GRE: worse than GBH?

An unmissable feature of the reading rooms at Beida are the Towers of Babels, or – for the non-engineering students – the more precarious Leaning Towers of Pisa, constructed of GRE books. That’s Graduate Record Examinations for those of you who are not Chinese, applying for an American university, and as a consequence in the library hoping your neighbour is an architecture major.

It’s a comprehensive test of language (vocabulary and analytical writing) and maths skills which can be decisive in your application. Leonidas is preparing for it now: he tells me he will be tested on a selection from 15,000 English words in the vocabulary section. And we’re not talking about words like ‘eat’ and ‘bright’ here. We’re talking ‘masticate’ and ‘incandescent’. Remember, this isn’t a test for Chinese students: it’s a test designed for Americans taken by Chinese students.

So today, like every day for the past few months and every day for the next few, Leonidas will revise a page of words in his preparation book. I once did this with Mary over a coffee last year, the two of us coming up with mental pictures and funny stories to remember difficult words by (at least one in every five I wasn’t familiar with). But the whole thing – however you go at it – is a long slog, by the end of which Mary in her own words “didn’t feel like learning anything”. Unfortunately it was all a little too much for her: her score was low, “not high enough to get into a good program, especially my writing”.

I thought I’d include this vignette of GRE hell as another illustration of the absurd pressures Chinese students put themselves under, and the walls they’re up against – on the other side of which, a lot of the time, is the dream of studying in America or the West, where we lament the laziness of our own students.


  1. yeah, been there

Comments are now closed.