Going beyond the basics for grad school applications

How Important is the GRE for Graduate School?

A recurring theme on this blog is that getting into graduate school requires more than just good undergraduate grades. This is true in all disciplines, and it’s true for one simple reason: While grades may be a reasonable indicator of someone’s academic abilities, success in graduate school requires much more than just strong academic abilities. We have explored several other key features of a successful graduate school application, such as how to get the most effective letters of recommendation, and how to craft a convincing personal statement, and how to deal with interviews. We’ve looked at some extra steps that can make all the difference, like targeting the right people and the right programs, and contacting potential graduate advisors before applying.

One topic that has received much less attention so far is the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), which is a required element for application to most accredited graduate programs in the U.S. and Canada. So, today I want to discuss the GRE and the role it plays. My main goal is to alleviate some of the anxiety and uncertainty that many students experience when it comes to the GRE, including those who are preparing to take the exam in the coming months, or who have already taken it and have unimpressive scores.

During my career I have met countless people who were anxious as hell about preparing for and writing the GRE. I’ve met countless more who worried that their mediocre test scores would torpedo their chances of being admitted to a decent graduate program. Behind much of the anxiety has been a tendency to overestimate the importance of GRE scores in the evaluation and selection process. The GRE can have a role, but it is not nearly as significant as most people assume.

If you are worried about the GRE, or concerned about your scores, let me help you put it all into clear perspective, so you can better manage the anxiety. I’m not going to suggest you ignore the GRE altogether, because if you haven’t already taken it, you will probably find it necessary or at least prudent to do so.

How important are those GRE scores?

The answer partly depends on the discipline of study. Generally speaking, the Quantitative Reasoning scores play a more significant role in evaluating applicants to PhD programs in the natural sciences, technology, engineering, and mathematics, than those applying to programs in the social sciences or humanities. If you’re applying to graduate programs in psychology, for example, your GRE scores will likely be among the least heavily weighted factors in determining the fate of those applications (this is also true for the Verbal Reasoning score and the Analytical Writing score). On the other hand, if you’re applying to a program in geophysics, for example, your GRE scores might play a more important role in assessing your suitability for the program; still, even in such cases, those scores will be a relatively minor factor compared to other elements of your application.

Okay, so then why is the GRE used at all? What can be ascertained about applicants from their GRE scores that can’t be discerned from their grades or some other element of the application? Well, just like a grade-point-average (GPA), the GRE scores provide an objective indicator of an applicant’s academic aptitudes. But unlike the GPA, the GRE scores can be used to compare applicants of different socio-educational backgrounds, regardless of which college or university they have attended. Unlike the undergraduate GPA, the GRE provides a measure of academic aptitude that is not influenced by the huge variation that exists in the grading standards and procedures of different courses, professors, departments, faculties, and schools. The rationale behind the use of the test is that everyone writes an equivalent test and all tests are scored the same way. Thus, the playing field is level for all participants.

Anyone interested in knowing what the GRE is all about, how the tests are designed, and how scores might be used to evaluate graduate-school applicants, can find answers by exploring the Guide to the Use of Scores, published by ETS, the organization behind the development and administration of the GRE. The Guide to the Use of Scores includes references to published studies that have demonstrated both the reliability and predictive validity of the GRE in various academic disciplines. Many studies have found a significant correlation between GRE scores and various measures of success in master’s or PhD programs, but some have failed to find similar evidence of a predictive relationship. Most studies have focused on specific fields of study, or on some broader group of related fields.

It is important to keep in mind that the positive relationship between GRE and graduate-school performance — to the extent that it actually exists in a particular discipline — is demonstrated by a post hoc analysis involving people who were actually accepted into graduate programs. It is only a correlation, and it does not mean that getting higher GRE scores will make an individual more likely to experience greater success in graduate school.

Ignore the irrelevant statistics

A person can waste a lot of time reading about average GRE scores in different disciplines, which is a totally useless statistics for anyone applying to graduate school. Someone may try to tell you it’s important to know the average GRE scores of successful grad-school applicants in your discipline because it will help you set your own goals for the test. This is complete nonsense, because the average GRE scores of all those applicants will not help predict whether the scores of a particular applicant will help or hinder their chances of being admitted to any particular program.

Knowing the average GRE scores for a discipline does not reveal what scores an applicant needs to be admitted to any particular program. Just like knowing that the average height for an NBA player is 6 feet 7 inches does not tell us how tall a person must be to play basketball in the NBA. The average GRE scores for those admitted to a specific program is not any more useful as an indicator of what is expected or required. If we are interested in what kind of GRE scores are required, it makes more sense to look at the range of the scores for those admitted to a program. We could say that the lowest GRE scores among those students who were eventually accepted to the program in a given year represents the minimum GRE scores that were necessary to get in. But that would still be an overestimation of the necessary level for GRE scores, because most of those people would still have been accepted even if their GRE scores were even lower. The point is that people don’t normally get admitted to a graduate program on the basis of their GRE scores.

Putting it in perspective

Despite the ostensible merits of the GRE, there is considerable debate about its utility among those who are actually the intended users of GRE scores – namely, university professors. These are the people who decide which applicants are admitted to their graduate programs and which are rejected. If they don’t care as much about GRE scores as they do about the letters of recommendation, or the personal statement, or any other part of the application, then the impact of GRE scores will be minimal.

Opinions vary, but most professors view the GRE as a somewhat dubious indicator, at best, in the assessment and selection of new graduate students. I have been involved in many discussions among university faculty members about the GRE over the past 25 years, and I do not recall ever hearing anyone claim they find GRE scores especially helpful. Some might use very low GRE scores as a justification for eliminating an applicant from the competition, but otherwise they give little credence to GRE scores, whether those scores are mediocre or exceptionally high.

This indifference to GRE scores has been growing within the academic research community in recent years. As an example, consider the Psychology department at Concordia University (Montréal), where I am a professor. Several years ago, we eliminated the requirement that applicants to our master’s and PhD programs had to submit GRE scores. Subsequently, the instructions to applicants have indicated that GRE scores are not required, but still recommended. Most applicants to our programs still submit their GRE scores, and there is no problem with that, but none of them have to submit those scores. Very recently we decided to make a further change to the instructions and remove the recommendation altogether, so applicants will no longer be encouraged to submit GRE scores.

Why did we get rid of the GRE requirement? For the same reason that dozens of other Psychology graduate programs have made the same move: A majority of the faculty members in our department do not believe GRE scores are useful when it comes to discriminating between applicants who are likely to be good graduate students and those with less promise. Remember, most professors judge how “good” graduate students are by their research abilities and accomplishments, work ethic, and interpersonal and communication skills. GRE scores do not tell us anything about how someone measures up on those attributes.

In contrast to the considerable research that has been done regarding the predictive validity of the GRE, very few studies have examined role of GRE scores in the evaluation process. In one study conducted a few years ago, 171 Canadian psychology professors were surveyed about their attitudes and opinions regarding the GRE tests, and how they use GRE scores in evaluating potential graduate students. The main finding was that major differences of opinion exist across psychology disciplines, departments, and faculty members, and as a result, there is very little consistency in terms of what consequences GRE scores have in determining the fate of individual applicants.

When looking at the application requirements for different PhD programs, we find that a majority of programs require all applicants to submit GRE scores, but many programs only recommend that applicants submit GRE scores. Importantly, this distinction is not an indicator of the relative weight given to GRE scores, so one should not assume that just because GRE scores are required, they play a major role in the evaluation process. This is seldom the case.

I still advise students who are planning to apply to graduate school in Psychology to write the GRE General exam. Most will be applying to more than one program, and it is likely that at least one of those programs, if not most, will require GRE scores. But it’s not worth getting worried about. Preparing for the GRE is not very difficult or time consuming. And practically everything else plays a more significant role in the selection process.

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Why Is There So Much Conflicting Advice About Applying to Graduate School?

The process of applying to graduate school is unlike any other application process, and the factors that determine the fate of a grad-school application are not always what one would expect. Common-sense assumptions about how admission decisions are reached are often wrong, and certain miscalculations can doom an application to the rejection pile. For many students, the application process is steeped in uncertainty and confusion about how it all really works. Everyone understands it’s a competition, but not all the rules are clear. This makes it stressful, and also quite perilous. You can easily ruin your chances of getting in just by making just one or two avoidable mistakes, or by failing to take one or two important steps.

Understandably, many students search far and wide for advice and tips on how to best handle certain aspects of their graduate-school applications. But, while it may seem wise to seek advice from as many people and other relevant sources as possible, this quickly leads to a new problem: Among all the clearly valuable insights, there is also a considerable amount of conflicting advice.

​One professor might tell you it’s a good idea to contact faculty members you want to work with before applying, while another professor advises against it. One academic advisor tells you that GPA is the most important factor in determining who is admitted, but another advisor says your statement of purpose makes has a big impact and grades aren’t always the most important factor. A Ph.D. student advises that potential graduate supervisors should be chosen on the basis of research and the techniques you will learn; a second grad student says that interpersonal compatibility should be your top criterion. One career counsellor tells you the reputation of the program or the university you attended for grad school will make a big difference when you eventually join the workforce; but, someone who already has the master’s or doctoral degree you seek says that the reputation of the school is irrelevant, and the specific knowledge and skills you acquire is all that matters. After spending hours on the Internet trying to answer the question of whether it’s important to contact potential supervisors before applying, all you have determined is that it is either, a) important, b) unimportant, c) essential, d) unwise, e) a waste of time, or f) none of the above. It all depends where you look and whose advice you read. It’s all so frustrating!

​Why is there so much widely varying and even contradictory advice about how to deal with certain aspects of the grad-school or professional-school application process? And how can one make the best decisions despite receiving contradictory advice from ostensibly sound sources? Answering the second question requires first understanding the answer to the first question, because understanding why opinions vary makes it easier to avoid certain pitfalls.

The origins of conflicting advice

​There is a high probability of encountering conflicting advice when attempting to integrate all the insights and suggestions that come up when searching widely on the Internet for general advice. Part of the reason is that aspects of the grad-school application process simply cannot be reduced to one-size-fits-all-situations. For example, there are countless websites, blogs, and online forums where past, present, and prospective graduate students share their experiences. If the site does not cater to students within an academic domain, such as the social sciences, or the STEM disciplines, or fine arts, or business, etc., then visitors are likely to read about experiences from students in all those domains. But some good advice that would apply to a student going for a master’s program in Biochemistry, Engineering, or Exercise Science, will not be such good advice for a student in English, Philosophy, or History.

​It’s not always easy for a student to know when specific advice is really not meant for them. Often, whether or not a particular line of advice is relevant depends on how grad-school applicants are selected in the student’s discipline. For example, in most graduate programs in the humanities or fine arts, students are selected by a small committee of faculty members, and this is also the case in a minority of social sciences departments. But, in most STEM and social science graduate programs the prospective graduate supervisor (a.k.a. graduate advisor) is essentially the only person involved in making decisions about a particular applicant. Due to differences in the selection process among different program domains, there are some differences in how best to deal with certain parts of the application process.

​Even when seeking advice from within your own discipline, you are still likely to come across varying opinions. Professors can be the best source of advice, especially professors who supervise their own graduate students. These are true insiders to the selection process, and they often have special insights that non-professors do not have. But it is important to understand that professors do not receive a guidebook or any kind of training on how to supervise graduate students, or how to go about selecting them. Professors are left to figure it out themselves, so naturally there are a lot of individual differences in terms of how professors perceive different situations. This explains why a student seeking advice about grad-school applications from two professors in the same department can get different opinions from them. For example, one professor might care a lot about applicants’ grades when they choose their own grad students; whereas, another professor might not care much about the grades as long as they are good enough and might focus more on the statement of purpose and the letters of recommendation. Most professors are unaware of how their colleagues evaluate applicants and make their decisions about who to accept, so when they give advice, it will tend to be biased toward what they assume matters to other professors. For instance, while some professors do not care to hear from potential applicants before they apply, the majority does prefer to hear from potential applicants (at least within the STEM and social sciences). The individual professor who doesn’t like it will tell you not to send an email to a potential supervisor, but the one who prefers it will urge you to send the email. The point is that most professors will be able to give you some good insights and advice about most aspects of the grad-school application process, but there may be certain areas where a particular professor cannot properly represent the opinions and views of the majority of other professors in their discipline. Professors simply do not tend to share notes on how they choose their graduate students.

​This is one of the reasons why I interviewed dozens of faculty members and graduate program directors in different disciplines and at universities across U.S. and Canada when I was preparing to write the first edition of my guidebook back in the 1990s, and then again for the second edition in 2012. It is why I continue to survey the opinions of faculty members in different disciplines so I can represent both the majority views and also give a sense of some of the differences, across disciplines and among professors and other decision-makers.

​This next reason for why advice can sometimes vary so much might seem a bit harsh or unfair to the many well-intentioned people who serve as academic advisors to undergraduate students at colleges and universities across the land. Of course, many students seek advice about the grad-school application process from an academic advisor within their department or faculty. Many academic advisors give terrible advice on this topic, simply because they do not have the necessary experience to be able to give reliable or valuable insight. In short, they do not know what they are talking about. This is often the case when the academic advisor has no personal experience supervising graduate students or participating in the selection process. You really have to be an insider to appreciate how it works. But, even though your academic advisor may have gone to graduate school at some point in the past, this does not make that person an insider to the graduate admissions process. Nowadays, it is rare to find an academic advisor who is also a seasoned professor who has personal and direct experience with the grad-school selection process. In many academic departments, the role of academic advisor tends to be given to the most junior faculty members, and in many schools and departments, the academic advisors aren’t even faculty members. Their main responsibilities tend to involve helping students select the right courses in order to complete their degree requirements. An academic advisor might not understand the subtleties of how certain things tend to work when it comes to grad-school admissions, but he or she is not going to plead ignorance, and instead will probably just tell you what they assume to be good advice. Most students will in turn assume that the academic advisor knows what she or he is talking about. That can be a mistake.

​What about advice from current or former graduate students? It seems like they would be a great source of advice about how to tackle various aspects of the grad-school application process. After all, they went through it themselves and succeeded. Some will indeed have a good understanding of how things generally work. But, most graduate students are also in the dark about certain things, just like the majority of academic advisors — and for similar reasons. Grad students do not have first-hand experience with the peculiarities of the selection process, or how the decision-makers actually reach their decisions. Good-intentions are usually behind all the advice, but some of it may still be off the mark.

​Finally, I want to say one more thing about professors who are experienced insiders to the grad-school application and selection process: The vast majority have seldom, if ever, given any deep thought to the finer details of the process from the perspective of the students, so they don’t always appreciate what information or insight will benefit students the most. It’s simply not a topic on the radar of most professors. This is not intended to disparage other professors for their opinions or advice. It’s just not a topic that most tend to spend time thinking about. On the other hand, there are some professors who have dedicated a great deal of time and effort throughout their careers to researching the topic through interviews with others and extensive personal experience. Some of them end up writing guidebooks, or blogs, and some even end up being academic advisors!

Want Help With Your Applications to Grad School? I Wish You Had Come Sooner

Posted on August 17th, 2017 by Dave G. Mumby, Ph.D.

An old Chinese proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

I love the wisdom of these words, in both a literal sense and as a metaphor for many situations encountered in life. In a literal sense, the proverb has personal relevance for me, as my wife and I have been growing vegetables in our backyard garden for many years, and I have often yearned to also have a small orchard of apple and cherry trees that would provide a bounty of fruit. I have had this longing for many years, but did nothing about it until I finally planted several apple and cherry trees, two years ago. Pondering this Chinese proverb – especially the second part — helped motivate me to stop delaying and finally plant those trees. We don’t expect significant amounts of fruit for another few years, because trees do not tend to produce very much until they are several years old. But the time will come when our trees are mature and we will have lots of cherries and apples to eat.

The proverb is also a good metaphor for an issue that many college and university students run into when they start preparing to apply to graduate school. Most wait until a few months before applications deadlines before thinking about how they might gain some advantage in the competition for admission, and although it might seem like 4 to 6 months is ample time to put together a winning application, certain essential extracurricular elements can take more like a year or two to put in place.

The best time to begin preparing for graduate school applications is last year

One of the main reasons why certain grad-school applicants are accepted while most are rejected is because the successful ones have effective letters of recommendation from the right people. Most unsuccessful applicants are rejected in part because their letters of recommendation were ineffective. As I have explained in another article, letters of recommendation are highly influential in determining the fate of most graduate school applications – even more so than the applicants’ grades. A professor who only knows a student from the classroom and exam performance will not be able to provide an effective letter recommendation for graduate school. A professor may very well be willing to provide a letter of recommendation for a student who earned an A+ grade in a course, but if the professor knows only about the student’s academic strengths, then there will be very little relevant substance to the letter.

The best time to start taking steps to prepare for grad school is when you still have at least 2 years before you will be applying to programs. This time should be used to acquire relevant experience and set the groundwork for letters of recommendation that will eventually help you get in.

As I have discussed many times before on this blog, the benefits that come from getting relevant experience for grad school preparation usually go far beyond any skills or knowledge that are gained from the experience. Even more valuable is the opportunity to be seen in action and evaluated – to have your best qualities discovered by someone who will later be able to endorse your graduate school application with an effective letter of recommendation.

Everyone knows you need some relevant experience to have a competitive grad-school application, but too many people mistakenly assume the important thing is simply to be able to show evidence of having relevant experience in a CV, in a cover letter, or on an application form. This is a mistake. Just having some amount of seemingly relevant experience does not put anyone ahead in the competition to get into a graduate program, because everyapplicant will have some.

The most significant benefit that potentially comes from getting the right type of experience is that it’s the best way to set up the influential letters of recommendation. Those recommendation letters should describe how the applicant has demonstrated skills, abilities, and character attributes that are essential for success in graduate school. (Read more about the importance of applicant-evaluation forms (more…)