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Low GRE Scores Can Be Overcome, but a Weak Writing Sample Usually Can't


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A number of posts questioning the importance of the writing sample in the admission process inspired me to write the blog post I've included below. I'd hate to see other applicants make the same mistake that I did...

When I applied to English Ph.D. programs after finishing my Bachelors, what worried me most about the application process was the GRE. I had never done well on standardized tests (my SAT scores were embarrassingly low when compared to my friends’ scores), and I was convinced that my chances of being accepted to a good school hinged almost entirely on my GRE scores. Determined not to let the GRE stand between me and my dream, I dedicated six months to studying for the exam. I learned thousands of new vocabulary words, took hundreds of practice tests, and deconstructed the GRE question type by question type, learning how to master each and every component of the exam.

My hard work paid off in some respects: I ended up with scores in the 99th percentile and proved to myself that I could accomplish anything to which I set my mind. Unfortunately, my high scores provided little solace once the rejection letters started piling up. My high scores meant even less when I found out that my friend “Joe,” who had GRE scores in the 70th percentile and a mediocre 3.2 GPA, ended up getting accepted to Berkeley and received a full fellowship offer from another top-ranked program. Nor, in the end, were my high GRE scores the reason why I was fortunate enough to receive a last-minute phone call from the Graduate Director at the University of Iowa, a school from which I had already received a rejection letter, informing me that a space had opened up for me.

Based on my own experience, that of my friend's, and what I have since learned in my 15+ years in academia, GRE scores are probably the least important component of a candidate’s application. In my own case, I had placed so much importance on my GRE scores, that I failed to recognize the importance of the writing sample in the admission process (at least for humanities and social science programs): I didn’t give my writing sample nearly enough thought. I ended up submitting a seminar paper I had just completed that semester simply because it was the only paper that fit the length requirements, not because this paper best demonstrated my potential to produce original and compelling scholarship. My writing sample no doubt fell far short when compared to the work of the many other applicants with high GRE scores, many of whom had already received Master’s Degrees or presented papers at conferences.

By contrast, despite his low GRE scores and GPA, my friend was accepted to Berkeley and Indiana primarily on the basis of his very strong writing sample, a paper that had won an undergraduate essay contest. After reading this paper, a professor on the AdCom at Indiana working in the same field contacted Joe to express a desire to work with him and offered him a full fellowship. Having a strong advocate on his side, Joe’s low GRE scores and GPA became unimportant — he did not need to convince an entire committee he was a worthy candidate, simply one well-placed person. It worked the same way for him at Berkeley: one of Joe’s recommenders was close friends with the head of the graduate program at Berkeley, and the strong paper, combined with the use of a connection, worked to secure Joe’s acceptance.

As both Joe’s case and my own illustrate, strong advocates mean everything in academia. Though my weak writing sample failed to turn AdCom members into advocates, I was lucky enough that at least one of my recommenders was willing to enlist her connections to advocate for me behind the scenes. To this day, I suspect the only reason I received a post-rejection acceptance to the University of Iowa was because one of my recommenders, who was very well-known in my field and a former Graduate Director at Iowa, made a call on my behalf. Ultimately, this is the way things work in academia — whether you are applying for entry into a grad program or a tenure-track job, you will always need to have advocates willing to make a call and use their connections on your behalf. At the very least, you will always be competing against other candidates with advocates who are doing just that.

While high GRE scores ultimately end up being the least important component of a candidate’s profile, there are two contexts in which GRE scores matter more. Some schools use cut-off GRE scores to determine whether an application will be reviewed and receive full consideration (e.g., applications with GREs below 600 will be rejected without review). In such cases, candidates with lower GRE scores should make contact with Professors of Interest at schools to which they are applying and enlist their advocates’ support very early in the process. In addition, many schools have a few special, more prestigious fellowship positions that provide more money or less teaching responsibilities than the standard package received by most students in an entering class. High GRE scores may be one of the criteria for determining who receives these special fellowships.

Finally, it is worth emphasizing that my experience is based on the application process for Ph.D. programs as opposed to Master’s programs and is most applicable for humanities and social science programs. GRE scores may indeed assume more significance in the admission process to a Master’s program because these programs generally are larger, do not offer funding, and do not presuppose the same experience with and/or a future career path requiring academic research and writing. At many schools, Master’s programs are specifically designed to weed out unworthy Ph.D. candidates.

The simple fact is that the attrition rate in Ph.D. programs is extremely high – some sources place it at 50%, but in many programs and fields it can be higher. I think less than five of the approximately 30 students in my entering class at the University of Iowa actually went on to complete their Ph.Ds. Most applicants to Ph.D. programs have very little clue about what is really involved with getting a Ph.D. and what it means to be an academic. This is as true for applicants with high GRE scores as it is for those with low GRE scores. It is precisely because there is no correlation between high GRE scores and the likelihood that a candidate will actually stick around to complete her Ph.D., that AdComs are willing to overlook low GRE scores when presented with evidence that a candidate possesses the internal drive, intellectual curiosity, and capacity for original thinking critical for both survival and success in academia.

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  • 5 months later...

Thanks for sharing your story! I don't think this point can be said enough, since this question gets asked over and over again. I am also an English PhD student, and although I was able to get into a top program the first time around, I still wish I would have placed more emphasis on it sooner. I might have even received one of those "special" funding offers that you describe. Although I have 5 years of funding, I know a fellowship went to one of my cohorts who already has a masters and probably had a more solid writing sample than I did (I'm coming straight from my B.A.).  I made the crucial mistake of believing I could just "rework" a 20-page research paper I had written the year before. It wasn't until one of my professors really sat down with me and helped me edit it that I realized how much work my old paper really needed to reach the caliber of what I can do now. I really feared it was too little too late, but I also luckily had some strong faculty members vouching for me, which I believe got me in in the end. Can't stress it enough - don't fixate on GRE scores or GPA at the cost of your writing sample and personal statements! 

Edited by lattecappucino
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  • 2 weeks later...

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