the fourth school

jeremiah

the prophet jeremiah, from fall rabbinical school tour; photo by salem pearce (via instagram)

In the fall I visited four rabbinical schools. There are only a handful non-Orthodox institutions (that is, ones that accept women) in the U.S. I ruled out two online/commuter schools, as well as the ones not on the East Coast (per my husband’s request). In early to mid-December, I decided to apply to just three of the schools I had visited — and I began to make plans accordingly: asking for letters of recommendation, sending transcripts, organizing essays, completing forms, etc.

When I took the GRE on December 9, I had to choose the schools to which to send scores, and I included school #4 on that list. I think I just wasn’t quite ready to rule it out. (Plus, I got to send four reports for free, so I thought, “Why not?”)

Five days later, the admissions director at school #4 called to check in. Surprised at his call, I wasn’t ready to have the conversation about why I had decided not to apply, so I only mentioned one reason. But I didn’t feel great about how poorly I had articulated my concerns about the school, so I sent a follow-up email. In it, I explained that I had come to the conclusion that school #4 was just not a good fit for me, for various reasons. I’m not going to be a productive member of the matriculating class — and the school shouldn’t want me — if that’s the case. I didn’t hear back.

Sidebar: I’m not trying to hide the identity of the school in question: In fact, it’s probably easy to figure it out. But I don’t think it’s all that important to this narrative.

Then last week, I did get an email, after he had received my GRE scores; he hoped for an opening to start the conversation again. This unexpected development shook me up probably more than it should have. I started spiraling into a tizzy of questions: Why is he doing this? As a new admissions director, does he just want robust application numbers? Am I letting flattery cloud my judgment? Are the concerns I raised about the school actually not accurate? Is this school actually my destiny?

The last is a bit of an exaggeration. But I did wonder, much to my husband’s chagrin, whether this was a sign from the universe. I’m willing to believe that things happen for a reason. And I think having grown up with an evangelical Christian father makes me more susceptible to doubt in the face of someone else’s certainty. (It could also be reasonably inferred that I am also an over-thinker and an over-worrier.)

I agreed that we should have another conversation; it happened yesterday, and it went really well. I was able to go through with him a list of my concerns. None of them were fully alleviated, which is not what I was expecting anyway. But next I’ll speak with the associate dean, as well as a current student. (Both are women, which may hint at the nature of some of my concerns.) And after a conversation with a rabbi I trust, an alumna of school #4, I’m going to go ahead and apply. What’s one more application, right? I don’t want to close that door quite yet.

the test

I walk to an office building in downtown D.C. early on a weekend morning. I take the elevator to the second floor and enter a room where lots of other people are sitting on chairs, waiting. I show my ID to check in; the man at the desk scrutinizes both me and and the picture on my driver’s license, literally squinting and looking between both several times.

what my cursive looks like

Then he hands me a confidentiality agreement I’m meant to sign — but not before I write, in cursive, the three-sentence statement at the bottom of the page. I haven’t written in script since third grade, so I anticipate that this may be the most challenging part of my day. I began the laborious task of writing with loops and linking letters together; I can’t even get the sentences to fit in the space prescribed, and I am barely halfway through when he asks if I’m ready to move to the next step.

When I finally finish what cannot seem like an adult’s rendering of the statement, I’m directed first to put all of my belongings into a locker and then to proceed to the next room with only my ID and the key to the locker. I sit down in front of another man, who again checks my ID — and then asks me to stand up so he can wand me. He directs me to lift up my shirt so that he can see my waistline, then to pull out all of my pockets — why did I choose to wear cargo pants today? — so that he can verify that they are empty. He warns me not to make any unusual movements once I’m in the next room, and not to take off my sweatshirt. I begin to worry about whether it’s going to be hot in the next room.

He hands me back my ID, points to the line on the paper to sign in, and hands me approved pencil and paper. I enter the next room and am led to my seat by yet another staff member. I leave the room three times and return twice during my four-and-a-half hours inside, and each time I go through the same process of ID check, signing in and out, wanding, and pocket inspection. I’m also reminded that accessing my cell phone during these breaks will lead to my being kicked out of the facility. Finally, while I’m sitting in my cubicle, the innermost room staff periodically walks by to adjust the angle of the camera that is trained on various parts of the room.

And this is how you take the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) in the U.S. today.

Obviously I am terribly naive, because this shocks me. It beggars my belief that anyone would cheat on an admissions test, even as I question its value as a predictor of success in graduate school. But apparently all of this rigamarole is the logical response to past scam attempts, so I have to concede that it’s necessary.

You may be asking, “What relevance do analyses of your writing, verbal reasoning, and high-school math abilities have to do with rabbinical schools, especially since applications to those institutions are compromised principally of multiple essays?” And the answer clearly is, “Very little if at all.” Two of the schools I’m applying to require the GRE, but one does not; the fellowship I’d like to get only requires it if the school does. I don’t know what accounts for the difference between otherwise fairly similar schools.

I prepared for the exam in the simplest and cheapest way possible: I worked my way through the official GRE book published by the Education Testing Service. I’m guessing that the decision to admit or not admit me to rabbinical school will not hinge on my GRE scores; it seems most likely to me that it’s some kind of idiot check, which is still odd because it’s not like these schools haven’t already met everyone who is applying. I’ve certainly talked at length with the admissions directors of all three schools.

But I am a neurotic student, and I hate taking tests that I can’t fully prepare for. I found myself disagreeing with the “correct” answers of more than one “verbal reasoning” question and was annoyed that I won’t be given the chance to argue my point.

what quantitative reasoning looks like

The math drove me even crazier. I actually like math, and in high school, I was pretty good at it: I got a 5 on the AB Calculus exam. In college, I considered double majoring in math and Classics. So I was frustrated by my complete inability to figure out how to proceed on many “quantitative reasoning” problems. The book takes what in my mind is a puzzling attitude to this. First, I was never able to discern a pattern for the questions — but the book’s explanations were always of the sort, “Of course, it’s clear that you should do x  approach (and obvious from first glance that y approach is not going to work).” And there was no big-picture guidance whatsoever about how to recognize which approach — solving the equation, plugging in numbers, estimating, etc. — would be best. Maybe there are students who just get math — in the way I just get verbal reasoning — for whom this is not a problem. Ultimately, all I was able to do was to tell myself that it simply wasn’t worth the time it would take to get really good at the math section. Math, I’m guessing, is not going to be a large part of my rabbinate.

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