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More on the Math GRE for PhD Students

Updated: Aug 14, 2022

I’ve written to friends today in response to the helpful pushback I received in comments on my original post about not needing the GRE for PhD applications in theological studies. Here’s what I’ve learned, in a kind of executive summary:

1. I was wrong to say that the GRE Math score doesn’t matter—in philosophy. In departments that stress the analytical (rather than the continental) mode of philosophy, the Math part of the GRE counts–as so much of analytical philosophy is conducted in a quasi- (and sometimes not-so-quasi) mathematical manner.

Still, there is something lazy, I think, and even perverse about leaning on a test that requires master’s students in philosophy to blow the dust off their high school math books and bone up on the finer points of basic calculus and algebra in order to get entrance into a philosophy doctoral program. Students should be working forward, not backward. (None of my philosophical colleagues disagreed with me on this point, and basically shook their heads and said, “But that’s the way it is.”)

To take seriously the Math GRE also strikes me as the bureaucratic default position of taking the easy way out: “Well, the Educational Testing Service has this test, and it’s sorta kinda what we’re looking for, so let’s use it. Too bad for the graduate students who literally waste weeks of their lives learning stuff for the test they will never use again.” I really hate that kind of thing in the academy and I’m embarrassed that it’s still going on.

2. Schools that are trying to better themselves naturally look for whatever indicators they have at hand that they’re doing better–better than they did before, and better than their competition. GRE scores are ready to hand for this purpose, and some of them trumpet the composite GRE scores of their applicants and students the way many colleges do the same with SAT scores. I myself think that’s pathetic when it comes to the many forms of humanities training that don’t require mathematical prowess at all. It’s like saying, “Our literature students can run faster than yours. And they play the piano better, too.”

It also strikes me as a bureaucratic mistake in the genus of “what we can count is what will count.” To be sure, as a colleague at an Ivy League school wrote to me today, a disastrous Math score is likely a bad omen for philosophical ability. But to make a big deal about small differences in GRE scores in math for philosophy programs seems to me worse than silly: It seems weirdly lazy.

3. Using the GRE scores to decide who gets how much funding seems to me especially egregious, and that happens at all but the most elite schools, it seems. I can guess that doing so solves certain vexing problems and particularly two: (a) no more intradepartmental or interdepartmental battles over whose grad student got which funding, since it’s now just a matter of numbers; and (b) no threat of lawsuits from aggrieved students since, again, it’s just a matter of numbers.

But it seems to me once more that a bureaucratic mindset–and I mean this in a strictly Weberian way–has make this kind of decision “rational” to the point of absurdity, since I doubt anyone really thinks that a few points’ difference on a GRE is truly the mark of a superior or inferior student, writing sample or research proposal or previous grades or letters of reference notwithstanding. I thought we all knew better, after decades of critique of such “standardized” testing, but apparently not all of us do.

4. The most elite places generally don’t take the math scores seriously (unless they’re truly terrible). My experience has been at the University of Chicago, and I polled friends previously at other elite places who confirmed my sense of things–although at Duke and Notre Dame I learned that verbal and writing scores did, in at least some departments, form part of the basis of doling out financial aid.

Today’s most recent poll of friends confirms my original advice sense: in religious and theological studies at [UPDATE: Harvard added] Harvard, Yale and Chicago, the math score still doesn’t matter enough for applicants to spend any time studying for it. But what I have learned today also is that if you’re aiming at a second-tier school or below (such as Notre Dame or Baylor), you’d better pay attention to GRE scores in Math as well.

Now, I think you shouldn’t have to. In fact, I think it’s outrageous that you should. (Philosophy departments, make up your own test that can tell you want to know: Don’t take the easy, lazy, wasteful way out by requiring students to do high school math all over again!)

And let me also make clear that I have no personal animus here. Immodest as it is to say, it is simply a matter of fact that I competed on my high school’s math team, I completed two first-year college courses in math with A’s, and I did quite well on the GRE Math test by merely walking in and writing it, six years after I had looked at a math book. My resistance to counting the Math test, I can assure you, has nothing to do with me and everything to do with what truly matters in sorting out applicants for Ph.D. work.

But my saying that schools shouldn’t require the Math test is certainly not the same as saying students shouldn’t study for it. Apparently, alas, many of you should. And I’m sorry that I was so categorical in advice that needed much more nuance.


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