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HORRIBLE PGRE score, 4.0 GPA - Grad School a Possibility?

  1. Nov 2, 2012 #1
    Hey everyone,

    I am really nervous about my PGRE score. I scored in the bottom 5%. I am in the National Guard and so I am stuck staying in Texas. I wanted to apply to the condensed matter programs at Texas A&M, UT Austin, and Rice. I attend a state school up in Wisconsin right now. Here are my stats:

    GPA: 4.0 (overall and in physics, math degree)

    Q: 161
    V: 157

    I had one summer of summer research at a school in Colorado, the rest of the summers I was at military training. During this summer, however, I did do really well and part of my research ended up in a publication. I won an award for having the best presentation of my work, and my PI said that he would like to write me a letter of recommendation. I know that I will have very good letters from my own school as well. I have tons of extra curricular activities, including being a tutor at the Math Help Center, that I did while maintaining a good GPA - I just can't memorize all the equations and do everything so quickly. My upper level courses have been challenging with homework assignments and exams, but I do a much better job doing challenging problem sets than having to memorize random equations. I really enjoy doing research and spend an average of 20 hours extra per week in lab during my advanced lab course.

    I am so worried about applying for graduate school. Rice and UT Austin have average PGRE scores well above 700. Is a low PGRE a game ender? Should I just apply for materials science instead even though it's not *really* what I want to do?
  2. jcsd
  3. Nov 2, 2012 #2

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    5% in the PGRE is really, really low. I think it will raise eyebrows no matter which department you will apply to. You should retake it. If you score well, you're set. If you still end up at 5%, you are simply not ready for graduate school and need to fix that first.
  4. Nov 2, 2012 #3


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    Im a bit unsure how you managed to score that low with that high of a gpa. Do you know what went wrong?
  5. Nov 2, 2012 #4
    I might have been off a row, to be honest. =P

    But like, even so, I doubt I'll get anywhere above 15-20%. As I said, I'm just not a good memorizer and I typically can't come up with the "right" method straight away.
  6. Nov 2, 2012 #5
    I'm not sure how you could have a 4.0 GPA then...
    For sure, the GRE is very different from normal coursework. But I don't get how you can get a 4.0 GPA without having to memorize and without being able to come up with the right method fast...
  7. Nov 3, 2012 #6
    Did you do any preparation for it? The PGRE is all about speed and memorization, mostly from material of the 100 and 200 levels. If you went in there planning to attack the way you would an upper level HW set or exam, I can see how you'd mess up. Take it again or apply to schools that don't require it, if you're sure you're ready for the coursework.
  8. Nov 3, 2012 #7
    GPA really isn't that important. Most schools inflate their GPA anyways. The GRE is definitely what counts, and yes I don't think you'll get in anywhere with a score that low.

    I think if you really want to make it to grad school you need to study and re-take it, and try to get a score in the mid 600's at least.
  9. Nov 3, 2012 #8
    So why would the military (or National Guard) want you?

    Honestly I find your story hard to believe in that your GRE scores are on par with that of an 8th grader.

    What degree did you graduate with?
  10. Nov 3, 2012 #9


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    Because the more people you have to fill sandbags the easier it is to fill sandbags. Duh.

    But on a serious note, you obviously have to retake your PGRE. I'm not a physics major nor did I apply to physics grad school, so you'll have to ask or research what is an acceptable lowerbound for the PGRE. Nevertheless, I do believe you should have the ability to reach that, and if you honestly don't believe you can, then I might rethink this whole PhD thing. Especially when you consider you'll have a few more test like this in the near future (Think along the lines of Quals...)
  11. Nov 3, 2012 #10
    First of all, I can't believe you would even imply that National Guardsmen are only worth "filling sandbags." I have never been such blatant disrespect anywhere. Also, questioning my integrity is stupid. Why would I make something up on a discussion forum? Of course this is my situation.

    Second, I'm not convinced that my GPA is at all "inflated", since I have attended three different schools (one of them being a prestigious undergraduate institution), and have received a 4.0 from each institution.

    I am graduating Cumma Sum Laude with physics and math degrees, with a minor in military science. I was actually ranked in the top 10% of all military graduates in the nation. I have never had a professor who said that he's concerned about my readiness for graduate school and in fact most have said that I am one of the "best" students they have seen in years. I don't really understand why I can't do well on the PGRE, either, and it's about as puzzling for me as it is for you. I actually skipped all the intro courses because I ended up deciding to be a physics major after my sophomore year (and was on a four year contract with the military to get my education), so that could also be an explanation as to why I have a hard time recognizing everything straight away. For instance, I see a pendulum and I automatically want to do the Lagrangian even though there is probably a simpler method taught in intro physics that I never actually learned.

    On our exams in class, we get an hour to answer 5 questions that are all within a related topic, not a random grab bag of 100 questions that we need to answer in 2 hours and some minutes. That's how I am able to do well in school - boundary conditions and whatnot aren't particularly difficult because I'm good at math, etc. I wasn't really able to devote much time to the PGRE because of the research that I was doing at the time, on top of having an impossible course load. I'm taking it again next week, but am not expecting to do much better.
  12. Nov 3, 2012 #11


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    No, I didn't imply that, you inferred that for some reason. It was a joke. Calm down. It was a reference to military life. As a (former) 11C I spent a great amount of time filling sandbags and well filling more sandbags. Don't be so sensitive, you're in the military, act like it.

    The hardest part about any subject gre is the time constraint. Really, the only method I know to study for test like these are to study for the test. Practice previous exams, learn the common tricks that exist on test like these, and then make tactical 'guesses'. I believe the crux of your low score is simple though. If you didn't spend much time actually studying for the exam, it makes sense that you wouldn't reach your full potential. It's like any standardalize test, part of it is just learning how to take it.
  13. Nov 3, 2012 #12

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    You need to retake this test. It doesn't matter that you don't think your 4.0s were inflated. The committee will - especially if you don't retake the test. They will not conclude that you really know the material and just have trouble with multiple-choice tests, because your respectable scores on the General portion show otherwise.

    And while people will readily admit that the PGRE is contrived, it's not completely worthless. If someone says "particle in a box", every grad student is expected to be able to write down the wavefunction and energies in the time it takes to write them.
  14. Nov 3, 2012 #13
    The solution is simple. Take a freshman physics book, a GRE practice book or whatever you want and work through it. Make exercise after exercise until your sick of it and know the formulas inside out. Then you will get a respectable score on the GRE.

    It's a lot of work. But if you don't put in the work, then your GRE might always be a stumbling book for grad school.
  15. Nov 3, 2012 #14


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    I agree. By the time you're finished with a bachelor's degree, you're expected to have the fundamentals from freshman physics down cold. Now that you've actually taken the PGRE, you have an idea of what sort of things they're looking for. One of the practice exams will also help here. Focus on those topics as you're going through Halliday & Resnick or whatever.
  16. Nov 3, 2012 #15


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    That sounds like your problem. "Knowing how to derive anything from first principles" ##\ne## "Knowing some basic facts".

    As a trivial mathematical example, you might well be able to find half a dozen different experssions equal to ##\sin 2x##. But the purpose of the test is to demonstrate you know that ##\sin 2x = 2 \sin x \cos x##, not that you know how to prove it.
  17. Nov 3, 2012 #16

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    Of course, one solution is to apply to schools that don't require the PGRE (I think this is exclusively international schools).

    I'm just as confused as the rest of the forum. Nobody thinks thinks that the PGRE tests you on material that you'll need in grad school, but if you really want to get into grad school and you have the ability to get a 4.0 in respectable undergrad programs, then you should have the ability to get more than 15 out of 100 freshman physics problems correct in the course of almost three hours. If you're really not willing to put in the time to accomplish that, it doesn't sound like you're taking this seriously.
  18. Nov 3, 2012 #17
    You're a physics major with a 4.0 GPA yet on the PGRE which, from what I took, comprises mostly of basic physics. I took a sample test and scored in the 85 percentile (890) and I am in my last semester of sophomore physics. I don't get how you have a 4.0 GPA, graduated, yet scored that low on a test.

    Something is very off here. How did you get a 4.0 GPA?
  19. Nov 3, 2012 #18
    How bad did you think you did on the PGRE?

    Was it just a bad day? Did you end up marking the exam incorrectly?
  20. Nov 4, 2012 #19
    If you cannot improve your score to at least 30 or so there is a real risk you will get in nowhere.
  21. Nov 4, 2012 #20


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    Although people are still posting in this thread, I doubt that charlottei is still following the thread.

    Anyway, this piqued my interest. I wanted to see if the exam really required lots of memorization, and whether the time limit was really so tight as to be onerous. I have a PhD in physics and teach at a community college. However, I have never liked memorization and have always studiously avoided it -- e.g., I don't know all the factors of 4pi in Maxwell's equations, don't know the sign conventions in optics, and don't know the sign in Lenz's law. I did the first 20 questions of the practice test http://www.ets.org/gre/subject/about/content/physics as fast as I could. It took me 13.1 min to do them, which is an average speed of 0.7 minutes per question. The real exam allows 1.7 minutes per question. While I was writing down my answers, I made a note next to each question that I felt required memorization. These were 6, 8, and 18. As it turned out, I got all three of those three questions wrong, and the other 17 right. My raw score of 85% makes a scaled score in the 95th percentile. Heck, that's probably scandalously bad for a physics professor :-)

    But anyway, I simply do not believe the claim that this test requires either excessive speed or excessive memorization. It is certainly true that many of the questions can be done by having memorized a formula, but of those same questions, almost all can be done by understanding basic principles. For example, the one on the r.m.s. speed of molecules in a gas can be done by memorizing a formula, but it can also be done simply by knowing equipartition; the one on the electric field of a charged wire can be done by understanding the form of Gauss's law, without knowing the factors of 4pi; the one on the Bohr model can be done by knowing the de Broglie relation; etc.

    Maybe I'm understanding wrong, but did the OP get a score in the 5th percentile? To get a score in the 5th percentile, one would have to get a raw score of 14%, i.e., only 3 questions right out of the 20 I tried. That's simply not a reasonable level of competence for someone who wants to go to grad school in physics. For example, I don't think any physics major who had finished lower-division coursework in physics should get any wrong answers on the first 5 questions on the exam.
    Last edited: Nov 4, 2012
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