Monday, August 11, 2008

CS Grad School Part 2: Standardized Tests

The GRE, or the Great Required Exam, is what it sounds like--except not Great. For computer science grad students, the general test is required and the subject test is highly recommended.

General exam: As of the time I took the exam September 2007, the GRE general test had three parts: math, verbal, and analytical (in which you write a really short essay). It is generally a computer-based test, which means that during the math and verbal sections the questions you get depend on the questions you've answered correctly so far. It also means that you can't return to your previously answered questions. This is meant to throw you off, but if you are confident and prepared for such a test you should be fine. There are also paper versions of the GRE general test that are offered a couple of times a year and require registering years (probably months) in advance. I recommend sucking it up and taking the computer-based exam.

I don't have much to say about the content of the GRE general test, except:
  1. Math matters,
  2. Verbal doesn't matter, and
  3. Writing may matter, but we are agnostic.
The math is SAT/high-school level math; if you are applying to a top CS school you should try to get an 800. Getting an 800 on the GRE is easier (in some senses) than getting an 800 on the SAT because they allow more wrong answers or something like that. The verbal score actually matters nothing, I believe, but I read through a vocabulary book because I hate doing poorly on things. (The vocabulary is quite a bit more advanced than that on the SAT, but the questions are the same structure. I spent 2-ish weeks going through a Kaplan vocabulary book and the corresponding exercises and got 750 out of 800.) The way I recommend preparing for this exam is acquiring a GRE book and going through a couple of practice exams to make sure you know what the test is about. When you register for the GRE they will send you a CD with a couple of practice exams. For this reason, I recommend registering early.

Subject test: A subject test in computer science, math, or physics is strongly recommended when applying to most top CS PhD programs. An important thing to note is that strongly recommended != required. I believe the only thing for which the score was required was for the National Department of Defense Fellowship, which is hard to get and which I didn't get. (This means that Berkeley, Stanford, MIT, UPenn, UW, CMU, and the NSF fellowship did not require it.) One of my professors, Radhika Nagpal, gave me this advice: look over a practice test and take the exam if you think you'll do well. You don't want schools to have anything to worry about, and a low score could cause them to worry. Following this advice, I didn't do a whole lot to prepare for the exam, took the exam, got an unsatisfactory score and withheld it from all schools except the one fellowship that required it. I ended up getting into all of my schools and getting the NSF fellowship, providing proof that the subject test score is actually not required.

I must note, however, I had the luxury of having recommenders who were known in the CS community and could vouch for the fact that I knew things. I think if you did not major in computer science, are coming from a less well-known institution, or have questionable grades your CS GRE score counts a lot more. The day before I took the exam, I discovered this study guide by a guy who did not major in computer science and felt like his subject test score of 800 convinced the admissions committees that he knew things. (I suggest taking a look at the study guide; I didn't discover it until far too late.)  NOTE: The questions on this study guide are, as some may put it, "unnecessarily evil."  You may find it helpful to Google actual past exams and look at those.  Most of those sorts of questions you can answer by doing arithmetic and thinking quickly.

This is one of my "applying to grad school" blog posts.
  1. Deciding to Apply
  2. Standardized Tests
  3. Fellowships
  4. Applications
  5. School Visits
  6. Some notes on picking grad schools/advisors
  7. FAQ: Applying to Graduate School for Computer Science
You may also be interested in these blog posts I have written:


Claire said...

Can you tell I'm stalking your blog?

I wanted to note that the notion that the verbal section of the GRE "doesn't matter" may be flawed - some studies (waves hands; doesn't actually have cites) have suggested that the *only* number on a (CS? science/engineering? I forget) grad student's application that has any predictive relationship with whether she'll complete a PhD program is her verbal score. I have also heard, anecdotaly (sp?), that because all applicants to CS grad programs have perfect-or-close-to-perfect math scores (because the math section is ridiculously easy), having a high verbal score impresses the committee in a positive way.

My impression is this: one is expected to ace math. One can impress by acing verbal.

rxin said...

I don't think GRE scores matter too much, especially in the top schools. I don't even remember my scores now but it was 800 quant + 550+ verbal and I still got accepted into all schools I applied to.

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