Best of the Blog: GRE Subject Tests: To Take, or Not To Take

Wait. There are subject tests, too?!

Wait. There are subject tests, too?!

Today we’ll be reposting one of our favorite blog articles, which was originally published by James. Enjoy!

Remember when you took the SAT for the first time? You were so anxious because it was the SAT AND IT WAS THE BIGGEST TEST YOU WERE EVER GOING TO TAKE! And just as you got up to the front of the line to check-in, they asked you if you were taking an SAT II. A WHAT?!

And, indeed, it turned out that on top of the SAT reasoning tests there were other subject tests that were “optional.” Perhaps if you’re a strange Martian who is immune to the horrors of standardized testing, you were excited for another chance to show what you know, but more likely, your heart sank with the realization that “subject tests” meant that more future Saturdays would begin with your stomach in knots at 8 AM in a cold testing center.

You may have thought applying to graduate school would be more straightforward, but if you’re taking the GRE, you’re likely to find yourself at the same crossroads. Yes, luckily for you, if you’re applying to graduate school in the field of Biology, Biochemistry, Chemistry, Literature (in English), Mathematics, Physics, or Psychology, you have the option to take a GRE Subject Test to support your graduate school application. The tests are administered in April, September, and October and scored on a scale of 200-990 in ten point increments. The Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology; Biology; and Psychology Tests all have subsections scored on a scale of 20-99 in one point increments. The question is, do you need to give up $150 and a weekend?

If you turn to Google for an answer, you’ll immediately find about 394 different opinions, and, if you’re lucky, two will be helpful. Of course the ETS (Educational Testing Service), the company in charge of administering the GRE, makes it sound like coughing  up an additional registration fee to them is the best idea you ever had, while bitter graduate students who were burned by their own scores argue vehemently against the oppressive institution of standardized testing. Ultimately, you’re the only one who has all of the information to make an informed decision about whether or not  you need to take the GRE Subject test for your field. With that in mind, here are some things to consider:

  • Did you check all the programs you’re applying to? Some programs require the GRE Subject tests as part of their application. Figure out if any of your programs require the test NOW! You’ll need to plan ahead if you’re going to study for a subject test while you’re preparing for the standard GRE.
    • “What if the program says the Subject Test is ‘Recommended’”? Here’s where thing get hazy. I mean, if it isn’t “required,” how recommended is “recommended”? Well, for one, how competitive is the program? If you’re applying to one of the top ten programs in your field, “recommended” probably might as well say “required.” But, again, reading through experiences on any graduate school/GRE forum will turn up examples of students who didn’t submit the “recommended” test scores and were unconditionally accepted by their programs as well as students who feel that their submission of said “recommended” scores is the only thing that got them an interview. Really, “recommended” means just that, “recommended;” yes, you can get into the program without submitting scores, but are you really putting your best foot forward if you deny information the program politely asked for?
  • What was your undergraduate program like? If you graduated with honors from the top undergraduate program in your field, you can probably save the $150. However, if you went to a small liberal arts school, you may be just as competitive an applicant, but, if they’ve never had an applicant from your school before, how will your dream program know you’re a star? It may not be the most glamorous option, but showing up at a testing center in sweatpants one extra Saturday may be the best way to show what you know.
  • What was your undergraduate career like? If you have a resume full of REUs, internships, and extracurriculars as well as glowing recommendation letters and a 4.0, you’re probably safe. However, if maybe your GPA could have been better, or you spent your summers working, or you majored in something else altogether in undergrad, a good GRE Subject Test score may help set you apart as a competitive applicant, especially among students who didn’t bother to send in a score.
  • How important is that $150? Students applying to graduate programs come from all different backgrounds. If you’re still completing undergraduate school, the time and money spent preparing for and taking yet another standardized test may simply be out of the question, and that’s OK. However, if you’ve set aside time to and resources to prepare for grad school, there’s no real reason not to take the test. GRE Score Select is available for the subject tests, so if you aren’t happy with your scores, no one has to see them!
  • How will the graduate program use your score? Some programs use the subject tests (particularly those with subsections) for placement purposes. Keep in mind, this could be one reason a program recommends but does not require scores. If you’re confident that your score will help place you out of some coursework, you could end up saving money in the long run; however, if this is the only reason you’re taking the subject test, you should try to figure out if any of the programs you’re applying to actually do use the test for placement purposes.

Important take away? Don’t stress over the GRE Subject Test! Yes, some programs require scores, but even so, your score will just be one number on a multifaceted application—probably the least important one! Remember, the nice thing about the subject tests is that they’re in your field; a little practice and preparation is really all you need.

 

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4 Ways to Improve Your Grad School Odds With a Bad GPA

Afraid your GPA is going to sink  your application! Fear not! There are ways you can make up for a low GPA.

Afraid your GPA is going to sink your application! Fear not! There are ways you can make up for a low GPA.

We often get asked “I have a low GPA. Can I still get into a graduate program?” The answer to this is while a bad GPA does hinder your application, there are steps you can take to mitigate the overall effect the GPA has.

  1. Crush the GRE. This is an absolute must if you have a subpar GPA. If you’re looking at competitive programs, your GRE score is one of the most surefire ways to pull up your entire application. If you have <3.0, in general you want to shoot for a 95th percentile or higher overall to show programs that your academic ability is more than your GPA suggests. Look at GRE test prep services  and practice, practice, practice! There’s no way around it– you must absolutely destroy this exam if you want a good shot at having top programs forgive your GPA.
  2. Publish! A lot! Most, if not all, top programs are research-heavy, so if you have an extensive publishing history, professors will see that you’re both hardworking and well-acquainted with the ins and outs of publishing. If you don’t have any research experience, it’s absolutely imperative you acquire some, either through an internship or post-undergrad research job. Publishing is key to being accepted to graduate school, especially for the natural sciences, and the more publications you have under your belt, the more impressive.
  3. Make Connections. As hand-wavy as the word “networking” may seem, it is an important part of any application. If your advisers know professors in the programs you’re applying to and could make calls around, your chances improve significantly! This alone won’t save your application, but it can be the difference between reviewers immediately discarding your application and taking a second look.
  4. Take Additional Classes. If you have the opportunity, take more classes to pull your GPA up, and if at all possible, look to take the advanced versions of the classes you did poorly in. If you can show that your low GPA was due to freshman year woes and that you succeeded in the more difficult classes, you will be in much better shape!
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Sample GRE Multiple Choice Math Problem – Fun with Fractions!

What about their math scores? They don't need them, do they?

What about their math scores? They don’t need them, do they?

On every GRE Math section, the test makers try to come up with a few extremely difficult problems that will leave even the cleverest students scratching their heads. The really evil part, though, is that even these problems can be solved in under a minute without a calculator – if you know what to do. This means that once you “figure out the trick,” these difficult problems become easy. So, while those test makers are busy cackling with sadistic glee, let’s see if we can’t beat them at their own game.

Consider the following problem:

If Aragorn can dispatch 5 orcs every 11 seconds and Legolas can dispatch 3 orcs every 9 seconds, then together, how many orcs they can dispatch in how many seconds?

A) 2 orcs every 5 seconds

B) 8 orcs every 20 seconds

C) 26 orcs every 33 seconds

D) half an orc every second

E) genocide

To solve this problem, all you need to realize is that the rates at which Aragorn and Legolas slaughter orcs can be represented as fractions and then combined to give their combined rate:

5 orcs every 11 seconds = 5/11

3 orcs every 9 seconds = 3/9 = 1/3

You will notice that we simplified 3/9 to 1/3. It’s always a good idea to simplify fractions whenever possible, as this will save time later. Next, we need to give the fractions like denominators so that we can add them together:

Mass slaughter of orcs doesn't count as genocide, does it?

Mass slaughter of orcs doesn’t count as genocide, does it?

Thus, together they can kill 26 orcs every 33 seconds, and the answer is choice C. If you know what to do, it takes only about 30 seconds to solve this problem. So you see, with practice, even the hardest problems on the GRE become easy. Check back here each week for more extra hard problems and the tricks you need to solve them! Also, remember that you can find out all the tricks from experts like me with a Test Masters course or private tutoring. Until  then, keep up the good work and happy studying!

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What Graduate Programs Should I Apply To?

As you're narrowing down which graduate programs to apply to and attend, take a look at our quick tips!

As you’re narrowing down which graduate programs to apply to and attend, take a look at our quick tips!

As summer begins, and the search for graduate schools ramps up, many of you may be asking “What graduate programs should I apply to? How do I know which ones are the best? We’ll be answering all that and more today!

  • Undergrad prestige doesn’t necessarily translate into graduate program prestige: As wee high schoolers, we’ve all dreamed Ivy League dreams, and while the Ivy League and Company are the top undergraduate institutions, this may not be true for graduate programs. If you take a look at our recent post on The Most Funded Schools, you’ll note that many aren’t even Ivy League schools! The University of Michigan and the University of California, San Francisco dominate NIH funding, and the NSF supports the University of Illionois and the University of California, Berkeley. Gunning for an Ivy League may sound good, but when looking for professorships, an Ivy League program may not hold more weight than another school!
  • It’s the department that matters: Though a school as a whole may be prestigious, the individual departments may have differing levels of excellence. As the law of averages dictates, every school will have above-average departments/programs, and every school will have below-average departments/programs. In general, a school that is prestigious as a whole will have solid departments all around, but there are exceptions to this, so don’t be caught unawares!
  • Talk to your advisors and professors: Only those in a field truly know which programs are well-regarded and which ones are not. Ask around and see what programs your advisor holds in high esteem, and go from there! Academia is all about reputation, and there’s no better compliment than a recommendation from an unaffiliated source. In the end, it’s not national rankings or blogs that can tell you the best programs in the nation — it’s your professors. Listen to their recommendations and go from there!
  • Look at grant funding and publications: If all else fails, take a look at overall grant funding allocations and the frequency of publications in a certain field. Check out which schools are frequently represented in Nature or Science, and check the authors! If an author is highly published in numerous high-impact journals, that’s a good sign for the department and program as a whole!
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Do’s and Don’t’s of Writing a Personal Statement or Statement of Purpose

Do’s

  • Break out your pen and paper as we guide you through the Dos and Don'ts of Personal Statement Writing

    Break out your pen and paper as we guide you through the Dos and Don’ts of Personal Statement Writing

    Do show, don’t tell: This is the classic advice every essay writer receives. Engaging writing is engaging because it elicits sympathy and understanding from the reader. Humans love storytelling, as it’s essentially hard coded into our DNA, and there’s no better way to connect with your reader than to tell stories or short anecdotes. This isn’t to say you should spend 500 words elaborating on a single story. Rather, you should include sentences that allow the reader to picture themselves in the moment. For example, instead of using the bland line”I love teaching because it allows me to help others gain a better understanding of the world,”  try something like “I’ve never been more proud than when Bobby Sue finally realized how Gauss’s Law works. After hours of slogging through a single assignment during a help session, there was no greater joy than seeing his face light up with understanding, and that single moment made the entire semester of tutoring worth it.”

  • Do tailor your statement to each specific program: Though it’s a lot of work to rewrite a large chunk of your statement for each school, spend that time! There’s no greater red flag to graduate school admissions committees than an essay that looks generic and shot out to every program in the nation. Departments want to know that you’re passionate about their program and their research, and you want to let them know that you’ve done your homework. Mention the research that their professors do, and tie that in to your own interests. Make the statements personal to each school because everyone loves hearing good things about themselves.
  • Do have a good hook: Admissions committees are reading hundreds, if not thousands, of applications, so make sure to capture their interest. Draw them in with an interesting anecdote, and give them something to remember you by. Of course, don’t be melodramatic or insincere with this hook, but make sure to start off on the right foot. Just think back to all the research papers you’ve read in the past — don’t be that author who bores you starting from line 1; be the author who engages you and draws you in so you want to continue reading.
  • Do have a strong, specific reason for applying: It’s not simply enough for you to be passionate in chemistry/political science/linguistics. Everyone who’s applying is passionate about that, or else they wouldn’t be applying in the first place! What you need to show is something more than just liking a subject. Admissions committees want to know you’re in for the long haul, through thick or thin, so show them that! Really make sure your dedication and passion comes across and that you can point to specific instances that demonstrate such interest.

Don’t’s

  • We've all made mistakes. Don't necessarily draw attention to yours!

    We’ve all made mistakes. Don’t necessarily draw attention to yours!

    Don’t draw attention to your flaws unless you have a really good explanation: We all have things we’re ashamed of on our transcripts, but it’s important to remember that these essays are a chance to sell yourself. If you have a 100% solid explanation of what went wrong (family member died, test center’s power went out, etc.), you can briefly spend some time explaining that, but if it’s something more mundane like just having an off semester, I would try and avoid explaining it. Admissions officers know that no one is perfect, and you don’t want to draw unnecessary attention to your flaws. If you’re buying a product, do you want to hear “it works well most of the time, but on occasion it can completely break”? No, of course not! Play up your strengths, not your weaknesses!

  • Don’t speak in platitudes: You don’t want to be the 1000th person to write “Since I was a child, I knew I wanted to grow up to be a physicist.” Though this may certainly be true, it’s become so oft repeated that it’s a cliche. Focus on the things that make your story different than everyone else’s. Talk about the challenges and how you over came them. Talk about what you’ve done along the way. No one cares about where you started from. It only matters how far you’ve come.
  • Don’t focus on one professor’s research: This is an important one because while you do want to show specific interest in a department’s research, you don’t want to sound like you have your heart set on a particular professor. This professor might not have funding for an additional student, or perhaps he/she is not receptive to teaching graduate students. Mention a couple of different professors and how all these research interests line up with yours, just to spread the risk around. Make it sound like  you love the department as a whole rather than just one specific individual.
  • Don’t turn your essay into a rehash of your CV: Admissions officers have read your CV; use the essay as an opportunity to elaborate on the CV, not to simply repeat it. Some students simply list out their accomplishments, bragging about all that they’ve done, but don’t do this! Talk about how this research project meant something to you or what you learned from it. Go beyond the confines of your bulletpoints and show them something more.
  • Don’t focus too much on the anecdotes: The corollary to “Show, Don’t Tell” is to not show too much. Use the showing as a way to draw your reader in, but make sure to describe how this event impacted you. Don’t get too caught up in the presentation of a story that you fail to tie it back to what it meant to you. The “show” should be a jumping off point to then begin “telling.” Don’t waste too much time on a story if you can’t elaborate on your personal takeaways.
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Personal Statement vs Statement of Purpose

As  you’re looking over the requirements for graduate programs, you might notice that some programs require a Personal Statement or a Statement of Purpose, or perhaps even both. Today we’ll go into the details of both so you can know the exact difference between the two and what schools are looking for in these essays.

Personal Statement

As the name might suggest, a personal statement is intended to be a bit more personal than a statement of purpose. If a school asks only for a personal statement, try gearing the essay more towards why you are leaning towards this specific field and how this specific graduate program will help you achieve your goals. Discuss your passions and how they motivated you to love your subject while as an undergrad, and show the school how you have the self-drive and endurance to be successful in an independent academic environment. If you have room, you may also want to discuss any activities or extracurriculars that both display your individuality and demonstrate  your longitudinal passions. To summarize, a personal statement must answer “Why are you interested in our program, and are your passions grounded enough to make it through the hard times that await ahead?”

Statement of Purpose

This essay is a bit less personal and slightly more focused than a personal statement. If a school only asks for a statement of purpose, make sure to spend the essay discussing specifically why you are applying to this graduate program, and what you have done to prepare yourself for it. The difference between this and the personal statement is that for a statement of purpose, you generally want to be more direct on what you hope to accomplish. While you still want to discuss your passion and what your long-reaching goals with graduate school are, you will want to directly reference what you’ve accomplished as an undergraduate and how this relates to the specific program you’re applying to. You will not want to discuss anything not related to your intended program, so don’t bring up other extraccuriculars or activities in this essay. In short, a statement of purpose must answer the question – “Why are you applying for this degree at this program, and what have you done to prepare yourself for us?”

What if the School Asks for Both?

If a school asks for both a statement of purpose and a personal statement, you’ll be able to write more freely than if they ask for one or the other. In this case, focus your statement of purpose towards your research activities and experiences related to your intended course of study and how they prepare you academically for future study. In the personal statement, make sure to focus on why you chose this field and elaborate on any extracurriculars or activities that demonstrate your passion and interests. For schools that require both, take advantage of the opportunity to demonstrate both the soft and the hard in terms of your personality — show them that  you are interesting enough to make the graduate program more engaging but also that you have the academic fortitude to succeed in a research-heavy pursuit.

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Grad School Application Timeline

When is the GRE Offered?

As you’re getting ready to take the GRE, you may be wondering when exactly the test dates are. Luckily, the GRE is offered year-round, so check out the official sign-up page to see your local testing centers and test dates. This flexibility offers you a lot of leeway in planning when to take the exam, though we’ll present a rough timeline of when exactly you should have documentation ready to apply.

However, keep in mind that many institutions require the GRE Subject Test for admissions. These are offered less frequently, and the upcoming fall deadlines have not been posted as of the time of writing. For more information, go to the ETS’s official page.

 

March-May of Junior Year

  • Identify schools that you would like to apply to, and read up on their graduate programs
    • Talk to your professors and advisers to see which programs might be a good fit for you and your future goals
    • See if the programs you’re applying to require GRE Subject Tests
  • Get ready for the GRE by creating a study schedule or taking a full-length GRE preparation course

May-July

  • Prepare for the GRE, and do as much practice and review as you can. The more work you put in, the better your scores will be!
  • Start drafting your personal statement and statement of purpose
    • Don’t worry about the quality just yet! It’s just a draft! Just make sure you have a general framework of what you want to say to schools

August-September

  • Take the GRE and GRE Subject Tests (if necessary).
    • If you don’t do as well as you’d hope, you still have time to improve before sending in your application!
  • Continue editing your personal statement and statement of purpose

September-October

  • Contact professors and advisers who could write glowing letters of recommendation for you
    • Make sure to have a CV and draft of your personal statement and statement of purpose ready for them!
  • Take the GRE Subject Test, if necessary and if you have not already done so
  • Retake the GRE if you need to

November

  • Finalize your personal statement and statement of purpose
    • Have friends or professors take a look at it to give you some final feedback before submission
  • Request official transcripts
  • Complete and submit your grad school applications!
    • Make sure to double check the exact deadlines of your graduate programs so you aren’t caught unaware!

 

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The Top 10 Humanities, Social Sciences, and Science Universities, by Grant Funding Allocation

Which Schools Have the Most Grant Funding?

When seeking out graduate programs to apply to, one of the top criteria you consider might be the availability and quality of research. Since the entire purpose of graduate programs is to contribute new and exciting knowledge to your field, and since the flexibility and impact of this work is highly dependent on the resources available to you, today we’ll take a look at the schools which pull in the most grant funding. Of course, funding itself is not a perfect metric to determine the impact of an institution’s graduate programs, but hopefully it’ll be a useful tool to you when deciding what top programs to apply to.

NIH

The National Institutes of Health is a part of the United States Department of Health and Human Services, and they primarily promote research in the biomedical fields. For the Fiscal Year 2016, the top universities receiving funding were:

Institution Funding Amount
Johns Hopkins University $139,655,936
University of Michigan $101,409,949
University of California, San Francisco $92,062,563
Washington University $88,924,612
University of Pennsylvania $83,169,198
Yale University $80,344,268
University of Pittsburgh at Pittsburgh $79,297,967
Duke University $78,297,967
Stanford University $74,174,567
University of California San Diego $72,906,994

NSF

The National Science Foundation funds research the social sciences as well as the non-medical aspects of science and engineering. Below we’ve listed the top grant recipients from 2015

Institution Funding Amount
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign $128,329,000
University of California, Berkeley $112,530,000
University of Washington $101,440,000
Cornell University $100,159,000
Columbia University $99,760,000
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor $98,615,000
Massachusetts Institute of Technology $93,468,000
University of Wisconsin, Madison $89,341,000
University of Minnesota, Twin Cities $87,025,000
University of Texas, Austin $83,482,000

NEH

The National Endowment for the Humanities funds individual fellowships as well as larger research and preservation projects. For 2015, the following universities netted the most grant funding in 2015.

Institution Funding Amount
University of Virginia $968,677
Emory University $734,063
Yale University $640,000
Duke University $478,997
Case Western Reserve University $399,735
Stanford University $365,000
University of California, Los Angeles $361,337
University of Southern California $325,000
North Carolina State University $324,135
University of Minnesota $324,121
New York University $322,615
University of Wisconsin, Madison $300,000
George Mason University $290,000
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