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by Kaitlin McManus | February 12, 2019

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testing center computers

Test day is here! Are you excited? Nervous? Sick with dread? It’s okay, that’s normal. When it comes to GRE test day, I can say with all certainty that the best way to mitigate freaking out is to know what you’re in for. I’ve already covered in this series what the GRE is and some useful study tactics, so now I’m going to talk about how to prepare for your testing day and some of the procedures you can expect.

Before Arriving

As with all standardized testing, it’s crucial to rest the night before. Go over your notes one last time, then get to bed early. Pulling an all-nighter and cramming will only make it that much harder to get through the test, which lasts more than four hours.

Wake up early enough that you can go through your normal morning routine. Make sure breakfast is part of that routine—not only for focus, but also so your growling stomach doesn’t distract all of the other test takers. Get to the testing center at least half an hour early. Besides finding parking and wandering the halls looking for the right room, there are some procedures you’ll have to go through—you can’t just walk right in and start testing.

Pack Light

Things you can bring into the testing room: You, your clothes, a printout of your ticket, your ID, and approved medical devices/aids.

Things you CAN’T bring into the testing room: Basically any electronic device (phone, watch, calculator, etc.), pencils, scratch paper, jewelry (except wedding bands), accessories of any variety (hair clips, hats, scarves, jackets, ties, cuff links, etc.), snacks, and drinks. Check out the ETS site for a complete list.

That’s right—you can’t even bring water or pencils to this test. Don’t bring extra things “just in case,” because you won’t get to use them. You’ll be given a locker where you can stash your stuff—I advise you to tuck a snack and water bottle in there for your break. Make sure you’re thorough about leaving all your things—I forgot my sunglasses on top of my head and was scolded like a child for it. One thing you should bring into the testing room is a light sweater or extra layer, because they sometimes blast the A/C in there.

(Don’t fret about leaving everything behind—there is an approved calculator built into your testing computer, and you will be provided with pencils and scratch paper. If you’re taking the much-less-common paper test, however, you must bring your own #2 pencils[4] .)

No Such Thing as GRE Pre-Check

Once you show up and drop your things, the proctor will go through some security measures. When I took the test, I wore a t-shirt, a flannel over-shirt, jeans, and boots. I was scanned with a hand metal detector, asked to take my hair down to prove there wasn’t anything in it, to unroll my sleeves and the cuffs of my jeans to show they were empty, and to pull down the tongues of my boots. Unsatisfied, the proctor then asked me to remove my boots entirely and “give them a shake” to see if anything fell out. After that, the proctor took a photo of me (to prove it was me who was going in and out of the room), I signed in, then copied and signed a statement that promised I wouldn’t talk about what went on in the testing room.

I’ve been to airports with more relaxed security protocols. This process was extremely unnerving for me because I had no idea it was coming; it really threw off my groove. So, now you know—you’ll likely get a shakedown from a test proctor doing her very best TSA impersonation.

The Room Where It Happens

Once you’re cleared for takeoff, you’ll be shown to a testing computer in your own cubicle among many. Ideally, the room won’t be too overcrowded—but even if it is, the room will probably be eerily silent if your experience is anything like mine. After a brief tutorial on how to use a computer, you’ll be asked to which schools you’d like to report your scores. You can choose up to four. If you want to report your scores to more than four schools or wait until after the test to choose, that’s fine—you can do it later, but it’ll cost you $27 a pop. So if you know a few schools you’ll definitely be applying to, best to report to them while you’re at the testing facility to save yourself some money. Then, you’re into the test—Analytical Writing comes first, while you’re fresh. To see what the meat of the GRE entails, check out my article from two weeks ago: “Surviving the GRE Part 1: The Basics.”

You’ll get one-minute breaks between each of the sections, and an optional 10-minute break after the third section (after your two essays and one of the Quantitative or Verbal sections). You can’t leave the building, but you can use the restroom, get a drink or a snack, and stretch your legs a little. If for some reason you need to leave the room besides during your break, you’ll have to raise your hand and get the proctor’s approval—but the testing clock won’t stop. So I’d advise against it unless absolutely necessary.

A few test-day tips: Don’t sit there and agonize over a question you don’t know. Skip it, and come back to it later. You can always review questions in the section you’re on until time runs out. If you really, really don’t know something—guess. There’s no penalty for wrong answers on the GRE. So if you’re down to the wire or you just plain don’t know, try to narrow it down and then take your best guess.

Gettin’ the Heck Out of Dodge

Yay—you did it! You’re probably brain-dead, and that’s okay. It just means you left it all on the field.

One thing you’ll be asked right at the end is if you’d like to delete your scores. Most GRE experts agree that, even if the test was super hard, it’s in your best interest to keep your scores unless something happened during the exam that kept you from finishing it properly—a medical emergency, for example. The GRE is a tough exam, feeling like you didn't do well doesn't mean that you didn't—not to mention that "brain-dead and test-exhausted" isn't the best state for self-evaluation. If you’ve chosen not to cancel your score, you’ll get your unofficial scores for the Quantitative Reasoning and Verbal Reasoning sections. These aren’t necessarily your final scores, but they’ll probably be pretty close. Your official scores and your Analytical Writing scores (which are graded by a real person) will be sent to your ETS account in 10-15 days. I’d try not to worry too hard about them right now—if you did your best, then you should be proud of your scores. But if they’re lower than you expected, you can always take the test again later.

So sign out, grab all your stuff out of your locker, and head home to take a nap—you’ve definitely earned it. There are a lot of steps to applying for grad school, and, luckily, you’ve gotten through this one.

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