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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!

Getting Into Graduate School With or Without Excellent Grades

Posted on March 22nd, 2017 by Dave G. Mumby, Ph.D.

Many factors determine whether someone will be accepted into a graduate program, but most students who apply to grad school are completely in the dark about how the process of selecting applicants works. As a consequence, most applicants will make a number of missteps that hamper their success, due either to miscalculation or naivety.

A great deal of confusion surrounds the role that grades and GPA play in determining the outcome of an application, and most students overestimate that role. Meanwhile, most students underestimate the importance of how they come across as a person, along with other factors that can sometimes weigh more heavily than grades. Few students realize that their letters of recommendation will be the deal-maker or breaker in most cases, and even fewer know how to make sure their letters are actually helpful rather than a hindrance to their acceptance. How important is the personal statement? How long should it be, and what should be in it? What about standardized test scores (e.g., the GRE)? How high do they have to be?

There are a lot of issues that must be addressed along the way to a successful grad school application. Many questions must be answered, and critical decisions made. And there is no shortage of people who are happy to give advice on how to handle it. Problem is, most people give bad advice on how to prepare for graduate school and how to put together a winning application. This includes the majority of academic advisors, career counsellors, most professors, and many people who were successful themselves at navigating the application process and getting in. It’s true – even the people one would expect to give the most solid information and advice are more likely to give you vague, generic, or inaccurate information and advice. The most well-prepared students sometimes fail to realize why their applications to graduate school were successful, and those that are rejected will never be told why.

The remainder of today’s post consists of a comment left by a reader a few years ago, along with my rather long reply. I think her confusion will seem familiar to some of the students reading this blog, today. Hopefully, my reply will help clear up a few things. This is especially likely if readers take the time to read the other content to which I have provided links.

D.L. asked the following:

“Hi Prof. Mumby,
I find this whole grad school thing very confusing actually…simply because so many people give such different opinions and “scare stories.”

I used to be under the impression that getting into grad school was notoriously difficult and that it was a fight to the death.

I have since chosen to work as a full-time RA first instead of going straight to school. Besides gaining more experience, I also figured I wanted to know if I could stomach doing this for the rest of my life. Since then, I’ve visited the faculty I intend to do my grad studies in and imagine my surprise when I was almost assured I would get in, as opposed to the usual “oh you have to be outstanding and make your application stand out” kind of talk.

True, I have a 4.0 GPA (the grad chair took one look at my transcript and said: “you’ll get in and it would surprise me tremendously if you didn’t. I also suspect you would be quite a popular candidate among the faculty”), but I have always been given the impression there is more to getting admitted than grades. After all, don’t most people who apply have outstanding/stellar grades (or close to) anyway?

Now, I’m just…confused :p

Cheers!”

My reply:

“Thank-you for the comments, DL. The process of applying to and being admitted to grad school is like no other process we are familiar with, and I often hear from students who feel somewhat confused. I’ll try my best to clarify it all for you.

I’ll start by pointing out that your experiences provide good examples for some key points I made in some previous posts. The following post What if the Guru is Wrong About That? should be read along with this post Graduate School Admission and the Influence of a Stellar GPA in order to get all the related points on the role of grades in the grad-school admissions process. 

To answer your question, “Don’t most people who apply have outstanding/stellar grades (or close to) anyway?” — No, this does not describe the majority of grad school applicants. Of course, it depends on how one defines a stellar GPA. I indicate in the original post that by ‘stellar’ or ‘outstanding’ I’m referring to grades that are like yours — near or at 4.00. Many students have GPAs that are still very good or excellent, say, between 3.30 and 3.80, and they make up the majority of grad school applicants in most fields. The latter type of GPA is good enough for grad school, but not in the same league as a GPA between 3.90 and 4.00, which is highly likely to get the student some scholarship support (which is good for the graduate program and the student’s grad supervisor, not to mention a nice reward for the student’s own hard work and achievements). 

One possible reason for some of the confusion you describe is that you’re getting advice from many people, but some of them don’t know what they are talking about. You will hear a lot of people repeating the same misconceptions, and this can make those mistaken ideas seem valid. I’ve discussedthe common misconceptions,before, and also the issue of getting advice from the right sources. I strongly recommend you read those previous posts.

You wonder whether it is really true that in order to get into a good graduate program “you have to be outstanding and make your application stand out”. Well, it’s not really about making your application stand out — it’s about making yourself stand out as an applicant. I would say that you are a good example of someone who is doing just that! You are doing certain things beyond having a stellar GPA that are probably contributing to a very positive impression, even though you might not realize what a large role those factors are playing.

For example, you worked as an RA before applying to grad school. This is a huge plus in your favor, for reasons I have previously discussed in this blog while writing about the importance of getting relevant experience before applying to graduate school (here is another link to a blog post on the difference between relevant and irrelevant experience). Moreover, you actually visited the program (at least one of them) that interests you the most, and spoke with faculty members there. I have previously discussed why making this kind of visit before applying is essentialto improving one’s chances of getting in. Some faculty members, myself included, will never accept a new graduate student who has not made some kind of pre-application contact, and the in-person visit is the best type of contact. It shows a lot about the student’s good judgment, among other things. You might be surprised to hear this, but most grad-school applicants do not bother making that visit! Most applicants just send in their application materials and hope for the best. They have zero chance with some of those applications, but they don’t even realize it!

Visiting goes a long way to getting accepted, as long as you don’t make a flat or negative impression while you’re there. You might have said or done any number of things while visiting that made you stand out from a typical grad school applicant even more than your super-high GPA. As I have discussed on previous occasions, one’s character and personality, various social skills, and work habits tend to determine success or failure in graduate school. Someone might have already surmised some of these things about you by the time they looked at your transcript. You might be assuming they saw straight As and thought something like, “this person will ace all her graduate courses and therefore she will be a great graduate student.” But, it’s unlikely the actual thought process was anything like that.

So, I’m not at all surprised that you were basically told you would almost certainly be accepted. As I have mentioned before, this happens a lot, and a significant proportion of grad students are implicitly accepted before they even apply. This is what is happening with you.

You seem to be well on your way to being admitted to a graduate program of your choice. But, you will still need to make some important decisions. Are you applying to the best program for you? Will you need to choose a supervisor at the outset of the program, or is it a program in which you are assigned to a supervisor only after some time? In either case, you will need to know how to choose a supervisor. Other than yourself, your grad supervisor will be the most important person in determining what you get out of grad school. Are you prepared for the stark differences between undergraduate school and graduate school? Do not make the mistake of assuming that grad school is all about taking advanced courses that deal with more complicated subject matter than undergraduate courses. It’s not like that at all, in most disciplines (apart from a few sciences, like physics and mathematics).”

A person can get a lot of consistent and authoritative advice on grad school admissions by reading through the archives of this blog, and by visiting the MyGraduateSchool website. Much of this advice is also available in one place — my handbook, Graduate School: Winning Strategies for Getting In. You can purchase it at amazon.com for a small fraction of the cost of a grad-school application, and it’s also available as an e-book or kindle. Graduate-school application fees are always non-refundable, so it’s easy to waste a few dollars on unsuccessful applications. The book will pay for itself many times over.