Every single year (literally) thousands of posts litter the internet, from Reddit to Gradcafe to Quora. All these people asking the same question:
Does the GRE writing section of matter?
From July – November anxiety and panic ensue.
English PhD applicants who just received a 4.5 are certain that life is over.
Engineering applicants who want validation that their 5.5 will help their chances of admission.
Over. And over. And over. No more! We’re here to provide the final nail in this GRE writing coffin.
The GRE writing section only truly impacts three groups of people, and we’ve listed them below in descending order of impact. Drum roll.
The writing section matters for international applicants, and more specifically, for english as a second language applicants. It’s possible to make the case that this is the only group of people it impacts. Here’s why.
There have been, and continue to be, cases of fraud in higher education. It happens. People lie. This is true in the US and it’s true abroad. One of the more common instances of fraud from overseas students is paying someone to write their statement of purpose. It isn’t that hard to find a native speaker, perhaps one who knows their field (chemistry, history, whatever).
Some applicants don’t think their english is good enough for acceptance to top universities, despite high stats. Some didn’t do well on the TOEFL and think an eloquent SoP will push their application over the edge. And of course, as in the US, some realize how important a strong research proposal is for the SoP and simply hire a professional researcher.
Admissions committees only have two ways of weeding these applicants out. They use plagiarism software to detect recycled writing, and they check the persons GRE writing score. If someone wrote a Pulitzer worthy statement of purpose, and got a 1.5 on the writing section–red flags go up. Sure, it’s possible they cultivated an amazing piece of writing over the course of months to years–but even that process should teach them to write beyond a 1.5 level on the GRE. It’s true that speaking english as a second language puts you at a deficit, and many international applicants get 2-4 on the writing section. This doesn’t matter much if the statement is consistent. American universities don’t mind accepting people with less than perfect english skills–but they don’t want to accept applicants who potentially forged materials on their application.
Perfect Score Applicants
This impacts very few people, but we would be remiss not to mention it. One case where an amazing writing score actually says something is if you get perfect or nearly perfect scores on the other sections of the test. This may sound counterintuitive so we’ll use examples.
Applicant #1 Applicant #2 Applicant #3
Quantitative: 170 Quantitative: 161 Quantitative: 159
Verbal: 169 Verbal: 158 Verbal: 161
Writing: 6 Writing: 4.5 Writing: 5.5
Applicant #1 is very impressive. Not just because they have a high quant or a high verbal. It makes you take notice because they did nearly perfect on everything. It’s hard to get a high score on any section, it’s harder to do well on both, and it’s very rare to do incredibly well on the whole thing. That kind of score took months of practice, studying, and learning how to beat the test–almost obsessively. That is the kind of applicant schools like MIT and Stanford generally like to recruit.
Now look at Applicants #2 and #3. How do you feel when you see those numbers? If you’re on an admissions committee, you’re aware that GRE scores are very subjective and are only broad indicators, and you see zero difference between #2 and #3. A point or two difference doesn’t wow or sway anyone. The committee will quickly move on to what the rest of their portfolio looks like, not even making much of a note on their respective scores beyond being in the same ballpark. This is true if you’re studying philosophy, physics, or psychology. These minute differences don’t matter, because they can’t possible differentiate better/worse candidates.
Oddly Low (Real Low) Scores
The only other group that should take note of their GRE writing score are those who got a legitimately low score despite being a native english speaker. When we say low, we mean objectively low, which means <2.5. Even a 2.5 on the writing section is described by ETS as:
“Displays some competence in analytical writing skills, although the writing is flawed in at least one of the following ways: limited analysis or development; weak organization; weak control of sentence structure or language usage, with errors that often result in vagueness or lack of clarity.”
That description isn’t that bad, on top of being pretty vague. If you got a 1.5 or a 2, regardless of how well or not well you did on the other sections, it isn’t a bad idea to mention why (briefly) somewhere in your application. A score that low usually has a reason behind it–you were sick, the keyboard was difficult to type on, a panic attack during the first part of the test, whatever. You don’t want to sound like you’re making excuses, but if you don’t say anything you’re opening yourself up to an eyebrow raise when they see it. It’s natural for any person to wonder what happened. To be honest, it still probably won’t impact your application, but it always looks good to acknowledge shortcomings instead of leaving it dangle in peoples minds without explanation.
That’s it. Really.
But we can hear the outcry already.
“But I’m applying to English programs and only got a 3.5!”
“I have a Creative Writing degree and got a 4!!”
Yeah, we get it. But you need to calm down and think about it rationally for a second.
Are the GRE v/q section about how intelligent you are? No. They’re about how well you can take the GRE exam. The GRE is a test of work ethic in most cases. Getting over 160 on either section (usually) requires studying, fortitude, and persistence. But nobody in their right mind actually thinks the GRE quant section is a perfect indicator of how good someone is at math. This is even more true for the GRE writing section. It’s graded by a computer!
There are Literature professors who can’t make definitive statements on what constitutes great writing, so why would anyone believe a computer algorithm can? The only thing the computer has going for it is consistency. It can’t appreciate irony, satire, or beautiful prose. This is why so many great writers tend to get low scores on the writing section: they write for a person instead of a computer. Admissions committees know this, which is why they assess your writing for themselves through your samples and statement of purpose.
Lastly, if your program is legitimately that concerned about your GRE writing score, even after reading your writing samples and statement (they won’t be, but we’re playing devils advocate)–they have the option to see your essays! Yes, they can request that ETS send them your original essays to read. But the truth is that they’d only do that if they thought it mattered, and they don’t, which is why that request is almost never made.
So why make people take it at all? That’s a complicated question, but there are some general truths. First, ETS makes the exam–not university professors, so they get to decide what to put on it and how much to charge. Second, no school is ever going to say outright that they think a part of their application is useless. The closest they’ll get to saying that is simply not mentioning it all (when is the last time you read a discussion about the GRE writing section on a departments admission webpage?). Lastly, the writing portion does help programs assess cheating in overseas students, and can add the tiniest bit of extra differentiation in extremely high scoring applicants.
**If you haven’t taken the GRE yet and you want a great score–pay attention to the advice and sample essays ETS provides in their book. Pleasing the computer algorithm involves: writing long essays (scores correlate to length), using a lot of different types of sentence structures (lists, semicolons, short, long, etc), using idioms, good grammar, and high end vocabulary.**
Got specific questions? Leave us a comment, we love hearing from you.
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