Low subject scores - should I even bother?

Forum for the GRE subject test in mathematics.
Alexyar
Posts: 3
Joined: Tue Nov 09, 2010 1:24 pm

Low subject scores - should I even bother?

Postby Alexyar » Tue Nov 09, 2010 1:48 pm

Hello everyone!

So, October subject scores are out, and I've came here to share my grief.

Here's the story.

This year I graduated with honors from the best university of the country many of you probably never heard about, major actuarial math. I was top of my class and among top 5 in my department (200 students) with GPA 9.5/10.
I was considering a program in pure math (analysis or probability)

Some of my profile:
For the last 3 years I was doing research on time series analysis with my advisor, and I have some interesting results.
No publications yet, but I'm finishing two drafts and will most likely submit them by Christmas.
Made a presentation on international conference, 3 university-level conferences, maybe I'll participate in an international workshop in February.
I have 2 year work experience as a programmer (not relevant, I suppose)
My advisor asked me to prepare 2 lectures for last-year undergrads on the topic of my research in December.

...So far so good? Not bad at least.

My TOEFL is 106 (r30/l29/s23/w24), which is not brilliant but quite good (especially considering that I didn't spend a single day preparing for it)
GRE General V: 490 (60%), Q: 800 (94%), AWA: 4.0 (46%). Not bad too. After all I'm an international student and not Indian or Chinese.
My LORs would probably range from very good to excellent (the downside - nobody knows my professors outside the country).

Maybe it was ambitious of me, but I was considering schools like top 10-20...

...And today the subject scores came.

710 (65%)! WTF??? Seriously, it's like the lowest score I've ever got on anything math-related in my life! How could I possibly screw this up so much? All my dreams and hopes...
I understand that with score like that I still could get into, say, 30-40 range, but I don't want to! (Yeah, on the second thought, I really am ambitious)

The question is, should I even bother applying to top 10-20? Application fees are rather high, so I don't want to waste money if I don't have a chance. Maybe wait for next year in hope that I'll do better on subject?

Meanwhile I'll just buy a bucket of ice-cream, rent Love Actually and go cry in the corner.

lpt234
Posts: 26
Joined: Sat Oct 09, 2010 4:14 pm

Re: Low subject scores - should I even bother?

Postby lpt234 » Tue Nov 09, 2010 1:54 pm

Alexyar wrote:
The question is, should I even bother applying to top 10-20? Application fees are rather high, so I don't want to waste money if I don't have a chance. Maybe wait for next year in hope that I'll do better on subject?

Meanwhile I'll just buy a bucket of ice-cream, rent Love Actually and go cry in the corner.


You have a very solid background. You should apply to the schools you wanted to. I talked to many professors who told me that the GRE score is not really representative of research skills, so a lot of grad schools don't pay too much attention to it.

jplusip
Posts: 22
Joined: Mon Jun 21, 2010 12:40 pm

Re: Low subject scores - should I even bother?

Postby jplusip » Tue Nov 09, 2010 3:29 pm

According to Steven Krantz's "A Survival Guide for Mathematician's", the only scores that could potentially put a touch of death on an application would be 515 or lower.

I'm sure you will do fine with a 710 given your previous background. Not everyone is a master at solving weird Calculus problems relatively fast, and I imagine any graduate committee with sense would know that. :)

johnnybegoog
Posts: 13
Joined: Tue Nov 09, 2010 5:32 pm

Re: Low subject scores - should I even bother?

Postby johnnybegoog » Tue Nov 09, 2010 5:35 pm

Hello everyone too! I have a similar question so I posted it here. I am new so if I should post it anywhere else please notify me and forgive me.

I have sort of the same problem here. I am applying for Ph.D in Pure Math with an intend of doing research in algebra.

I am from a small greek university majoring in math. I was top of my class with a current overall GPA of 9.66/10. I have many algebraic courses covering introduction to Galois Theory, PIDs, UFD's, modules (projective, injective, cofree, essential extensions), tensor product, hom functors, simple and semisimple rings and aalgebras, categorical notions and group theory (free - solvable - simple groups Sylow theorems, Nielsen-Schreier Theorem). I have also had a basic course in algebraic curves which stirred my interest towards algebraic geometry ( i find it ineresting but have not dealt with algebraic varieties and so on). Some of the topics above I did in oral presentations as projects.

I have had also two semesters in functional analysis (Hahn Banach theorem, open mapping, closed graph, Hilbert base, hilbert dimension,weak - weak* topologies,compact linear operators) the second being a seminar course,one introductory in set theory (cardinals, ordinals, AC), one intro in measure theory (till integrals, the last part very quickly and not deeply), one in real analysis (argela-ascoli, weierstrass-stone,semicontinuity), one in topology of metric spaces ( compact, donnected etc..), one in discrete math (graphs, Euler-Bernoulli numbers, combinatorics, generating functions, difference equations). Also: 1 course in differential geometry (curves, surfaces, Egregium Theorema, developable surfaces, curvature lines, omfalic points etc -not Gauss Bonnet though), 1 in non-Euclidean Geometry (Hyperbolic mainly through a model-axiomatic approach, elementary methods used, not advanced differential calculus involved), 1 in differentiable manifolds ( smooth functions, total differential, tangent space, tangent bundles, implicit theorem and inverse mapping etc). What else? I think 1 elementary number theory, the standard calculus-linear algebra sequence, 1 in ODEs (not systems though).

Attending currently:1 in general topology, will attend complex analysis (residue theorem) next semester.

No research. Have done oral presentations in real analysis, algebraic topics. Also enrollment in graduate courses is not allowed for undergrads in my uni, but I attend unoficially graduate course "Algebra I" (commutative algebra) and will attend unoficially the graduate courses "Algebra II" and "algebraic topology" next semester.

I think I will have very good recommendations (however, overall I think me recommenders are not very well- known outside Greece)

I scored 730 (69%) GRE math subject. The General I will take next week.

My question is the same as Alexyar's (though he seems to have a much stronger background doing research an' all :oops: ) What universities should I apply to? Do I have a decent chance in some top program or am I beingg silly now?

smartiful
Posts: 25
Joined: Mon Oct 11, 2010 12:11 pm

Re: Low subject scores - should I even bother?

Postby smartiful » Tue Nov 09, 2010 6:29 pm

Having talked to a couple of profs at some top10 (and not so top10) about this, here're some things to consider:

(i) Some don't care, but the majority of profs do care about the subject test result. the number most quoted is 80%+.
(ii) admission decisions are made by adcoms, not individual profs. It's very likely that at least some adcom-members will care about your subject test score.
(iii) yop 10 unis get many applications from outstanding candidates.
(iv) most people admitted to top10 programs have outstanding subject test scores.
(v) the people admitted to top10 programs with average to good subject test scores were very, very good indeed.

You may stand a chance. Bear in mind that it is difficult for adcoms to assess how awesome your uni grades exactly are, as they might not have a clue about the grading scale in your country, or university. Your GPA is not perfect and you're not the best student in the department, so there will be people who're -on paper - better than you.
Papers are only relevant if they contain original research - many people do a semester-long study project (aka rewrite someone else's papers w/ minor modifications), so if your papers contain original stuff, make sure you point that out. Your area of research seems very specialised to me, that may increase your chances at some places.

It's always worth a try, so talk to some profs doing research in related areas at your target universities (they might even know the people writing your letters) whether they'd support your application.

Chapel
Posts: 59
Joined: Mon Sep 13, 2010 11:25 pm

Re: Low subject scores - should I even bother?

Postby Chapel » Tue Nov 09, 2010 8:10 pm

jplusip wrote:According to Steven Krantz's "A Survival Guide for Mathematician's", the only scores that could potentially put a touch of death on an application would be 515 or lower.

I'm sure you will do fine with a 710 given your previous background. Not everyone is a master at solving weird Calculus problems relatively fast, and I imagine any graduate committee with sense would know that. :)


I have to say, 515 seems really low to be considered a touch of death number. That said, a member here claims to know someone who got into Duke (rather high end) with a score at about 50%, so a score that is not in the 80s is not the end of the the road for you. Considering that your primary concern is money, I would suggest you first budget out how much money you are willing and able to spend on applications, then decide what to do from there. Lots of tops schools is more or less redundant as you will be competing with generally the same people at all of them. If you don't make the cut at one, odds are you won't make the cut at the others. Figure out what top end schools fit you and your goals best and then apply to those. (For instance, no point in looking at NYU if you want to do Pure Math as they specialize in Probability, Number Theory and other applied maths... that is, unless you are more enamored with the idea of downtown Manhattan than you are with pure math.)

Bear in mind that getting a PhD is better than not getting a PhD and the unemployment rate of PhDs (in America) is never much higher than 2 or 3%. Be sure that you find a solid school that you can get into without a doubt (with funding, obviously) so that your pride doesn't get in the way of your future.

jplusip
Posts: 22
Joined: Mon Jun 21, 2010 12:40 pm

Re: Low subject scores - should I even bother?

Postby jplusip » Tue Nov 09, 2010 9:58 pm

Well, I was using the 515 comment since he says, "If you make a 515 or lower, then perhaps you have chosen the wrong career path."

For tippy top schools he recommends the upper 700s.


Though as I've said elsewhere, I cannot fathom how a graduate committee could honestly believe the Math GRE is remotely an indication of someone's ability to do research. If they want a test that does that they should present a handful of axioms, a handful of theorems, and tell the test taker to prove the theorems using the axioms. Thats when you would know if someone could "do mathematics", not the whole weird Calculus problems schtick.

Alexyar
Posts: 3
Joined: Tue Nov 09, 2010 1:24 pm

Re: Low subject scores - should I even bother?

Postby Alexyar » Wed Nov 10, 2010 7:42 am

Thank you all guys for your replies!
smartiful wrote:Bear in mind that it is difficult for adcoms to assess how awesome your uni grades exactly are, as they might not have a clue about the grading scale in your country, or university. Your GPA is not perfect and you're not the best student in the department, so there will be people who're -on paper - better than you.

I know, right? My profile is not bad, but not excellent, so I wanted to make up for that with glorious subject scores. Alas! When I walked out of the test I was so sure that I've got everything right and I'll be in no less than 80%...

Well, I think it's worth a try indeed, I just shouldn't put too much hope on getting into top schools

Also this:
Chapel wrote:Bear in mind that getting a PhD is better than not getting a PhD and the unemployment rate of PhDs (in America) is never much higher than 2 or 3%. Be sure that you find a solid school that you can get into without a doubt (with funding, obviously) so that your pride doesn't get in the way of your future.

An excellent advice for all lazy ambitious idiots like me :)

Now I'll start making excuses to fell less terrible about myself :)

My department was divided into 5 groups with minor differences in specialty, so I was the best in my group and I have no idea where I stand with respect to the other 4 bests.

btw, 10-point grading scale is weird indeed. It was established only a few years ago, after many decades of 5-point scale. Most professors were freaked out by the description of what "10" means that the Ministry of Education provided. Three or four of them even told us directly "I don't give 10s ever because by this description for this grade you have to have knowledge on professor's level." They actually told us that no student will ever receive the highest grade in their courses! Too bad I can't put this on the application.
Nevertheless, I had 10s in calculus, real and complex analyses (all that was in one subject called "mathematical analysis", however), ODEs, probability, numerical and functional analyses, 9s in algebra, discrete math, PDEs, and optimization methods. And an 8 in programming. Most 9's (and even two 8s) however come from courses specific to actuarial and financial math, because I found them boring as hell.

jplusip
Posts: 22
Joined: Mon Jun 21, 2010 12:40 pm

Re: Low subject scores - should I even bother?

Postby jplusip » Wed Nov 10, 2010 8:41 am

Correction:
His book says "If you can't score well on the Math GRE then perhaps you have chosen the wrong profession". And for him it seems scoring in the 700s is scoring well.

PieceOfPi
Posts: 25
Joined: Mon Aug 02, 2010 3:16 pm

Re: Low subject scores - should I even bother?

Postby PieceOfPi » Wed Nov 10, 2010 8:25 pm

jplusip wrote:Correction:
His book says "If you can't score well on the Math GRE then perhaps you have chosen the wrong profession". And for him it seems scoring in the 700s is scoring well.

When was that book written? A score of 700 before 2001 and after 2001 means almost two different things (because of the re-scaling of the exam scores).

owlpride
Posts: 204
Joined: Fri Jan 29, 2010 2:01 am

Re: Low subject scores - should I even bother?

Postby owlpride » Wed Nov 10, 2010 10:48 pm

Steven Krantz's book was published in 2003 and it does mention that the GRE was "rescaled recently". His take on the math subject GRE:

Certainly your course grades, the range and depth of courses you have taken, and your letters of recommendation are the most significant features of your graduate school application dossier. But the GRE is the great equalizer. It is an objective measure of whether your know anything. If you come from a school or a program that is unfamiliar to the Graduate Committee at the school to which you are applying, or if your background is unusual and difficult to put into context, then the GRE may play a significant role in measuring your qualifications for graduate school. [...]
A person intending to go to graduate school in mathematics should certainly score at least in the high 700's on the advanced mathematics subject area exam. As I have said elsewhere, if your score is instead in the 500's (or lower), then many eyebrows are going to be raised. The GRE is a pretty good, if not a profound, barometer of your general mathematical abilities. If you cannot score well on the GRE, then perhaps you have chosen the wrong career path.


(Note that the emphasis was his.)

jplusip
Posts: 22
Joined: Mon Jun 21, 2010 12:40 pm

Re: Low subject scores - should I even bother?

Postby jplusip » Thu Nov 11, 2010 12:49 am

Thanks owlpride! I was afraid I was butchering the guy's point. :lol:

john
Posts: 22
Joined: Sat Oct 09, 2010 4:41 pm

Re: Low subject scores - should I even bother?

Postby john » Thu Nov 11, 2010 12:55 am

Read the whole thing:

http://books.google.com/books?id=-UhhI1X87VEC&pg=PA17&lpg=PA17&dq=krantz+GRE+math&source=bl&ots=_w5vv4GxY-&sig=tvjbTYOaPMRpWTVkgsXqKaXbNl0&hl=en&ei=ckjbTMSQKcmdOpb-9fEI&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=1&sqi=2&ved=0CBMQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=krantz%20GRE%20math&f=false

Does he seriously at the end mention NOT encouraging us to study for it? Really? All we need is a good night's sleep...? I understand where's he's getting at, but those are still some strong statements. The GRE problems have a very distinctive flavor and it was awful nice to have sampled that before the actual test -- at least in my opinion anyways.

If I may be so bold, I don't think Dr. Krantz would be the best advisor regarding practicing/taking the GRE.

Chapel
Posts: 59
Joined: Mon Sep 13, 2010 11:25 pm

Re: Low subject scores - should I even bother?

Postby Chapel » Thu Nov 11, 2010 1:35 am

john wrote:If I may be so bold, I don't think Dr. Krantz would be the best advisor regarding practicing/taking the GRE.


His thought is that memorizing a bunch of theorems won't help all that much because you need to internalize the material to score well. Also his book is almost exclusive written assuming the reader will be applying to the higher end of schools. Plenty of schools don't care about GRE scores for all the expected reasons.

Krantz actually suggests that LORs are much more important than anything else if your writers are known at the school to which you are applying. The context of the "raised eyebrows" is if the readers do not know your college's curriculum and/or your recommender. It is possible for all manner of students to get good grades in math classes, but if the curriculum is inappropriate the student will not be prepared for doctoral study. He is also needlessly negative about smaller, private schools and foreign/female/minority students. (Seriously, he takes a pro-segregation stance and many of his comments seem to apply better to handicapped students than under represented minorities.)

Complaints notwithstanding, there is a lot of good stuff in the book about getting into the PhD mindset. This, I believe, is really important for writing good letters to grad schools as your "Statement of Purpose" can often be the difference between getting in and getting the boot.

john
Posts: 22
Joined: Sat Oct 09, 2010 4:41 pm

Re: Low subject scores - should I even bother?

Postby john » Thu Nov 11, 2010 1:51 am

Chapel wrote:
john wrote:If I may be so bold, I don't think Dr. Krantz would be the best advisor regarding practicing/taking the GRE.


His thought is that memorizing a bunch of theorems won't help all that much because you need to internalize the material to score well.


Yes, that's why I mentioned that I understand where he's coming from. But I still find his indifference towards studying a little strange. Why would someone not even study old exams for a few weeks before the real thing?

I read through a few of the other sections. While the advice seems sound, I think he comes off as a slight elitist.

owlpride
Posts: 204
Joined: Fri Jan 29, 2010 2:01 am

Re: Low subject scores - should I even bother?

Postby owlpride » Thu Nov 11, 2010 11:04 am

Krantz does not object to familiarizing yourself with the test ahead of time and neither does he discourage students from filling gaps in their knowledge. I think what he says is, "If you know all of the material on the exam, then doing endless practice problems won't get you very far because the exam is measuring your innate ability to do mathematics." Needless to say, I disagree with him on this.

On the other hand, the book is written for students who are aspiring a research career in mathematics. Whether we like it or not, most of us will end up teaching or leave academia. Maybe he is correct that students who have the potential for a successful research career do not ordinarily struggle on the GRE.

jplusip
Posts: 22
Joined: Mon Jun 21, 2010 12:40 pm

Re: Low subject scores - should I even bother?

Postby jplusip » Thu Nov 11, 2010 12:04 pm

I just cannot see how the Math GRE says much of anything about one's ability to do research. There are so many factors involved with the thing (time limit, pressure, etc.) that aren't generally present while a professor is say, sitting on the beaches of Rio doing work on the Poincare' Conjecture (which got Smale a Fields Medal).

So basically, doing poorly means one of two things:
1. You aren't a good test taker or were having a bad day.
or
2. You don't know much mathematics in terms of whats on the test.

I don't think either says much about an individuals innate mathematical abilities however.

john
Posts: 22
Joined: Sat Oct 09, 2010 4:41 pm

Re: Low subject scores - should I even bother?

Postby john » Thu Nov 11, 2010 12:51 pm

See now, it looks like he was talking about the basic GRE when he mentioned familiarizing and preparing yourself for the exam, etc. At least that's how I interpreted that paragraph, the second to last one on page 17. I am equating "basic" and "general." Fair? If so, his attitude towards the subject exam in the next paragraph seems a bit cavalier.

His advice doesn't seem to be geared towards people from non-standard, less-than-ideal backgrounds. But, after all, his opinion is only one among many. There are lots of places to find advice on making mathematics a career (one I am particularly fond of is Terrence Tao's more optimistic blog), so if you don't like what he has to say, then there are plenty of other soucres.

The difficult part is that we're all undergrads, we're all a bit young and naive, and we have to choose who to trust, choose whose advice is most relevent to our own situations and goals.

owlpride
Posts: 204
Joined: Fri Jan 29, 2010 2:01 am

Re: Low subject scores - should I even bother?

Postby owlpride » Thu Nov 11, 2010 2:00 pm

I see where you are coming from, but the sentence "If your undergraduate background has obvious gaps then perhaps you really will have to study." makes a lot more sense in reference to the subject test than the general one.

Though I fully agree with your statement about choosing who to trust. We don't have much to gain from Krantz' advice at this point.

john
Posts: 22
Joined: Sat Oct 09, 2010 4:41 pm

Re: Low subject scores - should I even bother?

Postby john » Thu Nov 11, 2010 5:30 pm

Yeah, I had to reread what he said a couple times, and I'm still not sure if he's referring to the subject exam or the general exam... everybody needs to adopt a standard set of terminology!

My final point being (and tying it back to the OP) that a bombed GRE is not the end-all of your budding career in mathematics. We're all math majors, right? We've all worked too hard to come this far only to be denied by a set of 66 questions stuffed into 3 hours. Look at it as a speed-bump, nothing else. To throw all your dreams and aspirations out the window because of a bad GRE would be pure, one-hundred-percent lunacy.

Personally, I can burn myself out very quickly with this sort of stuff. The obsession over the big schools, the dread and worry over the GRE, the anxiousness, the nervousness, the desperation. Am I going to get in anywhere?!?! Ah!

I frequently need to remind myself to keep the fun in mathematics. This grad school application junk sucks the fun right out of everything. It helps to take a step back in order to clear your head and get it back in the right place.

jplusip
Posts: 22
Joined: Mon Jun 21, 2010 12:40 pm

Re: Low subject scores - should I even bother?

Postby jplusip » Thu Nov 11, 2010 6:07 pm

^^^^^^^^^

Brilliantly put! :)




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