You don't have to take the GRE

200 points just for filling your name in the bubbles

Coming back from a coffee break at work, I was surprised by a truck parked on the street with an advertisement for the GRE.

Q: Why take yet another test?
A: More options for your future.
Take the GRE!

I guess I shouldn't have been so surprised, given that I work near a college, and it's coming up on graduation season. It just seemed so odd to me. It's similar to my reaction to direct-to-consumer pharmaceutical ads: "Why are you advertising to ME? I'm not the one who decides these things." I'd never just decide to take a new medication the way I'd decide to try a new breakfast cereal. I'll take Vlasonimex or whatever if and only if my doctor decides it's the best option for my particular medical condition. Similarly, I'd never just decide to take a university entrance exam for my own edification. I'd take it if and only if I were applying to specific schools that required it. The schools would decide, not me.

(I guess they're relying on that idea of "options," bolstering the idea that it's a smart move to take a common entrance test even if you haven't made up your mind whether or not you're applying to a school that uses it. Kind of like checking your coat before you've decided if you're going to the restaurant or not - you know, to keep your options open.)

I've never thought of the GRE, or the SAT or TOEFL or any of those tests, as something that needs to advertise -- at least, not to potential test-takers. As a prospective student, you can choose which school to apply to, but not which test to take: if your school requires the GRE, you take it. To students, the test feels like an institution or an inevitability, not a product.

But it is a product. Seeing that advertisement, suddenly I could imagine a whole ad campaign aimed at schools, persuading them to require the test - they don't have to, after all! These tests are run by companies with generic, official-sounding names like The College Board and Educational Testing Service, which make you think they are federal or perhaps international institutions of appointed officials, but they aren't. They're just regular old companies with bottom lines. They're ubiquitous like Coke, not like the DMV.

In that way, I think, the advertising has backfired. It's to ETS's advantage that students think of their tests as non-optional requirements of the system. The very fact that they're trying to convince me to use their product makes it starkly clear that I don't have to.

The secret subtext of "Take the GRE!" is "You don't have to take the GRE!"

Now, I wasn't planning to take the GRE anyway (I have the kind of hiss-and-back-away reaction to grad school that vampires have to the sun), so maybe I'm a bad sample. But I think this can be generalized to other products, including ones that I'm more tempted by.

Persuasion implies choice. If you have no choice, there's no need to advertise. Ever see an ad for the DMV? (I mean, I have, but they're more like PSAs about how you can now renew your license online. It's not just, "Come to the DMV!")

If they advertise, that means you have a choice. And you can choose "no."


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