Friday, July 08, 2005

GRE memories

Come July 10th, it will be five years since I took my GRE. This morning, I came across an article on Rediff which gave tips to test-takers on how to tackle GRE successfully and my own GRE memories came flooding back.

I took the GRE by fluke. By the time the third year of my engineering degree program rolled around, most of my classmates had already started tossing around words like GRE, ETS, Barrons, apping and university ranks. Being a self-proclaimed patriot, I turned my nose down upon such 'lesser' souls and proudly declared to anyone who would listen that I would study for CAT and do a MBA in an Indian management institution.

Such lofty ideals were nice-sounding - but, as the year went by, me and my friend V, who also had such similar patriotic aspirations, began to feel left-out. We felt 'out of it' whenever the my classmates (a whole bunch of them) held animated discussions about word-lists, clashes and where to apply. So, for a lark, but more importantly, to feel 'in' and to belong, we both bought ourselves the GRE bible - Barrons - and embarked on memorizing the word-lists. A couple of really boring classes hastened the learning process with most of my class zealously passing around flash-cards to utilize the time that otherwise would have been spent sleeping.

Of course, by then, we had invested enough time to warrant giving a shot at the actually taking the test. So, I booked my test dates - still just 'doing it for a lark'. July 10th was the auspicious day - as luck would have it, four of my close friends also had the same test-day assigned to them.

By July, some of the early-birds in my college had already taken the test and their test-scores were beginning to trickle in. Some had done good, some not so good but good or bad, the scores would immediately be broadcasted to the whole batch. So more than being concerned abt not doing well on the test and being rejected for admission into a US school, I was concerned about not doing well on the test and then having the whole college know about it! Finally I convinced myself that I would just tell everyone that I cancelled the test in case I got a bad score.

Along with the test scores, interesting stories of the ETS center and the GRE too were floating around. 'Its really cold in there - take a sweater'. 'Answer the first few questions slowly'.'Ask for lots of paper in the beginning itself'. 'They use cameras - be careful'. 'Do not leave any question unanswered'. 'Use the ear plugs.'. 'Dont forget to turn in your rough sheets when you are done.'

So, on the noon of July 10th, I arrived at the ETS center, scrubbed and neat, sweater in hand and butterflies in stomach. I dont much remember about how the registration process was - I do remember that I asked for extra rough-sheets upfront - for which the lady gave me a weird look and said that I could always wave my hand for more if I needed it. Then I was escorted to a cubicle, past rows of other test-takers, to take my test on the computer.

I dutifully stuffed the ear plugs into my ears and stared at the monitor screen as it spewed instructions on how to take the test. I remembered that a friend had said sth about some instructions on breathing exercises and waited for them to turn up so I could breathe and relax before I started my test. When the test-taking instructions ended, there were no instructions on breathing exercises - instead it just asked if I wanted to start the test.

So I took a deep breath myself and hit 'yes'. The first section I got was verbal (back then, the test score was out of 2400 with 800 points each for verbal, analytical and math sections). I am fairly good at English - even so, in all my practice tests, my verbal score generally trailed behind the other two scores due to the convoluted reading comprehensions (RC) that the verbal section featured. So, I was surprised when tackling the verbal questions in that section turned out to be a real breeze.

Then I realized that this must be the 'dummy' section - GRE computer adaptive tests always feature an additional verbal, analytical or math section - a 'dummy' section which would not be considered toward the final score. And these 'dummy' sections were always so ridiculously easy to do that it was very easy to spot them. As soon as this realization struck, I relaxed, and completed the section without much difficulty and proceeded to the next section in a much calmer frame of mind.

It was again a verbal section. This time, though, it was of the same level of difficulty as my practice tests. I then knew that it was the real deal and in spite of struggling a little, at the end of it, thought that I had done fairly okay. I dont remember clearly now - but I think we were allowed a little break after this which I spent to take a quick sip of water.

The next section which popped up was the Math section (to make it a bit more interesting, the GRE CAT pulls out the various sections randomly). Thankfully, I wasnt tortured with high-fundae probability or statistics questions like some of my unlucky classmates had been. The questions were of the more straightforward variety. So I managed to get through okay with this.

By now I was 3/4ths of the way done and on the home stretch. As the leftover, the next section which popped up, without any surprise, was the analytical section. Even during my prep, I had always been fond of the analytical section as it involved a lot of puzzle solving and logical reasoning. I only had to make sure that I did not get so deeply involved in some puzzle that I would keep working on it till the exam ended! I had been fore-warned that most people ran out of time on the analyts section. I was no exception - I think I was somewhere near the 30th (out of 35) question when the finish-warning appeared. I just scrambled through the rest of the questions and randomly picked up answers (following the 'do not leave any question unanswered' maxim). And then, I was DONE!

Now was judgement time. I thought I had done okay but I wasnt sure how the actual performance was. Yet, I was racked by extreme curiosity as to what my score would be. And for once (something which had been on my mind since I had booked the test date), I did not even worry that if it was a miserable score, I would have to sneak past familiar faces from my university, who were also taking the test on the same day.

In the GRE CAT, like a suspense novel, the score does not turn up till the last page. So, I had to fill out addresses, university names to which to send scores and what seemed like my whole life-history before I was finally taken to the page which asked me if I really wanted to see my scores and if not, that was the last chance I had to cancel my scores. Cancel my scores? No way! My head would have exploded out of curiosity if I couldnt have a glance at my scores no matter how good or bad they were!

And so my scores came up: Verbal:720, Math:790, Analytical:800. They seemed like big numbers. No total out of 2400 was displayed. So, in a daze, I added up the scores and they came up to 2310. I was astounded - 2310?? Nobody in my university had yet touched the 2300 mark that year. Surely it must be a mistake. So I tallied it all over again - yes, it was coming up to 2310. At that moment, the camera over my head must have captured one of the widest smiles ever at the test center.

I dont remember what the next sequence of events were. I just remember floating through the test center, beaming benevolently at all the other test-takers. I remember standing outside the ETS center with a broad grin and happily proclaiming my score to my fellow university mates when they asked. I remember feeling out of this world.

By the time I got home though, the euphoria had dampened a bit and I began to suspect that I had had some eye-malfunction and had wrongly read my scores (a feeling which stayed with me right till the day I got my original score sheet from ETS). In any case, thanks to the strong GRE gossip network, as soon as I got home that evening, I was flooded with phone calls from other GRE-takers asking for test-taking tips. The next day, when I got back to college, I was a minor celebrity! I was remembered as 'the girl who got 2310' for quite some time. Though other people got higher scores than me after that and a couple of them also managed to totally crack GRE with a perfect 2400, I still retain the honor of being the first to cross the 2300 mark in my batch in my university.

So what started as a fluke experiment turned out to be career-defining instead. With such a nice score, it would, of course, have been stupid to waste it. The next obvious step was apping to US universities and before I knew it, I was enrolled in the masters program in Computer Science at UC Davis. And after graduation, I started working in the SF Bay Area and still am. I still hold onto my patriotic ideals though - I am planning to return to India before I let my roots here go too deep.

p.s. In case you are wondering, as for the breathing exercises, it turned out that what my friend had said was, I should do some breathing exercises before taking the test to relax and not that the computer would instruct me to do them before taking the test :-)!

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

Which are your happy songs?

Happy songs? What is a happy song? Well, since it is a term I coined myself, a dictionary is not going to help! But as you might guess, it refers to a song which brings back happy memories of some pleasant event in the past every time you hear it. Most of time the songs that trigger the memory do not have too much acoustic merit to them but I still like my happy songs because of the memory it recalls. It similar to smells which evoke memories. The scent of the first rain on a muddy road, smell of dinner cooking as you enter home...

Maybe having a song associated with a memory is not all that uncommon. But, I first noticed the happy song phenomenon when I realized that listening to some songs made a bad day better. There is this particular set of Tamil songs - whenever I listen to them I am transported to the wonderful trip to Mt. Shasta that I made with my friends. We did not have any CDs to play on the car stereo system except this one CD full of Tamil songs and we listened to it throughout our journey to Shasta and back. So when I listen to those songs, I can still see the picture post-card worthy snow-covered, white mountains looming in front of me. I can see the 4 of us in car, so tired out from finishing a stressful quarter, yet filled with enthusiasm to go snow-shoe-hiking. The snow-fight, which ended prematurely when one of us literally got buried in the snow under a relentless assault from the other 3, still brings a smile to my face. And then I remember how we spent the night in a cute cottage even though we did not want to, just because we paid for it and how we went to the movie-theatre because that small town with two main-streets did not have any other entertainment. Thinking of this on a hot summer day, sitting in front of my monitor makes the workday a LOT more bearable.

Then there is this other bunch of songs - which recalls a hike to a scenic lake like it happened yesterday. Five of us this time, water-less, food-less, nevertheless full of adventuring spirit setting off to finish a 4-mile strenuous hike. Reaching the top after a long-winded struggle and seeing a beautiful lake that made the upward trip worthwhile. And then the unending descent back to our car - when the anticipated 45 minutes trip dragged on to an hour and then an hour and half. Finally reaching the car and finding no place to buy a drink - pulling over at the first gas station and downing ice-cold Gatorade at such speed that we started shivering - man!

Not all of my memorable experiences have happy songs associated with them. And not all songs I like have a memory associated with it. But having a song subconsciously connected to a memorable experience is like finding a treasure when you aren’t looking - its an ordinary day and then, some strains of music and you are transported to a whole new world!

There are the bittersweet songs. There are a set of songs to which I can never listen to without feeling nostalgic and yearning for the experience to happen again. Those are mostly songs from my childhood - they bring back sweet memories of home but also the painful realization that I am no longer there. I guess that’s the case with every memory - depending upon the circumstance they either bring back wistful thoughts of possibly not experiencing it again or happy thoughts of adding on more such memories.

Happy and bittersweet, can sad be far behind? At least for me, yes, sad is very far behind. Maybe subconsciously, I don’t want to associate music with sad memories - bittersweet maybe, but not completely sad. So there is no antonym for happy song.

A happy song for me is like finding forgotten money in a jeans pocket, getting a hand-written letter or drinking hot chai on a rainy day. And it’s the closest I can get to paradise from my office cubicle, through my earphones.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

New York Ahoy!

Up on the Empire State Building. This was one of the views I saw.

A finding

I visited the east coast last week. I had gone to NYC last Tuesday noon. In a fit of enthusiasm, I decided to get an aerial view of New York from the Empire State building observatory. Unfortunately for me, about half the population of the United States had decided to spend their day likewise too.

After spending 2 hours in a serpentine queue to ultimately spend 10 minutes at the top looking around, I have finally figured out why the US economy is not picking up at as fast a rate as it should be. It is simple enough. If most people in the US spend weekdays standing in queues to get to the top of the Empire state building instead of working and earning dollars to spend, how will the economy ever pick up?