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Home: The Toast

October is almost over, which means we are now well in the midst of application season.

If you are, like me, a school-loving, knowledge-hungry chump, you too might be in the process of trying to make your way along the tiers of Higher Education. I applied to grad school three years ago and whoa, boy was it 1) enlightening and 2) exhausting and 3) expensive. It felt like a feat just to have managed to gather an application to send in time. The threshold for doctorate programs are a little higher than “can hand in application,” however, and I got rejected. It happens! So I went and pursued an MA, and received lots of support along the lines of, “This will help you decide if you want to pursue a Ph.D,” to which I moodily responded, “I know.”

So here we are: back in the process of applying again, and while I already felt exhausted by the whole ordeal, I also assumed there would be an advantage having already gone through the process once. I was so, so wrong.

I’m Canadian, so the SATs were never built into the high school experience for me. But I did take the GREs and while they weren’t exactly fun, they didn’t seem that bad. I did okay! But, as apparently often happens with English majors, I bombed the Analytical Writing section. So I thought it wouldn’t hurt to retake them. But since the date of my scheduled exam that I never ended up getting to write–well, guys, it did hurt.

If you’re an immigrant with a non-traditional legal name–but have taken to using an English name since moving to said dominantly English-speaking country, you too might have experienced what happened to me. I’m so sorry. (An aside: What do you think they do with the money? Actually, I am just trying to imagine what they do with ALL THAT MONEY.)

But let’s backtrack.

First, I’m assuming you won’t be as presumptuous as I am in thinking you could list your adopted English name on your application. But I did it the first time around and it was absolutely fine! That was my first mistake: thinking that ETS was consistent when it came to carrying out their terms and regulations. I took the tests and sent in my scores under the name “Jane S Hu” three years ago, and didn’t think to create a new account this time around. (I also have another ETS account under “Janeshanjie Hu” that caused no prior problems, so was under the impression that one’s name need not exactly match with one’s ID.) The name that appears on my passport is Shanjie Hu.

You can probably tell where this is going.

I scheduled my test, studied for it, went to bed early the night before, and drank a good amount of coffee in the morning. And it’s okay if you do these things, too!

Don’t, however, do this when you enter the examination center: bring out three different forms of government-issued ID. If two of your IDs say “AFDLKFHAE SDF” and one of them says “Brian AFDLKFHAE SDF,” just use the one with Brian. I know, I know: obvious overkill. I thought more documentation would be helpful, but differing forms of identification will only make matters more confusing. Still, my two exam officiators assured me that it was probably fine — they just needed to get official authorization from ETS and then I’d be okay to go.

My testing time nears.

It passes.

I use the washroom probably more than is wise.

ETS still has the exam officiators on hold. At one point they get so tired of being chained to the desk, that they put it on speakerphone. Atmospheric Muzak fills the office.

If this happens to you, you might be thinking at this point, “I’m already so anxious at this point that my test results will surely be suboptimal.” Mistake number two: believing that you will get to take the test.

Eventually the Muzak cuts out, and my officiator/now-partner-in-frustration picks up the phone and explains the ID discrepancies. A few minutes later she locks eyes with me across the room and gives an exasperated shake of her head.

“So she can’t test today?” she says, while still looking at me.

The officiator explains the situation once to her interlocutor. I will be explaining it over, and over, and over–in various tones of appeasement and aggression–to various ETS representatives throughout the day. Yes, Shanjie Hu, but also Jane Shanjie Hu, but Shanjie Hu first, but Jane S Hu on my ETS account, but yes, a government-issued ID with Jane Shanjie Hu. Oh you don’t know how that happened, so you’re going to take my money without letting me take the test? Wait a minute.

I developed a rising urge to start reading The Pale King.

Beyond the tangible costs of preparing for–and not getting to take–a test, you lose $190. I want to make that clear. You never get it back. It’s called “forfeiting” your test, even if you’re kicking and screaming to get the chance to take it. What’s more, is that ETS has developed not just the standard general–but also subject–tests for grad school: Literature; Math; Psychology; Biology; Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology; Physics; and Chemistry.

One of these things is not like the other. And while many English Lit programs don’t require you to take the subject test (essentially an extended game of trivia about the Western Canon), many still do. I had registered to take it in October. I’ve now forfeited that test as well. (They give you a $50 refund. The remaining $100 they keep, to compensate ETS for whatever services they provide you with that are, as yet, obscure to me. Maybe it’s the phone bills? I have been on the phone a lot with them since.)

Because here’s the thing: once you register a name with ETS, you can never change it again. ETS is more strict about naming rules than the actual government. It’s not only discriminatory against cultural-naming practices (“Shanjie” being too “difficult” for non-Chinese speakers to pronounce), but it’s also discriminatory against women. As from here:

You must have acceptable and valid ID with name, signature and photograph to be admitted to a test center. Your complete name and signature as shown on your ID must match the name you registered under, even if your name has changed (for any reason, including marriage or divorce). If your name has changed since you registered for a test, you must ensure that you have appropriate ID matching the name on your registration to show at the test center. It is recommended that you have ID in the correct name BEFORE you complete the registration process.

If you’re going to make your rules that rigid, don’t you think it’d be helpful to at least allow test-takers some means of changing their ID? Even Paypal lets you do that. What’s more, when you register a name for an ETS account, they will not allow, say, three full names–making it all the more difficult for immigrants-with-adopted-Anglophone-names to apply to school under one consistent name. For instance, if I could, I would have applied as ““Shanjie Jane Hu” every time. But ETS not only does not allow any names in parenthesis “Shanjie (Jane) Hu,” the middle name can only be represented as an initial. The organizing principle around this seems arbitrary, and also rather than ensuring accuracy between account name and ID, does the exact  opposite, along with placing the test-taker at risk.

I paid to fly across Canada specifically to take the subject test, and now I’ll be attending as a stand-by student (this costs $200 per test, and it basically means that maybe you’ll get to take the test, maybe you won’t, it all depends, study accordingly). I got routed and rerouted between the general GRE offices and the offices of test-taking integrity, each claiming that they had no idea why I had been sent to them, as it was clearly the responsibility of the other department to manage my situation. Some seemed more optimistic than others, but there was one woman who hung up on me. In fairness, she did give me plenty of warning:

Me: “Can I speak to your manager?”
ETS representative: “The manager is busy right now.”
Me: “I’ll wait.”
ETS representative: “I’m going to hang up now. I’ve already told you what to do.”

This was after some sassing about how the first time “Jane S Hu” worked for me was three years ago and that maybe I should have read the terms and conditions this time around.

Me: “The terms and conditions have changed in the last three years?”
ETS representative: “No, but you should have been more careful reading.”
Me: “Maybe the GRE officiators should have been more careful about letting me take the test in the first place.”

In fairness, there may have been some sassing on both sides.

Friends suggested I be persistent, though I haven’t called ETS back since that woman hung up on me. I have sent pleas to two separate email accounts with a detailed transcript of what transpired, but the responses take at least weeks, and I’m not sure anything will come of it beyond, “Well, don’t you see how clearly this is all your fault?”

I’m not optimistic, and I won’t be retaking the general GREs.

I will, however, be paying $25 to ETS each time I send a GRE score to a school. (Applying for schools is prohibitively costly enough.) How is it that a school might charge a candidate $75 for reviewing their application, but ETS will charge ⅓ of that simply to click a button? I don’t know.

I do know, however, that I was told to “calm down” because I had neglected to put my “real name” on my account, and that forfeiting hundreds of dollars (along with time and energy) was the customary and reasonable outcome of such a situation. I’m not even talking about a chance to improve one’s marks here. (Though I am astonished–if ETS thinks it’s so easy to forfeit $190, just how many times exactly do they expect an individual to retake their tests? Is this test such a nonchalant, throwaway, I’ll-just-sign-up-again-under-my-Real-Name, thanks-for-showing-me-straight for most people in my situation?)

The scares quotes scattered across this essay don’t begin to express the irony of this whole situation. For the GREs–and this is a tip for reading comprehension questions–language is not slippery. Language is very, very stable. Language does not control and influence the prejudices and hierarchies of this world; it just is.

If ETS can’t do college applicants the greatest benefit–which would be to do away with the whole system of standardized-tests-as-requisite-to-graduate-study entirely–here are a few suggestions for them.

First: can we all acknowledge how ridiculous it is that once you register a name, you can never change it? Not even if you change it months before your scheduled test so as to match your ID, not even if across the years you’ve gotten married or divorced or even just altered your name, not even if you made a typo and have plenty of government-official ID that you can send ETS to confirm the error, not even if your account name (“Kate”) is a derivative of your legal name (“Kathryn”). ETS can spend enough money to have dozens of confused representatives listen to me repeat my story over and over, but they can’t have a section that deals with name changes? This would be the obvious fix–allow the possibility that your customers can change, even if it requires paperwork on both sides, their account names. If not that, at least make your forfeiture policy more than “we take all your money.” Even if a test-taker cancels four days in advance of their (computer-automated, I should mention) test, they still get the larger part of their money back.

In my case specifically–and to be honest, it doesn’t feel all that specific–I was astonished that ETS didn’t have a way to manage a situation such as this. Three years ago, my officiators let me take the test without contacting GRE; the scores went through; the scores were sent. This time around, my officiators acknowledged “this is clearly you, but we need to run it by ETS standards in case you take it and we’re unable to send the scores because of your name.” Something isn’t consistent here. And, as far as the ETS representatives that spoke to me go, their governing rule is to eschew responsibility. Either let individual ETS representatives decide whether a person is who they are when they show up on test date, or have it be entirely in the hands of ETS. The former would be more context-based, arguably more humane, and certainly less time-consuming; the latter would rack up your phone bills, but you’d also probably make more money in the process to pay them.

$190 is a lot of money for a college student. Actually, the large coffee I bought the morning of my test felt like a luxury. I won’t get back the time, anxiety, and other emotional and unquantifiable costs of preparing for–but not taking–my general GRE. If one’s chance to take their test is withdrawn–unreasonably, I would add–one shouldn’t have to pay ETS in the same way as a student who was allowed to take it might. At least a partial refund, or a chance to retake the test without having to pay twice.

Meanwhile, I’m hoping that I’ll soon wake up from this situation and a notification will appear in my email: “Congratulations, you passed the Analytical Writing section with flying colours this time around. As both a Chinese immigrant and a woman, you’ve managed to make sense of the particular injustices that come with such a political subjectivity. Who knows, maybe one day you’ll get to teach in a university like David Gilmour. Also, we’re sorry for all the phone calls.” And we’ll all laugh at the time I made ETS hang up on me.

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Jane Hu is a writer living in Montreal.

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