GRE exam scores can be the first hurdle to getting into the grad school you want.Exactly how important is your GRE exam for getting into grad school?

If you’re on going to grad school in the near future, chances are you’ll have to take the GRE exam. Unfortunately, grad schools are all over the map on exactly how they use those scores. For some schools, it can be the first hurdle you have to get past in order for them to even look at your application. For example, “If you don’t get over a 320 cumulative, we won’t even talk to you.” Other schools may use it as a tie-breaker at the end of the admissions process to separate you from other applicants with similar qualifications. Most schools, however, will plug your GRE scores into a formula that gives different degrees of importance to different parts of your application. They might weight your GRE verbal score and undergrad GPA as very important while giving less weight to your GRE quantitative score and their admissions essays. Or it could be just the opposite. Others will look at your overall GRE score as a single number, while many won’t even bother with your GRE written analytical score.

So what’s a GRE score?

Regardless, a good GRE exam score is usually going to really help you get in to the grad school you are looking at, and it may also help you get TA spots and fellowships (translation: MONEY) once you are in. So what’s a good GRE score? A good score is one that is higher than the one most applicants to that particular grad school have. In other words, it totally depends on that grad school and your competition. A non-competitive GRE score won’t necessarily keep you out of most grad schools. It will just make it harder to get in. High GRE scores mean bragging rights for the grad school. It makes them look good if they have lots of students with high GRE scores. Think of it like dressing up when you go to a job . Can you get the job without dressing nice for the interview? Probably, if your other qualifications are good enough. Dressing up just makes it much easier. A good GRE score makes you look more attractive to that grad school.

Is my GRE score good enough?

There are several ways to figure that out; ask the admissions counselor, see if your scores are competitive, and just assume better scores will help. First, ask the admissions counselor at the grad school you are looking at how your GRE scores stack up. Be aware, however, they will tell you what the grad school wants them to tell you, and, as mentioned before, good scores are bragging rights for them. I suggest you schedule an appointment–either in person or by phone–and spend some time getting to know that counselor before you ask about your GRE scores. Once they see you as a human being, rather than some random person asking about GRE scores, they are much more likely to consider your other qualities as well. You: “So, it says on your website you’re looking for at least a 162 quantitative score, but I only got a 160.” Counselor, “We like to have a 162, but with your GPA, that 160 shouldn’t be a problem.” Score! Secondly, you can check other resources to see if your GRE scores are competitive. Recently, the company that makes the GRE–released statistics on GRE scores by field of study, race, gender, country of origin, and more. Check that out to see how you compare to your competition. Finally, it’s probably best to just assume you will benefit from better scores. Remember, even if your scores are good enough to get you in, things such as scholarships, teaching assistant (TA) positions, and other opportunities, may depend directly on your GRE scores. For example, “We will give this TA spot to the highest GRE score that applies,” or “To be eligible for this $10,000 scholarship, applicants must score in the top 10% on their GRE.” You can take the GRE exam up to five times in a year, and you can now choose which–if any–of those scores you want to send to a particular grad school, so don’t settle for your first, or even second, score.

What can I do to get my scores up?

There are many different ways GRE prep and get your GRE exam scores up. You can take a GRE practice , take a GRE prep class (like mine), or practice on your own using free resources. First, taking a GRE practice test is any easy way to see how you will do and get some experience. Download the free PowerPrep software from ETS here. It’s the real test made by the real test makers. You can take a unique GRE practice test on your computer (PC only, right now) and review your missed problems later. GRE prep companies also provide GRE practice test material, but beware, their quality is often not very good, even with the big name companies. Their GRE practice test may be good enough to familiarize you with the problem types, but take the scores you get with a grain of salt. They may have tested out their questions on five or ten people in their office, but ETS has tested the real questions on thousands of people. Second, you can take a GRE prep course like mine. There are lots of big companies out there that offer GRE prep, but be aware, a GRE course can easily set you back more than a thousand dollars and more than forty hours of your valuable time. While each GRE course goes to great pains to prove themselves different than all the others, there really isn’t much difference in the basic techniques they teach. I’ve been through most of their GRE prep books; it’s all the same stuff with different names. Find a GRE course that won’t take a ton of your time; while many will advertise forty-hour courses, the techniques take less than sixteen hours to communicate. They buffer the rest of that time with practice which you can easily do on your own for free. Also look for a GRE course with an experienced instructor. The big companies have a branch near most major colleges. That means they need lots of instructors, but their $1200 courses don’t get many students. Poor grad students to the rescue. They often hire grad students to teach their courses, because the grad students will work for low wages and are willing to go through a week or two of training in order to start teaching you. Unfortunately, grad students don’t stay around for very long, so the companies are always hiring someone new. Bottomline; most prep courses have instructors who are only a little more familiar with the GRE than you are. I try to fix all of these problems in my own course. Finally, you can practice on your own using free (or purchased) resources. There are plenty of free resources on the internet. Start by searching for “GRE practice” on my website. Most of the resources are still formatted in the question types from the old GRE, but the content is almost completely the same. Don’t bother buying a GRE prep book; go to the library and check one out. The content does not change significantly from year to year. I know, because I go through most of the new prep books every year to see if there’s anything new I should be teaching in my class (this is the same class, incidentally, that I teach up at University during the summers). Be careful, though, not all the prep books are created equal. Check out their rating on Amazon first. Even some of the big established companies put out some truly horrendous GRE resources. And sometimes it’s really difficult to know from the book exactly what’s important and what isn’t. A book may devote three sentences to prime numbers and prime factoring, for example, when that’s actually a really useful thing to know on the GRE. On the other hand, they often devote chapters to grammar and punctuation rules. That is way more than most people need, and, for the people who really do need that help with English grammar and punctuation, those chapters are not nearly enough.

Best wishes as you prepare for your GRE. Please let me know in the comments if you have further questions, and please link to this, “like” it, etc. to help get the word out.

© Cody Blair, All Rights Reserved.


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