GREat scores or eGREgious scores: who gives a crap? Hint: we do! (Sorta).

A history Master’s student from outside the U.S. has a question about the GREs as he readies his applications for Ph.D. programs.  Can you help him understand how GRE scores are used in your graduate program admissions, especially those of you who teach in History departments?  To the mailbag, friends!

Dear Historiann,

As a student looking to apply to Ph.D. programs next year, I’ve been thinking a lot about the GRE (which my Canadian M.A. program luckily doesn’t require). It seems to me even more absurd than the SAT, and I can’t help but think that admissions committees weight it very highly relative to grades, recommendations, writing sample, etc.. Am I correct in this assumption, or should I go on an anti-standardized testing rant?

With All Due Respect,

GRE-phobic Gordon from Guelph

Dear Gordon,

I know–taking a mass-produced, mass-administered test seems like the height of idiocy, but never underestimate the degree to which history departments in U.S. universities (and probably elsewhere) desperately want to outsource their major decisions to others.  Since against all reason and good judgment, you appear to yearn to follow in the footsteps the embittered and frequently underemployed commenters on this blog, I should warn you that taking the GRE is merely the first time that your fate will be (in a small way, to be sure) outsourced to someone outside of the admissions committees who are tasked with reading and evaluating your application.

After you’re admitted to a history Ph.D. program, your adviser will rely largely on the opinions of your other professors for hir own opinions.  Future search committees will rely on their opinions in forming their opinions about your record of achievement and your scholarly promise.  They will in turn, as the tenure and promotion committee in your department, rely on the opinions of outside reviewers of your dossier in forming their opinions about your tenure case.  And so on.  If you get the impression that academic life is a much less glamorous version of literary logrolling, you are correct, sir!  I salute your perspicacity–and if you don’t know what perspicacity is, then you’d better look it up, because that’s just the kind of word that’s bound to come up on your GRE exam.

But that wasn’t your question, was it?  I suppose it’s just as well that you learn that in academic life, “answering your question” is what we professional academics claim to be doing when in fact we’re just finding another opportunity to talk about whatever is on our minds anyway, regardless of your brilliant question, seminar paper, Ph.D. defense, or conference presentation.  It’s all about me!

All japing and caviling aside (seriously, Gord–look them up), you should take the GREs, and you should take them seriously.  Once upon a time, I too thought they were silly formalities and was confident that my college GPA, my senior thesis, and my enthusiasm for the field were the only things a reasonable admissions committee could want.  I expressed this opinion even to my graduate advisor at one point, and he said (and now I’m paraphrasing here):  “are you nuts?  We use GRE scores as a cutoff.  We don’t even open the applications from people who don’t make the score.”

Like my father always says:  I’d rather be lucky than good!  And boy, was I lucky that I scored highly enough on the GRE to have that conversation with my graduate advisor as we walked across the Walnut street bridge to Center City that winter evening in 1991.

And lo, it came to pass that I joined a history department, and we use GRE scores in a similar fashion.  We do not get the same number of applications to our history M.A. program that I’m sure that Penn gets for its M.A. and Ph.D. programs, but I’m sympathetic with the need for big, prestigious programs to look for some kind of sorting mechanism to help them cope with 200+ applications (or whatever–those of you who teach in those kinds of programs, fill us in on the number of applications you’re seeing annually).  In my department, we glance at the scores to ensure they’re not alarmingly low, and we use them as a rough baseline against which to compare the GPA.  I would say that at this point in my department’s history, people with a verbal GRE score below 550 would be viewed skeptically, and people with GREs below 500 almost categorically excluded from serious consideration.  (Silver lining:  most history departments will only care about your verbal score, although you should still look like you tried on the math and logic components of the exam.  Besides, they’re kind of fun!)

I think your basic instinct is right in that most departments want to consider the whole of an applicant’s record, and speaking for myself only, I think your college and M.A. GPAs, your admissions essay, and your writing sample would be much more important to me, were I reading your application.  But the point remains that if your GRE scores are below a given department’s drop-dead GRE floor, then your application won’t get read or considered fully at all.

Dear friends, what do you think?  How does your graduate admissions committee use or weigh GRE scores?  Gordon already has his master’s degree so your comments about your department’s practices will be infinitely more interesting to him than information about my department.

43 thoughts on “GREat scores or eGREgious scores: who gives a crap? Hint: we do! (Sorta).

  1. My department (a well regarded PhD program) does not have a GRE cutoff. We don’t admit many people with low verbal scores, but occasionally we do, if ze is outstanding in all other areas (research statement, grades, writing sample, recommendations). And we do read all the applications.

    But I would never advise someone not to take the test seriously. Most major PhD programs could easily fill their entering class three times over with people who will do really well. It’s hard to decide among them, and the test scores are one factor there. Also, although we don’t care as much about the quantitative score (unless the student wants to do quantitative history), it is hard to successfully nominate students for university-level fellowships without strong scores across the board.

    The exception might be international students, who just don’t do as well on average. This is not a language issue; native speakers of English with first class degrees from top British or commonwealth universities often don’t do well, and admissions committees know that.


  2. With this in mind, a related q: Assuming the cutoff is 550, does anyone really care if you get 740 or 750? Or is everything above the cutoff pretty much the same?


  3. The graduate school–not the department–offers nice fellowships to new students on the basis of GPA and GRE scores. The department therefore takes into consideration in admissions the possibility that the student will win such a graduate-school based fellowship, and free up some space in the budget.


  4. Wait, there’s still a logic section? When I had to retake the GRE in order to go to library school, the logic section was gone and I had to write an essay instead. In a truly wonderful twist, the essay was supposed to argue in favor of studying the past, which meant that I got to throw in a gratuitous mention of the PhD in history I ALREADY HAD.

    I had to take the GRE twice for library school because they actually cared about the math score (and the math score on my first try pretty much indicated that 1) I could spell my own name and 2) I knew that 2 plus 2 is 4. (I did better on the math section years earlier when I was closer in time to high-school math). So I recommend studying for the whole thing, if only to keep your combined number as high as possible.

    And speaking as someone who scored an 800 on the logic section back in… um… I guess that’d be 1989, I sure missed that section the second time around.


  5. They’re also insurance against weird bits of bad luck. This was a quarter-century ago, but for one school my letters of recommendation got lost not once but twice. I am convinced that my GRE scores (high in verbal, higher still in math and logic) got me in to the program despite the missing letters. When I look at admissions folders, I put a high value on logic scores.


  6. Eh, maybe they’ve dropped the logic part? (I haven’t been on grad studies since I chaired it, 7 years ago! I’m on it again this year, so I’ll make a note to check this.)

    Mikey B: a good question, which also reveals the limits of GRE scores in another fashion. Unless your superscore earns you a super fellowship, then otherwise it’s just a number to keep you warm at night when you’re otherwise discouraged about your career. (Or, you don’t need to even bother applying to programs that will accept people who get merely 550 on their GREs?)


  7. I did admissions for 5 years in my program (UMass Amherst). We usually had 130-160 applications per year. We didn’t have a GRE cutoff, but we found them useful in certain circumstances: primarily as a check on GPAs, especially for applicants from small, less selective colleges where it wasn’t clear what a high GPA really meant, and for overseas students, above all if we suspected that the writing sample had had a great deal of editing help, and therefore wasn’t necessarily useful for assessing the applicant’s potential. A low verbal GRE was a red flag, but the writing sample, statement of purpose, grades, and recommendations were more important.

    As others have said, though, high GREs meant a great deal in university-wide fellowships, and we always took them into account when nominating candidates. So it’s worth taking the GREs seriously, if only for that.


  8. I think I got asked about PerspiCUity rather than perspicacity, or maybe it was that treacherous question which requires you to distinguish between the two things. Actually, I don’t even remember taking the GRE although I have documentary evidence that I told the history department secretary I intended to do so. (And it isn’t because of brain-erosion either, because I can remember in detail weeks and weeks of ducking one of my recommenders on a small college campus because I was too embarrassed to apologize for failing to thank hir for the letter). Somebody I know just re-took the thing in a room here at BSU where noise was percolating through the walls, sun glare on the monitor made it difficult to see the questions, and the internet connection to the ETS borg kept failing. This was a re-take to raise I think the math score after a high number in the verbal, but really, I think this is just a revenue-stream thing. I haven’t stopped shaking my left hand to restore circulation after taking the PSAT, the SAT, the WhateverelseAT and the whole rest of their effing battery back in the last century, so I tend to think everything they do at the Route 1 Testoplex over *near* “Princeton” is a crock. If the letters are credible, the GPA good, and the writing sample impresses, you can pretty much assume that your graduate will be able to maneuver around having to use “perspicacity” during a distinguished forty-year career of publishing cutting-edge stuff.


  9. GREs are a comfortable cut off point, deterrence against a deluge of applications, a departmental bragging right (“we require at least 699”), tribal dance and a “why not.”

    Did my MS at a school that had only oral exams, three profs and one victim. (You can use Skype.) Exams were the intellectual equivalent of a massacre.


  10. What Brian Ogilvie said. We don’t have a formal floor, but 550-600 is the normal cutoff. We make students read a lot, and scores below that suggest a student might struggle. There are always exceptions, though – especially for international students. It’s one piece of evidence, but it is one you can compare across students, so useful there.

    Oh, and we have the thing about campus wide fellowships.


  11. My physiologist colleagues weigh the math score much higher than the verbal, but I do the opposite. This is because the math part of the exam can be studied for and mastered, while the verbal part cannot be aced except by having a long personal history of extensive reading and writing. In my experience, 800 verbal scores are highly predictive of graduate school success, while 800 math scores don’t mean shitte. I am especially skeptical of applicants with 800 math scores and sub-600 verbal scores.


  12. When I was applying to grad school in the US I was advised that the verbal score often got used as a cut-off but that all I needed to do in the maths section was not look completely innumerate. Nothing was said about the essay section, and I have no idea how much that matters. Surely the writing sample matters far more?

    I did study a bit for the verbal section, and I’m sure that boosted my score slightly, but mostly it seemed like a test I’d been studying for most of my life without realising it. Can I read a passage in my native language and work out what it says? Have I read broadly enough to have a large vocabulary? I know there are some people who freeze under exam circumstances and so would under-perform, but the knowledge tested does seem relevant to graduate study. It was a stupid expense, but the test itself was fun and I got more than the score I needed.

    Ironically, the school I ended up going to didn’t consider the GRE in admissions. It seems to be about writing samples, recommendations, and “fit”. I’ve been told that the difference between applicants who get admitted right away and applicants who get waitlisted is not quality, but the extent that the applicants’ research interests gel with what the department can offer. (And I wasn’t waitlisted, so this wasn’t about making me feel better!)


  13. We receive something like 400 applications a year these days. I haven’t been on the committee in a long time, and don’t know the exact number. But the procedure is this: the committee members read all of the applications and reject about half of them. In my experience they pay most attention to the recommendations, the personal statement and grades in history courses. The GRE is a further useful indicator, nothing more. As Brian says, it’s most helpful in cases where we’re not sure what a GPA means on its own. Then the applications that survive the first scrutiny are divided by fields, and all faculty in each field read them and agree on a unified ranking.

    In that second process, the writing sample is the most important single part of the file. A fair number of applicants are not native English speakers, and a fair number come from systems that don’t use GRE-like tests. We try to identify those cases and ignore part or all of the GRE if the other evidence is strong. Finally, the applications and the field committee evaluations go back to the admissions committee, which determines the order of admission, and then to the graduate school, which tells us how many we may admit. The graduate school has been known to raise questions about low GREs, but I can’t remember the deans turning someone down on that ground.

    Whenever a prospective student visits–and many do–I ask if his or her adviser has described conditions in grad school and after. Usually the student has been informed, but if the answer is no, I do my best to fill in the gaps. I do the same, of course, for my own undergraduate advisees.


  14. The GRE tests whether you can do well on the GRE just like the SAT tests whether you can do well on the SAT. They do not test anything else. I did pretty well on both, especially the verbal component, but I think they are basically worthless. In graduate school you do not take any multiple choice exams. Once you get your degree you don’t take any exams ever again period. Outside the US these tests are not used at all and the fact that UK and Commonwealth students do worse than US students on the verbal section as was mentioned above is evidence of their cultural bias. While our undergraduate admissions are huge here at the university, our department does not have a lot of graduate applications. I think we had six last year, but I am not exactly sure since I was not on the admissions committee. We accepted two MPhil students and no PhD students. I am amazed that US history departments are getting 150 graduate applications a year. The 400 a year figure is just ludicrous. That was how many people applied total a year to my undergraduate institution (Grinnell College) when I was accepted back in 1988. My advice would be to go to grad school in the UK where it takes three years to get a PhD and you can do it in two like I did rather than 10 like in the US. Then go work in Africa. A British PhD from anywhere but Oxford, Cambridge and maybe LSE will prevent you from ever working in the US. But, unless you have a problem with Black people (a lot more liberal-left academics do than I ever imagined) then Africa is a very nice place to live and work.


  15. I’m in the sciences, and we have a cutoff of 700 quantitative (and the mode for accepted students is 800), based on the idea that if you can’t do high school math, you’re not ready for graduate classes. We used to look at the analytical score, but we don’t look too much at the verbal or the new essay sections. GPA doesn’t matter much either. Undergraduate research experience is absolutely required though.


  16. In my department (English, Catholic U. of America) we receive about 80-100 applications a year for 4-6 funded spots, and we treat GRE scores much as Brian Oglivie describes above. GPA, writing sample, and statement of purpose matter more than GRE scores, and we care about the verbal score most; but a low verbal GRE is a red flag, and would need to be offset by an otherwise outstanding application. In practice, few the applicants we admit have verbal GREs much below 700. The GRE is not the most important metric but it does matter, and I second the advice above that applicants take it seriously. Of the several application components, I weigh the letters of recommendation the least heavily, because the rhetorical currency is inflated and they’re easy to misjudge. Some recommenders say that each student is their best in 20 years of teaching; others write brief, lazy letters which can be mistaken for faint praise. In 5 years of doing graduate admissions I’ve come across some surprisingly unprofessional statements in letters of recommendation–but that’s another subject.


  17. Thanks, everyone, for your comments on the GRE and your admissions processes overall. I think most of the humanists who read this blog will be impressed by Comradde PhysioProffe’s commitment to high verbal GREs! (I like his analysis that the verbal score is more indicative of intellectual acumen over the long haul.)

    I too am staggered (if not entirely surprised) by the huge numbers of applications for M.A.s and Ph.D.s in the humanities. Wow. Princeton is impressive for reading all 400 apps., regardless of board scores.

    Keep the information coming!


  18. What Brian said about test scores being slightly more meaningful when the undergraduate school is not a known quantity. Also (and this is my opinion, not shared by anyone in my department that I know of), I think high test scores coupled with not-so-high grades are a possible warning sign: indication of a very clever student who doesn’t work as hard as ze might. That is more troubling to me than low test scores with high grades, as long as the writing sample, letters and statement indicate the grades are a good reflection of performance.

    One more piece of advice: some applications have a space for you to write about any mitigating factors that require explanation. “My grades were low in the second semester of my sophomore year because I was in a serious accident and spent two months in the hospital” is an example. Or “I received no financial support from my family and have worked full-time throughout my undergraduate career.” Or “The night before my GRE I received the news that my father had died suddenly, but since I couldn’t get a flight till late the next day I decided to go ahead and take the test anyway.” (Assuming, of course, these things are true.)

    Here is what is *not* useful to write: “While my test scores are lower than the typical candidate admitted to your university, I do not feel that they reflect my academic performance and potential. I feel that multiple choice tests are not a fair way of evaluating applicants.” That’s for us to decide! We have a lot of experience with this, and we know the research on how well tests work or don’t work as predictors. Tell us what is specific to you, but don’t tell us how to do our job.


  19. Great advice, Ruth. I agree with you that high GREs with low grades is a warning sign for a lazy student. (GPA is not a perfect reflection of an individual’s academic potential, but students with strong GPAs have probably demonstrated that they are hard workers and goal-oriented as well.)

    I think admissions committees are also sympathetic to people whose GPA overall might not be the best, but whose grades over time show steady improvement. (For example: low GPAs freshman year because you were a Chemical Engineering major but then straight-As or nearly so in courses in your eventual major = probably a decent admissions candidate. But as Ruth suggests, *explain* it to us in your admissions essay.)


  20. I agree with CPP about verbal skills/scores being relatively important for the sciences. That said, we conducted an analysis of entry data for many years of MS students (we have too few PhD students for this to be meaningful) and found that the math GPA was the best predictor of success in our natural sciences program.

    A colleague and I did a similar analysis with a big high school database and found that Physics was the best predictor of overall GPA. They actually take Physics late, so it’s not the content itself. We concluded that this result was more about tracking, and which students developed good scholarly skills early on. Some middle schools did a better job preparing students for high school than others.

    I see the GRE like that. It tells you something about how seriously the student took the requirement. I’m not all that interested in a student who can’t be bothered to follow a fairly straightforward requirement. You may in fact know better than me but telling me so is perhaps not the best way to introduce yourself.


  21. What Eric and company have said about fellowships. I think I would be sickened to read today the pitiful little application I submitted that somehow got me admitted to grad school, for recognition of how flimsy my ideas were, and how good yet commonplace my GPA was. I don’t imagine I was anything too special, compared to some of my mind-blowingly brilliant colleagues.

    I had thrown my back into studying for the GREs, though, since…well, I didn’t know any other way to approach a standardized test than to be a good, obedient lab mouse and try my best. Ten days of pounding the practice tests, and I pulled off a really good score that qualified me for a grad school fellowship. From my department’s perspective, this meant a) one more year that they didn’t have to worry about finding internal funding for a student, and b) the possibility that I could keep it up.

    To GGG: remember that, especially in US universities outside the Ivy League level of endowment, it’s often a struggle to fund students internally. In terms of applying for external funding, especially the more prestigious research grants, money begets money. Acing the GRE could set you up to bankroll yourself through school.


  22. “I agree with you that high GREs with low grades is a warning sign for a lazy student. (GPA is not a perfect reflection of an individual’s academic potential, but students with strong GPAs have probably demonstrated that they are hard workers and goal-oriented as well.)”

    For what it’s worth, students who are in the first generation of their families to go to college – let alone to apply to graduate school – often will be reluctant to “make excuses” for their transcripts (and they don’t know to advise their letter-writers to discuss those things in their letters of rec), and they often get limited or terrible advice from their professors (either because they are embarrassed to seek it out or because they don’t ask the right questions or because they ask professors for advice who come from the sort of privileged background that those professors don’t actually understand what the student needs to be told about this process).

    Yes, in an ideal situation, GRE scores will be consistent with grades. But teaching at a regional university where most of my students have super-crazy transcripts for lots of reasons (few of which have to do with laziness – frankly, the lazy ones drop out), I think it’s really a mistake to assume that students who have seemingly mediocre GPAs are “lazy” and are not goal-oriented or hard workers. If we’re more willing to give students a pass on a low GRE score that isn’t consistent with GPA, I’d say that reflects a certain amount of class bias (we “respect” the possibility of test anxiety, whereas we don’t “respect” that students might have legitimate reasons for an uneven record on their transcripts).


  23. Great point about money begetting money, Koshary. I too would be horrified to see my application now–as would all of the thousands of people whom Penn history has rejected since then, most of whom were undoubtedly more deserving than I!

    Dr. Crazy: I personally don’t respect the concept of text anxiety. Clearly people who make it into and out of college and who want to do graduate work have to have figured out some way of coping with any anxiety over testing they may have.

    However, I do think that attention to GPA reflects a better work ethic, at least w/r/t their academic work, and I believe that studies show that working up to 15 hours a week is something that actually *improves* undergraduate GPAs versus not-working and versus working more than 15-20 hours per week. I have a lot of returning students who took 6+ years to get through college because they were working full time but they only took 6-9 credits per semester, because trying to do work and school full-time is crazy and ultimately self-limiting. A student might in fact have the potential to become the most brilliant historian of whatever, but if she slept through upper-level history courses and turned in a mediocre senior paper for whatever reason–family responsibilities, work, general broke-itude–then she’s not going to be at the top of my list for grad admits. (That’s the kind of student who can rehabilitate herself fast by doing an M.A. and doing it brilliantly, or even take just a few grad courses somewhere to prove her seriousness and make connections in the field.)

    Your comment reflects the importance of finding and heeding a good faculty mentor before applying to graduate school, but I would add that this is not just the responsibility of a student. I would say it’s incumbent upon all of us faculty who are writing letters of recommendation to ask to see our students’ application essays, GPA, and the GRE scores, and to advise them about how to talk about any flaws in their record to a graduate committee. (Also, I think we need to have The Talk with our students before they even apply to get a Ph.D. in the humanities to ensure that they know what they’re getting into.)

    This is one way of levelling the field for potential future grad students. That’s what I do, in any case–I think it’s better for the student, and it’s also better for my professional reputation to know that people I’m recommending for further study have done a decent job with their application. (Or at least to have given them some tools for writing a decent application, whether they take my advice or not.)


  24. Almost no place in Canada uses GREs. My school’s small and doesn’t but my grad school was and still is the largest in the country and they don’t use GREs. So the GRE is not vital, even to a big program that pulls in hundreds of applications! Do an elementary triage by subfield and let faculty in the area do the initial assessment: you’ll get a better sense of how each applicant pans out without the entire grad faculty getting bogged down going through the enormous pile o’ paper.

    For the prospective applicant? Study guides can be your friend, especially if you haven’t seen high school math in years! Historiann’s right that this is but one of many unhelpful but required activities you’ll have to complete if you want to obtain the Ph.D. (I took the GREs, all but the subject, since I applied to U.S. schools as well as the one in Canada.)

    One side note for American academics: it’s not easy for Canadians to take these standardized tests. Since the tests aren’t widely used here, they’re not widely offered. I think one local high school runs a test centre once a year, now, but besides that, it’s a four hour drive south for kids from our neck of the woods to the nearest places that holds tests.


  25. Is their BA in field, do they have good grades in that, how is their statement of purpose, and important: how are their languages??? Grad school has a GRE floor and we have to respect that, and university has fellowships for people with high GREs so that can matter.

    There are programs in my field, good ones, which do not use the GRE.

    When and where I was a student everyone had high GRE and SAT scores, it was a given, and there were lots of us, and nobody paid much attention (or so it seemed), but the school must have done, otherwise we wouldn’t all have been such high scorers and so nonchalant about it.


  26. To follow up on what Ruth @ 10:22 wrote: I advise undergraduates who are still willing to apply to grad school after my tell-all exposé about what it involves, and the state of the job market if they’re lucky enough to finish a Ph.D., that their statement of purpose should do the following:

    1. Explain why they want to study *a particular field/sub-field of history* at the graduate level, including their career goals.

    2. Demonstrate that their undergraduate studies, and any other experience, have prepared them for graduate study in that area.

    3. Explain why the program to which they are applying is well suited to further their goals.

    4. If necessary, explain anything in their record that might give a committee pause, whether it’s a bad semester, few courses in the discipline (which might be the case for a student applying to a history Ph.D. with an interdisciplinary B.A., or vice-versa), or anything else.

    What it should *not* do is explain how much they love the subject and want to keep studying it. First, we presume that someone who applies to a history Ph.D. program loves the subject; if not, heaven help them! Second, if you love *reading* history, by all means find something else to earn your keep and then read history in your spare time. You should only go to grad school in history if you love *researching and writing* history. That’s a whole ‘nother kettle of fish from enjoying reading about the past. Some of the most miserable people in my graduate cohort were those who didn’t realize that grad school would not simply involve harder versions of their undergrad courses.


  27. I would seriously like to second Janice’s comment about how difficult it can be for Canadians to take these tests. Here’s how I took them: I took the general GRE (writing, verbal, quantitative), in a middle of nowhere part of Toronto, only a few weeks after moving to that city. I had no idea that you were actually supposed to prepare or study for these exams; I thought they were skill-testing exams for which any preparation would be pointless. My main impression of that exam was an airless room in one of Toronto’s medium-rise buildings, in which I stared at the math questions on the computer screen thinking “Okay, I knew how to do this when I was in high school…but that was years ago! Will anyone in my humanities graduate program care whether I can do advanced algebra?” Now, because I lived in Toronto at the time, at least I was able to schedule a time to take the exam reasonably quickly; but I ended up not applying to graduate schools in the US that year, and so didn’t take the subject exam as well right away.

    The following year, I was living in a small city in British Columbia when I discovered–about 2 days before the final GRE writing that would qualify me to use it for that year’s round of graduate school applications–that the only place I could write the subject exam was in Vancouver, a 250-mile winter drive from where I was living. It was too late for that year’s registration (I’d screwed up–I thought there were more writings than there were)–so my only hope was to show up at the exam place the morning of the exam, in the hope they had an extra copy, and pay an extra fee to write it with a last-minute registration. My “preparation” for that exam consisted of getting in the after work on a November Friday, driving 150 miles, getting in a minor car accident on a mountain pass with a mile-plus elevation in winter weather, driving another hundred miles on a bum tire (thereby turning a 4-hour drive into an 8-hour one), finally getting to Vancouver shortly before midnight, and getting up 5 hours later so I could get to the test centre by 6:30 and plead to take the exam if they had an extra paper. They did have an extra copy, and I was able to take the exam, though in retrospect I’m kind of amazed that I was able to do decently on an exam written in those circumstances–and no, like Dr. Crazy’s students, it would have never occurred to me that I should describe winter car-accidents and lengthy drives as “mitigating circumstances” on my grad school applications. It certainly gave me the best GRE-taking story of anyone I knew when I got here, though!

    What I remember from the subject exam was that a good half of the questions were on American fields within my discipline, which I’d never studied and wasn’t planning to focus on in my PhD (in fact, I still haven’t studied the American portion of my discipline)–the test was very, very, skewed towards American students, to the point that I’m surprised that non-Americans such as myself manage consistently to do well enough on the exam that our applications aren’t tossed out on the “didn’t meet the GRE floor” standards, if the GRE is as important as it’s been characterized as being in this thread.


  28. I really savor Canuck’s narrative from British Columbia, for the story itself, for the vivid rendition of it, and perhaps most perversely, because I’m now wondering whether the reason I can’t even remember *taking* the GRE is that possibly I also had to drive 250 miles through the night and had a car accident plus other things that would cause you to repress the memory. I do know that my statement of purpose (which I also don’t remember writing) did absolutely none of the things that Brian Ogilvie quite rightly recommends today. And glad I am that Historiann’s advisor was apparently on leave that year, or at least not on the grad. committee, or my app might have gone straight into the Schuylkill the night it arrived. I’m advising a prospective applicant this year and this thread is giving me a mushrooming list of “don’t you do it the way I don’t remember not doing it” items to discuss with hir!


  29. It is a great story, and a testament to youth and determination, I am sure! (I’m surprised your program required the subject field test–I’ve never heard of a history grad program in the U.S. that required it, but obvs. some must.)


  30. “However, I do think that attention to GPA reflects a better work ethic, at least w/r/t their academic work, and I believe that studies show that working up to 15 hours a week is something that actually *improves* undergraduate GPAs versus not-working and versus working more than 15-20 hours per week. I have a lot of returning students who took 6+ years to get through college because they were working full time but they only took 6-9 credits per semester, because trying to do work and school full-time is crazy and ultimately self-limiting. A student might in fact have the potential to become the most brilliant historian of whatever, but if she slept through upper-level history courses and turned in a mediocre senior paper for whatever reason–family responsibilities, work, general broke-itude–then she’s not going to be at the top of my list for grad admits. (That’s the kind of student who can rehabilitate herself fast by doing an M.A. and doing it brilliantly, or even take just a few grad courses somewhere to prove her seriousness and make connections in the field.)”

    A few things worth noting about the above: I’m not disagreeing with you about students’ need to focus on coursework, or disagreeing about M.A. programs as being a great stepping stone for students who have sketchy undergrad pasts. (I was one of those students, for what it’s worth.) My only point is that for students who go to institutions like mine, and who have little to no family support, and who honestly believe that getting a mix of B’s and C’s means that you’re getting “good” grades…. By the time that student seeks advice for graduate school, it’s often too late for their transcript. And if they go to a certain sort of professor to talk about wanting to go to graduate school, they don’t get ANY advice about the application process: they just get congratulations and the faculty member’s agreement to write the letter.

    I’m not saying that we should accept students to graduate programs (PhD or otherwise) because of these factors, but I do think that it makes sense to consider that maybe the reason that a person’s application from a top research university or an elite slac seems “stronger,” particularly in terms of academic transcript issues, often has to do with the socioeconomic background of that student’s family of origin, the level of mentorship that student receives from professors from very early on in their college career (say, from their second or third semester vs. not until their graduating semester), and just general cluelessness about what it means to be “competitive” as a candidate for grad school. Yes, it is students’ undergraduate professors who have a responsibility to help fill in those gaps, and I do what I can on my end. But the reality is that I’ve got colleagues who have been here for 30-40 years who are just as clueless about what students need for graduate school as the students are themselves. Or they’ve just stopped caring.

    All I can say is that I’m glad my MA and then PhD program (both of which admitted me off the wait list) took a chance on me, with my no-name undergrad degree and my fairly lame undergrad GPA, which was accompanied by very strong GRE scores and strong writing sample and application materials. I suspect with the regulations about Pell limiting students’ financial aid to 12 semesters, more and more applicants – and not only ones from my kind of institutional background – are going to have that sort of profile, and not the profile of working 10-15 hours per week at a work study job and devoting the rest of their time to their coursework.


  31. I think we agree in the main: there are economic inequalities and realities that affect the way our students’ academic lives unfold, and admissions committees who are alert to these issues may find gems of future scholars if they look for them.

    I would just note that of all of the means of evaluating the applications for grad school, a student’s GPA seems to be the most democratic. Standardized tests like the SAT have been shown to reflect a student’s economic status to a great degree–I’m not sure about the GRE, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Moreover, students can get great grades just by working hard, and not have to cross snowy mountain passes in British Columbia to get to a testing center!


  32. I’m glad that my story provided such entertainment! Now, if only American schools dropped the testing requirement, it would make it easier to avoid those pesky snowy mountain passes.

    At the same time, I understand where those upthread who find the GRE useful are coming from, as I should think that as grades–and grade inflation–must vary considerably between institutions. I’m reminded of a story I once heard about the University of Toronto: it’s apparently almost impossible to get anything above a B+ as an undergrad in English there, as their grading rubric skews very low–the top students are getting mainly B+ grades and the occasional A-, which causes their students some trouble if they apply to grad or law schools who aren’t familiar with that particular Toronto quirk.

    To answer Historiann’s (implied) question above, I might as well say at this point that I’m in English, not history, and it seems to be standard procedure to require the subject exam in English for applications to American graduate programs. I think Columbia is the only program I’m aware of that doesn’t require it. So, the “American half” of the subject GRE that I referenced in my previous post is all the stuff on American literature, which is half the GRE exam, from what I remember. It’s interesting to hear that history generally doesn’t require or ignores the subject test–any reason why? Is it considered too general an exam to be useful for evaluating candidates’ applications for specific fields?


  33. From what I understand the eliminated the History subject test in 2001. I honestly can’t imagine what it would have been like, and it seems very hard to design a test that someone doing Cold War history and someone doing the Roman Republic could both pass.


  34. Pingback: So You Want to Be a Historian? On GRE’s and Other Headaches | At This Point

  35. I am really glad that I came across this thread and I hope that someone sees this post. I have a few concerns and questions that I hope contributors to this thread could help me answer.

    I feel that the GRE is mainly used, at least in a history applicant’s case, to quantify the student’s ability to analyze text and write in a clear manner. My GRE scores are not too high as they are 155 verbal, 156 quantitative, and a 4.5 on the writing section. While my GRE are not too impressive, I have earned a 4.0 in my MA course work and my professors have demonstrated confidence in my ability to research, comprehend historical literature, and develop innovative arguments in my research field. Will the GRE really be a determining factor in whether I should be considered or not if I feel that my work at the MA level has shown my ability to handle graduate work?


  36. Hello,

    I’m international student a from Chile and for quite a long time my dream has being accepted at management science and engineering master degree at Stanford.

    I would like to know your recommendation about my GRE scores and if I should keep them or try to get a higher score. (Thinking in time and money I would have to spend on doing it again)

    My scores are 145 in Verbal, 162 in Quantitative and 3.0 in Analytical Writing (Toefl 98).

    Thank you very much for your time and help,


  37. Hi Nicholas–I’d say get in touch with the admissions people at Stanford and see what they say. However, it looks to me like you might want to re-take them to see if you can pull your verbal and Analytical Writing up a bit.


  38. I had always thought that American standardized tests such as the SAT and GRE were part of a democratization process in America which allowed comparisons between applicants from lesser pedigree schools and those from historical blue blood feeder schools such as Phillips Academy and Phillips Exeter etc that fed the Ivy League colleges. So the GRE and the SAT was a way for a student from a common school to demonstrate he or she had the skills of a top students from the best feeder schools and Ivy League colleges. I

    Apparently, Canadian society has not felt the need for such democratization. Perhaps its is because Canada has always been an egalitarian society and regards all schools as equals. Or it is so fixed in its ways that it doesn’t even notice the need. I am not sure which.


  39. Allow me to share my GRE narrative from a world far far away.

    I am a junior lecturer in a well known public university in Indonesia. I have been awarded a scholarship to pursue a PhD abroad and currently applying to strong interdisciplinary programs in the US and Canada. Although I know that my tuition fees and stipend will be covered, I still have to cover the tests (GRE, TOEFL) and application fees myself (being a prospective international student means that I don’t have the privilege to request for application fee waiver).

    There are only two GRE test centers in Indonesia, and one of which, luckily, is in the city I live in. Getting there is not a problem for me, but Indonesia is a huge archipelago, so I find it hard to imagine how some people would probably need to travel by plane just to do the test. Imagine adding that up to the anxiety. As for me, the problem is how expensive the test is. It’s already expensive for American standard, but since I work in Indonesia and thus earn Indonesian-standard income, It feels almost dehumanizing to spend 50% of my one month salary just to pay for the test (while many Indonesians earn only $2/day). And when the result came out, I felt that I paid a lot of money just to confirm that I’m stupid and not worthy of studying abroad (even though I already receive a very generous scholarship). Retaking the test is an option, but I simply cannot afford it.

    Having shared that experience, dare I say that I respect programs/schools that do not require GRE, or do not weigh the GRE scores too much into the application process. I hope my story can provide a different perspective about the test.


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