How can a high GRE score benefit me?
November 27, 2012 12:21 PM   Subscribe

I did really well on the GRE. How will this actually help me?

I did surprisingly well on the GRE despite barely studying: I got a 170 (800) verbal, 161 (770) quantitative, and I don't know about the writing section yet but I felt good about it. I tend toward perfectionism and impostor syndrome, and I'm trying really hard to actually enjoy my success for once in my life instead of minimizing it or rationalizing that I got lucky. I tend to heavily underestimate my abilities because I'm the first in my family to finish college, and this surprisingly great score made me worry that I'm going to sell myself short again when I move on to graduate school.

I've often heard that GRE scores are mostly used as a reason to weed applicants out, but I haven't heard much about any advantages of doing really well. When I search grad forums and the like, I find a lot of vague, contradictory anecdotes - and not much else. Here are my questions:
  • Will I have a significantly easier time getting funding for grad school (e.g. NSF, EPA STAR, fellowships, etc)? I would love to take a couple of years off to work in the field and write an NSF grant so that I could bring my own funding to a program and work on a really cool project.
  • Can I join any interesting MENSA-like societies or anything? I know MENSA doesn't accept the GRE, but some of the high-IQ groups do - are any of them worth it?
  • Most importantly - should I be aiming higher with my graduate admissions with a score like this, or does it not make that much of a difference, all other things being equal?
For context, I have a ~3.75 GPA, 3.9 in my major, in tough, quantitative classes at a generally-mediocre state school that has great programs in my field (terrestrial ecology & environmental sciences). I have some research experience and good recommendations, but no publications. I'm hoping to go to graduate school to earn my MS in Ecology, and I tentatively plan to go on to earn a Ph.D so that I can work in government or academia doing ecological research (specifically in landscape ecology). I had been looking at programs within my comfort zone (big state schools with good programs in my field) and assuming that the top-tier programs were beyond my reach, but now I wonder if I should aim higher.

How much does my GRE score change this calculation? How has your high GRE score helped you in your life or career (if at all)? Is this a big advantage in getting grants funded or is it a minor consideration? Cheers and thanks for your thoughts.

Sockpuppeted to avoid the dreaded humblebrag.
posted by Vatican Cameos to Education (19 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Funding: not really. There are lots of better metrics to differentiate grad students.

High-IQ societies: not really. I'm a long-time Mensa member, and it's never helped me (they can be a fun bunch of people, but it's not much for networking).

Admissions: absolutely. It won't open any doors itself, but a high GRE score will give you a wedge that you can lever them open with and I know that metaphor doesn't work shut up.

Overall, I'd advise you to go for it. A 1570 GRE score can't hurt you, so give the top-tier programs a try.
posted by Etrigan at 12:31 PM on November 27, 2012 [3 favorites]

In my field (which is different than yours), we have one use for the GRE other than weeding applicants out. It's this: occasionally we'll have an applicant who looks really promising -- great writing sample and letters, e.g. -- but whose undergraduate career was checkered in some way. Maybe bad grades sophomore year, or withdrawing from school for a while, or something. They'll usually explain the checkered part, but the high GRE scores reassure us that it's the failures that were a fluke, not the success.
posted by kestrel251 at 12:32 PM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

The high score is great but whatever you do in the years off (and you should take them, don't go straight in, get more research experience) is going to matter much more. You may be able to mention your high GRE score offhand as an indication that you are serious and sharp when you're interviewing with labs to work in before grad school.
posted by slow graffiti at 12:43 PM on November 27, 2012

First of all, congrats! Getting a high score is a big achievement and you should feel awesome.

For what it's worth, I got one very nice fellowship during grad school where it was mentioned that one deciding factor was my unusually high GRE scores. Like others have said, it probably won't radically change your academic life, but it helps for a lot of applications!
posted by ninjakins at 12:46 PM on November 27, 2012

I've often heard that GRE scores are mostly used as a reason to weed applicants out, but I haven't heard much about any advantages of doing really well.

This varies quite a bit by field, level (PhD vs. MA) and also individual preference of the reader. But a very high or low GRE will get most anyone's attention, and your GRE is high enough (and unusual in that both parts are high) that your file would get a second look from me. I agree with kestrel251 that this can sometimes balance out some negative (though high GRE / low GPA can also signal the smart-but-lazy stereotype that is not everyone's preference; not an issue in your case). But more generally I think it is just a factor that can draw attention to a file. The other parts of the file have to be what makes the sell, for PhD admissions.

On the funding issue, what sometimes happens is that university/unit-internal fellowships may be keyed on GRE among other things, more so than outside grants. This is pretty unpredictable whether/where it might happen, though. Also, sometimes internal grants are a bit more discretionary -- for these, if someone wants to give you a grant for whatever reason and needs to make the case for it, or needs to choose among similar candidates for a grant, a high GRE can end up being useful.

I had been looking at programs within my comfort zone (big state schools with good programs in my field) and assuming that the top-tier programs were beyond my reach, but now I wonder if I should aim higher.

It's hard to say and I don't know your field. But conventional wisdom is that anyone who is a decent applicant should spread around their applications, including some long-shot programs, some medium-range ones, and some safety ones. Have you talked to your letter-writers about this (especially whoever you did research for)? They will have a better sense as to what is possible.
posted by advil at 12:51 PM on November 27, 2012

Most of these are questions you should be asking of your professors with a knowledge of Landscape Ecology. These thing are all very field dependent. You might want to consider also applying to fields more likely to provide funding in case you do not get into a department that does.

"Can I join any interesting MENSA-like societies or anything? I know MENSA doesn't accept the GRE, but some of the high-IQ groups do - are any of them worth it?"

Absolutely not
posted by Blasdelb at 12:59 PM on November 27, 2012 [1 favorite]

Me: almost identical portfolio (incl GRE scores), different area of science, defending next month.

I was also uncertain of my competitiveness and applied to all the top 10 schools in my field. I think I got into 8, several with really nice departmental fellowship offers. My advisor (who used to chair our grad program) has said that high GRE scores don't guarantee high productivity, but he still picked me out of the stack to aggressively recruit, despite my professed interest in things that were not at all what he does. (I was apparently openminded and am actually very happy in this research area.)

GREs used to help with the NSF GRFP, but they don't collect them on the app anymore. Don't know about the other grad fellowships, but GRE scores won't help with any post-PhD grants.

My GRE score doesn't matter anymore, but the fellowships it helped to get me and the skills that produced it are serving me well. TBH though, at this point I don't want to advertise that I'm smart on paper like that, because I'm not preternaturally productive and I'm afraid it would give away how much time I waste...which wraps back around to my advisor's comment.

I would definitely advise you to apply to the most competitive programs, esp if they have good internal fellowships and esp if they interest you. My impression from talking to friends in ecology, though, is that departments tend to have kind of specific foci. And in any field, working well with your advisor is very important. So those things override published ranks. Your previous research mentors can recommend the most prestigious schools for the career you want.

Taking a few years off to do research is a great idea and will absolutely help you write a better GRFP or other proposal -- you won't be bound to that project but you'll want to apply to a program with the resources to support it.
posted by ecsh at 1:04 PM on November 27, 2012

You could certainly supplement your income by being a part-time tutor, either on your own or as part of a company.
posted by nkknkk at 1:09 PM on November 27, 2012

Well, if you're in a quantitative world, a high Verbal score makes you SUPER desirable to quantitative graduate programs.

Husbunny's perfect quantitative score and near perfect verbal score made it a walk in the park for him to get into his Math PhD program.

In many of these programs, they'll pay you (a stipend) while you get your degree.

posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:28 PM on November 27, 2012

A 161 is about 83rd percentile? Very quantitative fields will be seeing a large fraction (probably a majority) of their applicant pools with higher scores. I don't know about your field.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:00 PM on November 27, 2012

I got a very high GRE score last year. I think it helped my case a bit because I was changing fields to biology about ten years after I got my BA. (I also took postbac classes and did very well in those.) I'm not in a competitive niche, but I got in everywhere I applied, with RA funding, and I'm now enjoying a fellowship with some nice perks. Not sure it would help so much with grant-writing, as the focus is very much on the quality of your proposal.

If you're interested in top-tier programs, email profs you want to work with and inquire (unless the program is specifically against that). I generally asked if they were taking students in the initial email, if they were they would then ask for my GPA/GRE and I could wow them. :)

(Like ecsh, I also coast on my book-smarts to cover my less-awesome work ethic. There's a reason people believe the smart-but-lazy-stereotype).
posted by momus_window at 3:36 PM on November 27, 2012

I am an ecologist. My high GRE scores were cited as a factor in receiving a Graduate School fellowship for my master's. I also got an EPA STAR fellowship for my PhD, and they did ask for my GRE scores, but I had no way of knowing if the scores mattered in the decision process, which I think is primarily based on the quality of your proposal and your likelihood to pull it off.
posted by hydropsyche at 3:37 PM on November 27, 2012

Congrats. I got excellent scores on my GRE and it got me interviews at the top programs in my field, which I don't think I would have gotten otherwise.
posted by zug at 3:47 PM on November 27, 2012

My high GRE scores helped me get a merit-based fellowship for my MPH. I didn't quite meet the GPA requirement posted for the fellowship, but the department nominated me anyway and I was awarded it. Yay for standardized test taking skills.
posted by wilky at 4:14 PM on November 27, 2012

I'm in the same boat as hydropsyche, down to the EPA STAR. I remember that fellowship in particular looks at your transcript and GREs, and unlike others, provides feedback. I remember my feedback praised my high grades in quant/ecology courses and my GREs.

Aim high with your applications. The most important thing is that you fit with a professor's research program (and that prof is taking students). This is why it helps if you know what you want to do!
posted by seachange at 5:49 PM on November 27, 2012

High GRE scores (especially in conjunction with a strong GPA) are often a significant factor in obtaining fellowships from the graduate school (not the individual dept so much). I got strong scores (not quite as high as yours), and of the three schools I got into, one offered me an extra $3,000/year, and one offered me a teaching exemption for the first two years of my program.

However, I should also note that a high quantitative score doesn't tend to mean as much as a high verbal score - something like 15% of test-takers get a perfect score on the quantitative section, as the maths involved is actually fairly basic. (As a corollary, that means that your verbal score is even more impressive, as only the top few percent break 700 on that.)
posted by littlegreen at 6:43 PM on November 27, 2012

This isn't the case for you, but I know verbal GRE scores can be the deciding factor in admitting ESL students to humanities/social sciences programs.
posted by dhens at 7:54 PM on November 27, 2012

I have run Phd admission processes for nearly 20 years (humanities). We always say a certain score (esp. Verbal) is basically expected (I say around 650 for a native English speaker with no diagnosed LD issues). Above that it can help at the margin. Below that it raises doubts you can write a dissertation.

However, in my long experience, perfect or near-perfect verbal scores are very common among the top group of applicants to top PhD programs in my field. So don't rest on it!
posted by spitbull at 5:50 AM on November 28, 2012


If you checked the box on the GRE to get info from other grad schools -- it's one of the options that will put you on grad school mailing lists, but I can't remember how it's phrased -- it might get you offers for application fee waivers. They are a relatively small thing, but the fees do add up.
posted by wiskunde at 8:05 PM on November 29, 2012

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