The GRE and Stereotype Threat: My Story of Moving Beyond Others’ Expectations

by Daphne M. Penn 

My first GRE sitting was supposed to be low stakes. In fact, I only registered to take the test because my enrollment in teacher certification classes at Georgia State was contingent upon submission of a GRE score – quite literally, any GRE score.  Most of my Teach for America friends, who were in the same predicament, registered for the GRE without any preparation since they either had no intention of going to graduate school or they knew they could retake the test at a later date.  Unsure of how seriously I wanted to take the GRE, I decided to do a little online research to figure out the best route.

After being sucked into the black hole that is graduate application forums and reading enough posts about others’ expectations of me – as an “URM” in academia –  I essentially found myself wanting to be the exceptional negro.

My simple Google search to learn more about the GRE, and its implications for my future,  sent me down an unexpected and rather disconcerting rabbit-hole.  I came across countless discussions related to standardized tests and the overall graduate application process.  Not surprising, many of the discussion threads were full of pretentious, ivy-thirsty, overachievers who were convinced that their score would make or break them; however, what I did find surprising were the frequent references to race and the underrepresented minority (URM) advantage in the application process.  Some posters insisted that URMs are able to get into elite schools with less than stellar standardized test scores.  I also read posts from what I can only assume were white applicants – although they could have easily been random trolls –  who both lamented about their plight and sarcastically wondered how easy life would be for them if they were minorities. A few posters declared that they wouldn’t want a ‘minority boost’ since they wanted to know, for certain, that they had actually earned their spot at a top-tier university. While I viewed their rhetoric, which is often used in debates about affirmative action, as complete garbage, I will admit that it low-key made me want to prove that I was worthy and intelligent enough to achieve well above the minimum score needed to earn a spot in a prestigious department.  After being sucked into the black hole that is graduate application forums and reading enough posts about others’ expectations of me – as an “URM” in academia – I essentially found myself wanting to be the exceptional negro.  

Based on my “research,” I decided to delay taking the GRE in order to maximize my preparation time. I told myself that I only had one shot to ace the GRE since, at the time, ETS did not allow you to pick and choose which score(s) to send to potential schools – they literally sent all available scores.  I started my preparation process by visualizing the score I wanted based on what the internet told me was a “solid” score for top universities. To achieve my goal, I enrolled in a GRE prep course, used countless online resources, literally created more than a thousand flashcards, and spent countless evenings refreshing my high school math skills. I maintained a strict study schedule for roughly four months, and on the morning of the test, I felt prepared; hell, I even arrived to the testing center an hour early so that I could review vocabulary flashcards in my car.

With Archie’s “We Ready” playing in my head, I walked into the testing center as if I was about to win a championship ring, but little did I know, I would sit down at the computer – in an icy cold room – and completely freak out.  Instead of being able to concentrate on the test questions, my mind was clouded by thoughts of not failing – not proving those anonymous and completely irrelevant online posters/trolls right about my ability as black woman.  In that moment, I was experiencing “stereotype threat,” a concept that Claude Steele and Joshua Aronson describe as the “risk of confirming, as self-characteristic, a negative stereotype about one’s group.” I had psyched myself out to the point that I was only able to completely finish one section of the test; I literally only made it to question 10 on the math section. When I finished, I knew my score was going to be bad, and if it wasn’t required for my Georgia State records, I probably would have chosen to cancel the score. However, that wasn’t an option and needless to say, my score was both embarrassing and abysmal; it was so bad that I actually cried.  

Thank God I had great friends who comforted me and helped me see that my approach to preparing for the GRE was all wrong.  My first mistake was putting an immense amount of pressure on myself to score well based on random people’s expectations.  Mistake number two was studying for the GRE like it was an end-of-course exam, with concepts and questions that I could predict, rather than a norm referenced test.  And mistake number three was thinking I could teach full-time, complete six hours of graduate-level coursework, and literally spend all of my free time studying for the GRE without completing draining my brain.  My missteps resulted in me feeling both mentally and emotionally exhausted during my first GRE sitting, and my score ultimately suffered.

I knew that I potentially wanted to attend graduate school in the future; therefore, I had no other choice but to take the GRE again.  I registered for the exam the very next month since I didn’t want to take too long to prove that my first score was an anomaly. However, unlike the first time around, I didn’t visualize an actual number. I was fairly certain that any score would be better than the first.  Mentally, I didn’t do any heavy lifting; in the weeks leading to the test, I actually avoided all flash cards and test prep materials.  I also purposely registered to retake the test at the end of my spring break from teaching, which I spent watching tv and relaxing.  That Friday, I went into my second testing session with the goal of finishing each section. While I didn’t finish the writing portion, I answered most questions in the math and verbal sections; therefore, when the test was over, I was fairly confident that my score was higher the second time around. Little did I know, I’d walk out of the testing center ready to do a praise dance. To my own disbelief, I scored close to my original target, and I decided, then and there, that I’d never take the GRE again. The rest is history.

The moral of the story is that while you should prepare for the test to the best of your ability, don’t freak out, don’t internalize other people’s expectations, don’t get sucked into a rabbit-hole of destructive and unproductive thinking (especially while you’re taking the test), and, most of all, don’t think the GRE is, in any way, tied to your worth or intelligence.  It’s one piece to a larger puzzle and understand that your score does not determine your worth or your intelligence.

Click HERE to see The Ebony Tower’s Six Tips for GRE Success!

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