higher education

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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Professors May Know You Better Than You Think (and That Might Not Be a Good Thing

Posted on February 3rd 2017

When we interact with other people, we form attitudes and opinions about them based on what they say and do. Our attitudes and opinions can be challenged if we later observe a person behaving toward others in a manner that is inconsistent with our initial impressions of their character and comportment. If our first impressions of someone are negative, it can require a lot of positive observations to reverse our negative opinions. First they have to climb out of the hole they are in.

You Are Being Watched

Most students underestimate how much of their behavior is noticed by certain professors they encounter. It is important to realize that certain comments or behaviors that are innocuous to some people may still evoke disdain in others who have different attitudes about those things. For example, some students misjudge how their appearance or outward behavioral tendencies affect the attitudes that certain professors have about them. Students who stand out by dressing garishly or sporting showy make-up or hair-styles may find it harder to earn respect based on any truly relevant strengths they possess than do the conformists. This is not fair or rational, but it reflects an aspect of human nature. When we form an impression of someone from a few sketchy interactions, that person’s most salient traits or characteristics can obscure other traits that are actually more pertinent. The message here is that students who have a style or character that is a bit outrageous should consider toning it down when they are at school.

But, how much does is actually matter what your professors think of you on a personal level? It might matter quite a lot. Students who might someday need letters of recommendation from professors should understand that their behavior today, whether positive or negative, may still be reflected in the attitude that a professor has about them one or two years from now. Naturally, most professors will come to like or dislike some students more than others. Nobody is going to write a good letter of recommendation for someone they dislike, so students should be thinking about how their behavior could affect their chances of having support from professors later on.

Some of the student behaviors that professors dislike are obvious: The worst include talking with classmates or rolling eyes or smirking while the professor is speaking, or frequently arriving late for class or leaving early without any apparent good reason. One of the most frequent displays of disrespect in the classroom these days is to be looking at your smartphone, tablet, or laptop computer while the professor is talking. Students who think they will not be noticed or remembered because there are several other students doing the same thing are wrong about that. Of course, it depends on the professor, too. The important point is that some are very observant, and they are watching you, even if they aren’t doing so purposefully.

Some students fail to realize that they are insulting a professor when they complain about the way an exam, paper, or project was graded. Students perceived as arrogant or pretentious, or as loud, childish, silly or immature, will find it difficult to reverse those perceptions, even if they begin to behave more appropriately.

How to Dig a Hole and Jump In

Some students engage in certain behaviors that they think will make a good impression on their professors, but with the opposite result. For instance, some professors encourage students to ask questions and voice their opinions in lectures, but dislike it when a student does too much of this and ends up monopolizing class discussions. Most professors don’t mind if a student occasionally drops by the office to talk about academic matters, but some students do this far too frequently, or even worse, they take up their professors’ time with their personal problems.

Among the behaviors commonly disliked are some that students would not expect professors to even notice or care about. One example is when students put in little effort and, as a result, do poorly on a midterm exam and later expect extra help outside of class to help them prepare for the final exam. Some professors may feel negatively about students who seem to always be anxious about minor things, or always stern-faced and much too serious, or chronically depressed. Everyone appreciates a complement, but some students compliment their professors in a manner that is perceived as manipulative. Teaching assistants, most of whom are graduate students, also observe undergraduate student behavior and they may pass on their own stories to their professors.

Some professors have more disdain for certain negative behaviors than other professors do, but naturally, all have some limit to what they can tolerate before they begin to dislike a student. Most professors are reasonable and will overlook an irritating behavior if the student otherwise shows very good promise. Most realize that students occasionally encounter personal problems or circumstances that legitimately take precedence over their studies. Even the most dedicated students may understandably become preoccupied for several days following a serious fight with a spouse, or the death of someone close to them, or some other tragic circumstance. Although most professors are sympathetic enough to occasionally grant an extension on an assignment, or to reschedule an exam for a student with personal problems, repeated requests for this kind of special consideration may indicate that the student is unable to cope with adult life and responsibilities. The same student is not likely to be able to cope with the demands of graduate school.

Students sometimes make the mistake of disparaging others when explaining the consequences of their own previous mistakes or shortcomings. Never, ever, blame a bad grade you received on the professor! Over-exuberance can also make a negative impression, although the people who display this tendency may not realize the extent to which it weighs negatively on how they come across to some people. People who behave effusively may be perceived as insincere, or even manipulative. No one will be convinced that you belong in graduate school because you say that you’re “really, really, really passionate” about the field of study. The point is not to avoid being enthusiastic, because enthusiasm and motivation are essential. Most people like others who have a cheerful demeanor. Just be careful not to overdo it, or else others may assume that you are insincere. Students who are too nonchalant or casual may come across as being not sufficiently interested or motivated.

Students who will later need positive letters of recommendation must do more than avoid behaviors that professors dislike. They should also give their professors some reason to have good opinions about them. It is not enough to “blend into the woodwork,” as this will not give the professor anything positive to say in a letter.

So, what are examples of admired student behavior that contribute to professors’ attitudes of students they like? As with disliked behaviors or characteristics, some of the admired ones are obvious: students who seldom or never miss a class, are attentive and ask insightful questions, and who occasionally participate in class discussions. I personally like to see students turn their attention directly to me and immediately close their phones, tablets, or laptops as soon as I begin a lecture. These behaviors give the impression that the student is interested in the course, and that he or she respects me and is mindful of why we are there in the first place.

Among the student behaviors that professors like are some that students would not expect professors to even notice or care about. For instance, professors like to see students help each other. Sharing your notes with a student who missed a class might save the professor from having to spend extra time going over the material with that student. Some professors like it when students smile and say “hello” when they pass by outside of class, and most prefer when a student is willing to make eye contact rather than blatantly trying to avoid it. Some professors respect students who have the courage to disagree with them in class from time-to-time, as long as it is done in a respectful manner.

For the most part, the relations that exist between a student’s behavior and a professor’s attitudes about the student are nothing more than common sense. The most important point to be taken from all of this is that your behavior is on display much of the time, and professors who come into contact with you on a regular basis are likely to use their observations of your behaviors to develop opinions about your character. Those opinions will be reflected in any letter of recommendation they might eventually write for you.

Context matters. Something a professor just happens to notice you do or hears you say in the hallway one day might leave no significant impression. It might not enter the observer’s stream of consciousness for more than a moment, and it might be forgotten just as quickly. But in a different context, the same observation might have much greater impact and lasting consequences.

Many students appreciate that it is essential to get some relevant experience before applying to graduate school. One of the most common ways of accomplishing this is to volunteer to help professors with their research. This is the best way to set up the most relevant and effective letters of recommendation that will be helpful down the road when applying to graduate school, or to a professional degree program, or for a postgraduate scholarship, or for a job. Some students fail to realize that one of the most important benefits that can come from volunteering as a research assistant is that it puts them in situations that allow the supervising professor to see how they work, how they interact with others, their independence, motivation, communication skills, maturity, emotional stability, and the list goes on. These are the kinds of things professors tend to write about in a letter of recommendation. In fact, most graduate programs explicitly request that individuals providing recommendation letters evaluate the applicant on at least some of these dimensions.

Some students make the mistake of seeking out opportunities as volunteer research assistants without knowing all the reasons why it is important to do so, especially if they plan to apply to graduate school, someday. Many students mistakenly believe it’s all about getting the relevant experience, and they don’t consider how the impression they leave on the supervising professor can come back to either help or harm them several months or a couple of years down the road. There are ways to make the most of a volunteer research position, and there are ways to inadvertently make it a huge waste of your time and effort. This general topic is discussed in a previous post, “How to Make the Least of a Volunteer Research Position“. Anyone planning to volunteer as a research assistant with a professor should read that article. It might help avoid disadvantages thar are difficult to overcome.

Do you have questions or comments about anything mentioned in this article? Please consider sharing them in the comment section. I will try to answer any appropriate questions. Alternatively, if you are interested in communicating directly with me to receive personalized guidance and advice on any aspect of your educational or career planning, you might consider using my consultation services. We can cover a lot of ground in 30 minutes!