GREs: the postcards from Zurich & Geneva

Is there much of a difference between Zurich and Geneva? No, they’re pretty much identical. And by ‘pretty much identical’ I of course mean, ‘absolutely polar opposites’.

That’s Switzerland for you. It’s like 3 countries squeezed into an absolutely TINY area, half the size of  Scotland in fact (41,285 kmSwitzerland, 78,772 kmScotland)! It’s bordered by 4 countries, has 4 official languages…yet is quintessentially Swiss whatever patch of ground you stand on. It’s proudly insular and independent (staunchly out of the EU zone), yet its ferociously international as well (International Red Cross, UN, pharma, banking). It’s a source of fascination to me.

The case study in point involves my trip to Genenva and Zurich to sit my two Graduate Record Examination (GRE) tests.

Geneva is based on the shores of Lake Geneva in the Western most tip of the country, right on the French border. It’s the home of the Red Cross, and UN headquarters. Zurich is located in the far East, barely an hour from Austria. You’re likely to have seen its name on the Top 5 Most Expensive Cities in the World list at some point. Both cities are located on lakesides, both host world-ranking universities, both have long histories and touted Old Towns. Both are kinda hilly. Both have large cohorts of international residents. However, one is in Francophone Switzerland, the other in German-speaking territory. Therein lies the crucial difference.




My Director of Studies warned me against Geneva back in Dec 2010. He said he’d been there, and strongly disliked it. Which struck me as odd, because what ISN’T there to love about a French-speaking city? I’d visited Paris several times, and as far as I was concerned it was the epitome of “high continental Europe”.

Geneva Old Town on the hill

What’s even odder is that I can’t put my finger on why I’m not taken with the place, either. I arrived in the city on a lovely sunny day (one of the last for 2011, it turned out…) and had a couple of hours to meander around the place before I had to find the International University and my test centre. I ambled along the shoreside and admired the Jet D’Eau. I struck up the hill into the Old Town along some decidedly French alleyways, I admired the peaceful squares at the top and looked down from the parks onto the city. But the place just wasn’t doing it for me.

Jet D'Eau

The shopping district near the main Gare was a bit grimy. There was something crass about the advertising placards on the roofs of the houses fronting the lakeside, they jolted the ambience a bit. There wasn’t much in the way of students, tourists or…energy, though it was decidedly off-peak. Maybe I was just a bit stressed about the GREs.


Ah yes, the GREs.  I’d booked those back in July, when I was still in Edinburgh and had no idea about the geography/public transport of Switzerland. Only that since I was going to be in the country I should probably sit the autumn/Fall GREs there. The General Test was only offered in Geneva, the Chemistry Test in both Zurich & Geneva. Zurich was closer to  Basel. Thus the logic ran.

It was hard to figure out how stressed I should get about the GREs. They are aptitude tests for those interested in postgrad study in the USA: the General one is used across the country for all subjects, it’s designed to test transferable skills such as essay writing, grasp of English and basic mathematical problem-solving. You also get specialist aptitude tests for the sciences, law, medicine and management: they test your background knowledge in the area, providing a standardised comparison between students from across the globe.

All Chemistry grad schools asked for the General and Chemistry Tests. Some provided an average score for last year’s intake. Some only requested that scores be “competitive”. Others gave no opinion on the matter. Online blogs and advice articles concluded that GREs were the least important part of your application – don’t lose sleep over ’em. Other sources suggested that grad schools maintained GRE cut-off scores: if your GRE score was too low your application was immediately sent to the paper recycling bin/bonfire.

Given that I was in a foreign feckin’ country, learning a new language, reading research papers at the weekend and doing a PROPER ADULT 9-to-5 job thank you very much…I remained satisfied that there were plenty of other more important things I should be losing sleep over than a GRE test. Yet…I didn’t want to have my application tossed just because my Numerical reasoning score was under par. I tried revising Physical Chemistry, until I remembered why I was an organic “bucket chemist” in the first place. I read the free ETS guides, brainstormed a couple of potential essay topics and did the practice questions.

How I fared in the tests will have to wait until I get the scores mailed out to me in the next month or so. My multiple-choice scores from the Computer Based General GRE looked heartening – perhaps I’m not as stupid as I think. Essay writing and critical thinking were my skills back in secondary school, I’m sure I won’t have forgotten everything since then. The Chemistry Test was more like the practice test than I expected: I ruefully thought to myself afterwards that if I’d prep-ed the questions rather the subject it would have been a walk-over. Still, Chemistry wasn’t too taxing, either.

That’s the thing with multiple choice questions. You can only test so much with that format. They aren’t going to ask me to derive the Boltzmann Distribution; they’ll ask me if I can identify the Boltzmann Distribution. They aren’t going to ask me a reaction scheme for a Wittig reaction; they’ll ask me if I can recognise the substrate/intermediate/product from a Wittig reaction. Even though the test spans all the disciplines, there is a finite amount of material the GRE can cover.


Zurich skyline

Zurich. Now, Zurich is something. Despite having all the components of Geneva, it had something else: an atmosphere I was attracted to. The area of Old Town around the river was especially charming and beautiful: Venetianis a good adjective. I could see myself coming back to Zurich and exploring further. Zurich was more than a static location to oogle through a camera lens: it was a place that engaged me with its presence. It had energy. It had “liveability” – one of the best things a city can have.

Zurich waterfront

I ended up going over to Zurich on the Friday afternoon before my test and staying in the HI Hostel overnight. The test was scheduled to kick off at 8.30 am on a Saturday morning. This being Switzerland, I’m sure I could find sufficient public transport to get me from Basel. However, I didn’t fancy the 5 am start that would entail, and subsequent frantic negotiation of trams and buses in an unknown city. Besides, in the HI Hostel they give you free breakfast: you can’t put a price on a free breakfast, can you?


So, it looks as if living in German-speaking part of Switzerland (Schweiz) has lead to my preferring the Germanic cities over the French ones in the Suisse part. Even though they’re both intrinsically Swiss and I can’t mount a coherent defensive of this irrational preference. I’ve still got to check out Lausanne and Montreux – I might think differently about Them once I’ve attended some of their summer music festivals. But that’s for another blog post…


One thought on “GREs: the postcards from Zurich & Geneva

  1. Pingback: Midnight in Zurich: Searching for the Beauty In Everything « Standrewslynx's Blog

If you've made it this far down the post I bet you've got something to say. Go on, say it.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s