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.