East Asian students and the physics GRE

One of the tests that are dreaded by so many is, of course, the physics GRE. You may very well say that the physics GRE is a test of speed more than anything else and, to some extent, that is true. With 100 questions to be answered in almost three hours, it almost sounds like it is a test of speed with the end result that it emphasizes lower-division physics over upper-division physics. Because of the format it rewards quick thinkers and people who perform well under pressure. Note that I am not writing this rant because I performed poorly on that test (910, or 87th percentile, is a good score by most standards, except perhaps to some admissions committees at the very top schools) You may use the Griffiths for quantum mechanics, as well as E&M, and the Marion for classical mechanics. Don’t fret too much over advanced topics like hydrodynamics, condensed matter, particle physics; these advanced topics typically account for ~10-15% of the test content.

Per Galactic Interactions (scroll to comment #8) one suspects that Chinese students tend to have their higher scores via cheating. Yet, the quote by Julie Larrondo (a postdoc at Stanford at the time she wrote the quote; she is now confirmed as a new hire at my undergrad) below expresses the realities of the more honest East Asian students (translation is mine) because it’s not true that cheating is generalized; I always have to think that honest students from that area actually exist:

[T]he reason why there are different [physics GRE] standards for East Asian students is that they have schools just for the GRE. More precisely 1-2-year schools that train you solely for the GRE, it’s thus normal to ask for higher scores when you have access to such training.

That quote suggests that there are some of the less savory (but accredited nonetheless) Chinese universities claiming to offer graduate degrees but who, in practice, are mostly offering a test prep session that is one to two years in length (cram schools elsewhere in East Asia do not grant degrees, nor do they try to). Now, there could be some Chinese master’s programs that actually deliver a graduate education aimed at developing students’ research skills. But the unscrupulous universities that offer masters whose coursework is mostly test prep coursework seem to operate on pass-fail assessment, or to otherwise withhold grades, for the test-prep part. Because some professors consider research to be a distraction from test prep, I have the impression that the non-thesis format is favored among degree-granting programs.

Addendum: here’s an excerpt from that aforementionned comment #8 made by Rob Knop on his “Physics GRE considered harmful” post about what I call “Chinese grant recipients” (even though not all of them really are grant recipients, but, for those who actually receive grants, think NSF GRF or FRQNT B2 as comparable grants in the USA or Quebec respectively):

We usually had [at Vanderbilt] 2x to 3x as many applicants from China as we did from everywhere else put together. And, many or most of them had high scores. The positive spin on this is that they are very good at learning how to do standardized tests. The negative, but almost certainly true, spin on this is that cheating on these things is institutionalized over there. (You’d see students with a high %ile on the Verbal GRE, and a letter of intent that indicated that they were only barely fluent in English….) What’s more, the reference letters tend to be very uniform, with all students receiving good and similar-sounding reports.

Some explanation I could come up with is that K-12 East Asian educational systems are built around “do-or-die” tests at the end of high school, tests thought to affect not only educational (and career) prospects but also marital prospects. So they are, in essence, trained from a young age to take standardized tests, with China and Japan being the most egregious cases of test-centered education, where such high-stakes tests are taken in order to attend middle school, let alone high school, culminating in the gaokao or NCTUA respectively for undergraduate admissions.

And the aforementionned Chinese grant recipients are easy rejects (although not automatic) because there is a large discrepancy between their GRE/TOEFL scores and their actual English skills, despite the large amount of applications they can sometimes write, upwards of 40 for some of them.

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