Two roads diverged in a yellow wood... and I took the one where I went crazy for a month to raise my score 40 points... and that uh... has made all the difference?
October 15, 2012 6:00 AM   Subscribe

GRE-Filter: I was happy with my GRE scores. Then, I received word that I have the opportunity to get into a super-duper-top-tier doctoral program previously inaccessible. However, my Quantitative Score--while still in the range of accepted scores over the years for this program--is now less-than-stellar relatively speaking. Is it crazy to think I could study intensely for about a month and improve my score 30-50 points? Am I overthinking this?

When I took the GRE, I totally killed the Verbal and Writing sections in addition to my subject test, but nabbed a 700 on the Quantitative Section (which to my recollection is around the 65th percentile--marginally above average among test-takers generally). It was lower than I had hoped for given the tier of doctoral programs I am applying to, but it was unsurprising given my track record of Quantitative scoring on ETS-family tests. However, for the cool programs I was interested in, my score was nevertheless generally hovering around the median/mean for Quantitative. Furthermore, the field I am going into--while empirical and little-q quantitative--isn't a "hard science" or a discipline like engineering, and in addition requires a lot of interpersonal intelligence and pragmatic experience. Rather than nudge the Quantitative Score up to Superstar levels, I instead focused on boosting my publications and practical lab and statistical skills (successfully, yay!). (Also, taking the GRE is a miserable experience I rather did not wish to repeat ever ever ever, obviously).

Game changer arrives. During my official "Oh Please Write Me A Graduate School Letter" meeting with my Superdoctor boss, he informed me that a certain Rising Superstar in our field is actually a former student of his who just got tenure at Super Program. Superdoctor proceeds to say that I should seriously consider applying to work for Rising Star, as Superdoctor's word would carry a whole lot with him. This program is notoriously difficult to get into unless you have a direct connection to a tenured faculty member. So, while I had previously adored this man's work and had heard he is a truly fabulous, kind mentor... I hadn't really been considering this program as I didn't think I had a connection! However, at this Super Program my once neither-hurt-nor-help Quantitative Score is a negative I need to overcome rather than a total wash. Now, it is totally possible that I would not get into this program even if I were the Platonic ideal of a Graduate School Applicant In My Field. However, for better or for worse I have a somewhat internal locus of control, and would like to do whatever I can do to nudge the odds in my favor.

I just need 30-50 points to make that score go back to not really mattering one way or the other! So, Metafilter, is it possible to go from a 700 to a 730-50 on the GRE Quantitative Section with one frenzied month-and-change of studying? Are there any particular study techniques, guides, or aides (e.g., I know Kaplan has a Quantitative Drill computer program) you would recommend to accomplish this task? For the purposes of this question, let's assume my Verbal scores would be stable enough and that getting the scores to the school on late notice will not be a problem. Giving myself a month, what is the P90x or the 100-Pushups plan to become a GRE Math Master?

One hitch is that these previously-mentioned scores are actually from a year ago, from the older version of the GRE. (Very severe family troubles pushed back my graduate school plans a year). There are two disadvantages then: that I have not practiced GRE-style math in a year, and that the style of math is different than before. Step #1 which is taking place tomorrow or similar would be to see where I am at currently. I could imagine my advice from y'all being very different if I have regressed totally on GRE-style math vs. if I have maintained my previous scoring level. I am not sure yet whether the format change is something that will benefit me or not--I see that there are more data-oriented question, which makes me happy as I currently work as a data analyst.

Alternatively: is this a totally insane adventure, am I tilting at windmills? Am I being overly neurotic focusing on one aspect of my GRE scores when more-or-less all of my other ducks are in a row with regard to graduate school applications, for one program out of several good choices? Graduate school applications are stressful and may be hurting my perspective/reality testing, to say the least.

Thanks, MeFi!
posted by anonymous to Education (11 answers total)
Did you study for the GRE before? GRE is like the SAT, and most of the questions are trick questions. I upped my SAT score from 700 to 800 on the SAT by speed reading an SAT prep book for about 20 minutes. For my GRE I did it on my first try because I went ahead and read the Kaplan prep book while in transit. This is assuming, of course, that you already know the basics. If not, brush up on the arithmetic short cuts.

So, it's possible, depending on why your score is not ideal.

Also realize that the questions become less and less relevant to your score as you go (they basically do a fuzzy binary search of your score), so make sure you get the first 4 right. And then time becomes somewhat of a factor.

But also, your letter of rec is a lot more important than anything else. I'd only focus on the GRE score (especially if it's only 30 to 50 points short of "ideal") if you already have a perfect letter of rec (which it sounds like you do) and a perfect admissions essay.
posted by ethidda at 6:19 AM on October 15, 2012

This is possible, and is worth doing if you're interested in a top program in a quantitative field. With a score of 700, you would be unlikely to get into top economics programs, regardless of the rest of your application (for example).

Study using the resources you mentioned, and take lots of practice tests, including under time pressure. The questions do not vary radically from one iteration of the test to another.
posted by deadweightloss at 6:32 AM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I spent about 3 weeks focused on improving my GRE quantitative score, and did so, bumping them from the 500s to the 700s. I used a prep book, and found the time well-spent.

But that said, you're already at the top of the possible range. The closer you get to 800, the more difficult it is to make meaningful progress and to tease out variation due to noise from variation due to skill.
posted by 1adam12 at 6:57 AM on October 15, 2012

Average quant scores could be ok with the right glowing recc and a personal connection to the prof you want to study with.
I wouldn't bother learning the new format and completely retaking. It's going to be a lot of work.

How below-average is your quant score at the school you are applying to? If it's ok but not outstanding, just keep it
posted by rmless at 6:57 AM on October 15, 2012

I improved both my oral and quantitative scores by about 200 points, so yes.
posted by outlandishmarxist at 7:45 AM on October 15, 2012

Possible, but don't overestimate the value of the GRE here.
posted by jeffamaphone at 8:16 AM on October 15, 2012

Preface: my gut feeling is that (1) your GRE score isn't going to be a big difference-maker here, and (2) you can probably ask the Rising Superstar/potential advisor if he thinks your GRE score would be an issue.

I work for a test preparation company and have taught and tutored hundreds of students studying for the GRE. While I can't speak to your specific abilities, many students are able to do exactly what you're talking about. The math has changed a bit, but not a lot, in the new GRE. This chart, which is not from my company, has a good summary of the changes.

As for whether or not it's worth it, that depends on a few things. What does the Rising Superstar think about the importance of raising your score? How certain are you that your scores in the other sections won't go down if you focus a lot of attention on the math? What other ways might you spend your studying time trying to either (1) increase your odds of admissions in other ways (internships, research projects with former professors, etc., or (2) increase your odds of succeeding in whatever program you do get into?

Fortunately with the GRE, you can take a few practice tests and register at the last minute to take the test. So if you're interested in improving your score, I'd recommend doing a practice test or two, some studying, and seeing where you are in a few weeks or months (depending on your timeline). Remember that most people's actual GRE score is lower than their practice test scores, so you'll probably want to be scoring in the 760+ range on the practice test to hit your target on the actual test.
posted by griseus at 8:21 AM on October 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I took the GRE in August and was happy with my verbal and writing scores, but needed to improve my quantitative score. I spent one month studying ONLY for the quantitative portion of the exam, retook the GRE, and improved my quantitative score by six points (new scale) and my verbal and writing scores were exactly the same as before. I think it's possible to retake the test and score significantly better on the quant section, but you will probably have to devote a significant amount of time to studying. Message me if you want some info about how I studied/what program I used.
posted by gumtree at 8:56 AM on October 15, 2012

With intense focus on your Quantitative scores, your other scores could suffer -- you'll have to write all three again, right? So factor that in.

You might consider mentioning (nondefensively) in your letter that you'll be taking a course in Quantitative Methods in order to "round out your skills" or something like that. Inoculation, so to speak.

But I'm with others in saying the letters will really matter most especially if the program is more qual. than quant. If there is a threshold that you meet then I wouldn't risk your other scores going down for it. You might also ask your mentor this exact question.
posted by Rumple at 8:58 AM on October 15, 2012

It's quite possible to improve your score with study, doubly so if you took it without much study. I raised my quant score from a 680 to an 800 with 3 months of serious, but not crazy, study. My verbal score didn't change much.

That said, whether or not you actually *need* to do this is another question.
posted by zug at 9:23 AM on October 15, 2012

I don't see a reason why not, unless you don't have the time. If it will make you more competitive, it is probably worth doing.
posted by twblalock at 1:54 PM on October 17, 2012

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