General GRE concerns

Now that you selected a physical subfield and started looking for faculty members on departmental websites, while keeping in mind one’s credentials, it is now time to pull the trigger on the general GRE. It is generally recommended to get the GRE, both general and advanced, out of the way several months before apps are due. Although the general GRE does not play a role as important as the physics GRE in the admissions process, some departments are, in fact, misusing the GGRE. This is ETS’ primary guideline:

“A cutoff score based solely on GRE scores should never be used as the sole criterion for denial of admissions”

Look a few posts back, when I said that some departments enforced general GRE thresholds, I wasn’t joking; Dartmouth (one of the easier schools on my list) asks for 307 V+Q as a hard cutoff. That isn’t a problem for me, since I have V162, Q167 (one should NEVER report a GRE score as a composite score because users look for very different things) but if that 307 V+Q was a soft cutoff instead, the application would still be considered but the remainder of the application has to be accordingly stronger for each additional point lost. Because the quantitative section covers, at the most advanced, pre-calculus, a physics PhD hopeful should normally find the quantitative section to be very easy. In fact, the math we use on a day-to-day basis comprises differential equations, linear algebra, single/multi-variable calculus, and even tensor calculus.

Now for the role of verbal GRE. Yes, it’s true one has to understand arguments, one has to have some reading skills to succeed in a science PhD program, but the reading content seems to be quite broad, and so is the vocabulary. But, while the reading content is supposedly made to be accessible to a wide variety of backgrounds, most of it is markedly different. And, really, same goes for the writing segment.

My own experience with the analytical writing (AW) segment is that, while strong writing skills do matter in the sciences, the writing skills assessed on the GGRE are just too different. An awful lot can go wrong because one failed to adjust to the audience, because one would write cogently but without respecting ETS’ “recipe” (that was my experience with practice tests, where I used what human graders I could find, scored 5-5.5 on the prompts I used, yet scored a 4 on the real AW)

That said, while high GGRE scores will not get you in by themselves, a low GGRE score can throw you out, regardless of the segment, although foreign students whose education is in a foreign language may be cut some slack on both V and AW (including me since I did my undergrad and M.Sc. in French)

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