Monday, August 11, 2014

Best GRE Scores by Major — 2014 Edition

It's back to school season, and for many aspiring graduate students, it's standardized testing season. Future lawyers have the LSAT; doctors have the MCAT; but many graduate programs require a more general test: the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE).

Educational Testing Service (ETS), the company behind the GRE, administers a general test (with three sections) and a slew of section tests for areas ranging from physics to psychology.

The general test remains the most popular of ETS's offerings among both test-takers and admissions officers. And each year, ETS releases more data about how test-takers fared based on their intended graduate area of study.

As fans of friendly competition, we've compiled the data from the past three years into charts to arm those seeking bragging rights for their particular graduate school major. ETS has data for each section of the general test: Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, and Analytical Writing. After checking out the data, be sure to note the caveats at the end of this post.

Note: Henceforth, any reference to "majors" or "students" (e.g. "philosophy major" or "economics student") will be referring to a student's intended graduate major because that is how ETS collects their data. While one's intended graduate major often correlates strongly with one's undergraduate major, they are definitely not necessarily one and the same; there's more on this in the caveats listed at the end of this post.

Verbal Reasoning


The verbal reasoning section primarily tests students' vocabulary and reading comprehension. When I reflect on taking this section, I fondly remember the esoteric words I had to learn, like soporific — meaning "causing or tending to cause sleep" and "of, related to, or marked by sleepiness."

Admissions officers for degrees in the arts and humanities tend to place more weight on this section than on other sections.

Data for tests taken between August 1, 2011, and April 30, 2014. These are simply a broad selection of intended graduate majors and do not necessarily represent the top 8 majors. For all intended majors, see the data courtesy of ETS.

Philosophy, as in previous years, was a clear winner in this category; the next highest-ranked major — the "other" category under ETS's Arts & Humanities section — scored a full two points below philosophy on average. As a physics blog, we have to give props to the aspiring physicists out there who scored an average of 156 on this section, beating out all other hard science majors (and many liberal arts majors).

For the verbal section, a 152 is the 50th percentile score, and the scores follow a mostly normal distribution. For reference, the average philosophy score on this section would be 84th percentile overall (the mean philosophy score was better than 84 percent of all test takers' scores).


Quantitative Reasoning


The quantitative reasoning section tests algebraic, geometric, and data analysis skills. In recent years, ETS has tried to focus more of this section on data analysis, particularly making inferences from charts and graphs. Scoring well on this section matters most to STEM students and some soft science majors (such as economics).

Data for tests taken between August 1, 2011, and April 30, 2014. These are simply a broad selection of intended graduate majors and do not necessarily represent the top 8 majors. For all intended majors, see the data courtesy of ETS.

There's no clear winner for quantitative reasoning; it's crowded near the top. Nonetheless, mathematics students and materials engineering students tied for first.

For the quantitative section, a 153 is the 50th percentile score, and the scores follow a mostly normal distribution. The average score for math majors, for instance, was 162 — the 83rd percentile for all test takers.

Analytical Writing


Finally, the analytical writing section requires two written responses in contrast to the multiple choice verbal and quantitative sections. One prompt in the analytical writing section requires test takers to dissect a logical argument while the other prompt asks students to take a stand on an open-ended issue.

Data for tests taken between August 1, 2011, and April 30, 2014. These are simply a broad selection of intended graduate majors and do not necessarily represent the top 8 majors. For all intended majors, see the data courtesy of ETS.


Once again, philosophy majors stepped out in front with a 4.4 average score on this section (the scores range from 0 to 6 in half-point increments). Political science and religion/theology majors came in second tied with an average score of 4.2.

The 50th percentile on this section sits between a 3.5 and 4.0, but a 4.5 jumps up to 80th percentile. A full 42 percent of students score between a 3.5 and a 4.5, and the distribution looks like it's a little bit different than the other two sections, partly because the scale of possible scores is smaller. There's 13 possible scores  on this section (0-6 in half-point increments) vs. 41 possible scores on the other two sections (130-170 ranges).

Caveats


As mentioned earlier and in previous posts on our blog about GRE scores, these data represent intended graduate major, not necessarily undergraduate major. Nonetheless, there's often a strong correlation between undergraduate major and graduate area of study. In physics, for instance, 94 percent of domestic graduate students studied physics or astronomy as undergraduates (source, see table 3).

This percentage, of course, likely differs for other majors, however, and some graduate majors are largely not taught at the undergraduate level. Notwithstanding, I suspect there's a pretty strong correlation between undergraduate and graduate major most of the time.

Additionally, as we mentioned last year when we wrote about GRE scores, correlation does not mean causation. While philosophy classes' focus on logic and argumentation likely helped many of those intending to pursue graduate studies in philosophy, there's probably a selection bias as well. Many philosophy students may have already had a strong interest in logic and persuasive writing before enrolling in philosophy classes, for instance.

Finally, different graduate school departments weigh the importance of the GRE differently. If a student knows that his admission does not depend heavily on GRE scores, he won't study as hard.

Similarly, as commenter Anne noted in our post last year, some areas of study are much smaller and more selective. Consequently, advisers of undergraduate students may only encourage the very best students to pursue a graduate education, thus limiting the pool of test takers from some majors to only the best students from that major.

But I do believe that one's undergraduate experience and course selection can have a significant impact on one's GRE scores. That's certainly not the only factor, however; studying for the test, natural ability, and stress tolerance all play a role in one's GRE success as well.

To all GRE test-takers this fall, best of luck! Don't forget to brush up on those all-important vocab word lists.

2 comments:

  1. You note that some of the difference in scores might reflect self-selection. This study apparently (I've read just the abstract) finds that GRE Verbal scores are about what you'd expect from SAT Verbal scores, irrespective of undergraduate major. But it also finds that undergraduate major does have an impact on GRE Quant scores. (The Analytical score discussed is for a multiple-choice section no longer offered, not for the Analytical Writing test.) http://www.ets.org/research/policy_research_reports/publications/report/1988/hwsp

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  2.  GRE exam is a requirement for admission in such programs i.e. Masters, PhD etc. But no where in the world..., they use it to grade your PhD or your working during PhD.

    success in gre test

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