My thoughts on the GRE Biology subject test

I took my GRE Biology subject test just this morning. For those unfamiliar with the Biology subject test, it is given only a few times every year, once in the spring and twice in the fall, and contains 190 multiple choice questions to be answered in 2 hours and 50 minutes without breaks. The material is as broad as the field of biology itself, with some questions about very specific concepts and others more general, and is roughly equally divided among the subfields of cellular/molecular biology, physiology/organismal biology, and ecology/evolutionary biology.

Questions are multiple choice, and grouped by question type. The first section of the test mostly asks for straight information recall and rapid calculation/figure analysis, the second asks for matching entries in lists or diagrams with respective descriptions, and the third mainly tests critical analysis of experiments, tables, and figures. In calculating raw total and subfield scores, 1 point is given to each correct answer, 1/4 point is deducted for each incorrect answer, and 0 points are deducted for questions left blank. Raw scores are converted into scaled scores, which are assigned a percentile rank.

Here are my personal reflections on the test:

  • This summer, I’ve been focusing all my attention on the MCAT. It was only after that was over that I realized I still had time to register for the October subject test. Since I’m a little unsure about my future plans, I figured this was worth a shot, especially since the next test date wouldn’t be until April 2016. Unfortunately, because I hadn’t bothered to register until 5 weeks before the test, all the seats closest to me were all out; I had to sign up for a test location at a small college an hour’s drive away. It was somewhat unpleasant to have to wake up in the darkness of 6 am for a 3 hour test on a Saturday morning. Obvious advice: Don’t register for tests without planning ahead. 😦
  • I was surprised at the rather casual atmosphere just before the test. Part of it was the fact that a lot of the test takers were students at the university who knew each other, part of it was the very understanding, laid back, and experienced proctor we had, and part of it was the fact that I was stressed out in the minutes before. Even so, having taken the MCAT, I had expected a whole array of security and procedural ceremonies coming into the test, but we all just talked in the lobby and then sat down when it was time for business.
  • The material was more predictable than what I expected. ETS itself has said that the scope of the Biology subject test is so extensive that “no one is expected to be familiar with the content of every question.” Thus, I expected to be tested on very different material than the official practice test. Though there were some topics that I should have studied more intensively, the surprise was actually how well the material corresponded, not only with my old high school Campbell & Reece textbook, but also with the practice test. It was definitely worth going through the practice test again to compare my answers with the key and learn what I got right and what I did wrong.
  • Then again, I probably should have started studying a little earlier. Part of it was because I did quite well during my first pass through the practice test, so I got lazy and turned my attention to other work. I lingered learning plant anatomy and growth, and didn’t end up actually *studying* until maybe 2 days prior to the test. I was still scrambling to get the basics of plant transportation and development this morning before my trip. It also didn’t help that I slept less than 6 hours last night due to my anxiety.
  • Guessing on plant bio like
“I got this, the answer is A!” *aggressively bubbles in C*
  • My approach to taking this test was a little different than I think most people would expect. I started in the middle of the test in the matching section, to settle my brain into exam-taking mode. I went all the way through into the analysis section, where each question takes the most time (over a minute per question at least to parse out figures and numbers). After reaching the end of the test, I went back and only then started at the beginning of the test; I gave myself 15-30 seconds for each recall question. I’ve found that starting the test in medias res allows me to complete the analysis section, the most difficult and time-consuming questions, before I tire out or run short on time at the end of the test. The recall questions themselves are usually straightforward and stand alone, so I find it vastly preferable to be going through these rapid-fire know-or-don’t-know problems during the last few minutes of a test, rather than be stuck on analysis problems I could have gotten right if I only had more time.
  • I’m still unsure whether taking this subject test was worth the time and money. At least a few top graduate programs in EEB ‘highly recommend’ submitting Biology subject test scores, which I take as basically being the same as ‘required’. But it seems many more programs don’t care about the subject test scores in admissions (and for good reason, in my opinion), and after surfing various boards and talking to graduate students, I believe that most applicants don’t bother with the subject test either. Of course, scoring very high will be impressive regardless, and I think I need to have performed well all the more to at least partly compensate for the deficiencies in my potential graduate applications.
  • Overall, I am quite satisfied with my performance. I felt about the same taking the real thing as I did the practice test, so I don’t believe I did too shabby. After the test, I had a snack, looked over what material I might have missed, then had a nice drive back home. In about a month I’ll find out how I did!

Helpful resources:

GRE Biology practice test

GRE subject test percentiles

GRE subject test subscore percentiles


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