The Impact: GRE Takers Tell Their Stories

The Truth Behind a GRE Score

Daniel E. Acevedo Cartagena, PhD

The highlight of my GRE experience was my low scores. After taking the test twice, my top scores were a “fabulous” 660 in quantitative and a 420 in the verbal section. As an example of the gravity of the situation, I was rejected by the Chemical Engineering Program at Texas A&M because their average quantitative scored was 780. The rejection email read as follows: “The admission committee went through your full application and felt that the GRE Quantitative score was too low for your application to be competitive.” It was so easy to let these numbers define me… but I do remember being so excited about research. Back then it was my interest in science that propelled me to work as an undergraduate research assistant for 3 years at the University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez during my college studies. Due to my success in these projects, I was accepted into 2 summer internships, one at Georgia Institute of Technology and another at Purdue University. Unfortunately, after extensive research experience my goal of becoming a professional researcher seemed very challenging because of my low GRE scores. Having a GPA of 3.58/4.00, I was considering staying an additional semester in my home institution to improve my GPA because I did not have the money for another round of GRE and I knew any score improvements I could achieve were not going to be significant.

Fortunately, the Polymer Science and Engineering Program at the University of Massachusetts overlooked my GRE scores and accepted me. At the beginning of my PhD, I felt the impostor syndrome, especially when my peers talked about GRE scores. Contrary to these feelings, my PhD advisor always supported and believed in me. Moreover, my university peers, classmates and lab mates saw my performance as a researcher and treated me as an equal. Therefore, as a PhD student, I successfully published scientific literature, won the prestigious GRFP fellowship from NSF, conducted research in South Korea and I learned to think critically. Although I sometimes struggle to shake off my impostor syndrome, I understood that my GRE scores did not define me. After completing my PhD, I work at Apple Inc. living my dream of being a researcher at the cutting edge of technology.

English is My Only Language

Destenie Nock
4th year PhD Candidate in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research
October 19, 2018

The thing I remember most about the GRE is the length and the score I received. Sitting in a cubicle for 8 hours taking a test made me feel more like a factory worker, than a person trying to reach for advancement in their academic career. Being an engineer, I was never worried about the math section, it was the English that gave me problems. It didn’t help that the preparatory course I took didn’t provide much assistance in the English department. Their biggest suggestion was making flashcards. It was my senior year in college, I was trying to maintain a 4.0 GPA in my double major, I was president of my honor society, applying jobs, applying to study abroad programs, graduate school deadlines were approaching, and I was trying to enjoy what little time I had left with my friends…flashcards were not on my list of things to do. From the previous sentence I am sure it is apparent that sitting still is not my strong suit, so it follows that I did not score well on the GRE. My first writing score was in the bottom 40th percentile. This score was so low that online it said English was essentially my second language. At this point of my story I should let you know that I was born and raised in Maryland, and I am indeed an American citizen whose entire education has been in English. Given that English is my only language I found the classification of my verbal GRE score very disheartening.

I also did not have the money to take the test a second time, so I sent out the graduate school applications hoping that my high GPA would compensate for the fact that I, according to the GRE, did not know English very well. I applied to three schools and received acceptance to one, which was okay by me because UMass Amherst was the only school I wanted to go to. I really liked the person who would later become my advisor and her research was very interesting to me. When I was talking to her, she told me that I could make it into UMass but to make the process easier to get accepted to engineering and get a fellowship it would be great if I could increase my verbal GRE score. I saved the money to buy a book, did flashcards for 180 of the most common GRE words, and eventually took the test for a second time boosting my score from the 40th to the 70th percentile. This huge score increase indicated that knowing a series of “big words” is the equivalent of being proficient in English. You will be sad to know that I have subsequently forgotten all of the words I studied except for “enigma” and “stigma” so I am pretty sure English is once again my second language.

In May I will graduate from my PhD program in Industrial Engineering and Operations Research. I believe low GRE scores have a stigma in our society, where people with low scores often feel they are inadequate, or are viewed by others as sub-par academics. In reality the GRE and the GRE requirements needed for graduate school are just hurdles that show how much money a person had to take the test a series of times, or to buy a book and have someone tell them strategies to ace standardized tests. Undergraduate education does not prepare us to sit for 6 - 8 hours taking a test. In graduate school I have never needed this skill. Why the GRE is still being used to judge who will be a great graduate student is truly an enigma.

From The Advisor

"Destenie is a super star. She came here with perfect grades, double majoring in math and electrical engineering, and with three summers of fantastic research experience. Since here, she has pushed me into new research directions with her curiosity and interests. She has presented her research as the only doctoral student in a workshop featuring many of the stars of the field, and fit in perfectly. She is on track to finish her PhD is just four years. She is being recruited by a number of universities early in the season. I am very thankful that I recognized her worth - despite an initially low verbal GRE. She is not just a good colleague, but a friend."

Erin Baker, PhD
Associate Dean
of the College of Engineering
Professor and Director
of Wind Energy IGERT

Carrying the Burden of Test Scores Did Not Slow Me Down

Anibal Valenti
Assistant Professor
Universidad Centrale de Caribe in Puerto Rico.

Despite underwhelming V and Q GREs scores, Anibal Valenti was admitted to a Rutgers STEM PhD program. He not only successfully completed his PhD at Rutgers in Molecular Biosciences in 2011, but is currently a successful and research-active assistant professor at Universidad Centrale de Caribe in Puerto Rico.

“As an undergraduate interested in a STEM PhD, I always struggled with standard tests including the GRE and my scores always represented that struggle. Being an underrepresented minority whose main language is not English I always felt that these tests were not an adequate tool to represent my abilities or my skills as a student. Underperforming in these tests puts an extra weight on minorities during the application and interview process because not only we have to make a case that we have what it takes to complete a graduate degree, but also we have to convince beyond any reasonable doubt that our GRE scores were just an isolated incident. I successfully completed my PhD at Rutgers in Molecular Immunology and I am currently an assistant professor at a medical school. If I take the GRE now I will proudly and consistently score poorly again."

I’d Rather Take Qualifying Exams

Physics Professor

I was a non-traditional graduate student. I applied to several graduate schools after working in intellectual property for more than three years. As part of my job I was reading scientific and technical documents on a daily basis, as well as making legal decisions. I wrote opinions on the patentability of inventions, and discussed the merits of the cases with applicants’ attorneys. And yet, my GRE scores were less than stellar.

I do not recall my scores; I did well in the math portion, and average or below average in the verbal component. What I recall clearly was my concern over the (Physics) Subject Test, more so than the General one. It was my understanding at the time that if the score was not above a certain value, the application would not be considered. And that may have very well been the case.

I cannot speak for the merits of the GRE in other disciplines, but I do not consider them
appropriate for STEM. Neither the General nor Subject GRE exams tested my reasoning or problem-solving capabilities. They tested my ability to memorize and regurgitate some information. STEM disciplines are not about memorization or answers in multiple-choice format. Scientific research is about finding answers where there are none, to explore new frontiers. Should I have to do everything over again, I’d rather take the “Quals” (graduate program qualifying exams) twice, than take the GREs.

STEM institutions do themselves a disservice by relying too heavily on GRE scores as a quick cut. Unfortunately, as long as Universities receive more applications than their available positions, they will continue to streamline the admission process and use GRE scores to make decisions.

This approach may be more harmful to minorities and students of low resources. Not only are the GREs costly, but (at least when I took them) there is an additional charge should you want your scores to be sent to multiple institutions. And if you are concerned about a university not considering your application due to a low score, what can you do? Well, you can purchase preparation materials from ETS, such as books, previous exams and courses.

The admissions offices at many institutions are not considering the applications as a whole. I once had a long discussion with a graduate program secretary and an admissions official about whether or not I had to take the TOEFL to be considered. There was I, having a direct conversation with the admissions official, showing them that I could speak and understand the language, illustrating that my job at the time required excellent oral and written skills, but that was not sufficient to “check the box.” The TOEFL, also provided by ETS, is another costly exam.

In short, I consider the GREs an arbitrary filter employed by institutions to reduce the number of applications to consider. They are the college equivalent of “if you don’t pass gym class, you’ll never graduate from high school.” Except that the inability to memorize and regurgitate information may have a demotivational effect on the applicant.