Forewarned is Forearmed: 3 Subtle Ways the GRE Essays Messed with Me

“Writing is a skill.” We’ve all been told this at least once during our passage through high school and undergrad. And I can only repeat that cliché to you because it’s true.

Now, when I finally took the GRE, I had two Bachelor’s degrees to my name—in English literature and history no less. So I was convinced that my writing skill was more than equal to the task of writing the GRE’s ridiculous one-size-fits-all essays. I skimmed a couple of study guides and rolled my eyes at their no-duh writing advice: don’t use big or fancy words just to use big or fancy words (because you might use them incorrectly, and wouldn’t that be embarrassing?), be sure to vary the structure of your sentences, and be both clear and persuasive in your argument. Who did they think I was? Some high schooler preparing to take the ACT? (Post-graduation disdain, it’s a thing.)

But standardized testing complicates writing in ways that not even timed college essay exams do, as I quickly discovered.

  1. In order to make a topic accessible to students’ diverse majors and applicable to the various graduate programs looking to the GRE, both essay prompts are, well, remarkably dull. My “Analyze an Issue” prompt prodded me to make an argument about a topic that I truly couldn’t have cared less about. (I could better make my point by sharing the topic in question, but that’s against the rules, don’t you know?) And nothing kills a piece of writing’s ability to be persuasive faster than apathy. Seriously, I wasted at least 5 or 10 minutes staring at this prompt, trying to develop some sort of opinion, which is a rare situation for me.
  2. I drastically underestimated how strange it would be to type a timed essay rather than hand write it. Maybe I’m simply too old school to function, but the pressures of that blank screen and the time trickling away were overwhelming for me in a way that a blank page and a pen would not have been.
  3. And in what world is taking away spellcheck not a crime? What graduate program honestly cares whether you can spell perfectly in a stressful, timed environment? In my opinion, whatever that may actually be worth, graduate programs that place any sort of emphasis on writing want you to use your resources to produce a professional, polished piece of skillful writing, regardless of however long that may have taken you to complete.

This isn’t advice, not really; I’m just giving you a heads up about some tricky details that tripped me up—and wishing you the best of luck with those pesky essays.