We get a surprising number of calls from prospective students where, at some point in the conversation, we hear something along the lines of, “I’m really hoping to score much higher on my next GRE attempt—I really struggled the first time, since I didn't study for it at all. I just took it cold."
Cringe. Why do students do this? I ask myself. And so, I’ll ask the caller: "Why did you decide to take the GRE without any preparation?"
"I wanted to get the feel of a 'real' GRE," is the most typical response. Followed occasionally by, "I didn't really think I needed to prepare." Cringe.
In case you haven't noticed, I'm not a big fan of taking an official, on-your-record-for-many-years GRE "cold"--i.e., without any preparation whatsoever.
Now, in the case of our hypothetical student here, there really isn't much that can be done to erase that one botched test attempt. It’s basically “prepare thoroughly, take it again, and secure a significantly higher score.”
But while there may be nothing I could do for that student, if you're considering taking the GRE cold there is still time for me to talk you off the ledge before you jump. Please. Don't. Taking the GRE cold is akin to walking into the final of some high level foreign language exam without ever having opened one course book or attended one class, and all the while expecting a solid grade based solely on high school, college, and, dare I say it, life experience. Unless you just happen to be a native speaker of that language (and the GRE is NOT a language many people speak), you're going to bomb in a pretty spectacular, and sadly predictable, fashion.
Here are some of the reasons (and my rebuttals) for why students decide to take the test cold:
"I want to get a real testing experience."
There are many ways of getting a real GRE testing experience that don't involve shelling out the registration fee, using up one of your test attempts, and potentially—almost certainly—adding a low score to your official record. The most straightforward method is by simply taking a prep test on your own with the free POWERPREP II software. At the very least that will give you a sense of the computer interface, test content, and you innate strengths and weaknesses. In addition, if you choose to prep with a course, any prep course worth its salt will have multiple GREs available for you. You don't need to take an official test to get a real testing experience. There's too much at stake for you to just go in and wing it for the sake of an experience, especially one you’ll likely want to forget.
"I got straight As in college, I don't need to prep."
Your academic performance in college doesn't necessarily correlate to your performance on the GRE. Many a straight-A student has gotten a sub-par GRE score when taking the test without preparation. How can this be? Simply put, the GRE does not always test things that are typically taught in college classes, and where there is overlap the GRE tends to test the concept in unique ways. You don't study the specifics of the GRE in school, so why would you assume that doing well in your English/math/sociology class would mean you can ace it? The GRE doesn't measure how well you know school subjects. The GRE measures how well you know the GRE. And to know the GRE, you need to study it directly.
"How hard can it be? It's just basic Math and English."
Underestimating the GRE is the worst mistake you can make. If it were all about just reading carefully and knowing how to do some algebra and geometry, then getting a near-170 score wouldn't be nearly so elusive. This doesn't mean that the GRE is going to be the hardest test you'll ever take. In fact, many students say the tests they take in college, or eventually in grad school, are much harder. However, this also doesn't mean that you can wing it and come out unscathed. The GRE is a beast for those unprepared, and it will try to hunt you down in ways the average test taker would never expect. Come with heavy ammo, and you won't have a problem. Show up with a slingshot (or just your bare hands), and you’re in real trouble.
"I don't have time to prepare."
Here's what I think about this excuse: If you don't have time to prepare for the GRE, what makes you think you'll have time to put together solid grad school applications? And, for that matter, what makes you think you'll have time for grad school? Anything worth doing is worth making time for and, if graduate school is what you want to do, then making time for the GRE is an unmistakable priority. I can definitely understand that some students don't have the amount time required for a prep class, but that's why classes aren't the only forms of preparation out there. Books are out there, too. And practice tests. And study groups. And study plans. Make time for what's important. And if what’s important to you is grad school, know that what’s important to them, above all else in fact, is your GRE score.
"I've heard of people that have taken the GRE cold and gotten a [insert your idea of an awesome GRE score here]."
This GRE urban legend inevitably pops up every so often: "My cousin knows this guy whose girlfriend went into the GRE without opening a single book, and she got a 168 math and 166 verbal on the first try." Now, don't get me wrong; I'm sure there are a few people out there who could, and do, pull this off. Statistically speaking, though, the odds are definitely infinitesimal. Again, if it were that easy to rock the test, getting that 99th percentile score wouldn't be quite the feat it is. It may be comforting to think that you could be one of the chosen few that can thump the GRE without a single day's prep--but why take the chance, when history so often proves otherwise?