The Cell-Molec Bio-Biochem subject GRE, and the vanquishing thereof
March 24, 2009 2:04 PM   Subscribe

Help me knock the biochem/cell and molecular bio GRE out of the park!

This fall, if things continue to go the way they are, I'll be sending out applications to Ph.D programs in molecular and cell bio and/or biophysics. I've taken the general GRE and I did well on all three parts-- but in a season or so, it will be time to take the subject test. I downloaded a bunch of practice problems last night from the ETS website, tried to answer them, and got a really pukey score. @#$&.

The good news is, I have 6 months or so to prepare to take the thing. Unfortunately, unlike the general GRE and the more popular subject tests, no one seems to have published any good exam prep materials. Given that, what should I do?

Resources on hand at home include:
(1) Alberts on cell bio
(2) Karp on cell and molec.
(3) Intro to Genetic Analysis (undergrad text-- I don't remember who it's by)
(4) 1 fairly okay, recent developmental bio text
(5) A bunch of random Neuro textbooks including Kandel.
(6) All the PubMed material I can stand.

Classes I'll be taking (or at least starting) between now and test-time include:
(1) Molecular bio skills lab
(2) Junior-level intro physiology
(3) The first quarter of a 1-year, senior-level biochem series.

One caveat I will give: I work 80% ft and do research in addition to going to class, so I need a reasonably streamlined study plan. Trying to memorize all of Alberts in the (abbreviated) downtime between work and o-chem lecture is probably not going to cut it.

Thanks for your help, all!
posted by palmcorder_yajna to Education (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Personally, I wouldn't worry about it. I don't think most grad programs put much weight on GRE scores. I got in the 70th percentile on my chem GRE and got into every biophysics grad program I applied for. Letters of recommendation and to a lesser extent, grades, probably count for more.
posted by pombe at 2:11 PM on March 24, 2009

Seconding pombe. GREs don't matter.

Alberts is gold. But if you must...

Genes by Lewin is pretty standard for molecular bio.

Stryer for biochem.

Do you know what you're weak on, based on the practice exams? The actual GRE subject exams appear hella-hard, but when you get your score, you might be pleasantly surprised. I know I was.

Pubmed and primary review articles are generally waaaaay too much detail for the GREs, by the way.
posted by NucleophilicAttack at 2:26 PM on March 24, 2009

Wait, what? You don't need to know physiology or neuroscience or developmental biology for the GRE. Did you take biochemistry, cell biology and genetics/molecular biology classes during undergrad? Then, with some revision, you should be well prepared to take the GRE. I recommend the Snustad Genetics book and Lehninger for Biochemistry, but you do not need to take any courses, much less lab courses. Alberts's Cell Bio book is great, too, but it's an encyclopedic book that you absolutely do not need to memorize it would be impossible to try in the first place!) in order to do well on the test. Make a schedule to read through a chapter of each book every week, and take notes so you don't have to deal with the same material in the book subsequently. Also, don't worry, six months is way more time than you need.

Again, if you've taken biochemistry as an undergrad, an intro to biochemistry would be useless to you as I imagine it covers very basic material.
posted by halogen at 2:51 PM on March 24, 2009

Biochemistry: memorization. My undergrad courses focused on understanding the various reactions, devising experiments to analyze them, etc. We could take 12 pages of notes in with us to the final! The Biochem portion of the GRE, on the other hand, wants you to be able to ID which compound out of a list of four interacts with a certain protein from citric acid cycle. I hated it, and it's awful - and an awful way to see if someone actually understands biochemistry - but hey, it's the ETS. Get a good biochem text. I love my copy of Vogt & Vogt, but really, any basic one will have the reactions you need to memorize.

Molecular Bio: A little less memorization, I'd say, and I think it took up a disproportionate amount of the experiment-based questions.

Cell Bio: Honestly, I never took Cell Bio, and I managed to get above the 60th percentile on that portion (definitely my worst subsection score..) I assume it's standard cell bio stuff.

Physiology, neuroscience and developmental bio? Not on the biochem test, thank god. There are a handful of questions regarding cell differentiation, but that's about as far above the cellular level as the test goes.

Primary review articles: Great to read if you actually want to understand your field in depth, but way more than you need for the GREs. Save them for reading before you head to grad school, and spend the time on memorizing crap.

Lab courses: Eh, they're a little useful - some problems do deal with real experiments, and understanding basic lab techniques will help. However, don't spend time cramming info about obscure lab techniques. Spend time on the basic subject matter.

Practice tests: There is one on the ETS website, and they'll send you one in the mail when you register. There are also two old copies of actual exams floating around on the internet; it's worth it to dig them up. As you've discovered, there is one (1) GRE practice book for the biochem test (the REA book), and honestly, the questions are only useful as general review - if you want to practice taking an actual GRE-style exam, the questions just aren't similar enough in style, focus, and difficulty.

Really, don't worry too much. You're starting to review about five months before I did, and you've got plenty of time. Don't get a terrible score - a 30th percentile on the GRE will give universities pause - but any halfway decent score will be fine. Your research experience and letters of recommendation matter much, much more.
posted by ubersturm at 3:29 PM on March 24, 2009

Best answer: I got pretty obsessed with this GRE when I took it about two and a half years ago and studied really hard for one month. I got in the 96th percentile which was really probably overkill but I was applying as an international student so I thought a great score couldn't hurt.
I used just three books to prepare but prepared from them very thoroughly. I used Lehninger for biochem, Snustad for genetics and Lodish for molecular biology.
Before starting any preparation I took one of the ETS practice GREs and analyzed which portions of the test I had the most trouble with. For me this was molecular biology so I decided to concentrate most of my preparation on that. Genetics was the easiest for me personally.
I then looked at the detailed syllabus that ETS gives out. This was the most important part for me. You don't want to waste time studying stuff that ETS doesn't care about like neurobiology. I then matched up each of the specific topics on the syllabus with the sections in my textbooks that I needed to read.
And then I got started reading! I spent approximately 75 % of my time on biochemistry because of the huge amounts of memorization that needed to be done, maybe 20 % on mol bio and 5 % on genetics. YMMV of course. I took notes of all the chapters essentially numbered facts that I needed to know cold. I find it very useful to have a condensed version of a huge textbook that I can use to revise the important facts right up to the very last minute. Make sure you're really absorbing things and just reading without retaining. Draw those damned amino acid structures etc etc.
About a week before the exam, do another ETS practice exam and see how much your score has improved. Again work on the areas where you need the most improvement. You should have a much clearer idea of your weaknesses at this point and can study very effectively.
It's really important to do the ETS questions because they can best prepare you for the sort of questions you'll see on the test, which require you not only to remember facts, but apply them in ways that require logical thinking.
Prepare a 5 to 6 page of the most important facts you find yourself forgetting and use these cheat sheets to prep on the last day before the test. At this point it's best not to freak yourself out by trying to learn new stuff at the last minute, instead concentrate on consolidating the stuff you should know already.
Finally, don't freak out based on how you think you did on the test. I was absolutely convinced I'd done horribly since I didn't even get to read the last five questions on the test. It definitely seemed like there was less time and somewhat harder questions than the ETS practice ones I saw. But in the end, it doesn't really matter since all that matters is your percentile. If you screw up, others will screw up worse. Also the subject GREs are not more important than your research experience and recommendation letters.
MeMail me if you have any other questions.
posted by peacheater at 6:16 PM on March 24, 2009 [2 favorites]

Sorry, one of my sentences above should read:
For me this was biochemistry so I decided to concentrate most of my preparation on that.
posted by peacheater at 6:17 PM on March 24, 2009

Response by poster: Yay! Mefi comes through again!

Peacheater, that is exactly, exactly, exactly when I needed. It's a thing of beauty. I am half-ready to reduce it to bullet points and have it illuminated like a medieval scroll.

Thanks also to those who offered more general admission advice. Discussion of that is a bit beyond the scope of this question, but it's certainly useful and welcome. And stay tuned (pretty, pretty please with glucose) because I'm definitely going to have a lot more questions about this process in the coming months. Planned future topics include, at a minimum: (1) A measured-but-plaintive winge about my research and whether it's going to be seen as adequate prep for grad school; and (2) A fevered, academic "M I hot or not?"-type thing.

Y'all are the best.
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 9:58 PM on March 24, 2009

FWIW, I did not-so-hot on the ETS practice exam, but still got 96th percentile on the actual GRE - so don't sweat your practice score too much! (However - I took the general Biology GRE, not molecular, so I can't speak to your actual exam.)

I've just been through the entire application process myself, and will be heading to grad school in the fall. I'm an ecology-evolution person, not cell-molec, but if you want to chat any more about the application process in general, feel free to MeMail me. Best of luck!
posted by pemberkins at 5:30 PM on March 25, 2009

Response by poster: Aaaaand after all that, my single, beyond-longshot grad school app for next fall has just resulted in an offer of admission and a fellowship. So (absent the unforseeable), there'll be no subject GRE for me this fall after all.

Thanks, thanks, thanks again, nonetheless. The advice in this thread is, IMO, excellent, and I hope it'll be of use to other Ph.D hopefuls who use this site.

Cheers, all!
posted by palmcorder_yajna at 12:38 PM on April 15, 2009

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