Following my undergraduate graduation, amid the ongoing global situation, I had a decision to make. I had to figure out what my next career development move would be. Possibly against better judgement, I decided that my next step would be to pursue graduate studies, and I decided that I wanted to take my studies to the USA. Many universities have declared the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE), to be optional for autumn 2021 (5782) entries, but I decided to take it regardless. Here is my experience taking the GRE at home, late in 2020 (5781).
Prior to taking the exam, it was necessary to brush up on some American high school grade concepts. The GRE preparatory material preaches that the exam covers a variety of mathematical and English language problems targeting that educational bracket. To that end, I purchased the Official GRE Super Power Pack from a British vendor for £40 ($53.12 at the time of writing). A perfectly reasonable price for three books covering the exam, totalling about a thousand pages of revision and practice exams.
Between the official GRE books and my textbook library, I was able to cobble together most of the knowledge required for the exam. I provided myself only a month of revision before my exam date, but that was sufficient for me. With at least three hours of revision, six days a week, I logged approximately 85 hours of practice in total. I may have been able to improve the depth of my knowledge if I had given myself more time, but there is no guarantee that I would have been able to improve my result without months of learning.
One issue that reared its head during this practice is one that I fully expected; the substandard quality of some elements of Key Stage 3 and 4 education at my local comprehensive school. My first exposure to a mathematics education that made sense to me was in my university mathematics class, which has certainly left me on the back foot in some regards.
I can do a lot of maths in my head, and I can solve most problems – especially regarding applied subjects such as statistics – with relative ease. When it comes to topics like algebra, I prefer to work with scientific calculators or Wolfram Alpha. This was a luxury that I could not be afforded during the GRE.
Exam-day Trials and Tribulations
As well as ensuring that I undertook an adequate amount of revision, I also had to prepare my computing environment. ETS, the test administrator, have some specific and stringent requirements. Some of them, such as the microphone and camera requirements, may seem somewhat Orwellian on the surface. The resulting environment, though, is not significantly different from a testing hall. You would normally have an invigilator observing everything that you do.
I had to ensure that my system would be up to requirements before the test. I was using my workstation for the exam, which has three monitors as well as a host of peripherals. Normally, I am a Firefox user, but the recommendation of both ETS and ProctorU – the company responsible for invigilation at home – is to use Google Chrome. As an avid avoider of Google, I opted to try Edge, which passed the ProctorU equipment test with flying colours. I have to note that the test required Flash to be installed, but I didn’t notice it being used during the exam itself. It may not be necessary, but I took the precaution of installing it anyway.
Peripherals, Whiteboards, and More
The exam only permits one monitor. I had already disabled my secondary displays, but the invigilator changed my output anyway. One of my side monitors is marked by Windows as “Display 1”, and they forced me to use that display, so bear that in mind if your secondary monitors are in awkward positions. You will want to swap cables around or unplug them completely if that is the case.
My camera, microphone, and speakers raised no troubles on their own. I could type to the invigilator, but I could also speak. The invigilators that proctored by exam both responded to spoken word with text. It’s worth noting that during the actual exam, you won’t be able to see the ProctorU chat window. This means that your only option will be to speak aloud and hope that the invigilator makes any necessary actions. They have control over your PC in a manner not unfamiliar to VNC or TeamViewer users, so they have the power to act if they need to. They will also handle opening the exam and controlling your session, so you don’t have to worry about logging in.
No umbrage was taken of my kippah, reflecting the approval of religious headgear that does not cover one’s ears. There was, however, a problem with my whiteboard. The requirements state that you should have a small desktop whiteboard, but some people have reported getting away with a rather large one. I have a whiteboard easel in my office, which measures roughly 3′ by 2′. This was not approved, most likely because I would have to turn to the side to use the easel. I had to use a cheap, spare desktop whiteboard, and I certainly did so throughout the exam. You might want to buy one if you don’t have one already.
Sitting the GRE at home
The exam itself mirrored the POWERPREP online practice exams almost perfectly, aside from the actual questions and issues posed. The exam takes place in a browser developed by the ETS specifically for it. This browser will run fullscreen, and although I did not try, I would imagine that you can’t break out of it. Unlike the POWERPREP exams, the actual exam will expand to fill all of your screen. If you’re using a large 4k display, you don’t need to worry about not being able to read the text. It scales proportionally to your resolution.
Unless you need to speak to the invigilator, you’ll spend the next few hours of your day in silence. Aside from the blue light on my webcam, I had no way of telling whether or not someone was watching me. For some, this has been an issue, as noted by a pseudonymous Manhattan Prep reviewer. They couldn’t flag down their proctor to be excused, and there is no obvious feedback during the exam. This wasn’t an issue for me, as I had no trouble lasting through the approximately 4-hour test.
I can confirm that the revision material that I had gathered was adequate for the exam. My final result, included below, took about eight days to arrive. It could have been improved upon, but I know from the aforementioned education that I would need a lot more hours learning new mathematics concepts before my result would rise by a notable margin. This was my first time taking the GRE, and it was shoehorned into a non-exam environment. The amount of time invested has produced an at a minimum adequate result for someone pursuing graduate Computer Science studies.
Concluding my GRE at home experience
I hope you enjoyed exploring the GRE at home process with me. In retrospect, it wasn’t as bad as I expected it to be; I certainly felt relieved and confident after finishing the exam.
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