To Math or Not to Math

PeterH1
Posts: 19
Joined: Mon Jul 08, 2013 7:01 pm

To Math or Not to Math

Postby PeterH1 » Tue Jul 09, 2013 12:48 am

Hello folks. I'm looking for some opinions to help me decide how to proceed with these GREs.

A little background first. I'm finishing up a Theoretical Physics degree from a reasonably decent Canadian university (taking a part-time 5th year to finish a minor and do an honours project). I'm very interested in working on some mathematically involved theory (leaning towards some condensed matter field theory). My issue is that most of the Math courses I've taken as part of my degree have been utterly useless Engineering courses. I have taken a few honours Math courses (including a fantastic course on Tensor Analysis), but for the most part, my transcript reads like a very basic, generic Physics degree. (Also of note: I am hoping to have a paper out by the end of the year, but it would be very much in experiment).

So here's what I'm thinking about. If I work at it, I can probably get myself into a somewhat decent percentile range in the Math subject test (maybe about 70%; I'd have to do some more practice tests to get a better estimate) -- the idea being that I could use that as evidence that I can hold my own when dealing with formal Math.

My plan at the moment (it fluctuates daily), is to register for the PGRE in September, and for the Math in October. Then, after I get the mark from the PGRE back, I can decide whether to go ahead with the Math, or re-do the Physics.

My question for you is: do you think this is a reasonable plan, or does it make more sense just to focus solely on the Physics test?

Thanks for your help!

actrask
Posts: 19
Joined: Tue Feb 12, 2013 7:52 pm

Re: To Math or Not to Math

Postby actrask » Tue Jul 09, 2013 3:50 am

Are you planning on applying for Math departments for grad school? If not, then a don't see how taking the Math subject test is any use to you at all. It will certainly not show any aptitude for formal maths, as you said, since it is very similar to the Physics test in that it really only covers the basics. I really don't think any Physics admissions committee is going to care at all what you score on it. I'd think it'd be much more worth your time to just focus on the pgre instead of splitting your focus on two different exams, especially if you're not even applying to math departments! Admissions committees can see your aptitude for higher level math with coursework.

I thought for a little while that I might have to take the mgre since I might want to apply to math departments, but ultimately decided its just not worth the effort and would take time away from trying to do well on the pgre.

PeterH1
Posts: 19
Joined: Mon Jul 08, 2013 7:01 pm

Re: To Math or Not to Math

Postby PeterH1 » Tue Jul 09, 2013 2:17 pm

Hmm. No, I'm not planning to apply to Math departments, I just thought that it might look good on an application to a more mathematically-intensive program. If you're saying it's unlikely to factor in at all though, it would definitely be better to focus on the PGRE. Thanks for the input!

bfollinprm
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Joined: Sat Nov 07, 2009 11:44 am

Re: To Math or Not to Math

Postby bfollinprm » Tue Jul 09, 2013 4:14 pm

yeah, I doubt anyone will care. It's mostly calculus at high speed, which is not a very useful skill for a physicist, linear algebra, which is useful but wont impress anyone, and a few questions in group theory/topology, which mostly rely on knowing definitions (you can find a cat map in the library). Not saying it's easy, but mostly its a test of how well you can do timed algebra, and how much you paid attention to the lower-level math courses you took freshman and sophomore year. In all, not too different from the PGRE, but at least that test is nominally checking your aptitude in physics.
see practice test here: http://www.ets.org/s/gre/pdf/practice_book_math.pdf

PeterH1
Posts: 19
Joined: Mon Jul 08, 2013 7:01 pm

Re: To Math or Not to Math

Postby PeterH1 » Tue Jul 09, 2013 11:42 pm

Heh. That cat-map is great, I hadn't heard of it before. I had gone through that practice book though. Most of it is fairly routine, I'll admit, but a lot of it is certainly entertaining, and I'm quite sure I have my few honours Math classes to thank for my knowing how to solve a good number of them (if even just because I can follow along with their silly math-speak). It somewhat confounds me that the Math test is of little consequence. I mean, what good is an aptitude test if it isn't recognized as one?

That's just me though. I'm finding this whole entrance test thing kinda weird, so I'm happy to defer to those of you with more experience, and I'm certainly not going to complain about more time to study for the Physics test!

actrask
Posts: 19
Joined: Tue Feb 12, 2013 7:52 pm

Re: To Math or Not to Math

Postby actrask » Wed Jul 10, 2013 11:55 am

Well the math subject test is a requirement for those applying for PhDs in math departments - so it is an aptitude test for them...it's just that we're not bothered about it seeing as we only need to take the physics exam!

People come from all sorts of backgrounds when applying to grad school and it's difficult for departments to really gauge applicants relative to each other based on their undergraduate record alone. The PGRE gives them the chance to place all of the applicants on the same footing, since they all had to take the same exam.

TakeruK
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Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: To Math or Not to Math

Postby TakeruK » Wed Jul 10, 2013 12:30 pm

In addition, the PGRE is supposed to test lower level undergraduate physics (i.e. mostly from the first two or three years of Physics). Advanced math isn't required to solve these problems and I think the math that we do need in Physics is adequately covered in the PGRE.

Also, the PGRE isn't supposed to test if we know the Physics and Math for graduate level work, it is a test of your undergrad preparation.

I would also not classify the GREs as an "entrance exam", and it's probably not a good idea to think of it this way. This is because every school/department/program/professor has a different opinion on what the use of the PGRE actually is. An entrance exam implies that if you are in the top X% of applicants or score above X, you will get in. I don't think many schools use the PGRE scores in this manner. I think it's more common to have a minimum cutoff score (that's usually pretty low) just to help narrow down the field, and then the PGRE score is just one small part of the holistic application evaluation. You can have 900+ scores and not get in places or score below 600 and still get into schools!

PeterH1
Posts: 19
Joined: Mon Jul 08, 2013 7:01 pm

Re: To Math or Not to Math

Postby PeterH1 » Fri Jul 12, 2013 8:04 am

Well I certainly wouldn't say that all the math we need in Physics is covered in the PGRE. It only covers enough for the most basic graduate work. If one were to pursue (propery), say, GR, one would definitely need much more advanced techniques. That's neither here nor there though, as I never suggested that either of these tests cover more than the most general material for each degree.

I am also well aware that the GREs are not a technical "entrance exam" as such (I apologize for the ambiguity). Nevertheless, it is an independent test that is required to be written, and in general, a minimum score achieved, to be admitted to most US and some European graduate programs. What I meant to say was that I am unaccustomed to a mandatory standardized test system (going to a local university, I never had to write the SATs). As, to the best of my knowledge, I am the only one of my peers intending to write this test, I'm having to get all of my information from the internet, which can at times be contradictory and outright confusing (for instance, I'm trying to figure out if I can request a supplementary test centre, as I live almost exactly 200km from the my nearest centre).

For that reason, by the way, I am very grateful to those of you who frequent this forum (and others like it). I've been reading it for some time now, and I think it's safe to say it's been my most reliable source of information.

TakeruK
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Joined: Mon Jan 02, 2012 3:05 pm

Re: To Math or Not to Math

Postby TakeruK » Fri Jul 12, 2013 2:39 pm

PeterH1 wrote:Well I certainly wouldn't say that all the math we need in Physics is covered in the PGRE. It only covers enough for the most basic graduate work. If one were to pursue (propery), say, GR, one would definitely need much more advanced techniques. That's neither here nor there though, as I never suggested that either of these tests cover more than the most general material for each degree.

I am also well aware that the GREs are not a technical "entrance exam" as such (I apologize for the ambiguity). Nevertheless, it is an independent test that is required to be written, and in general, a minimum score achieved, to be admitted to most US and some European graduate programs. What I meant to say was that I am unaccustomed to a mandatory standardized test system (going to a local university, I never had to write the SATs).


Sorry -- maybe I wasn't clear! I was trying to say that the PGRE is a test of stuff you would have learned in the first 2 to 3 years in a typical 4-year US Physics program. In my opinion, I don't think the PGRE score is supposed to measure your knowledge about graduate level work. GR is typically not part of a BSc in Physics (in my program, it was an optional elective in 4th year), which is why you don't see it on the PGRE! So, I don't mean to say that all the math you need for graduate level physics is covered in the PGRE. What I meant is that the math you need for the PGRE is representative of the math you need for the first 3 years of a Physics BSc. Sorry again for any confusion.

Also, I think it is the 4th year level courses that are typically meant to prepare students for graduate level work. At least in my experience, I felt that there was a big difference between a 4th year physics class and a 3rd year physics class, and also that the 4th year courses tend to have the same textbooks as the graduate version of the course. In some cases, the courses are even cross-listed (i.e. same lectures for the 4th year undergrad and first year graduate version of the course).

Again, the PGRE mainly covers materials from the first 2-3 years of the degree. So, I think it is a test to measure how much you know about the introductory materials. Instead of measuring your knowledge about graduate level work, it measures your preparation for such work (i.e. so that you are capable of learning the Physics/Math required to do graduate level work). The only real reason I think it needs to exist is to help admissions committee reconcile the fact that different countries (or even schools) can have different undergraduate physics programs. So a school can, for example, set a minimum PGRE score to set some kind of minimum preparation expected of its new students.

In this sense, I would say that the PGRE is more of an "exit exam" (exit from undergrad) rather than an "entrance exam" for graduate school. I use "exit exam" not in the sense that you have to pass it to get your BSc, but more like "exit polls" they do at elections etc.


PS -- for your last question about the 200 km thing...I had a similar experience writing my PGRE as well. The nearest testing centre was just under 200km though, so I wouldn't qualify for the supplemental testing centre anyways. If you end up not getting to do the test in your current location, then I would really recommend traveling to the testing town on the night before and getting a good night's sleep in a motel or a friend/relative's place to be fully prepared and fresh for the 8:30am test start time!! It certainly added to my testing costs but I think it's worth it (still cheaper than doing the test twice, for example).

PeterH1
Posts: 19
Joined: Mon Jul 08, 2013 7:01 pm

Re: To Math or Not to Math

Postby PeterH1 » Sun Jul 14, 2013 1:52 am

Haha. I think most of this thread could be fairly well summarized with "semantics." I think we both mean the same things, but they seem to come across differently.

Yeah, I'd agree that 4th year should be designed to prepare you for graduate work. I've taken a couple of courses cross-listed with the grad level (I actually even took a math course cross-listed with an upper-year graduate course. Without going in to detail, I'll just say I'm very glad it's not counting towards my GPA!). My school is pretty specialized though, so it really feels like my program is only supposed to prepare me for graduate work in experimental Particle Physics. That was why I was considering the MGRE. I'm trying to think of ways to improve my math and physics credentials. Thus far, I have Tensor Analysis on the transcript, and a few chapters of Wald's GR under my belt. It looks like I'm going to be quite occupied with work and the GREs for the foreseeable future though, so I hope that'll do!

And I see you're sharing my pain about being just out of reach of a testing centre! I actually e-mailed ETS to ask if my situation would qualify. A week later, their response was to point me towards their website and reiterate the 125 mile rule. Hardly a useful answer... I think I'll take the trip, just to be on the safe side. It's actually pretty cheap to get there, and I'm sure I can find an economic way to spend the night.

Scooter
Posts: 14
Joined: Tue Jun 11, 2013 10:28 am

Re: To Math or Not to Math

Postby Scooter » Sun Jul 14, 2013 10:50 am

Hello!

I wasn't sure, since you mentioned that you would take the physics GRE in September, and then decide if you wanted to retake it in October. From what I've seen, the first test date is September 28th, and the late deadline for the October date is September 13th. So I think it actually is impossible to decide whether or not you're going to take the second one after you've taken the first. Not sure if you were aware or not or had some plan to work around that, but thought I'd point it out just in case!

Also, I would say you probably don't want to take the math GRE. Generally it might make you look good if you score well, but I would say they probably don't care too much, and also the percentile means very little to them. Since no one else is really going to take it that is applying in physics, they can't compare your score to anyone else's, and thus the percentile kind of loses it's meaning.

I would say focus on the PGRE and try to knock it out of the park! :)

PeterH1
Posts: 19
Joined: Mon Jul 08, 2013 7:01 pm

Re: To Math or Not to Math

Postby PeterH1 » Sun Jul 14, 2013 6:22 pm

Thanks! Yeah, that's the conclusion I've reached as well. I had just thought that it would look good to a committee, but if there's even a chance they won't care, it's definitely not worth my while, as you said.

And indeed I had noticed the deadlines. My plan was (is) actually to register for both, and to cancel the second if I felt satisfied enough with the result of the first. There's only a 50% refund, but I think the security is worth the investment.




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