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Best Majors for GRE Scores: Still Physics and Philosophy

Fall is just around the corner, and that means many college seniors will soon face an enemy more daunting than senioritis itself: the Graduate Record Examinations. Many schools require GRE test scores for admission to their graduate programs, and the tests are supposed to be one of the most objective measures of prospective students.

GRE scores can make or break a graduate school application, so how should students prepare? Although there are a plethora of study books and materials available, decisions made freshman year may determine your score more than your cramming habits weeks before the test.

Ever year, the Educational Testing Service — the organization behind the GRE — releases scores for the general test and categorizes them by the test takers' intended graduate major. Although the GRE made significant revisions to the test this academic year, one fact remains: Physics and philosophy students still rocked the test. Physics majors tied for first in the math section, and philosophy students topped the verbal and writing sections.

Physicists even beat most majors in the verbal and writing sections — a measure of physics majors' stereotypically weak communication skills. Maybe physicists are more well-rounded than pop culture suggests.
The quantitative reasoning section measures mathematical ability and data interpretation skills. The score scale ranges from 130-170. Data from ETS (PDF) for August 2011-April 2012.

The quantitative section has problems covering relatively basic math (for a physics major at least) such as algebra, number comparisons and graphical interpretations.

Physics requires substantial knowledge of mathematics, so physics majors unsurprisingly topped the charts in the quantitative section. They weren't alone, however; physics majors tied math majors and materials engineers for the highest average score. (Note: In all of these graphs, I chose seven majors in different areas of study to give a fairly representative picture of the score distributions. These are not the top seven majors.)

The verbal section requires students to fill in the blank for sentences and answer comprehension questions about short passages, among other problems. The score scale ranges from 130-170. Data from ETS (PDF) for August 2011-April 2012.

Physicists have a way with numbers, but they also fared pretty well on the verbal section, beating all other science and engineering majors. Philosophy majors excelled in this category, beating English students by three points.

The analytical writing section requires two essays: an analysis of a flawed argument and a more general position paper on an issue. Scores range from 0-6 in half-point increments. Data from ETS (PDF) for August 2011-April 2012.

Half of the analytical writing section requires students to find the flaws in an argument, likely contributing to the philosophy majors' #1 spot. But physicists' training in analytical thinking helped them too. Physics majors beat all of the other hard science majors in this section, and they even beat several liberal arts majors as well. Computer science majors seem to prefer writing code to writing essays.

The GRE's may not be the best test of intellect or even success in graduate school, but we can pretend that it is. Consequently, physicists and philosophers reign supreme in academia, and those who majored in both areas (such as myself) must be the smartest people on the planet. That's a sound argument, right?

Maybe not. But I would argue that physics majors develop several skills that prepare them for a variety of careers outside of physics research. I wouldn't suggest picking your major solely based on how well it will prepare you for the GRE's, but there's plenty of other reasons to study physics.


If you want to keep up with Hyperspace, AKA Brian, you can follow him on Twitter.


  1. Nice Post about GRE Scores it will help students.

  2. A number of your comments, like about picking a major to prepare for GREs, are about undergraduate majors. But you don't present any data on that. Instead you've got intended *graduate* major. But some Physics majors will apply for a grad school major in Engineering, for instance, and some math majors for Physics. It could well be that Physics is pushed into the highest position just by virtue of the Math, Engineering, and Philosophy majors applying to it. So it's not clear how well this reflects on undergrad majors.

    1. You make a fair point, Chris E. Sometimes, people do switch fields of study between their undergraduate studies and graduate school.

      However, 94% of domestic (U.S.) first year physics graduate students have a bachelor's degree in physics or astronomy. Also, 91% of international first year graduate students in physics have a bachelor's degree in physics or astronomy. Consequently, I suspect that the vast majority of test takers with physics as an intended graduate field of study have a bachelor's degree in physics. Source: (See table 3)

      On the other hand, about one third of physics students who go to graduate school study something other than physics (mostly engineering). So for other intended graduate majors (e.g. engineering), the connection between undergraduate and graduate majors may not be as strong.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

  4. So if on the quantitative part it's 161-153 in favor of physicists, on the verbal 160-156 in favor of philosophers, and on the analytic writing 4.4 to 4.0 in favor of philosophers, how do we calculate grand totals for physicists vs. philosophers to see who comes out on top overall?

    --A competitive philosopher, who respects physicists enough to want to tell everyone we do better than them

  5. @Anonymous 08/30/12 10:06 PM EDT

    So... If Physics > Philosophy on the quantitative section, but Philosophy > Physics on both the analytical writing and the verbal reasoning sections, then doesn't Philosophy win by a score of 2-1?


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