So there’s really not algebra on the test, and geometry, but it’s not like formal proofs. It’s more like memorizing two dozen equations, and then transforming them into arithmetic by putting known values into these equations and solving for the unknown constant.

So the things that you actually need to know most people still know, even if they haven’t done math for 20 years. These folks can actually be easier to teach than folks who are directly out of undergrad because, frankly, the way that math and concepts like verbal concepts are taught in school are not the right or best way to approach on the GRE.

And a lot of folks, if they’ve just spent the last 18 years of their life approaching math problems in a certain way, they’re going to have a sort of rigidity, and sometimes willfulness against abandoning some of those approaches, even if they might not be adaptive for a time standardized tests, like the GRE. Whereas if I’m working with somebody who has been out of school for a long time, they’re almost like, “Yeah, I have no idea, just, I’m kind of a blank canvas, you can, you can actually, sometimes move faster with those students, because there’s less resistance to trying new and unconventional approaches.”

Davis: No, that makes a lot of sense. And I can definitely confirm what you’re saying, from personal experience that ability to, you know, at one point feel like, “Oh, my gosh, I haven’t like taken a standardized test in years, or any kind of test.” But then to be able to approach it with much more ease and acceptance.

Orion: Just looking at the raw data, which is, you know, which is incredible for Stellar GRE in the sense of your measured the measured metrics on improvement and success rate. There’s also something that is worth considering, which is, in traditional IQ tests, there’s a number of broad domains, and some of those domains decrease predictably with age.

But there’s one domain that predictably increases with age, and that has to do with crystallized knowledge, including vocabulary. So whereas if you’ve been out of school for a while, it’s likely if you have not been in a profession that requires quantitative analysis, that some of that will have decreased. But it’s also likely just because you’ve been an adult and a human being for longer, you’ve acquired more words, a broader vocabulary, and better and deeper reading comprehension. Because you’ve just been using language for much longer than some of the other folks. And that predictably increases with age. So that’s, it’s like a trade-off, you might lose some things here, but you might gain some things there.

Davis: I wonder what your thoughts are on, too, in terms of the emotional maturity or ability to practice mindfulness, which is so beneficial on the test when it comes to acting under pressure, under time constraints, that seems for me, at least, I know, as a student, that was more of a source of stress than coming back later, it was like, “Okay, this is just, you know, it was easier to deal with, because of that life experience as well.”

Orion: Well, if you’re 21, and 22, and all of your conscious life has been geared towards academic achievement. And this is just one more big test to determine what you believe to be your future, the rest of your life.

Davis: Yeah.

Orion: That’s putting a lot of emotional pressure. Versus a person who’s maybe 35-45 years old, they’re just going to say, “This is just an obstacle that I need. It’s a little formality that I need to check for this application, I’m going to do the best I can and then it’s going to be fine no matter what,” because they have more lived experience. And they understand that at the end of the day, this is just a standardized test. So yeah, it would make sense that they would deal with less anxiety than somebody in the first camp.

Davis: I would also point out that even coming back to it a little later, I think I was in my early 30s, when I went through your course. And those whatever cognitive decline I had in my 20s had no impact on my ability to still achieve within the 99th percentile coming out, so that’s great.

Thanks, everybody, for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with another bite-sized episode of GRE Bites. If you have a topic you’d like discussed on a future episode, let us know at stellargre@gmail.com. And if you’re ready to take your prep to the next level, check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at stellargre.com. You can use the code “BITES” for 10% off all memberships there. Talk to you soon.

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