Monday, December 1, 2008

How important are GRE scores for geoscience grad school?

I took the GREs twenty years ago this month. Twenty years! I spent an entire day of my Christmas break in a big lecture hall at the University of Maine, filling in bubbles with my #2 pencil.

The world has changed in the past twenty years. GREs are taken on computers these days, and the bizarre but fascinating logic problems are gone. ("Jenny likes cabbage, but Fred is allergic to horseradish. Who is seated beside Louise?") There's a new writing section, along with the verbal and math sections. And there's no longer a geology subject test. So I've become less and less capable of giving any kind of reasonable advice to students about how to prepare for it. And because I don't read grad student applications, I don't have any idea how grad schools look at the current version of the test.

When I started grad school, I got the impression that the GREs weren't particularly important for anything except competing for NSF graduate fellowships. Research is not a multiple choice exam, and the ability to fill in little bubbles (or whatever mouse-click has replaced it) is no substitute for creativity, perserverence, and the ability to take a lot of criticism. I've gotten the impression that the things that matter for a graduate application are 1) a coherent statement of purpose that fits with the research interests of a faculty member; 2) good grades in relevant coursework (maybe geo, maybe math or chemistry or physics); 3) strong letters of recommendation; and 4) maybe research experience, although it's become common enough at the undergraduate level that it might not mean as much these days unless it's incorporated into the statement of purpose. The GREs - well, the general test is taken by everyone, from physicists to literary scholars, and it would be hard to come up with a test that could identify people who would be skilled at both subjects. I remember the verbal section as being essentially the SATs with longer words (but not geology jargon), and the math section as being algebra. I took it, I sent off the scores, and I never thought about the test again*. Until students came to me worrying about it.

So here's my question to the rest of the world. Based on your experience, do GRE scores matter? Do some schools put more weight on them than others? Is there a minimum cutoff score for some schools, or are they used as a tie-breaker between otherwise similar applications? Or are they a form of practice at jumping through hoops, preparation for things like dissertation formatting instructions?

*Well, other than to score geek points against my soon-to-be-ex college boyfriend. But once I got to grad school, I didn't think about the scores.

12 comments:

Academic said...

I can't speak for geoscience specifically, but I tend to view the GRE as an instrument to take a pulse. As an engineer, I expect the math score to be high (although not perfect because the GRE has a few esoteric questions) and the verbal score to be generally indicative of a student's transcripts (the more liberal arts classes you have, I think you have a likelihood for a higher score). If anything, I would suggest a science student to consider doing some GRE vocabulary study as 75% of the verbal questions relate to knowing definitions.

ReBecca Foster said...

YES! I would say Heck yes they are important (from my experiences). I have even been told by grad programs that they will rank students by their GRE, then their GPA (or GPA then GRE) and then their research interest and letters/statements. It seems to me that these days grad programs (unfairly) put far to much weight in GRE scores. It is very disheartening.

ReBecca Foster said...

As far as cut off scores go, the programs I have applied too all have a 1000 pt minimum.

ScienceWoman said...

I was asked this question this morning by an undergraduate, so I'm interested in the response as well.

Perry said...

Interesting. None of the five schools to which I've applied requested a "statement of purpose," though they all wanted GREs, transcripts, and letters of recommendation. Perhaps they'll ask for one later?

Admittedly, I'm applying to master's programs at mid-level state schools in the West, not a PhD at a top-tier Eastern research institution. But maybe I'll write one and send it off just in case.

Kim said...

Perry - did they have some section of the application where you had to describe what you want to do and why? The applications I've seen recently have all been for MS programs, and they've all had some place for the applicant to explain what sub-area of geoscience they want to study. (Some have been very short - just a paragraph. Some have asked for the equivalent of a cover letter for a job application.)

When I applied to grad school in the Dark Ages, I had to type (with a typewriter) in a box on the application form. I'm guessing that many places have an online form to fill out now, but may ask for something similar.

Elli said...

My masters & PhD programs had minimum requirements for GRE scores, but both were also state schools. I think that the requirements may be more defined than more exclusive private institutions. I've noticed a sequence of small liberal arts colleges are getting rid of SAT requirements, which is a correlate.

And as a person who took the final year of the geology GRE, it was not fun. But I remember my master's advisor being very impressed with my analytical GRE score...I loved that part!

Suvrat Kher said...

GRE is also used as one way to assess international applicants to grad programs. During my grad student days in the U.S. I used to be invited to sit in on admissions committee meetings and faculty didn't really have a way to compare grades given by different colleges in different countries.

So GRE (whatever its merits) was just about the only consistent way to compare.

Chuck said...

Completely meaningless, if you got to school outside the USA.

Admissions people won't even know what they are.

Jon said...

For the programs that I applied to (both masters and Ph.D.) the schools had a minimum GRE score. However, it's been my experience that GRE scores are used more for determining your eligibility for university fellowships, etc.

Joe Kopera said...

I scored horrendously low in my GREs (first year of the computerized test) and still got into grad school, and was later told by my advisors that at the department level, they did not care one lickabout GRE scores-- it was a formality required by the graduate school, which had minimum requirements.

tkwasha said...

It's an IQ test. You are not really supposed to be able to prepare for it. However, exposing yourself to the test format or some sample questions can allow you to score your maximum and not lose points that you shouldn't be losing.