Sunday, November 15, 2009

Taking the GRE for MFA Programs

The GRE is a requirement for most MFA programs, and a particularly annoying one considering it's not a major factor in your application.  But I will say this: The day I signed up for a GRE test date, and a Kaplan prep course, was the day I knew I was no longer just considering applying to MFA programs -- I was actually going to make a concerted effort to get into one.  Signing up for the test was quick, yet highly committal given the specific date and the $250 fee.

Perhaps some of you, like me, can consider signing up for the GRE your launch pad into grad school reality; throwing your proverbial hat into the ring, if you will.

I learned shortly thereafter that Kaplan was evil -- I invite you to read my account -- and that there are perfectly adequate resources for GRE preparation that you may find online, for free.  Which I suppose should come as no surprise.

1.  Number2.com:  Comprehensive online test prep for the SAT, ACT, and GRE, founded by professors and graduate students who wanted to make high quality test preparation universally accessible. Nice.

The courses are organized in a fashion that is not overwhelming, so that you can plan your schedule of study fairly easily (I crunched mine into a three-day weekend).  Their review of the basic math you'll need for the quantitative portion is helpful and quick.  They provide clear instructive answers explaining why you got an answer on a practice question wrong (or why you got it right), taking special care to point out all the "traps."  And because it's all online, your practice will come as close to true GRE conditions as possible -- versus, say, using a workbook.  Just a fantastic service all around.

2.  FlashcardExchange:  This gem is more hidden.  Arguably, the only true guarded knowledge at Kaplan (and apparently not so well-guarded) is their list of high-frequency GRE words -- this is no joke.  There are roughly 600,000 words in the English language, and the average human vocabulary consists of 10,000 of those.  That leaves 590,000 words that test-makers could choose to baffle us with, but for some reason they are compelled to include a large number of their favorite 295 words on every exam.

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Taking the GRE for MFA Programs (p.2)

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Beats me what is so wonderful about these words.  As a writer I find some of them impractical and downright ugly.  Circumambulate, meaning to walk around?  Amatory, pertaining to lovers or lovemaking?

Try turning somebody on with that.

Anyway, on FlashExchange, where creators of digital flashcards graciously share their study aid with the rest of us, there are a few batches of cards available to help you with these popular GRE words.  Here's one example.  That means you can avoid buying flashcards, or worse, writing up your own.

The site lets you sort by which cards you get correct or incorrect (according to your own judgment), and by cards you've studied versus those you haven't.  You may study a sub-group of the full deck, and then a sub-group of that sub-group, etc, and FlashExchange will record your entire study history.  Thus, I was able to study in batches of 50 at a time, returning to those I got wrong, then once more, then repeating for the next 50, etc.

Took a few hours but eventually I had all 295 cold.  Was it worth it?  You bet your ass.  Even though I was betting on it, I still found myself stunned that so many of these words were on the exam.  Easily made the difference of 100 -200 points. 

There are also hot lists greater than 295 if you have the time (500, 800, 1000, etc.), but I found 295 to be sufficient.

3.  Free Online Practice Test - This is a no-brainer, and it seems there are plenty of them available.  I arbitrarily chose the practice exam offered by Princeton Review and it suited me fine.

*One more GRE learning experience I'd like to share.  I'm sure it was buried somewhere in the resources I've listed above, but I completely missed the part about reporting your scores immediately after completing the exam.  The test fee includes up to four score reports, mailed to schools of your choice.  The trick: You can only take advantage of this once, right after you finish the test.

After that, sending your GRE scores to schools is 20 bucks a pop.

I was so dazed by the end of the test I couldn't even figure out what the damn computer was asking me.  "Score reports... sending to... wait, what are these things it says I'm applying to?"  Thankfully I had the wherewithal to look for my top choice and enter it, not really knowing what I was doing or what the school would get.  I figured I could work out whatever it was later.

Wrong.

So don't be like me and piss away $60.  Be ready with four schools you know you're applying to.

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Free Online Test Prep for GRE. Why?

Because Kaplan sucks. That's why. Here's a story for you.

Taking the GRE is required for entrance into most MFA programs, and while the score itself is not a huge factor, I figured that bombing it might make an otherwise respectable application appear suspicious. I signed up to take a test on September 29, and didn't even consider taking advantage of the test prep resources available for free online.  Instead  I looked into pay-for prep courses, figuring it was worth two or three hundred bucks to relieve myself of having to develop my own study plan.

I almost vomited when I found out the standard month-long course at Kaplan, consisting of nine 2.5-hour classes, was $1,200. Now before I go on, can we just take a second to do some fun calculations (think of it as practice for the quantitative section).

If the Kaplan prep book by itself is is $30, then that means I’m essentially paying 1,169 dollars for (9 x 2.5 =) 22.5 hours of classroom instruction, or 52 dollars per hour. Must be one hell of a teacher.

Especially when you consider how much revenue this guy rakes in! Let’s assume a classroom of 20 students, $52 times 20... that's over a $1,000 per hour. Wow! This must be like having Socrates as a mentor!

Considering how little the GRE’s factored in to my application, twenty-plus hours and twelve hundred dollars seemed too big an investment to have somebody take me through a workbook. Thankfully, Kaplan also had an Express course -- $399 for sixteen hours over one weekend. This I could stomach, so I signed up (and paid) for a course in Cambridge (easy to get to) on Sept. 26 and 27, two days before my exam so I’d be fresh from practice.

On September 11th I get a voicemail and an e-mail from the local Kaplan Center. They both said the same thing, and the e-mail read as follows:

Dear Kaplan GRE Student,

Hello! My name is [Jerk Face] and I am the Associate [Jerk Face] at Kaplan. Thank you for choosing Kaplan to prepare for your GRE exam! I'm excited to meet you and begin working with you as you strive towards your highest possible GRE score.

I am writing today to inform you of an adjustment [my emphasis] that we have had to make to your Kaplan GRE Class schedule. Your first class is now Saturday, September 19th instead of September 26th, and will be held at the Boston Kaplan Center located at... instead of at the Cambridge Kaplan Center.

It is not often that I am faced with changing a class on such short notice... but my hope is that this inconvenience is minimal and that we can still help you to prepare for your GRE and entrance into the graduate school and program of your dreams! Please don’t hesitate to [blah, blah, blah] and I look forward to [blah, so polite and professional, blah].

Sincerely,

[Jerk Face]

Well, hel-lo to YOU! You are so kind to alert me to this adjustment. Now I have ample time to cancel my weekend trip to Maine, or my house inspection, or my visit to my dying grandmother, or whatever lower priorities I'd foolishly scheduled when I should be keeping my weekends flexible in case something like this should happen. God forbid I had scheduled something I couldn't cancel, I might have had to go into my scheduled GRE exam (250 dollars non-refundable) completely unprepared!

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Free Online Test Prep for GRE. Why? (p. 2)

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The modest amount you charge for your Express course certainly doesn't obligate you to keep me abreast of such alterations, and I shudder to think what kind of service I would get if I went with one of those other prep courses. Kaplan, you really do make dreams come true.

Are you.

Fucking.

Kidding me?

Since the e-mail offered no details explaining the reason for this cancellation, like the classroom burned down, or a typhoid epidemic wiped out half the instructors in Western Massachusetts, I can only assume that the reason the class was canceled was that they couldn't fill it, so they tried to herd us like cattle into another class they couldn't fill to achieve maximum cost efficiency.

I'm appalled this note avoided any mention of a refund, even though it's almost certainly illegal for them to deny one, considering they cannot provide the service I paid for. The intention here was clearly to suggest this "adjustment" was obligatory, and that there was no other recourse, in the hopes that people would go out of their way to the location that best suited Kaplan, instead of signing up for the next most convenient test date and location, or simply getting their money back.

This was deception, pure and simple.

I gave myself a day to respond so I wouldn't blow up before knowing I had my money back. But I could taste blood. I was hoping, praying, they would put up a fight.

Sadly, I met no resistance, except that I had to return the prep book first, that piece of toilet paper which should have been my consolation prize -- the least they could do, but whatever. There was also a long delay getting my credit card reimbursed and I had to poke them a few times before it actually went through.

I didn't have to look long after that to discover there are ample resources available, for free, to help prepare for the GRE. And it occurred to me (I can't find the article I read validating this): What you're really paying for with a Kaplan course is structured and guided practice, nothing more. That's the only reason scores go up.

But the keystone to Kaplan's marketing campaign is the "Kaplan method," an implied set of tightly guarded secrets that allow one to exploit the formulaic weakness of standardized test questions, make them transparent, and arrive at the correct answer regardless of whether you're able to solve the problem in a traditional manner.

It's all mystique. There is nothing unique, innovative, or exclusive about the very basic strategies they employ. Here, for instance, is a slide presentation divulging one of their "secrets."

In short, Kaplan is a racket, and an especially deceptive one. If you'll benefit from the classroom structure (I probably would have if my scores mattered more), then maybe it's worth considering. Otherwise, I say avoid this vulture at all costs.

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Applying to Top MFA Programs

About three months ago I had an unexpected mental development: This will be the year I finally apply to the Michener Center. I still wasn't entirely married to the idea of going, even if I got in (and that's probably a long shot), but I figured going through the process of applying to one, and not getting in, might motivate me to apply to several the following year.

That motivation, to apply to several, struck me much earlier than I thought.  I've spent the last couple of weeks preparing my application materials for nine schools, in the hopes of having most of them submitted by December 1st.

Over the next few months I intend to document my full experience here, and will provide any documents I create to keep myself organized and the schools organized, samples of my personal statement, and any other bits of wisdom I might garner from the experience. Items I would like to include:

*Studying for and taking the GRE - (let's just say I have some strong opinions about Kaplan now)

*Selecting schools to apply to


*Securing worthwhile letters of recommendation - (a challenge considering I've avoided the writing community since starting the novel)

*Choosing and preparing the writing sample - (not much to this, it's the same piece I've been submitting to journals and has been rejected about 30 times --- I think it bodes well)

*Writing the personal statement

*Helpful resources

*My charmingly witty reflections

This will take a while, and will probably be of little use to my fellow applicants this year.  Hopefully it will be worth something to next year's class.

In the meantime, cue the drum roll, because here are the nine programs on my list, not necessarily in order of preference. More detail on selection process to follow, but there's no real secret formula --- they pretty much represent the programs have the best reputations and/or the best funding, minus a few, like Iowa (Ye Olde "Writers' Workshop" does not pay enough to live in Des Moines) and Cornell (love my alma mater but I think going back would be a constant and depressing reminder that my glory days are behind me).

I've also included check boxes that anticipate these programs' ultimate, yet-to-be-calculated quality rating, as determined by an algorithm which incorporates a broad constellation of weighted factors (The author admits this rating will be based in small part upon whether the school accepts me, wait-lists me, or rejects me):

1. UT-Austin (aka Michener Center)
program awesome program "waiting" to decide if it sucks program sucks

2. UC-Irvine
program awesome program "waiting" to decide if it sucks program sucks

3. UMass-Amherst
program awesome program "waiting" to decide if it sucks program sucks

4. University of Michigan
program awesome program "waiting" to decide if it sucks program sucks

5. University of Wisconsin
program awesome program "waiting" to decide if it sucks program sucks

6. Indiana University
program awesome program "waiting" to decide if it sucks program sucks

7. University of Florida
program awesome program "waiting" to decide if it sucks program sucks

8. Brown University
program awesome program "waiting" to decide if it sucks program sucks

9. University of Virginia
program awesome program "waiting" to decide if it sucks program sucks