Grad School With Low GRE Scores? Yes!
We’re going to try and convince you that you can get into graduate school with a mediocre GRE score. In some cases even a low one. It won’t be easy. No matter how many times applicants are told that GRE scores don’t matter relative to other application materials, students still spend months and months studying for the GRE and often only spend a week or two on other aspects. Regardless, we’re still going to try and reset your thinking before you go too far off the deep end.
It’s helpful to sit down and think about the numbers involved.
From the ETS website, approximately 570,000 examinees took the test in 2014, 6% listed that they intended to apply to business school for an MBA, which for our purposes we’ll subtract out.
So we’ve got around 540,000 who took the GRE with the intention of going to (non-MBA) graduate school. Some of these people end up never applying. There are plenty of reasons for this: companies that require applicants to take the GRE, a healthy amount of people take the GRE and don’t apply based on low scores, and individuals who end up eschewing grad school for a job offer. Despite this, and for the sake of illustration, we’ll say that those 540,000 all applied to US graduate programs in the same year. We’ll ignore that some people apply who took the GRE previous years. They should roughly cancel with those who take the GRE and wait to apply.
Most people consider a 165 on Quant and Verbal to be good enough to get you in “anywhere”, in that you won’t be thrown out based on GRE scores alone, even if you’re applying to MIT. So lets look at the percentiles and calculate just how many people got those scores. Please keep in mind that all of these numbers are approximate.
165 Verbal, 95% — 27,000 test takers
165 Quantitative, 90% — 54,000 test takers
Ok, so across the entire world there are about 27,000 people who got a 165 (or higher) quantitative score and 54,000 people who got a 165 (or higher) verbal score last year. That may seem like a lot of people, but it really isn’t. To illustrate why, take a quick look at the number of incoming (newly admitted) graduate students each year at top US programs:
So for incoming graduate students, if we assume that the above listed “Top Graduate Schools” take ONLY 165 and higher applicants, that would mean that these 11 schools take up all applicants (from across the globe) with a 165+ verbal score, and over half of all 165+ quantitative applicants.
Now, this thought experiment isn’t without its shortcomings: Most applicants have skewed scores (high quant / lower verbal or high verbal / lower quant) based on their field, GRE score requirements scale more with departments than with universities, there can be very different standards for PhD vs master’s programs, and international applicants need a higher GRE score than US applicants to get accepted in most cases (largely due to unknown variables in education quality).
That said, these numbers still provide a lot of information. There are thousands of graduate programs across the United States. There is no way that those 11 universities are taking all or even most of the top GRE scores. Moreover, the GRE is required for admission to top universities outside the United States as well. The University of Tokyo, Oxford University, Cambridge University, and Imperial College London are just a couple of the hundreds of top international schools that require students to take the GRE. Many top scoring applicants apply to these schools exclusively, meaning that a chunk of top GRE score applicants never even apply to US programs.
For those international test takers who do end up applying to US programs, another factor comes into play. As a general rule, international applicants need higher GRE scores to be admitted to US programs than their American counterparts. Given that many of these top scores are from foreign applicants, where the high marks are a requirement instead of a bonus, the pool of American “top scoring applicants” gets even smaller. Take this table from the ETS test taker report from 2014:
Given these numbers, how many people from China got quantitative scores above 165? By the way, this is an excellent GRE quant comparison question, so try to work it through!
The point we’re making is that most people get into great programs with GRE scores below the 90th percentile. If you still need some convincing, read through the GRE test taker summary. While we don’t recommend obsessing for too long over these tables, a quick scan should really help give you some clarity on where most of your competition is in regard to scores.
Convinced you yet? Almost? Ok we’ll give you two concrete (real) examples:
Studied biology and math in undergraduate at a large Top 100 state university. Got good grades and had research experience at a national lab. Took some time off after undergrad and traveled. Worked at two universities in Europe to get some international experience, then applied to PhD programs in biophysics (two years after their undergrad graduation). This person got into a biophysics PhD program at Johns Hopkins University, a top 15 program. What were their GRE scores? Prepare yourself:
Yes. A top 15 program with GRE scores below average in every section. Is this what usually happens? No. Does it happen regularly? You betchya.
Undergraduate in materials engineering from top 10 university with two summer REUs. Three years off to work in a professional setting, totally unrelated to materials science. Attended (and graduated from) two master’s programs at Top 100 schools in unrelated fields. Applied to PhD programs at 31 and had to retake the GRE before that application process, because old scores had expired. Was accepted to Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences for a PhD program:
This applicant had amazing letters of recommendation and fantastic research experience. In the end that’s what mattered.
If this is true, why isn’t it common knowledge?
There are a couple reasons you probably don’t hear about these stories very often:
(1) For a lot of graduate programs, a third to one half the admits are international. For international applicants, it’s important to have higher GRE scores. This isn’t about discriminating against international applicants–if that was the case they’d simply let in fewer foreign students. Earth is a big place with thousands of universities. US admissions committee don’t know the exact program standards, curricula, and grading scheme of every single nation, let alone university, in the world. What they do know is that to be accredited in the United States schools have to meet a minimum set of standards. To combat this imbalance of information between local/international applicants, admission committees use the only objective standard at their disposal when assessing international students– the GRE. The general GRE is the same whether you take it in Mongolia or Philly. What does this mean? It means that a lot of international applicants with good GRE scores still don’t get admitted anywhere in the US. This is particularly true of the quant section. These test takers skew the average GRE scores dramatically upward.
(2) No school wants to advertise that they accept low GRE score applicants. Universities need grants, endowments, and a reputable image, which are much easier to get if you’re exclusive. Even if a program doesn’t think the GRE is that important, they’d never go out of their way to advertise “HEY, WE ACCEPT SUPER LOW GRE SCORES!!” The truth is that if they didn’t accept lower GRE scores, they’d just make a cutoff, and plenty of programs do that. Yale Economics for instance says not to apply with below a 163 quantitative score. If they don’t say this explicitly, it’s because they want to judge each application in its entirety rather than rely on arbitrary standardized testing cutoffs.
(3) The level of emphasis placed on GRE scores varies not just by school, but by field–very consistently. If you take the time to mill through hundreds of thousands of university admission pages and graduate admissions results, a trend will emerge quickly. Some departments are hardcore about the GRE, some aren’t. You should know if your field falls into this category. For example, business and economics programs arguably care more about the quant section (on average) than do a lot of engineering programs.
(4) Testing is big business. Kaplan, Magoosh, ETS, testing centers, Manhattan Prep, flash cards, books. A lot of people make a lot of money on these tests. It helps to be aware that there is a large business lobby whose sole intention is to convince applicants that they need their services. Conversely, there is no business lobby trying to convince you that letters of recommendation are crucial to your future success, because nobody makes money on them. As you enter this application season, keep that in mind as you scan through online GRE aids and browse the endless prep books available on Amazon.
(5) Students who get into great schools rarely want to advertise that they did poorly on the GRE. Ego and embarrassment mix together and give little incentive to get on Gradcafe and brag about getting into Harvard with really low GRE scores. In some cases we’ve even seen other applicants get aggressive and verbally abusive when someone admits to getting low scores after an acceptance. Often this anger stems from that person placing far too much emphasis on GRE scores instead of other materials, and being rejected as a result. Bitterness ensues and insults start to fly. As a result the likelihood of people with low scores coming forward decreases even more.
So what’s the take away here? Minute for minute, time spent on other parts of your application pay much higher dividends.
The GRE is a critical part of your application, and great scores can really bolster your application. That said, an average score in no way means your application is doomed. At the end of the day most programs care more about your grades, research experience, and letters of recommendation. Unless you know for certain your dream program is incredibly strict when it comes to the GRE, don’t let a modest score keep you from applying.