If you’re applying to grad school, you might be wondering: why take the GRE? What do you take the GRE for? Should you take the GRE?
Read on as we explore why people take the GRE, what the purpose of the exam is, and why GRE scores are such a common admissions requirement for grad schools. We’ll also look at whether the GRE can accurately predict grad school success and give you tips on whether you should or shouldn’t take the GRE.
Why Do People Take the GRE?
Most people take the GRE to get into grad school or to secure a merit-based fellowship for grad school. The GRE is a common grad school admissions requirement for master’s programs (including Master of Arts, Master of Science, and even some Master of Fine Arts programs), as well as Ph.D. programs.
At present, thousands of master’s and doctoral programs accept GRE scores, including more than 1,200 business schools, several of which are top-ranked M.B.A. programs. GRE scores are also accepted by many fellowship sponsors. So, chances are at least one of the programs you’re applying to will require GRE scores. (This assumption only applies, however, if you’re getting a master’s degree or a Ph.D. For other types of grad degrees, applicants are typically required to take an entirely different test for admission, such as the GMAT, LSAT, or MCAT.)
If you’re not sure whether you need to take the GRE, it’s best to consult your programs directly. Remember, if you don’t take the GRE and scores are required for admission into a program, you won’t be able to complete your grad school application — and therefore can’t get into that program!
But before we dive into whether you should take the GRE or not, let’s answer another question: what is the purpose of the GRE exam?
Quick side note: we've created the world's leading online GRE prep program that adapts to you and your strengths and weaknesses. Not sure what to study? Confused by how to improve your score? PrepScholar guides you, step by step.
I want to be clear - you don't NEED a prep program to get a great GRE score. But we believe PrepScholar is the best GRE prep program available right now, especially if you find it hard to organize your study schedule and don't know what to study.
What Is the Overall Purpose of the GRE?
The GRE tests your preparedness for grad school and is designed to predict how successful you’re likely to be as a grad student (we’ll touch more on this later). The exam comprises three sections that test different skill sets deemed critical for grad school success. These sections and what they test you on are as follows:
- Verbal Reasoning: your vocab knowledge and reading comprehension abilities.
- Quantitative Reasoning: your problem-solving abilities and your knowledge of fundamental math topics (arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and data analysis).
- Analytical Writing: your ability to construct a cogent essay using clear evidence and correct grammar, spelling, punctuation, and capitalization.
For more info on what the GRE entails, check out our GRE syllabus, as well as our in-depth guide to the three GRE sections (coming soon).
Why Do Grad Schools Want GRE Scores?
Now that we’ve answered the initial questions of “Why take the GRE?” and “What is the purpose of the GRE exam?” let’s take a closer look at why grad schools want GRE scores and what they actually use them for.
The GRE provides grad programs with an easily quantifiable way to compare you to other applicants. While it can be difficult to compare applicants’ personal statements, letters of recommendation, and GPAs, it’s far easier for programs to compare objective GRE scores.
During the admissions process, admissions committees will juxtapose your GRE scores with those of other applicants (or with those of previously admitted applicants). They’ll also likely use current GRE percentiles to see what percentage of test takers you scored higher (and lower) than.
Admissions committees normally focus on your most relevant GRE score. This will be either Verbal or Quant — AW is almost always the least important of the three. So, basically, math-heavy fields, such as physics, value Quant scores the most, whereas reading-heavy fields, such as English literature, value Verbal scores the most.
Ultimately, how important GRE scores are to a program depends on the program. Some programs are forthright about the importance of GRE scores for admission. Those that strongly value GRE scores usually recommend high GRE minimums or report high GRE averages of incoming applicants.
On the other hand, some programs that don’t value GRE scores as much will say so directly. For example, the politics doctoral program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, considers GRE scores to be “less important” and other application factors — including letters of recommendation, the statement of purpose, and the writing sample — to be significantly more important.
But why do some programs place so much emphasis on GRE scores? Can GRE scores actually predict someone’s potential for academic success?
Can GRE Scores Predict Grad School Success?
As I mentioned previously, the GRE was designed to test applicants’ preparedness for grad school, as well as their potential for academic success. But can it actually do this? The answer is, not necessarily. Over the years, there has been considerable debate as to whether the GRE can accurately predict an applicant’s potential for grad school success.
A 2001 meta-analysis of the GRE claims there are clear correlations between high GRE scores and success as a grad student. According to the report, GRE scores (along with undergrad GPAs) are “generalizably valid predictors of graduate grade point average.” Likewise, a 2009 report found that the GRE is generally a solid tool for predicting grad GPAs.
But not everyone (or every study) agrees with these findings. A 1997 study conducted by Cornell and Yale reported that only the AW score accurately predicted academic success beyond the first year of graduate study — but this was limited to men. More recently, a 2014 article for the science journal Nature asserts that the GRE leads to discrimination and a lack of diversity in grad programs, as the exam continuously underpredicts the success of minorities, women, and those of low socioeconomic status.
In the end, although the GRE can theoretically predict your academic success, not everyone agrees with this line of thought. Depending on what your programs believe in regards to the GRE, some may highly value GRE scores, whereas others may care little for them, if even at all.
Should You Take the GRE?
Now, let’s address the question you’ve probably been asking yourself since you started reading this article: should you take the GRE? Below, we provide you with a list of possible scenarios along with advice on whether it’s better to take the GRE or avoid it.
Take the GRE If …
- Any of your programs require GRE scores. Unfortunately, even if just one of your programs requires GRE scores, you’re going to have to take the GRE. If you don’t take the GRE, you won’t be able to finish your application. And as we all know, an incomplete application = automatic disqualification. So register for the test and get studying!
- Any of your programs strongly recommend GRE scores. If none of your programs require GRE scores but one or a few of them strongly recommend scores, it’s a good idea to just go ahead and take the test. This way, you’ll have an extra component to your application that can boost your chance of getting accepted (if you achieve solid GRE scores, that is).
- You want to be considered for merit-based funding. Many grad schools use GRE scores — in addition to undergrad GPAs, faculty recommendations, and other application factors — to determine applicants’ eligibility for merit-based fellowships. Generally, applicants seek out these types of fellowships if the program they’re applying to doesn’t guarantee funding for all admitted applicants (or does, but only in the form of loans). So, if your programs aren’t fully funded but do offer merit-based fellowships, I highly recommend taking the GRE.
- You will for sure apply to grad school within the next five years. If you know for certain you’ll be applying to grad school within the next five years in order to obtain a master’s degree or a Ph.D., consider taking the GRE early. GRE scores are valid for five years, so as long as you apply to a program within that time frame, take advantage of the time you have and get the GRE over and done with. Taking it early also gives you plenty of time to decide whether you want to retake the test, should you score lower than what you need for your programs.
- You want to make up for a weak spot in your application. If GRE scores are optional but you have a glaring weakness in your application, such as a low undergrad GPA or mediocre letters of recommendation, consider taking the GRE (and scoring well on it!) to try to make up for the weak spot.
Don’t Take the GRE If …
- None of your schools require or strongly recommend GRE scores. If none of your programs require or recommend GRE scores, you’re better off skipping the GRE. Instead, spend your time strengthening other areas of your applications.
- You’re not sure you want to attend grad school. Toying around with the idea of attending grad school but haven’t made any concrete decisions? Then don’t bother taking the GRE just yet. There’s no point in forking out the $205 exam fee or studying for hours on end if you’re not 100-percent positive you’ll be applying to grad school (for a master’s degree or a Ph.D.) within the next five years.
Why Take the GRE: Recap
Why take the GRE? Most people take the exam in order to get into grad school or to be considered for merit-based fellowships for grad school. Because thousands of grad programs and business schools around the world accept GRE scores, it’s likely you’ll need to take the GRE if you are ever planning to enroll in a master’s or doctoral program.
The purpose of the GRE is to measure applicants’ preparedness for grad school and their potential for academic success. Grad schools use GRE scores to compare applicants with one another; however, not all programs value GRE scores to the same extent. Many programs don’t require GRE scores at all or consider them to be less important than other application factors, whereas others consider GRE scores a critical component of the application.
Moreover, there continues to be significant debate as to whether there is any concrete connection between GRE scores and grad school success. Some studies have highlighted a strong correlation between GRE scores and grad school GPAs, whereas others have found little to no evidence of any such correlation.
Ultimately, to decide whether you should take the GRE or not, consider the following factors:
- Whether the programs you’re applying to require or strongly recommend GRE scores
- Whether you’d like to be eligible for merit-based fellowships (assuming your programs don’t guarantee funding for admitted applicants)
- How certain you are you’ll apply to a master’s or doctoral program within the next five years
- Whether you have any major weaknesses in your grad school application, such as a low GPA
For those who will take the GRE, I wish you the best of luck on the exam. And for those who don’t need to take it, congrats — one less worry on the way to your grad school dreams!
Do you really need GRE scores for grad school? Read our guide to learn what types of grad programs you can apply to without GRE scores, and get advice on whether you should apply or not.