Many people wonder why, in order to get a PhD program in Romance literature, they need to learn to factor quadratics again. Likewise, many ask themselves why, in order to pursue their passion for physics, they need to memorize the meaning of “temerity.” What is responsible for this miserable situation? And, will the schools you’re applying to even care whether you score well on a section of the GRE that has nothing to do with your chosen subject?
The short answer is: Yes they will, so study up. Why?
- The GRE attempts to test a mythical being named “general intelligence.” If your grad school wants to figure out whether you’re any good at Romantic literature, it can read your papers on the subject. But when a school looks at your GRE scores it’s trying to figure out whether you’re an all-around bright and well-educated sort of person. Everyone knows that the only conceivable way of measuring this is to lock you in a room for three hours and have a computer quiz you on algebra and vocab. So, when schools look at your scores they’re not looking for the specific skills tested but for a more general picture of your overall intelligence. If you just don’t prepare for the section that doesn’t relate to your field, you’ll end up looking like an idiot: if you just don’t review factoring, schools may think that you’re incapable of factoring, and that won’t look good.
- Even if you’re going to school for physics, you’ll still have to communicate with people in a “verbal” manner. Conversely, even if you’re an English PhD you’ll still need to produce and analyze logical arguments. I was talking to an MIT computer science professor recently about how he chooses his grad students; he told me that initially he hadn’t cared much about Verbal GRE scores, but with experience he had discovered that students with high verbal scores were much easier to collaborate with and ultimately more successful, since they could read and write effectively. So don’t be too quick to think your scores are irrelevant.
That said, of course your score in your subject area are more important than your score on the other section. For some programs, an excellent score on your subject area’s section is virtually a prerequisite for admissions, while the other section is more of a bonus. This is especially true for math and the hard sciences: 11% of all test-takers get a 780 or above on the math section, so if you can’t do pretty well you’ll be facing tough competition. (Less than 1% of test-takers get 780 or above on the verbal section.) Still, you should make sure that neither your math score nor your verbal score is embarrassingly low; look at the average scores for the program you’re applying to and shoot to beat them. For many people this means spending quite a bit more time studying for the “off” section than for the “on” one.
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