3 Ways the GRE is like Breaking Bad

Last year, many tuned into the most talked about finale since the lights went out on Tony Soprano. We watched, spellbound, as (spoiler alert!) Walter White, the protagonist of AMC’s hit show Breaking Bad, reached a fitting apotheosis: bleeding to death on the floor of a meth lab. For those who don’t know much about the show, Walter White is a high school chemistry teacher, bespectacled and pathetic, going nowhere in life. Then he’s diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Over the course of five seasons, we watched as White transformed from a law-abiding father into the Southwest’s leading meth kingpin (For the uninitiated, that’s short for methamphetamine). What was truly gripping about this drama was our relationship with White: at first we rooted for him, hoping that he’d beat his cancer and the demons that long plagued him. But soon, as White traverses one moral boundary after another—actually, “completely obliterates” would be more apt—our affection is quickly colored with disbelief, and ultimately hardens into revulsion. Even before the beginning of the final season, many viewers found themselves rooting for the cancer.

So what do Walter White and his sordid saga have to do with the GRE? Well, hopefully I don’t ruffle any feathers, but I’ve decided to compare you—the GRE test taker—to Walter White. So if you adamantly believe (as most of us do) that White ended up a sociopathic bully without an iota of compassion (“I did it….because it felt good”), try not to take the comparison the wrong way. Hey, at least I’m not comparing you to Sal Rosenberg.

You’ll need to think of the endgame

Most drug dealers* are content with small scores. Sure, a little turf expansion is always part of the game. But as long as money is coming in, few are overcome with a Napoleonic desire for conquest. Walter White, however, loved power. For him the endgame was making sure his family (son Flynn and pregnant wife Skyler) would never have to worry about money again. To achieve this aim, White knew he had to find a supplier for his one-of-a-kind meth (remember, he was a chemistry teacher), and the bigger the supplier the better.

When it comes to taking the GRE, you can’t just start whipping through questions. You have to have a sense of how the problem set you are doing fits into the bigger picture. Are those question types the ones that you are struggling at? Are they questions from a topic covered a week back (you can’t just plow ahead learning new information)? Are you taking enough practice tests and reviewing them? Do you know what score increase you need, and have you broken that into weekly incremental improvements? Being able to answer these questions and come up with a well-devised game plan is to think as Walter White does.

*Disclaimer: I’ve never dealt drugs before. 

Keeping one step ahead of the enemy

At the story’s inception, Walter White was mainly besieged with personal insecurities (“I could have been a multimillionaire but my buddy stole that woman and my ideas and now I got these snot-nosed teenagers….”). By the end he beset on all sides: competing drug cartels, a slighted ex-partner, a relentless DEA brother, a hit man who always finishes the job, and, of course, the cancer.

What allowed White to gain such control in the first place was his intellect—and I’m not just talking about how he MacGyvered bombs from houseplants (okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration). What made White so formidable was that he was always able to stay one step ahead of his enemies, however cunning they may have been (sorry Gus Fring).

With the GRE, you too will beset with enemies: the timer, the concepts, the diabolical twists, the convoluted syntax. You will need to anticipate these problems, even if it is something as seemingly innocuous as a little trick in math (percent increase vs. total increase). It’s those little details that kept Walter alive for five seasons, and what will keep you from squandering precious points test day.

How the GRE is like Walter White

Okay, I would be remiss as…well, a human being, if I held the sociopathic drug dealer as an exemplar for GRE prep. So to turn the tables a little, here is how the GRE is like Walter White, and how you can use that knowledge to your advantage.

The GRE math really isn’t only testing your ability with numbers. It’s testing your ability to pay close attention to the exact wording, to look for that one exception to the case. The GRE verbal isn’t necessarily about how well you understand the text. It’s also testing your ability to avoid choosing really, really tempting (shall, I say methamphetamine-level tempting) wrong answer choices.  In other words, the questions have been sedulously crafted with the same care that Walter White put into producing his much-coveted “Baby Blue.”

So, you are up against a true mastermind in the GRE. And your GRE scores will depend on how well you know your enemy and how well you know yourself—the mistakes you are likely to make, and any lapses of logic you’re likely to commit. You will have to think like Walter White, because you’ll be up against Walter White.

This post was written by Chris Lele, resident GRE expert at Magoosh, a leader in GRE prep. For help with GRE vocabulary, check out our free flashcards and Vocab Wednesday videos on the Magoosh GRE Blog.

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