GRE retesting
November 19, 2004 10:45 AM   Subscribe

So I just bombed my GRE: 700 verbal, 660 math. I don't know the exact percentile of each, but I know its low, especially the math. How do grad schools handle re-tests? Do they just look at the highest one, like most undergrad admissions offices do? Do they average the two, like I think I heard somewhere they did? Something else? Is it worth taking them again, or should I just kiss grad school goodbye and get on with life?
posted by anonymous to Education (28 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
>Is it worth taking them again, or should I just kiss grad school goodbye and get on with life?

That all depends on WHY you want to do that.

Are you going to university/college just for a diploma? Because your parents prefer it? Because someone said you should? Because you heard it was "fun" and "normal" to do it?

Those are crap reasons, and if those are your reasons, don't bother going (you'll just fail out).

You should be going because you want to learn about something, or so that you can complete some form of future goal -- for example, perhaps you want to be a scientist.

Plenty of successful people have led very fufilling lives without a college diploma. That being said, a college diploma does wedge your way into a lot more companies. AND, that being said, again, most companies that will only hire based on diplomas are horrid places to work at.
posted by shepd at 10:52 AM on November 19, 2004

Many schools have small grad programs (i.e. Yale's American Studies program only accepts 20 students), so they tend to look at the whole student "package" as opposed to just scores, though they may use the scores to weed the applicants. When I was considering graduate school, I was told repeatedly by my professors that you could get around low GREs (I am so very, very bad at math) with a good personal statement and actually getting in contact with professors at the schools you were interested in. Also, demonstrating an interest in your area of study with various extracurricular activities is good. My major was anthropology/sociology, so in my junior and senior years I got involved with the Anthropology club, edited the school's sociology journal, presented some research at a few minor conferences and arranged an internship with the state archaeologist. In the end I was accepted into a Ph.D. program at a major university, with a full scholarship and living stipend, but was derailed from my chosen field by love. Sigh. Good luck to you!
posted by kittyloop at 10:57 AM on November 19, 2004

I think it may depend on the school IIRC. At my grad school, they only looked at the last GRE I took, even though I only took one (but I remember it was an option to retry).

For what it's worth I got a 780 on math, perfect 800 on analytical and a 450 on verbal. I swear there were english-as-a-second-language students in grad school that did better than me at the verbal section.
posted by mathowie at 10:58 AM on November 19, 2004

Most schools have more than one criteria for admission, so check out the school(s) you're interested in. From what I've seen, both undergrad and grad school admissions consider test scores in addition to cumulative gpa, recommendation letters, resume/vitae/life experience, volunteer/community service record, etc.

Two friends of mine have "bombed" the GRE, but still got in (one even with a scholarship) based on these other criteria. Both had a great deal of applicable life experience.
posted by whatnot at 10:59 AM on November 19, 2004

One component of my job is graduate admissions, (insert well known east coast university ) We look at the highest score and we like to see people improve. Keep in mind that when ETS sends your scores the institution will see all of your scores. Also depending on the field other factors are equally important; your undergraduate GPA, letters of recommendation, research experience (if applicable), writing samples....
posted by mmm at 11:01 AM on November 19, 2004

Oh, BTW, you may find the "back door" helpful. You may find a program at your college/university of choice easy to get into, no matter how poor your score is. You can take this for a year, show the place you aren't a moron :-) and later transfer to the program you wanted.

Another choice is to take an extended education type course at the same college/university. Your marks on that are very likely to count much more to that university than your present score does.
posted by shepd at 11:16 AM on November 19, 2004

It's not clear what kind of program you're looking at or how competitive it'll be, but FWIW, I got a 680 on my Verbal which put me in the 95th percentile. A 700 is actually quite good. As far as math goes, back in 2000 when I took the GRE, I scored a 670 which was the 64th percentile. I raised that to a 770 which put me in the 85th last year. Just some notation for the sake of argument.

But I'll second what people are saying about test scores being just one part of the equation that will get you accepted. Your rec letters, personal statements, and past history of involvement will all likely play a larger role than scores or GPA.
posted by Ufez Jones at 11:41 AM on November 19, 2004

Maybe it's just me being defensive (I suck at filling in little ovals) but I don't think you bombed anything. I know that of the two grad schools I attended, one ignored my paltry math score and gave me nice money probably because I submitted a good writing sample based heavily on the graduate chair's research, and one only looked to see if I had the minimum combined math/verbal (1250 I think) for any graduate student. Neither one was near ivy territory but they weren't diploma mills either, and both have a good record placing people in tenure track jobs (those who happen to have gotten around to finishing their PhD's, which unfortunately leaves me out).

I wouldn't worry too much. So many schools look at a combination of things: where you went to undergrad, what your research focus is, what kind of class they want for that year. If I remember correctly, some of the people in my program who had killer test scores were not the most impressive students. By all means, don't forsake grad school if that's the path to your desired career. Do apply to a variety of programs. GREs are only one part of the picture and yours don't suck.
posted by bibliowench at 11:50 AM on November 19, 2004

It depends what you're applying to do graduate work in. In any caes, don't sweat it--just take it again. You certainly shouldn't reasses your whole future life because of one bad standardized test score!

I didn't get particularly super-high scores on my GRE or GRE Literature exams, and I still got into grad school with full funding, etc. etc. etc. So there's absolutely no reason whatsoever to panic or doubt yourself. Just study harder--the GRE, especially the computer exam, is surprisingly difficult.
posted by josh at 11:51 AM on November 19, 2004

Also bear in mind that for the GRE, the percentiles are relative to people that have been through (most of) college and think they have a shot at grad school. So just being above the 50th percentile is pretty good.
posted by Mark Doner at 11:57 AM on November 19, 2004

I took the GRE twice and still got into my program of choice. I think that it doesn't weigh against you, and if it does, it only weighs very slightly...

Graduate programs vary drastically in which sections of the test they pay attention to, in obvious ways. If you're applying for a PhD in English, or Comp Lit, your verbal score had better be really good (and your math score will be all but ignored). If you're appling to a CS program, or some other hard scientific program, you're analytical and math scores had better be good (and the verbal probably doesn't factor in to their decision very much).

In my experience, the subjective aspects of the application are MUCH more important than the OBJECTIVE ones, which, while they might be used to filter applicants, are not compared closely (and certainly are not the deciding aspect of the application). Your research statement, recommendations, and research experience / success are the critical components.
posted by zpousman at 12:05 PM on November 19, 2004

OK, first of all, you didn't bomb the verbal section at all. This PDF off of the GRE's website indicates that a 700 on the verbal is the 96th percentile. A 660 on the quantitative is 59th percentile, which would be a little more troubling, but you're still above the median.

So the question becomes: what field are you planning to go into? There are three possibilities I can think of:
  1. You're going into a field where math skills are rarely, if at all, used. In this case, the low quantitative score probably won't hurt you one jot.
  2. You're going into the sciences. I can speak to this one from personal experience, having sat on the graduate admissions committee in the [insert hard science here] department of [insert well-respected midwestern university here]. We practically ignored the General GRE scores, and only looked at the results from the subject tests. So study hard for that one, if you haven't already taken it.
  3. You're going into a field where math skills are used, but for which a subject GRE doesn't exist or is usually ignored. (Not sure what this would be — psychology or economics, maybe?) In this case, you might be a little concerned, but as everyone else has said, the GRE scores are only a very, very rough metric to judge a student by and admissions committees know it.
My advice to you is twofold: First, get good recommendations. These are far and away the most important part of any application. Make sure they're from professors in the field you're applying to (or at least the majority of them are in that field), and that these professors actually know you and can speak to your strengths rather than writing something like "so-and-so took Macroeconomics with me three years ago with a hundred other freshmen." zpousman is spot on with his comment about subjective vs. objective criteria.

Second, it will help if you look into the kind of research you would do with the faculty at the places you're applying. The admissions committee would rather have you go somewhere else in the first place than have you come to their institution and be miserable because nobody's willing to supervise the kind of research you want to do.

For what it's worth, I got a 660 verbal, 680 analytic, and 780 quantitative, and was accepted to five out of seven of the grad schools I applied to (but as I said above, these facts are only weakly correlated in the hard sciences.)
posted by Johnny Assay at 12:27 PM on November 19, 2004 [1 favorite]

I have been on graduate school admission committees, though in a program which actually doesn't require GREs (the requirement in Canada is quite variable - its an American test - some departments or universities will require it, some not).

Nonetheless, I echo the people who say, they will look at your complete package. I doubt a re-take would hurt you, and as someone said, ETS will send all your results anyway. We tend to look most carefully at grades in relevant "hard courses" (Archaeological theory, or quantitative zooarchaeology) more than less relevant (Sociology of Veterinarians) or easy (Advanced Basketweaving) courses. We look very closely at letters of reference - and since these are almost always favourable, we closely look for "damning with faint praise". We look very closely at the statement of intent to see if the student can prepare a well-written, logical, research proposal. We also look to see if the proposed project or area of study fits in with our faculty. This is the often the deal-breaker - a well-qualified student who indicates they want to do Classical archaeology will not be accepted because (a) we don't have any Classical archaeologists to supervise them and (b) it shows they haven't looked at our program closely enough to know what the faculty research scope is. And we consider all the intangibles and life experiences of the candidate.

The percentile is what matters. I wrote GREs and I don't even recall my scores, but I do recall my percentiles. So I was surprised you don't have the percentile handy - for me its all that matters.

Also, given that it is a US-centric test consider foreign universities as well. I did my Ph.D. in the UK and it was a breath of fresh air from the paint-by-numbers approach of many North American graduate schools.

Finally, if you apply and aren't accepted, don't give up. Many times non-acceptance is due to bottlenecks beyond your control. Right now I supervise 7 graduate students. This coming year I will probably not take any new ones, but some years I might take three. If the admissions committee thinks there is no available supervisor, then you will likely not be admitted regardless of the strength of your application.
posted by Rumple at 12:40 PM on November 19, 2004 [1 favorite]

Well, trharlan, colour me with a lack of knowledge about all these crazy entrance exams (there's none for highschool grads going to university/college, and, AFAIK, none for people *in* university/college either). Sorry. I guess being from Ontario, Canada and never experiencing these exams leaves me a little confused on such issues. /me slaps self
posted by shepd at 1:15 PM on November 19, 2004

mostly what a couple of other people said. it depends also on what you plan to study. i'm not sure what protocol tends to be followed in the hard sciences so i can't vouch for them, but in the humanities and social sciences, a rock-solid statement of purpose and a displayed focus of interest in a research topic (as mentioned above) will open the doors for you. making connections to people in the field and at the schools you're applying to will make all the difference, as will showing you know what you're talking about in terms of the research in the field, what you're interested in about it, and what you think you can contribute to it, as well as why the specific program in question is the right fit given those things.

also, i'm with Matt about the verbal. i fucking cried the first time i took it; verbal on SATs and any other like-minded standardized test for me has always been absolute cake. i did really poorly the first time i took the GRE for verbal (despite, for some bizarre reason, doing quite well in math and getting a perfect analytical) and since then people who've gone through grad school have told me it's something prospective students overseas often do much better in than american students because they consciously study like hell more obscure vocabulary. but man. what a blow to my english language loving ego.
posted by ifjuly at 1:57 PM on November 19, 2004

Dude. Graduate school sucks. BUT--check out Portland State University. They'll take your money, and it's a fun place to live.
posted by mecran01 at 2:03 PM on November 19, 2004

Best advice I've heard for getting into grad school and that I've seen play out successfully is to simply ignore the admissions process. What you want to do is make contact with professors in your field and get one interested in you. This professor will then simply tell the admissions committee to let you in. The admissions people will then do so. It certainly doesn't hurt to have a good application, but less than ideal applications can be overridden by professors because, after all, they're the person for whom you'll be working.

This is only applicable in research fields, not professional programs like, for example, library science.

And I don't think your scores are particularily bad.
posted by stet at 2:51 PM on November 19, 2004

For some fields (like linguistics) the GREs play no role whatsoever in most application processes. Many schools require them, but only because the school/division has a requirement, not the department. What's much more important in such fields is statement of purpose, writing samples, and by far, recommendations. I imagine this differs in, say, computer science, where they have to filter out tremendous numbers of applicants. You should go ask your advisor (assuming you have one) or a professor you know at your school who is in your chosen field. They will probably have sat on admissions committees at some point, and will have some advice.
posted by advil at 4:38 PM on November 19, 2004

Within reason, what Stet says is true - if there is a professor who will go to bat for you with the admissions committee then that can help a lot. But your application still has to be good enough to end up in or close to the "yes" pile or else the committee will resist. And as much as the prof may like you or want you, he may like or want to get along with his colleagues on the admission committee a lot more.

In most universities there is a two stage process of admission: the faculty of graduate studies (or equivalent) makes a first cut based on GPA and some geneal, low-bar measures. Then the department makes the final decision based on what grad studies sends them. The departmental admission committee members are just professors who have been asked to serve on that for a year or two. Thus, these are not so much as "admissions people" but colleagues of your prospective supervisor and a personal dynamic comes into play.

So, by all means get to know some professors, talk to them, ask for advice, volunteer in their lab, whatever, but dont expect them to have unlimited power to open doors.
posted by Rumple at 5:24 PM on November 19, 2004

That verbal score is good.

What others have suggested is right. Don't freak out about the GRE. The impression I got was that many departments don't emphasize it much. But YMMV.

I ended up not going to grad school at all the year I took the GRE, because I was place-bound at the time and could only apply to one school -- 100 applicants, 5 admitted, none of them me. I ended up years later in a program that didn't require the GRE at all, so I guess I could have saved the test fee. It was fun to take the test, though.

(Matt, I got 800 on analytical too, for all the good it did me... I am bummed that they have eliminated that portion of the GRE now.)
posted by litlnemo at 6:05 PM on November 19, 2004

Honestly? Don't sweat it. Take a deep breath, pat yourself on the back for being in the 97th-ish percentile of college graduates seeking to attend graduate school on the verbal side, then get over the math thing. Unless you're a mathematician.
I know plenty of smart people who would have posted to brag if they had gotten those scores. I think a Coke and a smile are in order here.
posted by willpie at 8:52 PM on November 19, 2004

As Johnny Assay points out, you haven't bombed the GRE at all.

Digging out the old GRE score, I see that I got...710 on Verbal and 660 for Math : ) (eerie, eh?) I panicked after seeing my scores too, at least the math, but I got into all of the places I applied to, including very good schools (I feel like I'm boasting if I tell you I turned down Harvard, but that's just to reassure you about your scores.) I'm in the humanities (history), which meant the math was not very important. The most important factors in my department were the personal statement, the writing sample and the recommendations, or so my current advisor told me while I was applying.

If you are trying to go for social or natural science, then you could retake - my friend who teaches Kaplan isn't so keen on the value of the course, the best thing would probably be to review the maths on your own. But if you are going for anything in the humanities (literature, history, etc), there is no reason for you to give ETS any more money.
posted by jb at 10:32 PM on November 19, 2004

Just to add - stet is right. If you have any idea of who, email professors you would like to work with - for one thing, you can ask them if they are accepting new students at this time (nothing like going to a place only to find out the only person in your field was planning on leaving or has too many students and won't take on any more). It also says to them you are serious enough and focussed enough to know who they are (even a little) and what you want to do (at least partly).
posted by jb at 10:40 PM on November 19, 2004

My brother's GRE scores were pretty much identical to yours (actually, the math score was quite a bit lower, but his analytical score was pretty good), and he's now in an excellent PhD program in Writing Studies with full funding. Fret not.
posted by the_bone at 11:13 PM on November 19, 2004

If you think the GRE is bad, get a load of the LSAT. It made me fondly nostalgic for the GRE Verbal section.
posted by inksyndicate at 9:44 AM on November 20, 2004

I got good-but-not-stellar general GRE scores (the raw scores were the same, but percentile-wise my math GRE was lower than my verbal), plus I got a whopping 25th percentile in my physics GRE. I was still accepted by two physics grad schools, and have been courted by a top government research lab for a postdoc.
posted by dirigibleman at 1:53 PM on November 20, 2004

The GRE analytical section is basically the LSAT.
posted by goneill at 11:42 AM on November 21, 2004

And there is no longer a GRE analytical portion. They make you answer essay questions instead.
posted by calwatch at 10:04 PM on November 23, 2004

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