Claire dragged herself out of bed at 8 a.m. on Friday, tossed on a pair of jeans and a shirt and ate a hefty breakfast in the kitchen of her Victorian home in Boston. It wasn’t anything special, just some leftover Korean takeout from the night before.
But it was enough to fortify her for the 9:20 a.m. appointment to take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) in the small, first-floor office at home.
A GRE instructor for Manhattan Prep for more than five years, Claire was taking the test to share the experience with her students. Claire, a pseudonym, had registered for the tests four days earlier, just three days after the first students sat for the test at home for the first time ever on March 27th.
SEVERAL THOUSAND STUDENTS HAVE ALREADY TAKEN THE GRE AT HOME
Since then, a spokesperson for ETS said that “several thousand” people have already registered for the at-home test, many from the U.S. Only last week, the at-home version of the Graduate Record Exam, originally released in only nine countries, was made available worldwide. Registration is currently open for test dates through June 2020. The Graduate Management Admission Council, meantime, is targeting mid-April for the at-home GMAT.
This was the third time Claire has sat for the exam, the last of which was only a few months ago when the 29-year-old had to commute 45 minutes to a test center in the city. That one went really well: She scored just two points shy of a perfect score, with a 170 on the verbal section of the test and a 168 on the quant.
“A few months ago,” she says, “I remember going into the test center, showing the front desk person a form, getting my ID scanned and sitting down to take the test. At home, I had to install some applications and extensions on my computer. The focus was more on me to make sure the test would work properly. It was definitely more convenient taking it at home.”
‘I WOULD HAVE FELT MORE COMFORTABLE AT HOME BUT THERE WERE SOME TECH ISSUES EARLY ON’
But Claire did not feel as relaxed as she would have expected by sitting for the three-hour and 45-minute test in the comfort of her own home. “One of the major differences was my interactions with the proctor and the overall logistics of getting set up with the test,” she says. “I think I would have felt more comfortable at home but there were some tech issues early on. And I wasn’t taking the test for myself. I was stressed out on behalf of my students. I was miffed with the tech issues I was experiencing. If I didn’t experience those tech issues, I would have felt more comfortable.”
There were some surprises at the very beginning. The proctor asked her to do a 360-degree webcam of the room before the test started. Claire took the Logitech webcam on her desktop computer and pointed at all four walls, pausing for a moment at each wall to comply with the instructions.
Even more surprising, perhaps, the test taker was given approval by the proctor to do things that the Educational Testing Service (ETS) had restricted. The proctor overseeing the GRE, for example, allowed her to have some snacks, a couple of bananas and a power bar, along with a bottle of water on the desk, a no-no according to the published restrictions for the at-home test.
HER COMPUTER SCREEN STARTED FREEZING
But there also were a few slight problems from the onset. “When I first chatted with the proctor before the test, I noticed my screen was freezing and there was a lag,” recalls Claire. “I got the sense that it could have been because of screen sharing and remote access. I told the proctor and I actually don’t remember getting a response.”
The technical glitch would get in the way of her performance on the exam later during the essay portion of the test. “The same thing happened. I clicked on the screen and nothing happened or it would gray out. The screen was lagging. My mouse pointer was fading in and out. I couldn’t finish the essay because I lost three minutes due to the glitch. As it was happening I tried to speak up and tell the proctor my essay was freezing up but I didn’t get a response.”
Claire’s screen froze at the most inopportune time. She had been working on the final paragraph of the essay at the time. Three full minutes passed, 10% of the 30 minutes allotted for this part of the exam before she could continue writing. When the screen unfroze she had all of a minute left. “I had to delete a couple of sentences and put a final wrap up sentence in to compensate for the lost time,” she says.
‘I KEPT TRYING TO FLAG DOWN MY PROCTOR BUT I COULDN’T GET HER’
To work out some of the test problems, Claire used both a whiteboard during the test with a fine point marker and a spiral-bound notebook. “In a test center,” she notes, ”they give you a couple of sheets of paper or a blue testing booklet that you could take notes in. But for the at-home test, I asked whether this spiral-bound pad would be okay. The proctor asked her manager and the manager said it was okay.”
Earlier, she had asked the proctor if she could go to the bathroom in the middle of a section. “She said, ‘Just speak up and I’ll let you go.’ I didn’t ask because I realized I couldn’t get in touch with the proctor at all. I thought to myself, I’ll just not communicate with the proctor until the break. But when the break occurred I still couldn’t talk to the proctor. I kept trying to flag down my proctor but I couldn’t get her. When I finally got in touch with her via the chat box which I had difficulty doing, I asked her, ‘What happened? I was trying to get in touch with you and I couldn’t.’ I never really got an answer.”
When the test was completed, she was asked through the chat window to erase her whiteboard and show both sides to make sure she had complied with the request.
“And that was it.”
THE AT-HOME SCORE WAS THREE POINTS LOWER THAN THE TEST CENTER SCORE TAKEN A FEW MONTHS EARLIER
Claire’s score was revealed: it was a 170 on the verbal and a 165 on the quant, overall three points below her earlier results.
The big takeaway? “It is definitely a viable option,” says Claire. “You want to be flexible and somewhat tech-savvy. If you don’t like installing programs or if you don’t know how to enable flash on your browser, then maybe it would be best to wait for the in-person exam. If a tech issue presents itself on test day that would cause stress or unnerve you, maybe you should wait.
“But the flexibility of the scheduling is really great. When I registered for the GRE, I found the process fairly smooth. There were test slots available every 20 minutes and you can take the tests 24-7. Pretty much anytime I wanted for any day was open.”
‘THE TEST WAS IDENTICAL TO THE TESTS I HAD TAKEN IN THE PAST’
Just like the exam at the test center, the GRE was carved up into six sections with a 10-minute break following the third section. Otherwise, the breaks between each section lasted all of one minute.
“It was identical to the tests I had taken in the past,” says Claire. “The night before I had taken a look at a practice test and the platform was exactly the same. There is one change: On the practice test, you can quit and save which you can’t do. Other than that It was the same.”
“I think there are different pros and cons but It wasn’t necessarily a very different experience. I can imagine that students would really enjoy being able to take it at home. I think the at-home test could be preferable for many students.”
For Manhattan Prep’s pre-exam preparations and logistics for the at-home test, see the following page: