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  • Destenie Nock

English is My Only Language (What I learned and remember from the GRE)

Updated: Feb 27, 2019

Using a number to define a student can have huge impacts on self-esteem. The GRE is just one of those numbers. This was originally posted on the Beyond the GRE Website.

February 21, 2019 By Destenie Nock


The thing I remember most about the GRE is the length and the score I received. Sitting in a cubicle for 8 hours taking a test made me feel more like a factory worker, than a person trying to reach for advancement in their academic career. Being an engineer, I was never worried about the math section, it was the English that gave me problems. It didn’t help that the preparatory course I took didn’t provide much assistance in the English department. Their biggest suggestion was making flashcards. It was my senior year in college, I was trying to maintain a 4.0 GPA in my double major, I was president of my honor society, applying jobs, applying to study abroad programs, graduate school deadlines were approaching, and I was trying to enjoy what little time I had left with my friends…flashcards were not on my list of things to do. From the previous sentence I am sure it is apparent that sitting still is not my strong suit, so it follows that I did not score well on the GRE. My first writing score was in the bottom 40th percentile. This score was so low that online it said English was essentially my second language. At this point of my story I should let you know that I was born and raised in Maryland, and I am indeed an American citizen whose entire education has been in English. Given that English is my only language I found the classification of my verbal GRE score very disheartening.

Destenie Nock in graduate school. PhD desk
So much coding and dissertation writing was done at this desk.

I also did not have the money to take the test a second time, so I sent out the graduate school applications hoping that my high GPA would compensate for the fact that I, according to the GRE, did not know English very well. I applied to three schools and received acceptance to one, which was okay by me because UMass Amherst was the only school I wanted to go to. I really liked the person who would later become my adviser and her research was very interesting to me. When I was talking to her, she told me that I could make it into UMass but to make the process easier to get accepted to engineering and get a fellowship it would be great if I could increase my verbal GRE score. I saved the money to buy a book, did flashcards for 180 of the most common GRE words, and eventually took the test for a second time boosting my score from the 40th to the 70th percentile. This huge score increase indicated that knowing a series of “big words” is the equivalent of being proficient in English. You will be sad to know that I have subsequently forgotten all of the words I studied except for “enigma” and “stigma” so I am pretty sure English is once again my second language.

In May I will graduate from my PhD program in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research. I believe low GRE scores have a stigma in our society, where people with low scores often feel they are inadequate, or are viewed by others as sub-par academics. In reality the GRE and the GRE requirements needed for graduate school are just hurdles that show how much money a person had to take the test a series of times, or to buy a book and have someone tell them strategies to ace standardized tests. Undergraduate education does not prepare us to sit for 6 - 8 hours taking a test. In graduate school I have never needed this skill. Why the GRE is still being used to judge who will be a great graduate student is truly an enigma. Especially since a recent study showed no relationship between GRE scores and STEM PhD attainment for women and a negative relationship between scores and PhD attainment for men.

Update: After my advisor (Dr. Baker) saw the above post I wrote on the Beyond the GRE website she sent in this comment:

"Destenie is a super star. She came here with perfect grades, double majoring in math and electrical engineering, and with three summers of fantastic research experience. Since here, she has pushed me into new research directions with her curiosity and interests. She has presented her research as the only doctoral student in a workshop featuring many of the stars of the field, and fit in perfectly. She is on track to finish her PhD is just four years. She is being recruited by a number of universities early in the season. I am very thankful that I recognized her worth - despite an initially low verbal GRE. She is not just a good colleague, but a friend."

As always thanks for reading, and if you would like to make sure you don't miss new posts you can subscribe below.

Note about the author: Destenie Nock is a PhD Candidate in Industrial Engineering. She is looking forward to defending her dissertation on March 18th of this year. In her free time she likes to play tennis, paint with friends, try new food, and travel.

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