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Thoughts on "GRE Optional" PhD Programs in Higher Education/Education Policy (Long Post)

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Hi everyone! 

I have been a long-time lurker on this forum, watching others discuss and apply to master's and doctoral programs for a few years. Now, the time has come for me to apply for PhD programs in either higher education or education policy this fall! However, I am quite concerned about what exactly "GRE Optional" means in practice rather than theory during the application review by faculty members. I have been studying for around two months already, and I am very nervous about my prospects of earning a high score in both sections (verbal and quantitative). I am considering taking it just once and determining whether or not to submit it depending on my official score. I have spoken to numerous high-level faculty members who offered me mixed advice about submitting the GRE despite it being optional. Some say that most faculty members do not care about whether you submit it or not. Others contend that it's risky not to submit it as they may not weigh other aspects of your application despite being a "holistic" process. It is honestly hard to get a straightforward answer from any faculty member about this because it "mostly depends". For context as to why I am quite nervous about submitting or not taking the GRE, here is the list of the schools/programs I am applying to (ignore Cornell since it is not an education program): 

  1. Harvard GSE - Ph.D. in Education (EPPE Concentration; GRE Optional)
  2. Stanford GSE - Ph.D. in Higher Education (GRE Optional)
  3. University of Michigan SOE - Ph.D. in Higher Education (PPPE Concentration; GRE Optional)
  4. University of Pennsylvania GSE - Ph.D. in Higher Education (GRE REQUIRED)
  5. Cornell University - Ph.D. in Public Policy (GRE Optional; Not an Education School but Applying Anyway)
  6. Columbia University TC - Ph.D. in Economics and Education (GRE Optional)

Each school has various perspectives on the GRE, and many of them stress that it is one of the less important factors during the application review. My current plan is to study for the next 6 to 7 months for the GRE, but I do not expect to do well since I am terrible at taking standardized exams. I guess my main question revolves around how should I truly interpret "GRE optional" given the competitive nature of these programs? I have reached out to all of these programs and they try to diminish it's importance within the holistic review process or they just straight up say that it doesn't matter that much. But I frankly, do not believe them. To provide additional context, I am happy to provide my personal application stats as well if needed. 

TLDR: what are your thoughts on competitive programs that list the GRE as "optional"? 

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