A GRE postmortem

A GRE postmortem January 6, 2021


No, not an election postmortem — I don’t believe there is appropriate data that could help identify whether, for instance, droves of Republicans really did stay home by getting suckered into the belief that this somehow made sense as a way of fighting against lizard people, at least not at this point in time.  A GRE postmortem because one of my projects over the past month has been applying to graduate school.

Yes, again.

Readers who pay careful attention will know that I was in a Ph.D. program in medieval history immediately after graduating college.  In fact, it is one of the great ironies of my life decisions that I was a “Madison major” in college, that is, a public policy major at the James Madison College at Michigan State.  I started taking history courses and added that as a double-major but, as it happened, one of the requirements for the Madison College program was spending an academic term at an internship, and I wasn’t happy about having to either forgo a quarter (they were on quarters then) of regular classes or pay the added expenses of a summer internship (as one needed to pay 15 credits of tuition, in addition to self-funding living expenses, as internships were generally unpaid).  Now, I had very little idea of what I could do for a living as a newly minted public policy graduate — friends who had graduated before me seemed to be going to law school or business school after, neither of which I was interested in — but the path forward as a history major seemed pretty clear:  get a Ph.D. and teach at a university.  Heck, my (history) advisor was even sharing information about fellowships, which had statements along the lines of “we need to prepare new Ph.D.s because there will be a wave of retirements from the prior wave of new hires for professors hired to teach the Baby Boomers.”  And at any rate the path to a Ph.D. was eased by free tuition and a stipend.

So I dropped the Madison major and shifted my intentions.  Would it have made a difference if I had had a greater knowledge of options available?  Dunno.  (And yes, I met my husband while in grad school and we’re happily married but — sorry, honey — I don’t believe that we all have a single “soulmate”; our lives would have taken different paths had we not met but I don’t believe that one can say that we each wouldn’t have found some other spouse and have had similarly satisfactory lives.  And, yes, just the other day a Bloomberg columnist shared on twitter a graph that suggests that my undergrad years were actually a brief period of labor shortage in academia, in history at least, so my advisors weren’t making this up out of whole cloth.)

But now, having left grad school and the highly uncertain job prospects even if I’d gotten that Ph.D., and having spent 20 years working as an actuary instead, and trying to find my way in something more freelancer-y, I am realizing that there are a number of topics in the area of retirement research where I want to be the one proposing answers rather than just sharing information others have provided.  Or, rather, I want my proposals to be backed by research rather than just “this seems right to me.”  And that means an economics Ph.D., even though I will have to work hard to make it be the kind of economics study that I am interested in at a time when my working understanding of the field is that economists in academic have shifted the emphasis of the field over the past several decades to a heavy emphasis on theory and very high level math.  My periodic checks on the new working papers at the National Bureau of Economic Research suggests that the field has even come to define the practice of “economics” as “the use of data sets and statistical analysis to draw conclusions” rather than having anything to do with the economy; for instance, new this week in the working papers are “Political Parties as Drivers of U.S. Polarization: 1927-2018” and “History’s Masters: The Effect of European Monarchs on State Performance,” which is about the consequences of inbreeding.  And something wonky that I only learned in looking into Ph.D. programs is that economics students don’t write dissertations as I know them or tried to write 25 years ago, as a book-length research project, but instead combine three papers into a volume they call “Essays in [Name of Subfield].”

But nonetheless, I decided that it was quite possibly the right next step — and, after all, the time was right, as my youngest is headed into high school next fall.  At the same time, there were only two economics programs to which I could realistically apply, having no plans to relocate, one at the state school in the city, and the other, at the suburban private college that’s a reasonable commute — though the latter was/is something of a long shot in terms of their selectivity.  Really I don’t know if either of them will give me an honest consideration as there’s a big difference between saying, “age discrimination is wrong” and actually putting that into practice in your own acceptance procedures, and its a very easy thing to say, “we’re not discriminating on the basis of age, we’re just discriminating on the basis of how very long ago it was that she had academic coursework,” because it is my understanding that this is one of the excuses employers have, that is, that they are following the letter of the law so long as they give equal consideration to a 50 year old and a 25 year old, each of whom has just graduated college.

So I put together applications.  I requested transcripts.  I wrote a Personal Statement.  I requested letters of recommendation (yes, that’s another iffy one; no professors to write glowingly about my academic skill as in my first round).  I even dug through old papers to find my original GRE scores from 30 years ago.  And then I signed up for the GRE and checked a book out from the library to study for it, making a few notes on some forgotten geometry (30-60-90 triangles, anyone?).

Now, I learned quickly that “this is not your father’s GRE.”

In 1991, there were three sections, Verbal, Quantitative, and Analytical; the last of these was, I believe logic-type questions and it must have played to my abilities because my score was an 800 vs. a 730/97th percentile for Verbal and a 770/93rd for Quantitative.

Now the Analytical section is gone instead there’s a writing section, with two half-hour essays that are supposed to emphasize your analytical skill as well as overall writing abilities.

And not only is the whole thing computer-based (not a surprise) but it offers the ability to take it at home with online proctoring that involves webcam access.  The online proctoring system isn’t perfect — each of the two times I took it (I’ll get to that) there were system hiccups in which, the first time, it kept defaulting to an external webcam that no longer existed, and the second time, it couldn’t connect to the integrated webcam but kept defaulting to it even after I had connected an external webcam — in both cases meaning that I didn’t start taking the exam until 45 minutes or more past the official start time.

But beyond that, the online proctoring requires that one use a whiteboard rather than scratch paper, and I was wholly unprepared for this.  Honestly, even reading the information when signing up for the second time (again, more on this in a few paragraphs) I did not see anything saying, “you must use a whiteboard.”  As it happened, when the proctor said, “no you can’t have scratch paper, only a whiteboard,” I was taking the exam in my son’s bedroom at his desk as the most suitable spot in the house, so I yanked the whiteboard off his wall and used the dry erase marker that was sitting there, but it was a bear trying to take a math exam using this, especially without having prepared for it.

The outcome:  a 168 on the verbal, a 160 on the math, and a 5.0 on the writing.

Yes, you’d think I’d have done better on the writing, but I admit that I didn’t do a lot of prep for it, and I think that had I dug into it more, I’d have found more prep around writing to the rubric.  Some sample essays I found later seem to suggest, without explicitly saying so, that being verbose (wordy) is a boost, and leave me wondering whether one element in the rubric is a simple word count.

The verbal?  Well, I can’t complain about that score, to be sure.  It is striking to me that it’s supposed to measure knowledge of vocabulary in context as well as logical reasoning, interpretation of text, comprehension, etc., but my sense was that it also measures knowledge of the American social environment, culture, politics, and history, in being able to place items in context.  Two standard types of questions are a multi-part fill-in-the-blank and a fill-in-the-blank with pairs of synonyms, and both of these were as much about “what do I know to be the right answer based on my knowledge of the world around me?” as “what words fit based on my knowledge of English-language vocabulary?” which left me feeling that my ability to do well on this section was boosted by my having lived 30 years of an adult life outside of college, having read widely, etc. — though, at the same time, the percentile score of that GRE was not meaningfully different than the prior one.

But the math?  Yeah, not good, and it’s especially important to have a high math GRE score for the long-shot program I applied to, but also useful for getting funding for the state-school one.  And what’s a particular nuisance is that this is not hard math.  My sense is that the SAT’s math is actually harder; in the GRE there are a few extra topics (they toss in a question about standard deviation periodically, for example) but they also have a number of questions that are fundamentally about logical reasoning, both in terms of reasoning through questions with inequalities or absolute values, and through questions which are structured to trip one up with unexpected tricks or which require thinking through patterns, etc.

So I signed up for another test, to be taken just a few days after the 21-day delay restriction expired, and also timed to be just after the kids went back to school.  I found out that my youngest son had a letter-paper-sized whiteboard from school which was much easier to work with, and I purchased a set of ultra-fine dry-erase pens, and I worked out sample problems on areas I was weak with or, rather, could solve, but not quickly enough, and simply took a bunch of practice tests.  I was able to get to a point where I was finishing with enough time to spare to check my work, and was able to work through the problems on that single side of the whiteboard so that I could refer back to do that checking.  I couldn’t quite get the math score up as high as I wanted it to be — no matter what, I would end up with a couple mistakes — but I hoped that my prior history with doing well on tests would mean that in the testing environment I would be able to push myself to find those mistakes.

Alas, it was not to be.  Or, rather, I boosted my verbal score up to a 170, but that just didn’t matter.  My math score was what mattered, and I only increased that by 3 points, not high enough, based on the preliminary scoring, because the second section (which is, in the nature of how the exam works, harder than the first) included a few problems of a type I hadn’t seen before, which threw me off, and I struggled to complete the exam and guessed on a few rather than finishing in time to go back and solve.  If somehow it was possible to use some of the time on the verbal section that I didn’t need, to shift over to the quantitative, or even to use the leftover time from the first quantitative, on the second, it would have helped.  And whether it was just bad luck that there was a set of problems that I was blanking on, or whether I just don’t have the mental flexibility any longer to adapt to different but entirely solveable problems, I don’t know.  It might even be that in a different context than three hours into a computer-based exam (preceded by some truly-stressful system set-up), I would not have perceived of these as difficult problems at all (one of them I worked out in the middle of the next verbal section and it was a simple matter of finding and applying a pattern).  But it’s frustrating as heck that a section of an exam that requires solving simply but “trick” math problems quickly has a good chance of being a roadblock to a Ph.D. program.

As a side note, I am also curious as to how the increasing numbers of foreign students taking the GRE has affected the scores over time.  The Verbal 730 I got 30 years ago, according to a conversion scale published by the GRE, would convert to a 168 now, or a 98th percentile, which is funny in that, yes, I said just a few paragraphs prior that I had the sense that 30 years of adult-lifetime reading boosted my score above what it otherwise would have been.  The 770 in math in 1991 would have converted to a 161 or an 80th percentile.  According to more recent percentile rankings, however, it takes a 163 to get to an 80th percentile — but in 2016 that same 163 would have merited an 84th percentile.  Does this mean anything?  I don’t know.

And, in any case, I really don’t know how much credence the admissions folk will give to my FSA credential.  Will they see it as evidence of ability to do hard math?  Will they be impressed at the self-study it requires?  Or will it be unfamiliar enough to them that they won’t have any kind of a sense of the significance.

So that’s my ramble, as much about making myself feel better and trying to do a sort of processing that I find sometimes helps to move beyond a disappointing event, as it is about trying to get the Big Pageview Counts.

How’s your new year going?

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