Monday, September 03, 2007

The Continual Progression Toward Not Feeling Settled

Hopefully this will be the last time I feel inclined to write about the Graduate Record Examination, or GRE. I say this because I am hoping that I will never again feel inclined to take the GRE. Unfortunately, that is more of a hope than a promise. I still have to mull it over and perhaps talk to those that have some understanding of how graduate admissions processes work. My dilemma is that I performed quite well on the verbal part of the exam, which is what matters most for someone going into philosophy, while I did a very mediocre job on the math section. Common sense would suggest that a lower math score would have no bearing on my doctoral program applications, since philosophy technically gets lumped under the humanities umbrella. Then again, any lackluster line on my resume may hurt me. Certainly in the case of a tiebreaker I could more easily be scratched off the list than someone who performed equally well in both categories. But do I want to spend a month or two beefing up my geometry skills just to improve my math score when I’m not going into a mathematics-heavy field? When I don’t suppose I could do a whole heck of a lot better on the verbal section? It seems it could be a big waste of time, not to mention a major stress. I really don’t want to do that.

To give you a bit more of the story, I have once again suffered at the hands of procrastination. That’s really what it comes down to. When I took the GRE in December of 2005, I did not study for it at all. I just went in and took it, and all things considered, I think I did fairly well. Really, I wasn’t even obligated to take the GRE again this time around, as I could just as easily use my original scores when I begin applying to Ph.D. programs a few months from now. But I was confident that I could perform much better on the exam if I took the time to study. I bought a book, and that book then sat on a bookshelf for several months. Finally, about a week ago, I got the book out and started flipping through it. But only on Friday did I actually begin any intense studying of the text. Silly and stupid, I know. When I ended up taking the GRE the next day, I found that my verbal score had gone up 10% from what it was before, while my math score dropped dramatically. I have no idea how I performed so well on the math section back in ’05. Not that I did great, but it still baffles me how I did so well. This time around, however, I am sitting just under (if my calculations are correct) the 50th percentile in math. Averageville. Maybe not a problem—but maybe so. What to do???

If my verbal score had leaped even a few more points, I would probably feel more convinced that I should just let my new score stand. (For the record, once you’ve got a new score, you have to use and claim that score—the old one is wiped from the record, whether it was better or worse.) Speaking percentile-wise, I am in the mid-90s for verbal, so there isn’t a lot of room for improvement. Nevertheless, I probably could go up one or two notches on the raw score. But that means I would just have to be studying the verbal and quantitative sections over the next month or two, and I just don’t know that I want to put forth that kind of time and effort! Not when I’m supposed to be working so hard on my master’s thesis and teaching two classes and taking a class for credit and auditing a class and doing all the other miscellaneous tasks involved with applying to Ph.D. programs. It’s uncomfortable here on the fence…

By the way, there is one other test area on the GRE, and that is the analytical writing section. For that part of the exam, you have to write two mini-essays on the spot. Compared to my ’05 GRE exam, I am not worried that my score will drop, but I am sad I cannot say anything other than that. I had been very hopeful that I could take this score up a notch and get a highly impressive score, but I think I screwed myself over. Why? Because I lost track of the time while writing the first essay, and all of the sudden I realized I was practically out of time. It wasn’t as well organized as it could have been, and I actually ran out of time in the middle of typing the last sentence. That means it isn’t even complete. I was just a few words shy, literally, but that’s enough to make it incomplete. How good of a score can you get if the essay is incomplete? I hope it will be obvious it was the end of the essay, and I hope the writing prior to that final sentence will be enough to salvage me. If my analytical writing score goes down at all, I’ll definitely retake the GRE. It would just be foolish to accept a lower score in that area, especially because I do not doubt that I should have an incredibly high writing score. Writing is what philosophers do! To accept a mediocre score on the analytical writing section of the GRE would be to spit on my application, not to mention the very people who I am asking to give my application serious consideration.

So there you have it. Because the analytical writing section cannot be scored by a computer, you have to wait approximately one month to find out how well you did. I’m sure I’ll let you know, at least whether or not I found my scores to be satisfactory. Until then, I’ll be wondering whether or not to worry that I’m riding the line on my cumulative score, although the pertinent score (verbal) is quite high. To show how seriously I am on the border, you can check out this post written by Eric Schwitzgebel, an associate professor at University California-Riverside who has served (and may still be serving) on the admissions committee. UCR may be my top choice for a Ph.D. program, so Schwitzgebel’s post is all the more relevant. He says that although he personally does not pay much attention to GRE scores, a cumulative (sans the analytical writing section) score of anything below 1250 is considered “a strike against an applicant.” My cumulative score? 1250. Will it matter that my verbal score was so decent? I don’t know. That’s why I’m only slightly more at ease to have the test behind me. Blimey.

Happy Labor Day!


  1. I say take it again. If you don't take it again, and UC Riverside doesn't accept you, will you kick yourself the rest of your life?

    But don't study for the verbal. It's much, much easier to go from the 50th percentile to the 60th than from the 95th to the 99th. With a verbal score in the mid-90 percentile range, it's very unlikely that your studying for the verbal section will pay off at all.

    But DO study for the math part. If you're at the 50th percentile mark, then it only takes a few more raw points to leapfrog gobs and gobs of people and raise your percentile score considerably (assuming a normal bell shaped distribution of the scores). Your studying on the math part will almost surely pay off. If the admissions committee is using a combined score for its cutoff, as you say UC Riverside is, that says that they think there's some use for those quantitative skills in their program.

    When I took the GRE four or five years ago, I got a GRE/GMAT math review book that was pretty good at walking me through the fundamentals tested on the exam. I know I didn't need to take the GRE to apply for law school, but I was also applying to Master's programs in economics at the time.

    I don't think the essays matter that much. The essay section is pretty new (it was only a year or two old when I took it), and I don't think that admissions departments really trust it yet. You're not going to be writing your dissertation under such extreme time constraints.

    Take my advice to retake the exam with a grain of salt though, because I confess to being a bit biased. We'd loooooooove for you guys to come out to Southern California for school.

  2. Is the correct phrase really "all of the sudden?"
    I thought it would be funny to only post that, but really, I want to know. When I read it, it sounded odd but correct and now I don't know how I would say it. "All of a sudden?" Guess it's not much different.

    Anyhoo... sounds like Brent has some great advice and a good way of looking at it. Could it be that your programs will look at the math because it's logical? sequential? following an argument from beginning to end? Reading your post I thought, oh, you shouldn't worry. If you're above 90% for verbal, surely that's what they are looking at, especially if you have to write an essay (which, by the way, for as brilliant a writer as you've always been, I've seen improvements just in the time you've been in grad school!. But, what do I know?

    I hope it all goes well for you. I pray for you and I know you are brilliant. I hope and pray that you will be led along to where you all will be happy and taken care of. And, I'd be glad to see you in Cali too! Maybe THEN I could come visit ;)

  3. Wow, Brent, good to hear from you. I thought you might be dead. The bad news is you're probably right about the GRE, darn you. Luckily this is one of those things that doesn't sound so bad now that I've had a break from it. I'm not overly keen on trying to learn geometry (I was going to say "again," but I'm not sure I ever really learned it), but I guess it will be a good thing to do. Looks like this won't be my last post about the GRE after all!