A bullet train leaves Kyoto for Tokyo traveling 240 miles per hour at noon. Ten minutes later, another train leaves Tokyo for Kyoto traveling 150 miles per hour. If Tokyo and Kyoto are 300 miles apart, at what time will the trains pass each other?
Don’t know the answer? Me neither, even though I spent the past six months studying problems like this one in order to prepare for the GRE, a standardized test for those who want to take graduate studies courses. I hadn’t done math since 1976, my junior year of high school. In the interim, I’d forgotten everything I ever knew about algebra, geometry, graphs or those dreaded word problems, which feel like they’re written in a foreign language. I’m someone who, if we went out to lunch, would pass you the bill at the end of the meal because I don’t trust myself to calculate the tip correctly.
Why put myself through this math-related torture? Because I’m applying to Ph.D. programs in English, and colleges require the GREs, which has math sections (otherwise known as quantitative reasoning) as well as verbal sections. I was starting from square one so I ordered six math review books from Manhattan Prep and forced myself to study three hours a day, seven days a week. It was even more challenging than I expected.
Somehow, in the past 40 years, math has gotten harder. Now there are negative exponents, smart numbers, standard deviations and tables. One of my workbooks has a whole chapter devoted to “decoding” GRE word problems. To make matters worse, the exam is no longer offered as a paper test. In most areas of the country, you take the GREs on a computer, which for me, means staring at tiny, blurry numbers on a screen. I’ve resisted getting bifocals, choosing to remove my glasses when I read. But when I sit in front of a computer I have to leave them on or I can’t see anything at all!
For months, I woke up in the middle of the night worrying that I couldn’t remember the formula for solving quadratic equations or the difference between a slope and an x-intercept. I hired the same tutor who helps my teenage kids with math, sitting at my dining room table and chewing on a pencil while she explained how to calculate compound interest and what a nonrepeating decimal is. But my skills are still rusty.
On the day of the exam, my math anxiety was in overdrive. Sitting in the parking lot, shuffling through flashcards, I felt nauseated. Inside, I quickly discovered I was the oldest person in the room. I was wanded (like at airport security) and shown surveillance cameras that monitor the testing area, then led to a cubicle where I’d sit for the next four hours.
I’d taken several practice tests, but for some reason the problems on the actual test seemed harder. I had to copy each one onto a piece of scrap paper, remove my glasses while solving it, putting them back on to see the next problem. A clock on the upper right-hand corner of the screen ticked down the time I had left, increasing my already palpable sense of panic.
When I finished, I got my math score on the spot — 147, which translates to a lowly 28 percent!
The answer to the problem about those trains is 12:49 p.m. I only know because I looked in the back of the word problem book. But I’m taking the test again in another six months and maybe by that time, I’ll have figured it out.