Imagine you were interviewing for a job.* The interviewer shuffles through your application package one last time and then looks across the desk to say, “Your references are all top notch, you’ve got the experience we’re looking for, and so I’d really love to offer you a position, but before I can, I need you to memorize the following facts and pay someone $160 to verify that you have. Ready? Here they are: 1) 2 is the smallest prime number and the only one that’s even; 2) x% of y is the same as y% of x.” Confused, but game, you ask, “Is that all?” and are told, “Almost. I also need you to 3) learn how to make a factor tree and 4) memorize the decimal and percent equivalents of the simple fractions from 1/2 to 1/10.”
Sounds crazy, right? Yet that is precisely what graduate admissions committees tell thousands of applicants each year. Granted, they don’t put it in those exact words. Instead, they’ll note the surprisingly robust applicant pool** and the difficult time they had arriving at a decision, and they’ll wish the rejected all the best in their further endeavors, but what they’re avoiding saying outright is this: your application was cut in the early stages of our review because your GRE score was about 100 points below our school’s acceptable range.
Most schools don’t realize, of course, that the difference between a GRE score of 1000 and one of 1100*** boils down to acquiring some passing familiarity with those four simple facts. I only know it because I’ve worked (on the side) in the test prep industry for about eight years now, and in that time I’ve raised a lot of 1000’s to 1100’s, and while there are many roads to a 100 point increase, the road most traveled is paved with some version of these four. Some students travel the road alone, navigating it with $30 books bought at Barnes and Noble, others pay up to $120 an hour for someone like me to guide them down it.**** Those without the cash to spend on prep courses and materials can sometimes find their way down it, too, but that way usually requires a lot more work.
Obviously, most grad programs don’t care if their students are dab hands at calculating percentages without calculators, and why would they? But they care about GRE scores, even though they say they don’t. Your GRE score is always one of the first items on the application. Schools make decisions based on a set Mendoza line that varies from school to school, even though they say they don’t.
So why do they? Likely it’s due to a vague institutional memory of the time when U.S. News and World Report factored the average GRE score of the admitted students into the arcane proprietary formula they use to make their rankings. They haven’t been using GRE scores for some time now, though it might be hard to remember because undergraduate, business school and law school rankings all still do factor in test scores.
Luckily, the people who make the test have given us the perfect excuse for dropping the test sooner rather than later. Next year, the GRE is changing. Beginning in Fall 2011, the testmakers are 1) dropping antonyms and analogies from the verbal section in favor of more reading comprehension, 2) scaling back geometry in the math section in favor of more data analysis (charts and graphs) questions, and 3) restructuring the score so that math and verbal are combined into one score pegged to a 130-170 range. These changes might seem just like a minor superficial calibration, but they actually matter quite a lot. They make an already suspect test even worse. Allow me explain.
Notice that there were no verbal tips in my 100 point facts. That’s because the verbal section–as it’s currently administered–is a lot harder to quickly prep a student to take. As a glance at the official scoring scale will show, the scores on the verbal section are lower than those in the math across the board. The top math score (800 on a scale of 200 to 800) puts you in the 92nd percentile of test takers. To be in the 92nd percentile in verbal, you only need a 650 (on the same scale of 200 to 800), and at a 740 verbal you’re in the 99th.
There are a couple of quick point boosters in the verbal section to be sure. Students usually don’t know that the analogies the testmaker is looking for must be definitional, for one. PERNICIOUS:LIE will never be found in a question on the test nor in the correct answer to a question, because lies are not always pernicious and not all pernicious things are lies. X is sometimes Y, often Y, occasionally Y, usually found with Y, and so on are all incorrect by the GRE’s metric–a metric they never explicitly state in the directions to the test.***** Likewise, students don’t know that when the testmaker uses the word “infer” they’re using it in the strictest sense, not to mean “something that’s reasonable and likely given the provided information” but rather “something that absolutely must be true given the provided information.”******
As it stands now, these verbal point boosters aren’t nearly as useful as the math ones because the verbal section includes one further challenge that can’t be easily coached away: vocabulary. Knowing how analogies work according to the testmaker is a useful thing, but even then you do still need to know the definitions of the twelve words used in the question and answers. I can tell you what the top 100 words used over the course of the GRE are, but there are still enough obscure words in the English language that memorizing those 100 is of but small help.
Now some of you might protest that knowing the definitions of any particular set of less-frequently encountered words is as irrelevant to graduate work as knowing how to calculate percentages in your head. You might also continue by pointing out that words like mercurial, aver, inveterate, eschew, restive, inchoate, or stentorian are cool and all, but knowledge or ignorance of them is likely not the best indicator of future success in graduate school. And you’d be right. A robust vocabulary is neither sufficient nor necessary for success in graduate school. But, having one tends to correlate with reading widely and attentively, and being well read is a very good indicator of graduate school success. By dropping analogies and antonyms from the test, you lose that (admittedly imperfect) correlation with an actually useful marker.
The testmakers would likely contend that skill at reading comprehension is far more important to graduate work, and they’d be right. Problem is, their version of reading comprehension actively discourages the sort of reading that you do in grad school. Take this sample paragraph from the official website of the testmaker:
Picture-taking is a technique both for annexing the
objective world and for expressing the singular self.
Photographs depict objective realities that already exist,
though only the camera can disclose them. And they
depict an individual photographer’s temperament, dis-
covering itself through the camera’s cropping of reality.
That is, photography has two antithetical ideals: in the
first, photography is about the world, and the photogra-
pher is a mere observer who counts for little; but in the
second, photography is the instrument of intrepid,
questing subjectivity and the photographer is all.
If you were to read something like this in graduate school, one would hope you’d take a moment to consider what the author means by objective and subjective and whether the author’s definitions line up with the other literature you’ve read. You might take issue with the use of the word “mere” to describe observers and “intrepid” and “questing” for the artist or at least consider what sorts of unconscious biases the author might be revealing through using them. Perhaps you’d even begin preparing counterarguments for the class discussion, because surely nothing good could build off of such a simplistic dichotomy.
On the test, those thoughts would actively interfere with your ability to score points. In other words, thinking like a grad student would make it harder for you to get into grad school. As your expensive GRE tutor will tell you, it’s important to completely ignore the question of whether the author is correct or not, to isolate the passages from any context, really, and never to consider whether the author is being fair or biased. Sadly, it’s usually the best students, the ones I’d most want to have in a grad class, that have the hardest time turning off the inquisitive, critical, and discerning parts of their brains in order to answer the sorts of questions the GRE asks. Come Fall 2011, they’re going to have a rougher time of it.
Losing geometry in favor of “data analysis” might also seem like a good change to the test. Few really need to know the characteristics of isosceles right triangles in grad school, but surely the ability to understand and manipulate data is important, right? Certainly. But the way the testmakers tend to test your ability at data analysis is by asking simple questions in bizarre ways. They don’t care if you know in what sorts of situations a median measure is superior to an average, for instance, or whether a certain sample size is large enough to make claims about or not. Instead, they’re just going to try to trip you up by writing the scale of one chart in centisomethings and another in decisomethings and hoping that you don’t notice.
And finally, if nothing else I’ve said above has convinced you that this test measures neither jack nor squat, the change to the scoring system ought to. It’s not that there’s something inherently superior about a test that scores you between 400-1600 in ten point increments over one that operates on a 130-170 scale of one point increments. Rather, it’s that both scales are designed primarily to obscure what they’re actually reporting. Is a 150 a good score or a bad one? And how much better is it than a 145? And how does it compare to a 760 on the old test? Why switch from a system with 141 distinct scores to one with 41? Beats me, but that’s the point. It sounds more sciencey and legit when the system is opaque and off-putting, so they go out of their way to make it harder to understand. Wouldn’t someone who cared about being understood go out of their way to use a familiar scale–say, 1-100?
If you’re wondering why they’re making all these changes in the first place, it’s probably because the GRE and the GMAT (the test used by business schools) are no longer administered by the same company. ETS (the company that puts out the GRE) is trying to horn in on the GMAT’s market by making their test more palatable to business school admissions boards.******* I say, let the business schools have it.
P.S. If anyone’s wondering it there’s some sour grapes behind this unprompted screed, there’s not. Indeed, I’m one of those people who’s naturally good at tests. My scores rocked and with them I got into the best program around. And, as I said, I make a fair amount teaching people how to game the test. It’s not fear or disappointment that has bred my contempt, but familiarity. Since I know that some people who actually have some input in admissions read this blog, I figure it can’t hurt to bring the subject up, especially since we’re pretty much done with the admission and recruiting season for this year.
P.P.S. Also, if you’re worried that I might now be in trouble with my corporate overlords, don’t be. No one should take my comments above as a signal that you shouldn’t take a prep class for the GRE if you’re considering grad school. Indeed, knowing how easily gameable it really is should send you Kaplan- or Princeton Review-ward that much quicker. Are their courses really worth $1100? Absolutely. Consider the difference in your job prospects graduating from a top 100 school vs a top 25, or a top 25 vs a top 10. Consider the different financial aid packages an extra hundred or so points might put you in line for. Grad school is a freaking expensive gamble. The cost of a prep class, a tutor, or some books is a drop in the bucket.
*In this economic climate that might take a bit more imaginative oomph than normally, but play along.
**Year in, year out, the pool is always surprising. Either we need committee members with longer memories or the pool must grow exponentially better each application cycle.
***And in the lower range, the difference between, say, a 600 and an 850, because the scale is not linear.
****Not what I personally charge, but rather my price plus the markup tacked on by the test prep company that employs me.
*****Instead, they bury this distinction in the secondary materials that accompany your enrollment ticket and in the preparation section of their website.
******If after reading that last sentence you patted yourself on the back and said, “duh, of course infer doesn’t mean ‘what’s likely’!” keep in mind that the most common way the testmaker phrases inference-based questions is by asking “Which of the following does the author most LIKELY believe…”
*******How exactly this appeals to business schools I don’t know, but that is the motive.