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Lindsey Kuper

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Side effects of being smart [Nov. 18th, 2006|11:34 pm]
Lindsey Kuper
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It's funny about the GRE. High quantitative scores are apparently much more common than high verbal scores. According to this table published by ETS, "seniors and non-enrolled college graduates" have scored as low as 740 verbal and still been in the 99th percentile, but enough have gotten an 800 quant to make it only 95th percentile.1 That makes it kind of hard to get the "percentiles in the high 90s" that, for instance, Stanford says they're looking for.

Ye olde U.S. News rankings paint a similar picture. It'd be nice if they published info about CS departments specifically, but apparently they don't, at least not for free. They do publish it about engineering grad schools, though. Stanford: 569 verbal, 778 quant; UCSD: 542 verbal, 764 quant; Washington: 537 verbal, 733 quant.

What's with the huge discrepancy in verbal and quant scores? I'm sure part of it is that tons of the applicants to these programs are international students who just aren't fluent in English, at least not according to the GRE. I'd be curious to know what the breakdown is for applicants for whom English is a first language, though. If computer science is full of smart people who nevertheless have trouble expressing themselves clearly and precisely in written English, it seems to me that we're in trouble. When smart people can't write, they sometimes embellish and obfuscate in an effort to make their writing seem better, which is an especially bad thing to do when you're writing a proof, for cryin' out loud.

Why is the math score so high? The kind of math the GRE tests doesn't really seem to be the kind of math that computer science calls for. I think that it's possible to be a competent CS grad student without being great at that kind of math. And yet, if the scores are to be believed, most CS folks are great at that kind of math. Is that a side effect of having gotten as far as they have in CS? I didn't know I was into it until halfway through undergrad, so maybe I didn't experience the side effect.

Actually, I wonder if maybe the whole GRE tests for a side effect! That is, doing well on the GRE is a side effect of being smart, but we don't have a metric for "smart", so the GRE is a stand-in for that -- which is unfortunate for anyone who managed to miss out on the side effect for whatever reason.

  1. Page 13 of their "Guide to the Use of Scores" PDF shows slightly different data for "all examinees": 800 quant is only 94th percentile.

[User Picture]From: sonetka
2006-11-19 07:47 am (UTC)
Weird - for some reason I would have thought it would be the other way around (I took the GRE about four years ago and got, I think, 720 verbal and 600 math, the latter of which I totally did not deserve - I think the section they threw out must have been a math one). To the best of my recollection, though, a lot of the verbal questions didn't deal with the sorts of issues that could make, say, explanation of a line of code confusing. The questions seemed a bit more nitpickish than that.
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[User Picture]From: lindseykuper
2006-11-19 10:55 pm (UTC)
I know, right? I keep hearing people say that the verbal section is harder, and that wasn't the case at all for me. On the quant section I actually had to concentrate and work out the answer for each problem. On the verbal, I pretty much either just knew the answer or I didn't.
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[User Picture]From: cerulicante
2006-11-19 06:19 pm (UTC)
I got the same score for my GRE that I got for my SAT: 780 verbal and 520 quantitative. I got a 5.5 on the essay....

So being crappy at even basic math means that I am a scienti...say what, now?

My failure at the graduate level came from the program and the lack of money to support me, not my GRE scores. So most schools just use GRE scores as a general guideline and put more emphasis on research interests and ability to complete tasks.

I'm going for an MD/PhD after a couple of years. Or at least a PhD. I WANT ONE, DAM N IT!
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[User Picture]From: idealisms
2006-11-19 06:28 pm (UTC)
This is the same as the SATs. Quantitative scores are higher than verbal scores. They're just calibrated differently, which is fine, I'm not sure they need to be calibrated the same.

And you're right, the math in the GRE isn't CS math, that's what the CS Subject test is for (or the Math Subject test or Physics Subject test which most CS programs will accept as well). The math in the GRE is mostly up through pre-calc with a couple calc questions IIRC.

Also, I bet the average verbal score of an international student is higher than that of a non-international student in CS. Having a good verbal score means being able to memorize lots of vocabulary words, which one can do regardless of whether or not one is fluent.
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[User Picture]From: keystricken
2006-11-19 07:18 pm (UTC)
I think the GRE, like the SAT, is a "gatekeeper" test that makes it easier for grad schools to remove some applicants from their massive pool. No doubt it also functions to make sure you're not a dunce in math (or English, for that matter), but that should already be established from your previous school record, your application essays, and your teacher recommendations. I believe that the undergrad colleges which have rescinded the SAT requirement are doing just fine.

My good friend quixotesco did a lot of research on the GRE before he took his (and he got a fantastic score, incidentally), and he was able to tell me a lot about what capabilities it was really trying to target, and why, and how. If you're looking for more information, you should ask him.
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[User Picture]From: joyquality
2006-11-20 03:15 am (UTC)
The verbal section is essentially a vocabulary test. I know that most of my studying for it consisted of flash cards of vocab words. I think that the quantitative might be easier because 1) presumably everyone covered this math in high school, where with the verbal section, unless you read a lot independently, you might not be familiar with a lot of the words and 2) math is more process-oriented, and therefore easier to remember than the rote memorization that the vocab requires.
I could be completely wrong, but that's just my impression.
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[User Picture]From: joyquality
2006-11-20 03:28 am (UTC)
i'm not speaking here to why CS grad students have such high scores, but to why the discrepancy is there in general. The GRE isn't really a test of anything useful. The math that appears isn't appropriate for the math/science/engineering type programs, and the verbal side (being essentially a vocabulary test) doesn't really tell much to the humanities programs.
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[User Picture]From: lindseykuper
2006-11-22 02:18 am (UTC)
That and folks who are good at math tend to be poorer at verbal, not because they just can't do it but because "they don't need to"; a proof speaks for itself and all that rot. I mean, you've listened to CS profs talking right?

For the most part, the CS profs I've known are pretty verbally deft. They might not have always been great at speaking -- although some have -- but I think they'd do extremely well on the verbal GRE.

Similarly, verbally-oriented people tend to score poorly in quant because math is hard m'kay.

*raises eyebrow* You're saying that mathematically-oriented people do poorly on the verbal section because they choose not to put effort into it, whereas verbally-oriented people do poorly on the math section because it's too hard for them? Ouch.
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[User Picture]From: glowing_fish
2006-11-22 10:00 pm (UTC)
Math is hard! Lets go shopping!
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[User Picture]From: glowing_fish
2006-11-21 08:27 am (UTC)
I wonder if my general arrogance about my test taking ability would extend to the GRE. I never studied for the SAT, and got a 790 Verbal and a 650 Math. Even though at that point I had only gotten up to Math 095 (pre-college level) at a community college. Maybe if I took the GRE and did well, I would have less explaining to do about why I took 10 years and five colleges to get a "Liberal Studies" degree.
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[User Picture]From: lindseykuper
2006-11-22 02:30 am (UTC)
If you're really curious, you can have my GRE book; it's got lots of practice tests. I sure don't need it anymore.
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[User Picture]From: glowing_fish
2006-11-22 09:53 pm (UTC)
Maybe now that I can walk, I could actually come and pick it up sometimes.
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