The GRE: What to Do if Your Scores Are Not Where You Want Them

I often encounter students who have the grades, experience, and other strengths to be competitive applicants for graduate programs but are concerned about their GRE or other standardized test scores.  They ask: “How important is the GRE?”, “Are my scores good enough?” or “What do I do about my low scores?”

The answers vary by school and program. Many are reducing the importance of GRE scores because they don’t believe it is an indicator of graduate education or career success. There is solid evidence in many fields that the GRE does not predict success. There is also acknowledgement by many that some people just don’t do well on standardized tests and that results may not accurately measure one’s intelligence or capabilities. However, many schools or programs do value and put significant weight on GRE scores as an indicator of your potential to successfully do graduate level work. It is also a factor that helps differentiate students from among a large pool of qualified candidates.  If your scores don’t meet certain thresholds, it might create a bit of doubt but thankfully there are other ways to make the case to admissions committees that you can succeed in their program.  For example, if you didn’t do as well as you would like on the quantitative GRE you may be able to demonstrate your capabilities by highlighting good math grades on your transcript or by describing the kinds of analytical work or data analysis you have done successfully on the job. You can also have a professor or employer familiar with your quantitative skills write a letter of recommendation and vouch for your ability and potential to succeed in graduate work. The key is to emphasize the parts of your application that prove you can do graduate level work in the program you are applying for. It is important to understand what is required by that program and why and make the case about how your skills and experience are a fit.

In the October 29th MyHCN webinar, Sonny Vernard asked UCLA Fielding School of Public Health Admissions Director Dave Clark about the importance of test scores. He answered that at his school admissions are based on a holistic review of applications (as they are at many schools). Admissions Committees look at and carefully weigh the holistic combination of all components of your application relative to your fit for a program and understand that all applicants have strengths and weaknesses. He suggested writing an addendum to your personal statement if your test scores are not strong to explain why you did poorly and why this is not a good indicator of your intelligence or your ability to excel in graduate school. He went on to explain that some public health concentrations within schools weigh the GRE much less heavily than others. Community Health Sciences, for example, may not be as concerned with GRE scores, but if you are going into Biostatistics where very strong quantitative skills are required, they may put significant weight on GRE scores and GPA that show you can do the work.

This is also where I pause and have my students ask themselves if they are applying to a program that is right for them. If you are not able to make a case for yourself for a specific program and your test scores don’t do it for you, it is possible that the specific program isn’t the best fit. You have to really evaluate what you are good at and what you want, and make sure that this aligns with your application decisions.

Furthermore, is this the right time for you to apply? For some programs, the more successful work experience you have in the field you are pursing the less a low GRE score may matter. If you don’t have much work experience it could behoove you to wait another year or more, gain more experience that directly relates to the program you are interested in, and then re-take the GRE. Waiting to apply also gives you more time to take and do well in a class that demonstrates  you can do well in an area you need to strengthen (for example a math, statistics, or writing class). Taking and doing well enough in classes can not only help make the case that you can do the work and build your confidence but it can also improve your ability to do well the next time you take the GRE and enhance your preparation for graduate coursework.  An added benefit is that more and more top graduate programs and employers are looking for students with solid work experience prior to graduate school.

Waiting to apply may also give you more time to take the GRE again and take a review course to help improve your scores. I have known many people who do better after taking the test a second or third time (most schools take the highest scores). Even more people significantly enhance their scores after taking a review course. Courses provide structure for studying and teach you how to take the test. They also give you practice and build your confidence.  Having said this many people no matter what seem to not get the scores they want or need. It doesn’t mean to give up, it indicates that you have to figure out other approaches to use or schools that may fit your preparation and goals.

That being said, if it is the right time, you should still apply! If you know that you really are a good fit for a program and your test scores just don’t reflect it, you should still apply and turn the focus onto other things that demonstrate your abilities to excel in that program. 

Another strategy is to go meet key people in the program you are applying for and ask for their advice. Try to arrange meetings with the program directors and the faculty, and show them all the components of your application. You can ask for their advice on whether you are a strong enough applicant for their program and what you need to do if you aren’t. Ask about how to address low test score issues. Not only might you get helpful feedback but it could also result in beneficial connections. If you make a strong impression on one or all of these people, you might have someone pulling for you during the admissions process. You may also discover that a program or school won’t be a good fit for you which could help you with an alternative strategy.  

Many students want specific guidelines on GRE scores. They ask, “What is the lowest level I can get and still be competitive?” This is a very hard question to answer because it depends on the program and school you are applying for, but I can give you some specific examples. For many of the top schools of public health, being in the 70 plus percentile and above helps you be most competitive. You need to get 50% or above to be eligible for admission. However, if you are below this and have many other strengths going for you committees can often make an exception and write a letter making the case. You do need to be in the ball park in order to get someone to write such a letter; generally, you must be at least in the mid to high 30s or 40s. Again, if you are far below this, it might not be the right time or program for you to apply. You may seek other programs where your scores wont matter as much as the other things you have going for you.

Don’t be discouraged if you think your score is lower than it should be for your program. There are plenty of things you can do, and it is important to remember that applications are read and reviewed holistically, so if you can emphasize your strengths in other ways, you may still get into the program that meets your goals.

For more information on GRE scores as well as general admissions information, check out the October 29th webinar in full, “Getting Into Grad School: A Conversation with the Admissions Direc...

The most important thing to remember is that there is a perfect fit for you. If you need more time to evaluate what that fit is and to strengthen your position, take the time. It will be more than worth it in the end.

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