My four-month saga of grad school applications is finally at a close! I’ve benefitted from a great deal of support en route. My parents reviewed every single one of my ten statements of purpose, and Sergey took on most of the housework while I was at work. Well, at least now I feel like I’ve retroactively justified the position I held in my senior year of college as “grad school application essay writing mentor”–having taken my own advice and used some of the handouts I designed in that role, I’d say most of my tips were pretty solid.

During my time as a mentor, I met with a young woman who was applying to 20 law schools to help her with the statements of purpose. I thought she was kind of crazy to apply to so many programs. Now I know that even 10 is pushing the limits of sanity. I can either feel very idealistic about the potential of higher education or cynical about the game of admissions. After trying to tailor so many boilerplate statements to make each program feel special–and calculating my GPA three different ways, obsessing over my CV formatting, trying to make part of my thesis work as a 20-page paper, and so on, I’m definitely feeling on the cynical side, as in, “Come on! I’m paying you $75 just to review this application, shouldn’t that tell you I’m actually interested in your program?” I think (and hope) that by the time the admissions decisions arrive a few months from now, I’ll have returned to the idealistic side!

The applications were not without their humor. For example, the password security questions got quite creative:

Security questions

What famous person would my mom want to meet? Where does my favorite cheese come from? Do I even have a library card? WHO AM I???

And did you know that in an effort to increase their publicity, many universities recruit celebrities as administrative assistants?

Eddie Murphy

Some application forms offered a very long list of possibilities for degrees obtained. I had some fun looking through the hundred names. I think my favorite choice was “Bachiller,” the degree awarded to very chill graduates of Surfer Dude U.

Mount Holyoke should offer this degree.

Mount Holyoke should offer this degree.

When I said humor, I also meant “frustration.” After editing my statements and writing sample until I was questioning every preposition, not to mention befuddled about the distinction between “like” and “such as,” I couldn’t help but feel a bit irked when the English department websites had obvious mistakes. I mean, just look at this horrendously unnecessary comma between “consistent” and “cooperative”! That is not a coordinating conjunction! Go watch Schoolhouse Rock!

Uncoordinated conjunction

And then there were the choices of interests, which often took the form of checkboxes in the application form. One school had the bright idea of limiting choices to only three interests, presumably because taking on students with wider-ranging curiosities would be too much work.

3 interests


Now I am left feeling that I omitted one key element of my experience from my CV: professional applicant. I hope that at some point, grad schools can unify around a single common application.

On a different topic from applications–appliances! Sergey and I have finally invested in some kitchen appliances, like the recent technological breakthrough known as “micro-waver.” I think that’s what it’s called, at least… We’re also quite excited about our new coffeemaker, a step forward from our current simple drip filter. This coffeemaker has a timer, so it can automatically start brewing coffee while we’re struggling to wake up at 6:30. Now when I stumble into the kitchen, bleary-eyed and foggy-headed, I will be guided by the comforting gurgles and familiar scent of percolation.

My Vanna White

My Vanna White

We are ready to make coffee for up to 12 guests, or a few caffeine-addicted ones (Mommy and Jasmine?).

Tests and tribulations, trials and travails

Boy, there are sure a lot of synonyms for “tribulations” that start with “t.” Thank you, English language, for offering so many opportunities for alliteration (and assonance).

I had to take a break from filling out applications to fill you in, dear reader. Life has been proceeding routinely since I last wrote, with a few exceptions:

1) Both my dad and Sergey had birthdays this month; Sergey is embarking on the first year of the third decade of his life. That is a complicated way of saying he turned 29. I wanted to get him flowers, but the shopkeeper sympathetically informed me that those are only sold on holidays, so I got him chocolate praline hearts and a Kinder egg instead. Out of the Kinder egg hatched a plastic bracelet ornamented with lion face stickers, which I believe has been re-gifted to me. It fits perfectly!

2) I was made co-emergency manager for the staff in my neighborhood zone because I am an excellent runner and would surely do well pulling people out of rubble. In my acceptance speech, I quoth, “Are you sure you wouldn’t rather ask Sergey?” So, more than ever before, I am really hoping Israel and Palestine cool down their tensions. At least I now boast the qualification of knowing the difference between vacuum cleaner noise and missile sirens.

3) The GRE. This forms my central subject (and the reason for the title of the post), so bear with me–I promise to make standardized testing entertaining!

Once upon a Tuesday, Sergey and I set out for our relaxing day-trip early. From crowded bus to crowded train to crowded bus we went until we reached the testing center in the Ramat Gan district of Tel Aviv. The Prometric site is located in a college that looks like it hasn’t undergone much change since the 1960s. Can I note that college students are starting to look pretty young to me? Goodness, how I’ve aged. Just preparing to eventually be an out-of-touch silver-haired professor…by the time I’m 30.

We poked our heads into the small facility, and the test proctor came to get my information. She was a lady in her early 60s, perhaps, who gave me an affectionate squeeze and told me that my scores would be good. I have to give this woman kudos. I don’t imagine that proctoring tests and interacting with nervous test-takers full time is an especially stimulating job, but she showed a good deal of human kindness. On my break, she handed me half of a clementine she had just peeled, for example. Also, now that I think of it, the bus driver en route to the college also went out of his way to help us. Sergey had asked about our destination when we boarded, and as he was about to pull away from one stop, the driver remembered this and communicated that we should get off.

Anyway, at the test center, I underwent an interesting bevy of checks. First I had to write out an affirmation of ethics–in cursive. It took me five minutes to write two sentences, clutching the pen like a tot just learning how to form letters. Thankfully, ETS is not scoring me based on the quality of my cursive. Then I was of course scanned with a metal detector, which is standard procedure in Israel. But the crowning ritual in this strange ceremony involved the Stripping of Worldly Attachments and the Turning of the Pockets. I was informed that my analog wristwatch and my packets of facial tissues, indispensable due to my constant allergies, had to remain in my locked cubby. After removal, I showed off my bare, ethical wrists to the video camera, in accordance with instructions. (I got a Prometric-approved tissue to replace my packets, don’t worry. And at the end of the test I disposed of this tissue in front of the watchful eye of the camera to prove I hadn’t transcribed test questions on it.) Then, in front of the video camera, I had to demonstrate that my pockets were totally empty. This raised profound questions I had never before confronted: how does one turn the butt pockets on jeans inside out? Or decorative breast pockets on flannel shirts? And is someone on the other end of the video feed laughing at my performance? For what it’s worth, the proctor let me know she personally hated this particular requirement.

I can’t say much about the test, both because it’s all a blur of 35-minute periods passing too quickly yet four hours dragging on and on, and because I swore to full confidentiality in that cursive statement. Sorry. I know you were really looking forward to hearing some sample math problems.

What I can advise is this. Make cookies part of your test prep. I had a ten-minute break in the middle of the test, during which I stuffed my face with as many homemade oatmeal raisin cookies as possible. These cookies offer the tester two benefits: a lot of calories and a bit of protein, and fond memories of Mommy’s cookies. During a time like the GRE, any fond memory is useful!

So, with the test over, Sergey and I spent the rest of our day in Jaffa, the charming old city of Tel Aviv, where we had what was probably our most delicious restaurant meal post-US trip and contemplated the dark waters of the Mediterranean. And then, as must happen to every vacation, our relaxing time off drew to a close, and we made our way back north.

The Wild Kingdom

Bad hair day

Now that my brain has melted into a soup in which float the ratio of the legs of a 30-60-90 degree triangle (1 to the square root of 3), the application requirements for various graduate programs, faculty profiles with photos that blur into a smiling, silver-haired, bespectacled amalgam, and fancy terms to describe my academic interests in teaching and writing (I mean “pedagogy” and “composition studies”), I feel the time has come for a return to the blog. Somehow, writing timed 30-minute practice GRE essays cannot compare with free writing–and I must say, my newfound ability to churn out two 700-word essays in one hour leaves little excuse for my lack of entries.

Well, I could go on, but I’d rather not ramble. While I’d prefer to be less of a GRE hermit and thrall to my applications, I know these applications and the revival of math skills for the GRE are probably making me smarter and forcing me to evaluate my history and purpose. So, no complaining–let’s talk about my favorite therapeutic topic, animals!

In the rolling hills of south-central Wisconsin roam camelids hailing from further south–South America, that is. At the honeymoon B&B, Sergey and I encountered a pair of alpacas. Alpacas are much like llamas, but more docile. One of the alpacas fit this description; white-furred like a lamb, it appeared uninterested in anything besides chewing its cud. The other, however, acted as the guardian of the pen. When we approached the enclosure, this redhead came charging at us. When I commented on his aggression to Sergey, he defended the beast. “He just wants to say hi!”

There are some animals who run at you when they truly just want to say hi. Actually, the only ones I can think of are dogs. But the gleam of anger in the eyes of this creature convinced me that his goal was not one of establishing a relationship with these visitors; it was to keep us out of his territory. Or he was really mad about his bad haircut, which left his body shorn but his head poofy.

Sergey optimistically persisted in trying to approach the Alpha Alpaca. Thankfully, no spitting resulted, but I swear it was a close call.

Alpaca eagerly sprinting toward his beloved Sergey

Alpaca eagerly charging toward his beloved Sergey

Over here in Haifa, our neighborhood offers three main forms of wildlife:

1. Kittens

2. Cats

3. Jackals

Around when Sergey and I moved to our current building, a family of kittens also took up residence. There are four striped ones and one spotted, plus a mom lurking around. They are excellent beggars, turning their innocent kitten faces toward us as we pass by, mewing hungrily. While I’ve always sided with dogs over cats, I have to say, this cat herd is pretty darn cute. My favorite is the cockeyed one.

Cats, while less adorable than their younger counterparts, offer their share of entertainment. In particular, there is a black cat that likes to roost on a tree stump outside our building. As we pass by, he lets out his strange cry of “meh, meh, meh.” No energetic “meow” for this feline; it is as if, world-weary or profoundly bored, all he can muster is a half-meow. He needn’t worry about a lack of cat voices in the world, though, since our days are often interspersed with sudden bursts of caterwauling.

At last we come to the jackals, the invisible neighbors who provide the canine counterpart to the caterwauling. Some nights, we will hear their chorus as a pack of them howls and yelps together. It’s a bit creepy, and it’s also odd to hear a sound I associate with wolves gathered in the middle of a forest so close to the heart of the city. Of course, this territory was theirs long before Haifa started expanding across the slopes of Mount Carmel.