Sunday, June 20, 2010

How to Acquire Accommodations for the GRE

Well folks, after nearly a year's hiatus from GRE goodness, I decided it was time to take it up a notch.  For posterity, in hope that the repetition that ensued during my own experience may be obviated.

You don't want me, Stanford and UCSF?  That's fine.  I will go Crohn's Ninja on your asses.

Out of paranoia that the medical crisis that occurred last year might happen again this summer, I planned ahead and applied for Disability Accommodations from ETS, the good folks in charge of graduate school examinations [note: yes, I did go back and re-read that post, and had a good laugh, but then took a moment to appreciate that the content of this post may, in fact, have been the sole incident standing between me and acceptance to my programs of choice last year]. 

Namely, I acquired a note from my doctor, filled out an application from the ETS Bulletin Supplement, pre-paid for the exam, and am now sitting pretty with 60 min of break time and 150% total testing time on each section.  How did I accomplish this?  Well, let me tell you; it was one fascinating journey.

Step 1aAsk your GI months ahead of time for a letter in support of the specific element of accommodation you are seeking.  For instance, I asked in my application for 150% total testing time.  Although I was fairly specific over email, my GI did not understand that a particularly high level of detail was required (frankly, neither did I).  His original note read something very similar to, "Ms. S has active Crohn's disease which is a painful and chronic condition... I support her request for accommodation."  I sealed this in an envelope with my application and check, hoping that the word of a doctor was enough backing,  and sent along.

Step 1b:  Make sure your GI is exceedingly thorough in describing your condition, and exactly why it warrants each specific accommodation that you are requesting.  Dr. GI's letter was not sufficient, and I got a letter from ETS saying that I had been approved for "up to 60 min of break time."  What?  Where did I ask for any break time in my application?  I had not, and so I called ETS to find out what mis-communication had occurred.  What had happened was that since Dr. GI's letter had not described the specific side effects that made additional test time important, the ETS Disabilities "physician" decided that if I was in pain, all I really needed were a few breaks to collect myself and then all would be hunky dory [note: it will be explained in Step 3 why I was so infuriated by this deviation from my request, and how silly I thought the ETS "physician" was].  To solve this issue, I made an appointment with Dr. GI explicitly to coach him through writing this letter.  It was a chore.  I learned that having an MD does not mean you have communication skills, or any aptitude for grammar or spelling.  Dr. GI basically ended up writing what I dictated, and then I edited it myself with the assistance of his resident.  This was the most curious doctor's appointment I have ever had. 

Step 2: Acquire from institutions of employment or education any documentation of testing assistance you have had in the past.  Fortunately, I have had this kind of assistance all my life, whether or not I've actually used it.  In high school, I had what they call a 504 plan, which is essentially a disability program for kiddies: it granted me 150% test taking time.  In college, I had identical accommodations.  Finding these dispensations in my medical history files, and receiving letters of support from the people who granted me them me, I copied and included them in my second submission to ETS along with Dr. GI's upgraded letter.  I have no such files from the Occupational Health center at my place of employment for two reasons: 1) I am a badass and a work-obsessive; 2) I have a private plan worked out with my boss that says I keep track of my overtime myself and deduct from it when I need a vacation or sick day.

Step 3:  Write a personal narrative.  What ETS calls a "narrative", I refer to as a cover letter, which is infinitely more intuitive and suggests a more appropriate format and content, but who cares about being professional or intelligent -- this is only your graduate career on the line.  The letter should frame the GI letter and other medical dispensations in context of the exam, because otherwise it may prove difficult (read: nigh impossible) for the ETS "physician" to translate why this information supports your claim for specific accommodations.  It need not be lugubrious.  Below -- because I know that if ever a future Crohnie is in this situation, they will want to refer to my exquisite example -- is my "personal narrative".  You may notice that I seem to be addressing a child; this is not an illusion:

To whom it may concern:
The documents enclosed are in further support of my request for 50% extended time on the GRE test; please add them to my existing file.
I am currently approved for 60 minutes of breaks during the test, but denied the 50% extended time I have requested.  I provide additional support, here, for the necessity of extended time.  Were my condition a psychological one alone, it would be logical for me to have breaks during the test to exit the testing atmosphere in order to refocus.  However, since my cognitive impairment (read: disruption of concentration) is an artifact of systemic physical pain/discomfort and the stress it causes, it is not adequately accommodated by break time.  Break time accommodates only episodes of painful diarrhea.
The reason I have requested 50% extended test taking time is that the nature of the pain accompanying Crohn's disease is not alleviated by stepping outside of a room.  It is a chronic condition where when episodes of pain occur, they take hours to attenuate and often include brief spurts of escalated pain.  Getting up to exit a room when these latter spasms occur can, in addition to not helping solve the problem, worsen the condition.  Therefore, it makes more sense for me to be granted additional test taking time in which to overcome lapses in concentration than for me to have to leave the test room.
Please see the enclosed letter from my gastroenterologist, a letter and records from the Disability Services director of my undergraduate university who granted me 50% extended time, and my high school 504 Individual Education plan which granted me the same.
Crohn's Ninja

Step 4: Leave yourself time to acquire ETS approval.  ETS will take several weeks (read: 6-8 weeks) to process your application -- even longer if they are compelled to ask you for more medical advocacy.  Leave yourself buffer room for this waiting period so that you're not taking your test a week before graduate program application deadlines.

Step 5:  When registering, have your letter of approval on hand.  Your approval code assures that you don't have to pay twice to register for the test, and (hopefully) communicates that you have been approved for special testing conditions.  How efficient this aspect of the process is, I will report on in August/September...

I am feeling 150% better than last August, but having improved only to the place I was last April I am preparing for the possibility that I may be high on nausea pills and painkillers during my exam.  Hopefully I will not need to use my accommodations, but if I do, I have them.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your share! I think this information is helpful for everyone. I'm doing practice GRE in . I hope it's useful for GRE test takers.