Degree In Sight

Pencil eraser on test

In 2001 the registrar's office at an Ivy League school accidentally leaked graduate students' GRE scores via a mass e-mail. Among the students whose scores were broadcast to the psychology department was a woman who had transferred into the program from a state school and had a combined, mediocre score of around 1,000.

She was also the psychology department superstar and the best student to come out of that program in five years, recalls a former classmate.

That woman's story is just one example of how GRE scores don't always predict a student's success. But low GRE scores are more than just an inadequate way to gauge a student's future success: They can undermine students' confidence and keep them from applying to grad schools that might offer a dream fit. "It felt like a slap in the face that admissions might not look at my application because of my GREs when everything else indicates I would be a great candidate," says Patty Zorbas, a clinical psychology graduate student at George Mason University.

Now in her second year at GMU, Zorbas has a 4.0 and won the department's Outstanding First-Year Student Award.

Studies on the GRE's effectiveness in predicting graduate school success are also mixed. A meta-analysis of studies on the GRE's predictive validity published in 2001 in Psychological Bulletin (Vol. 127, No. 1) shows that the GRE is a valid predictor of graduate school GPA, first-year grade point average, comprehensive examination scores and research productivity.

Meanwhile, a 1997 study of Yale students by Robert J. Sternberg, PhD, and Wendy Williams, PhD, published in American Psychologist (Vol. 52, No. 6) found that GRE predicted first-year grades, but not other kinds of performance, including students' creative, practical, research and teaching abilities. But such studies only measure achievement of students who made it into graduate programs, Zorbas and others point out. "They don't know how the other students would do," she says.

High GRE scores wow peers and many top programs, but low scores don't have to tarnish your application, faculty and students say. Here are ways to maximize your admissions chances with a less-than-stellar score:

  • Retake the test. Rosalie Hall, PhD, who handles admissions for the industrial-organizational psychology program at the University of Akron, says it's common to see applications from students who have taken the exam two or three times, and she uses the highest scores. David Pizarro, PhD, who oversees admissions for the social and personality program at Cornell University, says test-taking frequency doesn't affect how your score is viewed—it's the best scores that matter. "We are pretty indifferent to how many times they take it."

  • Play up your strengths. Low GRE scores don't always trump other qualities, such as outstanding research experience and genuine, personal letters of recommendation about a student's academic promise. "Someone who has done a year of research in a lab with a respected scientist with a strong letter of recommendation can go a long way," says Pizarro.

Crafting a well-written letter and highlighting writing experience can boost a poor verbal score, and spotlighting research experiences or creative internships can draw attention away from poor scores. "I worked hard to beef up everything else around them," says Kathryn Scheffel, a graduate student in the University of Virginia clinical and school psychology program.

  • Get strong letters of recommendation. Letting your writers know you did so-so on the GRE gives them an opportunity to otherwise highlight your academic promise. "It really helps if you've gotten a lot of face time with a professor," says Pizarro. "The personal touches really count. We want to know if someone is going to be a pleasure in the department and socially adept."

  • Realize that GRE isn't everything for all programs. Stanford University, the University of Connecticut and the University of Florida are among many graduate departments that say they don't weed out applications based on GRE scores. In fact, Greg Neimeyer, PhD, the former graduate coordinator at the University of Florida psychology department, says he thinks that practice is generally on its way out. "Programs are looking for ways to enhance the diversity of their graduate admissions, and this necessitates looking closely at qualitative indicators, rather than objective or quantitative measures alone," he says.

  • Keeping the faith. Scheffel got mixed advice about downplaying her low GRE scores when she was applying. Some faculty told her to explain her low GRE scores and others said ignore them. She chose to let her application speak for itself and marveled when she started getting invitations for interviews. "It's presented to students that the GREs are everything," says Scheffel. "They never even came up."

By Jamie Chamberlin
gradPSYCH Staff