Saturday, September 17, 2011

the GREs

I took the GREs today (Graduate Record Exams, basically the SATs for grad school). It was sort of an entertaining practice run: I was going to apply for an MS program in computer science, but then discovered that I can take as many graduate classes at Stanford as I like, and up to 18 of those credits (at 3 credits/class) can transfer to a master's program whenever I feel like applying and making the commitment. Good things about this:
  1. If you're actually enrolled, you have 5 years to complete the master's. That's just barely possible at one course per quarter (the most I could manage while working); accumulating 6 quarters' worth of credits before enrolling makes that 5 years a lot more feasible.
  2. Good grades in actual Stanford graduate classes will weigh much more heavily on a Stanford application than the GREs or anything else.
The GREs were paid for, and I haven't really had time or inclination to really feel prepared, so I figured I should just take them anyway, as a baseline experience. Remember, these are the new GREs, as they just revised the test and deployed the new version in August.

I'm glad I studied what little bit I did, because they are sneaky bastards, those test authors. It's not hard in the usual sense. Just...sneaky.

It's a computerized test, which is actually pretty cool. I imagine I tanked the Analytical Writing section, because I thought it was 30 minutes for both writing questions, and it turned out it was 30 minutes each, so my first answer is probably unacceptably short.

The Verbal stuff seemed pretty easy (shocking!). The Quantitative was harder, but I found that I kept flashing on the answers as I went through, especially as time started to run out. I'm sure it helped that I was taking them as a dry run, with nothing actually at stake. I felt like eventually I was getting a bit into the swing of how those problems are constructed, although for many of them I definitely did not resolve them the elegant way. (One guess which is faster and more reliable: me staring and trying to figure out the clever shortcut, or me typing 5 different things into the on-screen calculator to see which one matches my answer.)

For the Quantitative and Verbal sections, they give you your score at the end. Unfortunately, the scores for the new revision won't be available until November-ish, so they just give you an estimate of how you would have scored on the old test. Memory is hazy on which was which, but it said "720-800" for (I think) the Verbal, and "750-800" for the Quantitative. Doesn't seem too shabby on an 800 scale, and for not studying.

How's that look for a grad school application? The Stanford CS department says:
While there is no minimum requirement for GRE scores, a strong application would include percentiles in the high 90s for the Ph.D. program and scores in the 90th percentile for the MS program.
Okay, so what are the percentiles? Wikipedia's chart agrees with this test prep site:

Scaled scoreVerbal Reasoning %Quantitative Reasoning %

Holy crap! 800 on the Quantitative, a perfect score, is only 94th percentile. That means that 6% of everyone who took the old GRE got a perfect score. 94th percentile for Verbal is all the way down at 660.

No wonder they revised it: that right there is a test that is very seriously out of balance.

(A corollary is that any range they gave me for Quantitative is pretty meaningless, being a range that starts at 84th percentile. Imagine if, on a standard American grade scale, your teacher said "You got somewhere between a B and an A+": no shit, Sherlock, I knew that when I walked out of the exam. The Verbal range, by comparison, says that I would have gotten a 98th percentile and up.)

At any rate, I'm glad I took them. While tricky, they weren't as scary as they might have been, and I still have some of my gift for standardized testing. I have no idea what my actual scores might be, and I'm looking forward to finding out.

[EDIT: If you're curious, it's now adaptive by section rather than by question, so you can jump around and skip questions and go back within each Verbal and Quantitative section, which wasn't possible before.]

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