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ImNotHere's avatar

I'm terrible at math: Am I doomed to bomb the GRE and go to a 3rd tier grad school?

Asked by ImNotHere (444points) September 5th, 2011

Hi Fluther,

I’m a college senior in my last semester of undergrad ,which means I’ve been thinking a lot about what I’m going to do in the upcoming months/years after I graduate. Like many students, I’ll be taking the GRE to prepare for the potential of pursuing graduate studies.

I’m a state school student, majoring in Sociology with an overall GPA of 3.58. (Hoping to pull it up to at least a 3.66 by the end of the term) I’m in the National Sociological Honor Society and just completed a prestigious internship at an NYC Public Relations/Marketing firm. (And I got a post graduation job offer, too!)

If I could pick my ideal after-college scenario it would be as follows: Work at my boss’ PR firm to support myself/gain a few years of work experience. Then, I would like to go to Columbia University and get my masters in strategic communications.

Of course to attend Columbia as a state school student especially, I’ll have to blow the GRE out of the water. The writing/verbal will be a cakewalk but the math is going to kill me.

This is kind of embarrassing for me because to be honest, I never really was able to grasp even basic math as a child. It was always a bone of contention between myself, my parents and my teachers and because of it, I didn’t perform well academically until college where I could avoid. I managed to get a ‘B’ in statistics only because I had a crush on the professor and the material seemed more intuitive to me.

Now I feel as if my avoidance of math is coming back to haunt me and very well could ruin my (already iffy) chances of attending my dream school. More embarrassing yet is that some of the BASIC math even scares me. I even use a calculator to make change and determine tips when eating out! I’ve always been really embarrassed about this so I’ve always avoided talking about it to others lest they think I’m not very bright.

I’m just really hoping that something as simple as basic math isn’t going to turn into my Achilles Heel in determining my entire future. :(

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16 Answers

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

GREs aren’t that important, schools say. Make sure the rest of your package is good like having an excellent essay and really good recommendations. I’d highly recommend taking a Kaplan GRE course if you’re bad at math (if you have the money, of course). You can also look at average GRE scores for Columbia for the major you’re interested in.

ImNotHere's avatar

@Simone_De_Beauvoir Thanks for the prompt response. I was going to take a Kaplan GRE course or something equivalent to help prepare myself for it. But the thing that really sucks about me is that I’ve avoided math for so long that I almost feel like I need to go back to middle or even elementary school to brush up my skills. :p And here I am trying to apply to an Ivy League They’re going to think I’ve lost my damned mind!

As for recommendations, I already have job experience under 2 bosses in my field so that will help me, all my professors like me. (then again, they don’t know I couldn’t give them correct change without a calculator) and my undergrad GPA is great. (Oh I also did my first 2 years at Community College due to my father forcing me.)

Yeah…I might be f*cked… :’(

Simone_De_Beauvoir's avatar

@BringsTheNight You really shouldn’t think of it in terms of having to go back to elementary or middle school math because GRE math is specific kind of math and really it’s best to come in looking at it this way, rather than ‘oh I’ve missed so much of previous math’. It’s one portion of the GRE, which is one portion of your entire application and you need to give it your best but you have got to keep the bigger picture in mind. When I took the GREs last Fall, it has been years since any kind of math and my last math had to do with advanced calculus (which, believe you me, makes it difficult to switch to ‘lower level’ math like the kind they deal with on the GRE) so the Kaplan course was very helpful. Don’t focus on the fact that it’s math that gives you trouble, focus on HOW to take these questions in order to pass this completely pointless exam (which schools are aware of) so that you can do that which you are destined to do. Columbia, especially, values the rest of your package a lot (I’ve spoken to some on admitting committees) like your current GPA which is good. I actually feel you have good changes at getting in and a lot of this process has to do with how you feel you need to sell yourself. You must feel more confident – rather than worshiping Columbia, have them worship you. With that in mind, I did well in applying to my PhD programs. Good Luck.

CaptainHarley's avatar

I am also terrible at math, and I did fairly good on the GRE. Don’t allow the GRE to discourage you. It’s only one measure shools use. : )

Blueroses's avatar

There are free resources available in every state. I’m just now entering a field that requires high maths ability, when I’ve always defined myself, and been defined by teachers, as a “language/communications” student – meaning bad at math.

I went to my dept of Public Education/Adult Services and took the TABE (free test) to identify my math weaknesses and as a pursuer of continuing education, I qualified for free maths instruction.

My wonderful summer instructor said “There’s no such thing as bad at math. It’s only poor foundations.” Everything in maths build on each other and a lot can happen during your foundation period (moves, illnesses) that disrupt your building blocks. I got through 13 years of foundation experience in 3 weeks – 1 hour/day class time and lots of home practice to get myself to college level maths. It was all at no cost to me, in dollars, but priceless to learn that I wasn’t “bad” at it after all.

CWOTUS's avatar

Don’t accept “I suck at math” as an excuse for failure. Work at it. Improve it. Before you figure the tip on your calculator, figure it in your head first and then use the calculator to check. Do a lot of “back of the envelope” SWAG (Scientific Wild-Ass Guessing) about various calculations.

For example, figure what grad school will cost and how much of that you’ll have to borrow. (Seriously.) Figure – in your head – what the interest payments on that amount will be. Then check your estimate using an online calculator. Compare the results, and if your estimated numbers are way off, then consider why that is and improve your estimating.

Do any kind of “rough calculation” that you can and then follow that up with a little bit of research to see how close your guess / estimate is to the actual numbers.

Don’t accept “I’m bad at math so I avoid it”. Work at it and you can improve. You’re an intelligent young woman; basic math is not going to be an Achille’s heel unless you decide it will be. (Because you also have a pretty fair amount of intention, and if you intend to fail at math, then you are certain to.)

tranquilsea's avatar

I too would take a second look at math. I think too many schools do a horrible job teaching it primarily because many teachers think they aren’t great at math. runs an awesome series of math lectures that really break down all math in a fun way (we’re a BIG Edward Burger fan family). The price is really reasonable too.

Check out The Joy of Thinking (your local library may have it and it also goes on sale for $80 at least twice a year). It is a wonderful lecture series that goes from the joy of counting to Fibonacci and Euclid in a really engaging way.

SavoirFaire's avatar

While it is true that the GRE is only one measure that people use, I’m sad to say that it is more important than some people think. If your application gets to the stage where it is given individual attention, then a lower GRE score won’t hurt you; but it’s harder to get to that stage with a lower GRE score. The higher the ratio of applications to spots available is, the more likely that a department will simplify its task by outright rejecting anyone with less than some particular score or score combination.

You are at a disadvantage because you want to apply to an Ivy League school (all of which attract a disproportionate number of applicants); you are at an advantage because you want to apply to a program in the School of Continuing Education (which attracts a relatively lower number of applicants). These unfortunately do not balance out, but they do make your task a little bit easier than it could be.

The other thing that makes your task easier is that the quantitative section of the GRE is less about mathematics than it might seem. Because of the time restrictions, it is actually more about recognizing types of problems and the specific tricks that make them easier. A person with excellent mathematical skills who worked through all of the problems would do quite poorly on the quantitative section; a person who can recognize the tricks will do quite well.

This is one reason why the Kaplan courses are so effective in raising one’s score. They show you exactly what to look for and then teach you the basic mathematical skills you need to solve the rest. This is perhaps not a welcome observation from the educational side of things, but it’s the way things are at present. The good news is that it works out in your favor in this case. I do recommend, however, dedicating some time to actually learning mathematics once your GRE issue is a thing of the past.


I can relate. I’m not good at math myself, but I’ve always tried my hardest to get good marks in that subject. It’s the only course that I hated in school, and it always made me anxious come test time. Can you prepare for it by finding test samples and trying them out first?

Don’t stress yourself out over one test. Just do your best. That’s all you can do.

Blueroses's avatar

First step is to stop hating math. Even as a language oriented person, there are mathematical relationships to everything you do. Try getting a magazine like Dell Math puzzles and start solving the easy level ones. I’ll bet you find you’re better at logical/mathematical thinking than you suspect. Start enjoying math as a different way of thinking. All problems are really just puzzles. Train yourself how to figure them.

I started realizing I was better than I expected when I’d get a puzzle book, whip through the word ones and have to go back to the number ones when I ran out. Cross Sums used to be my first skipped and now they’re my favorites.

skfinkel's avatar

Check out
Realize that you hate math not because of you but because your inner love of math was squelched by poor understanding of math by parents and teachers. I see it every day. I saw it today when a loving father asked his too young daughter what 3 plus 2 was. She had no idea, and it is the beginning of disappointment for the father and the daughter’s hating of math.
You can do fine in math, just start again, and do it yourself this time,,,for fun.

tranquilsea's avatar

Something to start you off:

The Story of 1

Terry Jones, from Monty Python, takes you on a journey through the history of numbers. It is very funny. Plus he puts together something I’ve wanted to see for years….a competition between an abacist and someone with a calculator.

CWOTUS's avatar

Delightful video, @tranquilsea. Thanks. I’m going to try to watch the rest tomorrow.

tranquilsea's avatar

@CWOTUS my kids and I love this documentary. They think it is hilarious and they learned a bit at the same time.

DantheMan72's avatar

I am awful with math. I got a very low D in college with algebra and that was raised up 20 points from an F because the teacher saw that I was struggling and threw me a bone. I did the basics only in high school; multiply, divide, add, subtract…. Have no clue what trig, calculus or the rest is all about… makes no sense and guess what, my life has not been hampered by not knowing it, but now that I want to apply for a Grad school I need to know something for those damn GRE tests. I’m not kidding when I say I am a math retard. anything with alegebic whiff is avoided. I think schools concentrate way too much on this crap that is not useful to my particular career, Social Work. Some math of course is great, but the hardcore stuff makes no sense… how can I take the GRe and get an acceptable score?
What percentage of the test is alegebra, calculus, trig?

DantheMan72's avatar

I did have a few lousy teachers, most of it began in 6th grade with alegbra, not being understood and taught properly. The teacher did not know what she was doing I don’t think; her technique however was so frustrating that it led me to hating it for life.

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