Forum for the GRE subject test in mathematics.
j0equ1nn
Posts: 8
Joined: Sat Apr 04, 2009 1:40 pm

I did a lot of looking around online to see what sort of scores I should be aiming for, and saw a lot of talk about the 80th percentile or somewhere around there. This is an extremely ambitious objective for most people taking the test (this isn't even just my opinion, but we're all good at math here so I don't have to explain that). First remember what percentile means, and then remember that usually 50% of people don't fail a test. You should also keep in mind that you're really only competing with other people about to apply for a PhD in math. Doing better than half of them is nothing to sneeze at, and is good enough for most universities if the rest of your application is looking good.

There are a couple of cases when perhaps you should demand more of yourself: 1.) If you're uncertain about your application an incredible grade on the subject GRE would give someone a reason to give you a chance. 2.) You're really planning on going to Princeton or something and won't settle for less. 3.) You are exceptionally talented at solving tricky multiple choice questions in one try really fast.

Otherwise, in my opinion, trying to get every question right can actually mess you up pretty bad. I learned this from the practice tests I did. I know that from a probabilistic perspective you stand to benefit from guessing if you've eliminated at least 2 choices, however I think this reasoning is flawed because your guess will be far from random. The options provided are intended to trick you if you haven't investigated every detail of the problem. I actually considered applying some elementary game theory here and making a list of the questions I plan to guess on, and the remaining choices of each one, then using a randomizing technique on selection from there. But ultimately that would just be another way to take time away from the rest of test.

Which brings me to my next point. Even the ones you know for sure are written in such a way that you can mess them up if you aren't careful. If you try to answer all 66 questions, you risk rushing yourself and making a lot of mistakes. And a multiple choice test doesn't care if you understood the relevant concepts of a problem. It's also not obvious if you've made a mistake. You can have a good deal of confidence about your wrong answer when you've failed to observe something.

At first I was all about trying to get a jaw-dropping perfect score on this exam. [I have a 3.986 GPA from the start of my BA up to now (one year away from the masters in a ba/ma program), I got into a research group this semester that only excepted 12 people out of thousands of applicants in New York City, I tutor all levels of undergrad math and started a new tutoring section at my job just so I could cover abstract algebra, et cetera etc., ... I get a lot of respect for my math abilities.] But I discovered that an 80th percentile score was not a wise target for me, unless I were to dedicate weeks to practicing timed multiple choice questions (of which there are a limited amount).

The point is, it's not like you'll miss that 80th but still get the 75th: you could rush your way through a ton of errors and end up in the 30th, when if you were more realistic you could have got a solid 60th. When you narrow your target, you're more likely to miss it. And those wrong answers are the hostages. It's like if you were a well-hidden assassin with a clear shot at a fascist dictator, but instead of pulling the trigger you jump on a time-traveling helicopter to try to take out Hitler. Next thing you know it's 7578 and octopi have domesticated humans and your stray bullet kills your great^215th-grand-daughter. Only not neaerly as bad as that.

Anyway, my strategy was as follows:

Read the entire test once, rather quickly but attentively, and notate the apparent difficulty level of each problem on a scale of 1 to 3. Base this not on how hard of a topic it is, but on your insight on how to approach it, and on how long you think it would take to do. (my method is a square around the 3s, a triangle around the 2s, and don't do anything to the 1s.) Don't be afraid to only mark half the test as easy. If you get half the possible raw score you're already over the top of the curve.

After the read-through, go back and start doing the 1's, skipping the rest.

If you get an answer that isn't a choice, or if you get stuck, circle the problem and move on. [Important: don't jump to conclusions at this point. Circle it to come back to later.] After you finish, go back and take a look at the 2's, but be more liberal about skipping when you feel you are getting hung up or not noticing something. Then go back and take another shot at those circled problems, before you even look at the hard ones. Your chances of catching a mistake in something you attempted earlier is better than your chances of correctly doing something that you are uncomfortable with, and faster than doing an in-depth analysis on something very difficult.

Finally take a shot at those boxed ones, along with the skipped triangles. Some of them may be things you have no idea what they're talking about, or that reference material you never even learned, so don't waste time when that happens. Do be sure to read through it though because sometimes familiar concepts are disguised in strange formats/language. And sometimes doing just a natural first step makes something obvious fall out.

Then go back to the beginning and quickly decide on which ones you can resolve in the remaining time. You should have a good ability to do this at this point because you've messed around with all of them by now. Isolate some of those bastards and take them out. But stay focused. This would also be a good time to guess but only if you really have thought through the solution and are very confident of the form the solution should be taking. Don't be tempted to go in and try to do the rest of them really fast like you're some kind of genius. You'll probably just fall for every trap along the way and mess up your confidently-collected points.

Note that my method still requires you to move at a fast pace, especially since you have to go back and 2nd-try a bunch of questions. So this still requires a lot of practice and studying, I just think it has more reliable results than trying to destroy the thing. Also when you study, you should be learning what your strengths and weaknesses are, and using that information wisely.

Finally, pay a lot of attention to the practice tests. Try one or two where you try to to answer them all, in a timed session, and try to get them all right. You'll probably see what I'm talking about. If not, disregard...

So that's my 2-cents. I just took the test today so I'm still winding down from the obsession over it. Plus I drank 3 red bulls and I'm bouncin off the walls. I answered 39 questions, but I am quite certain I got at least 35 of those. This puts me in a range of about 660-710 if I use the conversion chart from the practice test, or 57-68%. I won't know for sure until May 15, but I don't feel like I took a lot of chances, I think my answers were solid.

I'm not looking to go to an IV league place personally, and according to my graduate advisor at Hunter College there are places well inside the top-40 schools to whom my application is going to look very strong.

I hope this helps people out. I think there needs to be more discussion about the 50th percentile on here. You don't need to have your PhD in nonassociative algebras to figure out that most of the people taking the test are among that population. Also it is not the case that 70% of people who apply to math PhD programs have to settle for jobs cleaning all the bathrooms at grand central station with their own toothbrush.

diogenes
Posts: 73
Joined: Sun Aug 31, 2008 9:31 pm
Thanks for your thoughts on this matter.
I think the points you bring up are valid ones and align with my approach.
Also, I know American students that did “okay” to “good” on the exam and got into top 15-25 programs for the “good” and top 50 or so for the “okay” score.
However, I suspect that foreign students need to do a bit better in order to compensate for perceived language barriers.

zombie
Posts: 27
Joined: Thu Nov 20, 2008 2:30 am
It's like if you were a well-hidden assassin with a clear shot at a fascist dictator, but instead of pulling the trigger you jump on a time-traveling helicopter to try to take out Hitler. Next thing you know it's 7578 and octopi have domesticated humans and your stray bullet kills your great^215th-grand-daughter. Only not nearly[sic] as bad as that.

HA!

You're right about that j0equ1nn. The mantra I had while studying for this test was "avoid overkill"... (although I'll be damned, some equation that looked somewhat like Legendre's equation did appear on the test...)

These tests are just one of many criteria the entrance committees use. I was aiming to answer 50 with accuracy and I answered 44, so I'm moderately pleased with my performance.

Plus, the time I spent studying for this was much needed given the year since I finished my undergrad degree program (and the 8 years since I took multivariate calc)

The real Princeton, not the pseudo-Princeton test metric institution, will be more curious if you can read the works of Cauchy in French, Gauss in German, or Abel in NORWEGIAN. (and has anyone noticed that Cauchy's portrait bears a striking resemblance to Vladamir Putin??)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cauchy

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Putin

Also it is not the case that 70% of people who apply to math PhD programs have to settle for jobs cleaning all the bathrooms at grand central station with their own toothbrush.

I have a masters degree in Poli Sci, and there's a huge difference between Political Scientists and Mathematicians... luckily I'm neither! Let's just say I'm closer to a theoretical physicist, which is about as useful to society as an a--hole on your elbow. I'll fall back on my skills as a "program engineer" if this whole grad school fiasco falls through.

Anyway, no one will get into SuperHarvard with a good GRE score alone.
Here's a listing I found online:

http://www.stat.tamu.edu/~jnewton/nrc_rankings/area31.html

Who knows the criteria on which these rankings are based (US News related?) I think most people just need some reference at this point.

Now, if you're done with multiple choice tests, these schools have nothing like that in store for you once accepted [/i]

j0equ1nn
Posts: 8
Joined: Sat Apr 04, 2009 1:40 pm

a few more thoughts

If you are thinking about a PhD in math, you are probably used to scoring in the top 80th (probably 90th) percentile on anything having to do with math, throughout all of high school and college. I know I am. For the same reason, so is everyone else taking this test. So you'll have to get used to there being a difference between percentile and percent. I still don't know what the cutoff score is for top-50 schools that actually use one. But I do know it's lower than 600 (which is only around 40th percentile). As long as your grades and letters of recommendation are in order, the only way this test can really mess you up is if you bomb it. A fantastic score will be a very good asset, but should not be considered necessary. A decent score proves competence, which is all the test is really there for. People know this test is hard.

Also, you shouldn't be discouraged if you're not matching up to people who post on here. Obviously somebody who decimated this exam will be much quicker to go online and tell everyone what they got.

So I'll be sure to post a reply to this thread after I get my scores, so yall can see if my strategy was successful (apparently that's sometime around the 3rd week in May). I'll make a note of doing this even if I don't do well. I'm checking "notify me when a reply is posted" at the bottom, so if I forget to do this please bug me. If I score below upper 500s I will probably retake it, even though I don't even want to consider that possibility right now, and I'll have to reconsider my approach. But I will be very surprised if I'm not in the 600-700 range.

ana3a
Posts: 26
Joined: Fri Mar 13, 2009 6:12 am
Last edited by ana3a on Mon Feb 01, 2010 6:17 pm, edited 1 time in total.

j0equ1nn
Posts: 8
Joined: Sat Apr 04, 2009 1:40 pm
I know. I can't really think about anything else and my friends are quite sick of hearing me go on about it. On the other hand I'm really glad it's over with. Now I have all this free time to... study for a real analysis test I have on monday, write 4 programs in mathematica, do 2 chapters of advanced linear algebra exercises, and outline several sections of a draft of a book on experimental numerical methods theory. Seriously though, even all that sounds better than stressing over this test.

Today I am relaxing though. I'm just having some beers and listening to music because if I have to do one more math problem today I think I'm going to stab myself in the face with the pencil. Don't get me wrong, I love math, and it puts my mind in order like nothing else. But this test is a m*****f****r

j0equ1nn
Posts: 8
Joined: Sat Apr 04, 2009 1:40 pm

results

For the record I did not do well on this test. I got a 560 / 30th percentile, so I have to take it again in October. So you might want to take everything I said with a grain of salt.

One other thing to say though, is that my highest practice test scores happened toward the beginning, and if I'd gotten a score like that I'd've been fine (like 700 or so). Next time I'm going to focus on staying well-rested and not freaking out, because I know my math damnit!

zany8
Posts: 2
Joined: Mon Jun 29, 2009 4:28 am

Re: GRE advice&strategy - be realistic

hey guys,

diogenes
Posts: 73
Joined: Sun Aug 31, 2008 9:31 pm

Re: results

j0equ1nn wrote:For the record I did not do well on this test. I got a 560 / 30th percentile, so I have to take it again in October.

Thanks for following up. Following the same strategy this time?