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The verbal GRE: dirty secrets on its role in grad school admission

For many of you, this September may be a time when, in addition to enjoying the autumnal crunch of leaves underfoot, you begin seriously to consider graduate school in astronomy.  Most application deadlines are in late December or early January, so perhaps the more enterprising folks have even begun to draft essays that tread the fine line between being impressive and being self-aggrandizing!  One part of the application, though, I’d suspect few have given thought to is the GRE general test.  Most astronomy programs require, in addition to transcripts, letters of recommendation, and the physics GRE, the general GRE, and usually September and October test dates will be sufficiently timely.

In this post, I want to discuss a part of the GRE general test that is not obviously relevant to astronomy, and hence probably receives little preparation in the busy months of fall.  This is the verbal GRE section.  Here, I want to pass on some wisdom collected in my own path to graduate school, as well as exhaustively researched by our crack team of investigative reporters here at astrobites (well, we e-mailed people!).

What the typical astrobites writer looks like in investigative mode . . . from http://miraimages.photoshelter.com/image/I0000WL50N4ntjNQ

Part I of the post will be expository: how do graduate admissions committees treat the verbal GRE score?  Part II will be explanatory: I’ll suggest some thoughts as to why the verbal GRE may relate to a career in astronomy, and hence that it’s not crazy that graduate admissions committees—spoiler alert!—do, by and large, actually look carefully at those scores!

We attempted to contact faculty who we thought might have experience on admissions committees at schools on the West Coast, the East Coast, and in the middle  of the country.  Some were willing to be “on background”, some to be quoted, some spoke to us in person and so will be paraphrased or summarized.

On the West Coast, at a school remaining nameless (ASRN), but that may or may not be part of the UC system, a former admissions committee member commented to the effect that committees know there is a correlation between verbal GRE score and success in grad school.  Or at least, they believe that correlation exists.  However, the physics GRE is weighted more heavily, and if it is really high or low it can really help or hurt an application.  A trusted advisor at Princeton also commented to this effect when I spoke to him, saying most top (astronomy) programs expect around 60th percentile, and that above 80th will help you, below 50th will hurt you.

However, the source at ASRN did say that if the verbal GRE were really high, the committee would take notice, and in fact recalled that happening.  Another source at the same institution expanded, saying the committee’s goal is to understand how well an applicant writes and what their command of English is.  The GRE verbal is one measure of that, and as the GRE even has a writing section, that latter score (out of 6) would perhaps be even more relevant, the source said.  However, the essays on the actual graduate school application are more telling, as the committee actually gets to read those.

This source concluded by noting that communicating well is a sign of an organized mind, and suggested that communicating poorly might even be a sign of a disorganized mind.  In the latter case, the source did acknowledge that lack of empathy for the target audience may also be at work—something, certainly, to keep in mind when writing graduate application essays!

In a recent astrobites post on graduate admission, John Johnson, at Caltech, also mentioned that graduate committees do care about verbal GRE scores.  Steve Furlanetto, a graduate of Harvard’s program and now faculty at UCLA, wrote us backing this comment up:
“The simplest thing I can say:  I personally give it as much weight as the physics GRE (and much more weight than the other components of the general GRE test).  To me it gives important clues about: 1) whether a student will be able to write a coherent paper, 2) whether a student can understand the arguments in scientific papers (which are often highly obscured by jargon, math, and other things), and 3) whether they can approach problems critically and break down research puzzles into the components necessary to make progress (which I think is supposed to be measured by the analytic part, but doesn’t seem to be).

But my personal opinion is far from universal; in my limited experience (at two schools) the verbal score gets considerably less attention than the physics GRE.  Here are some factors at play:

1. In physics departments, there tends to be much more reliance on the physics GRE than in astronomy programs (in cases where the admissions process is mixed, physicists usually win).  In general, there is a more quantitative focus there—partly due to the more rigorous coursework expected for physics grads, partly just because there are so many more applicants.  The verbal GRE takes a clear back seat to the physics score, at least in my experience.

2. As a corollary, astronomy professors who come from a physics background (where coursework was very important) are much more likely to weight the physics GRE heavily.  Usually that means that the verbal GRE isn’t very important to them, since there’s only so much weight one can put on the numbers.

3. At high-ranked astronomy programs, all of the top tier of applicants will have pretty high physics GREs.  But there can be more dispersion in the verbal score.  Without much information to be gained from the physics part, the verbal becomes more important.  (The other folks I know who put some emphasis on the verbal GRE come from such schools; one claimed to have found quantitatively that the only significant correlation between application data and success in grad school was with the verbal GRE.  I know that is hearsay, but I don’t want to reveal who that was without permission.)

4. There’s also an element of how well-rounded you want the student to be.  Most applicants will have taken science or math for most courses; there’s not much information about writing and communication in the transcript.  That leaves the verbal GRE as one of the few data points you have on that part.  It’s sort of personal preference whether you think that is an important component . . . I do, but others focus more on evidence of science and research ability.

Even amongst people who don’t put much weight on a high verbal GRE, a low score is generally an important red flag.  That is, you won’t gain much by having a high score, but if you have a very low score you will lose a lot.  It’s generally true that for these quantitative measures there’s a threshold effect, where if you fall below some level you’re in real trouble, but you can’t gain a whole lot by going far above the level.”

At an East Coast school south of Boston (ECSSB), there was somewhat contrasting opinion: at ECSSB, the verbal GRE score is not taken to be that important, though our source did note that if a student whose first language is English has a low score, that could negatively affect her or his chances.

In my own path to graduate school, I spoke informally with faculty at both Princeton and Harvard.  Three prominent, long-standing faculty members I spoke with there are all of the school of thought that verbal GRE’s do correlate with graduate school and career success, and that this may be because writing well, for which the GRE verbal can be a proxy, leads to winning grant proposals.  At Harvard, I was told that a strong verbal GRE can help you. I had done reasonably well on this part of the test, and seem to recall people involved with admissions remarking this had been a plus for my application from their point of view.  So these comments are more anecdotal—admissions committee compositions certainly vary from year to year, and the faculty I mention at Princeton are just those to whom I’ve spoken about this, so may or may not be representative of consensus there.

But, the upshot, to me, seems to be that doing very well on the verbal GRE can help, and in some cases at some institutions, significantly help, your application.  I think this is a plus for those of us (like me) who regarded the physics GRE with considerable apprehension.  After all, you can only know so much physics!  Further, at a lot of places, one takes astronomy courses instead of, say, condensed matter physics or circuit design, but the physics GRE probably has more questions on these latter topics than on astronomy.  So that puts astronomers at something of a disadvantage (which departments likely recognize).  But the verbal GRE is a completely separate field of endeavor, where being well-read and perhaps having studied a foreign language (think cognates!) may be able to help you, where it might well not do so in any other part of your application.

Here are my own musings as to why it might not even be so crazy for astronomy grad committees to look at verbal GRE scores after all. If you can explain clearly in words why your research is important, what it is, and what problems you are having, you are more likely to get other scientists interested in it, get your problems solved, and ultimately persuade something like the NSF to pay for it!  Further, if you are a very fast reader and can remember what you’ve read well, you will probably be able to read more papers on arXiv and write clear, directed introductions that place your work in context more quickly than someone who isn’t.  Speed isn’t everything, of course—but, given the same amount of time, good reading comprehension will mean reading more papers and remembering more context than someone whose skills in this area are weaker.

Now, how does the verbal GRE actually give anyone insight into all of that good stuff?  After all, since when would being a clear presenter or good writer correlate with knowing arcane words like “blandishment” or “meretricious”?  Or writing an essay in 25 minutes on a rather artificial prompt, as the writing section asks you to do?  I’d suggest it actually may.

If you’ve read a ton of books, you will probably be a clearer, better writer about anything—including your work—than someone who hasn’t.  You will also have a better vocabulary.  So the GRE measures vocabulary as a proxy for well-readness (call it erudition?), which in turn implies that you are likely a relatively good writer.  The same type of argument applies to reading comprehension: in general, if you are a quick reader and retain what you’ve read, you will do well both at reading astro papers and at answering multiple choice questions on a short timed passage.

Finally, even though a 25 minute essay is hardly what you’ll be writing in later life in astrophysics, if you are a good writer, you’ll probably do well in both—so the writing section can serve as a useful proxy.  Of course, most of these arguments apply in spades to the personal essays one is usually required to write for graduate school applications—so another lesson is perhaps that these demand a certain degree of attention on the literary front as well as the expository one!  I know one faculty member at Princeton still remembered, twenty-five years on, a grad applicant whose essay had made a literary allusion to a Thomas Hardy novel!  And the bottom line is, if you can get the grad admissions committee to remember you positively, they’re more likely to say “yes”.

So let me end on a less practical note—there is a philosophical point to be made here too.  In 1959, CP Snow, a British chemist and novelist, delivered a famous lecture at Cambridge called “The Two Cultures”, in which he argued that Western intellectual life had split into two (bifurcated, just to help your GRE prep!)—one side the humanities, the others the sciences.  He lamented this divide, and suggested if bridged it could heal some of what ailed post-war Europe then and afflicts us even more gravely now.  Point one is that it’s not just ignorant physicists who have never read Shakespeare who are the problem: he lampooned the literary intellectuals who sneered at this but themselves had never heard of the 2nd law of thermodynamics.  This point, I think, is one astrophysicists have long recognized: that’s why we do outreach to non-scientists.  But Snow did also think, as do I, that more engagement with the humanities was essential for scientists.  And, where is that outreach—do we have literature professors give talks in astronomy departments?  It would seem not (though, if the talks had free food, I’m sure they’d be well-attended!)

The GRE may be an unpleasant test, and vocabulary is not a synecdoche for sustained engagement with the humanities, but Snow’s article (as well as George Steiner’s famous “To Civilize our Gentlemen”) points to a reason to pursue reading, writing, and the humanities aside from blind ambition and hope for graduate school admission: so doing leads to a fuller and better life.

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Zachary Slepian

I’m a 2nd year grad student in Astronomy at Harvard, working with Daniel Eisenstein on the effect of relative velocities between regular and dark matter on the baryon acoustic oscillations. I did my undergrad at Princeton, where I worked with Rich Gott on dark energy, Jeremy Goodman on dark matter, and Roman Rafikov on planetesimals. I also spent a year at Oxford getting a master’s in philosophy of physics, which remains an interest.

Discussion

5 Responses to “The verbal GRE: dirty secrets on its role in grad school admission”

  1. I’ve served on the admissions committee for the Astrophysical and Planetary Sciences department at the University of Colorado twice. Our program definitely considers the verbal GRE quite heavily. I’d say that the physics GRE is weighted the most heavily, then grades in upper-level physics classes like quantum mechanics and E&M, and then the verbal GRE score. I can remember numerous occasions where a poor score (below 60th percentile or so) doomed an application that was on the brink.

    Posted by Nick Nelson | September 18, 2012, 10:39 pm
  2. Well, in the post I was actually talking mainly about the multiple choice verbal section of the GRE, which would not be scored in the same way as the SAT essay. Although, as I note, a lot of the arguments for why the former would be a good proxy apply to the essay section, too. I would certainly agree there are going to be good writers who do poorly on the GRE essay, and perhaps even, though it seems quite unlikely, terrible writers who do well. Probably the same will be true of the multiple choice section. So the graduate application essay would perhaps give committees the greatest insight. On the other hand, it is impossible for them to know how much friends or advisers helped edit those essays, whereas the GRE both essay and verbal multiple choice is taken under standardized conditions and so allows comparison of candidates on an equal playing field.

    Posted by zslepian | September 19, 2012, 3:10 pm
  3. In my experience, the essay portion of the GRE is generally not given the same weight as the multiple choice verbal GRE for two reasons. One, it’s graded on a scale of 0 to 6 in half-point increments and almost all applicants to our program score between 4.0 and 6.0, so there isn’t much of a dynamic range there. Second, in spite of the GRE’s extensive attempts to make it as objective as possible, grading an essay is a subjective exercise, so it’s hard to say for sure that the applicant with a 5.0/6.0 is a better writer than the applicant with a 4.5/6.0.

    Posted by Nick Nelson | September 19, 2012, 7:41 pm
  4. It is anecdotal evidence, but I had a very high (99th percentile) score on both the multiple choice verbal section and the writing section when I applied to schools several years ago. I did quite well in terms of acceptance, and at least one school that I visited as a prospective student commented that they took notice of it and that it affected my acceptance.

    Posted by Evan Tilton | October 24, 2012, 3:11 am
  5. New page for GRE Vocabulary with daily update of word list

    http://www.facebook.com/pages/GRE-Vocabulary/424060324343297

    Posted by ss | February 11, 2013, 10:14 pm

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