This week I got a peek behind the curtain at the application review process and it's not pretty. As they say "a little like watching sausage being made".
At a social function I overheard some discussion about the PhD applications under review (in another department at another school on another planet with no specifics about any individuals, I swear).
Using a sample size of admittedly N=1, I was struck by the difference in the relative importance various members give to different parts of the application. Some like SOPs some don't place much emphasis in them. Some want a hard number for GREs, others(like many of you I gather)think they are worthless. Some are impressed by pedigree - others almost seem to rebel against the idea. Apparently a sort of weighting system has evolved - but in trying to reach consensus among near equals there appears to be a reversion toward the mean - so that in the end no single part of the application was rendered unimportant.
In reflecting on how applicants probably need to react to the process I thought about that old joke:
Two campers are awakened by an angry bear outside their tent. Fearing for their lives they jump out and start to run away. One camper says to the other "I sure hope we can outrun this bear" and the other says "I don't care about outrunning the bear - I just hope I can outrun you".
With no absolute formula or level that ensures acceptance - how you stack up compared to the next guy may matter the most. (Ah, a true economist - thinking at the margins). If the rubrik depends on a small set of judges who hold very different opinions about what they are looking for the best bet is solid strength everywhere rather than brilliance in one aspect of your work that hopes to compensate for major shortcomings elsewhere. This may not be the situation in a lot places - but I suspect it's more common than not.
Ah ye of little faith… I said this blog would be one of inconvenient truths.
You will come to trust the Fez, but ‘til then there is plenty of evidence to back this up...
Here’s link to a February 2007 Science article (Kuncel, N.R., Hezlett, S.A., Standardized Tests Predict Graduate Students' Success, Science, Vol 315 No. 5815, pp 1080-1081) that examines the GRE and GMAT:
“Four consistent findings emerged: (i) Standardized tests are effective predictors of performance in graduate school. (ii) Both tests and undergraduate grades predict important academic outcomes beyond grades earned in graduate school. (iii) Standardized admissions tests predict most measures of student success better than prior college academic records do. (iv) The combination of tests and grades yields the most accurate predictions of success.”
“Results from a large body of literature indicate that standardized tests are useful predictors of subsequent performance in graduate school, predict more accurately than college GPA, do not demonstrate bias, and are not damaged by test coaching. Despite differences across disciplines in grading standards, content, and pedagogy, standardized admissions tests have positive and useful relationships with subsequent student accomplishments.”
There are plenty of other studies that validate the GRE, (like one published in 2001 in the Psychological Bulletin (Vol. 127, No. 1) But the 2007 study has the prettiest graphs.
As for the GRE’s measure of innate intelligence, you could trust the guys at Mensa who have accepted high GRE scores in lieu of a 132 IQ score on the Stanford Binet IQ Test, but for more scholarly proof you check out Carvajal and Pauls, (1995), “Relationships among graduate record examination scores, Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale-Revised IQs and undergraduate grade point average”. College Student Journal, 29, 414-416.
Here’s a link to the original research thesis in case you don’t have easy journal access
They find a strong positive correlation between the GRE and IQ. Full scale IQ with GRE-V (r=.63) and with GRE-Q (r=.71)
But my point really was – with enough effort can score well enough on the GRE for most programs, who don’t accept people based on their GRE or GMATs, but they often use them to help make their first cuts.
Most people who think that the GRE is stupid and useless also have low GRE scores.
Like it or not you need good GRE (or GMAT)scores to get into a good program, because like it or not, people with good GRE scores tend (I say tend) to have natural academic abilities far beyond those of mortal men. The GRE is designed to be hard to do really well on (read 85%-90%+) without intuition, insight and reasoning skills - not just grade school math and vocabulary skills.
For the not-so-lucky end of the gene pool, there's another reason the GRE is useful to ad comms. Because you can do well on the GRE by working hard to prepare for it. So, low GRE scores mean either 1) you are not naturally gifted or 2) you didn't work hard enough at passing it and might not work hard enough in grad school. (What,you think comps don't require the same level of dedication?)
So you say "I worked really, really hard and I still got a 130Q". You might want to lower your sights(and your sites), head for the chat room, and complain about how useless the GRE is.
Hey now! I'm a blogger.
My original thought about blogging was to cut through the B.S. I find in the forums and give a practical, unvarnished view of the way I think stuff really works.
Like - if you have to get a LOR from a guy who works on the loading dock with you - you're probably not going to impress the ad comm. And if you got 130Q on your GRE you aren't getting into Northwestern's Econ PhD program.
I am one of those math/econ types who didn't get enough touchy-feely training as an undergrad - but there's enough of that cheerleader stuff in the forums to balance out my curmudgeony take.
Who is The Fez? I just finished my first semester in a PhD program where I plan to do behavioral econ stuff so I will probably begin with some blogs about the admissions process and my first year experience. BTW, I am also an old guy - older than dirt - though you would never know it because The Fez is so hip. But that will probably inform my view of the world of grad school.