Last Updated on April 29, 2023
Over the years, an increasing number of graduate school applicants have asked me, “How much do GRE scores matter?” However, even before the pandemic prompted many graduate programs to temporarily waive their GRE requirements, the question of how much weight GRE scores carry in admissions was somewhat complicated.
In this article, we’ll explore the relevance of GRE scores for grad school admissions, including at top grad schools, business schools, and law schools. We’ll also discuss the importance of earning a good GRE score as it relates to the various GRE sections.
Here are the topics we’ll cover:
- Why Does a GRE Score Matter?
- The GRE Is a Standardized Metric
- The GRE Is a Filtering Mechanism
- How Much Do GRE Scores Matter?
- Optional Doesn’t Mean Unimportant
- GRE Scores Could Be the Icing on the Cake
- GRE Scores May Help Balance the Scales
- Top Grad Schools
- Business Schools
- Law Schools
- Optional Doesn’t Mean Unimportant
- Does the GRE Writing Score Matter?
- The Perils of Bombing the Writing Section
- Key Takeaways
- What’s Next?
First, let’s take a look at the reasons why the GRE gained such widespread use for evaluating grad school applicants.
Why Does a GRE Score Matter?
There are a couple of major reasons why GRE scores are important to graduate school admissions committees:
- The GRE provides a standardized metric for comparing applicants.
- The GRE provides a filtering mechanism.
Let’s delve a little deeper into each of these reasons.
The GRE Is a Standardized Metric
Graduate school applicants come from a wide range of academic and professional backgrounds and have a wide range of experiences. So, in a sense, comparing applicants can be somewhat of an “apples to oranges” situation.
Here is where the GRE comes in. The GRE is a standardized metric with which graduate programs can evaluate applicants. In other words, in comparing GRE scores among various applicants, admissions committees are able to compare “apples to apples.”
It’s difficult to say for sure whether an A in physics at one college is the same as an A in physics at another. However, admissions committees can feel confident that one applicant’s 330 on the GRE is equivalent to another’s.
GRE scores allow admissions committees to compare “apples to apples” when evaluating candidates with a wide array of backgrounds, experiences, and competencies.
The GRE Is a Filtering Mechanism
As harsh as it may be, because the GRE provides a common metric for evaluating applicants, admissions committees can use it as a “filter” to weed out applicants whose test scores suggest they may not be able to cut it in a particular graduate program.
Although you’d be hard-pressed to find any grad schools that state specific minimum score requirements, low GRE scores can still be a red flag, particularly at schools where the competition is stiff or if your low score suggests a lack of competency in an area of importance for a particular program.
For example, if you’re applying to a master’s program in Economics or Computer Science, a low quantitative score could set off alarm bells with admissions. Likewise, low verbal scores won’t do any favors for applicants to master’s programs in Education or History.
The fact is, admissions committees want some assurance that applicants will be able to handle the rigors of grad school. The GRE is one straightforward way they can get that assurance.
In fact, some studies have shown a correlation between GRE scores and program completion, grade point average, and other important measures of graduate student performance. So, if a graduate program requires GRE scores, you can bet it pays attention to them!
Now, I just introduced quite a big “if,”, which gets at the heart of why the question of how much GRE scores matter is a complicated one. Let’s discuss.
Admissions committees may use the GRE as a “filter” to weed out applicants whose test scores suggest they may not be able to cut it in a particular graduate program.
How Much Do GRE Scores Matter?
When considering how much GRE scores matter, the first and probably most important thing to know is that every graduate program has different GRE requirements. Even at the same school, different programs often have different testing requirements.
Take Duke, for example. GRE scores are required for admission to a number of master’s and PhD programs at Duke, optional for a number of other programs, and temporarily optional (because of the pandemic) for many others.
As another example, at MIT, each of the Engineering graduate programs has its own GRE requirements. Furthermore, even within a particular field of Engineering, the GRE requirement may vary depending on what type of degree you’re interested in pursuing in that field.
The point is, it is absolutely essential to research the specific programs and degrees you’re interested in to determine whether they require GRE scores or have test-optional policies. Of course, if your desired programs state that GRE scores are not accepted or will not be considered, then the question of how much GRE scores matter becomes an easy one.
TTP PRO TIP:
Research the specific programs and degrees you’re interested in to determine whether they require GRE scores or have test-optional policies.
Now, we can’t simply stop at whether GRE scores are required or optional in determining how much they matter. Let’s discuss.
Optional Doesn’t Mean Unimportant
Because admissions committees see GRE scores as a tool for evaluating and comparing applicants, the GRE can be an important tool for applicants themselves. When you use test-optional policies as a “get out of jail free card,” perhaps assuming that “optional” means “unimportant,” you rob yourself of that tool.
Let’s consider a hypothetical (but not unlikely) scenario. Applicant A and Applicant B are in the running for a slot at a competitive graduate program with a test-optional policy. Their GPAs and other markers of academic excellence are comparable. Furthermore, they have similar calibers of extracurriculars, internship experience, and recommendations. The big difference in their applications is that Applicant A submitted an impressive GRE score. Applicant B, on the other hand, did not submit a score. All else equal, which applicant would you rather be?
Even if a program has a test-optional policy, some (or possibly many) applicants will still submit GRE scores. There are two main reasons why:
- An impressive GRE score could be “the icing on the cake” for an applicant.
- An impressive GRE score may compensate for weaknesses in an application.
Let’s explore each of these ideas a bit further.
TTP PRO TIP:
When you use test-optional policies as a “get out of jail free card,” you rob yourself of an important tool in your application arsenal.
GRE Scores Could Be the Icing on the Cake
When applying to grad school, you want to pull every lever possible to make your application look as attractive as possible. For this reason, I always tell students not to immediately discount the GRE just because the programs they’re interested in have test-optional policies.
You want to show off your talents, smarts, and skills in every way you can in your applications. A great GRE score is just another way to do that. If you can show off an impressive GRE score, why not do so? Moreover, if other applicants are showing off impressive GRE scores, you may feel more confident doing so as well.
Even if your academic and professional background already make you a competitive candidate at your desired programs, an impressive GRE score could be “the icing on the cake” that really makes you stand out as special. After all, maybe there are many other equally competitive candidates vying for seats at those programs. If you submit an impressive GRE score and they don’t, you may give yourself a leg up!
Keep in mind that some schools with test-optional policies state outright that they do not give preference to applicants who choose to submit GRE scores. However, even if such statements are true, submitting a great GRE score certainly won’t hurt your application.
Best-case scenario, your impressive score makes you look like a star. After all, if admissions completely disregarded GRE scores, would they even bother giving students the option to submit scores?
TTP PRO TIP:
Even if you’re already a competitive candidate at your desired programs, an impressive GRE score can be “the icing on the cake” that really makes you stand out.
GRE Scores May Help Balance the Scales
Undergraduate classes and GPA, internships and work experience, recommendations, application essays — all of these things matter in admissions. And if your application falls a bit short in one of these areas, a great GRE score can be a way to help “balance the scales.”
For instance, perhaps your GPA falls slightly below the class average at some of the programs you’re interested in. An impressive GRE score could help reassure admissions that you have the skills to handle the coursework in their programs.
Or maybe your undergraduate coursework was a little light in some subjects that are relevant to your chosen field of graduate study. In that case, earning a high score in the relevant section of the GRE could help make up for those gaps by showing admissions that you have the skills necessary to succeed in your chosen field.
TTP PRO TIP:
If your application falls short in one area or another, a great GRE score can be a way to help “balance the scales.”
So, we know that submitting GRE scores can be important regardless of whether programs are test optional. Let’s discuss how these dynamics may play out in the context of particular types of graduate schools.
Top Grad Schools
As we saw in the case of Duke and MIT, even top grad schools can have highly variable GRE requirements. So, again, you have to consider each school individually, researching the specific programs you’re interested in.
That said, if we’re talking about the most competitive schools out there — say, schools that rank in the top 10 — then in many cases, submitting GRE scores may be more of an “icing on the cake” situation than a “balancing the scales” one.
At such highly competitive schools, every applicant is going to be operating at a pretty high level. So, every aspect of your application will need to clear that bar in order for you to have a high chance of admittance. Thus, particularly when we’re talking about the top of the top schools, even a high GRE score may not be enough to make up for shortfalls in other areas of your application.
Particularly if you have a significant shortfall in some area, counting on high test scores to save the day is a risky bet.
On the other hand, at schools where every applicant is a “star student,” knocking the GRE out of the park could be one of the most powerful tools you have to distinguish yourself from the pack.
So, although top grad schools evaluate applicants holistically, at top programs where the GRE is required, I’d say that high GRE scores matter quite a bit. At top programs where the GRE is optional, a high score certainly can’t hurt. Moreover, in such competitive environments, it’s wise to use every tool at your disposal.
At schools where every applicant is a ‘star student,’ knocking the GRE out of the park could be one of the most powerful tools you have to distinguish yourself from the pack.
As you may know, essentially all business schools accept either GRE or GMAT scores from applicants. Furthermore, most business schools state outright that they have no preference for one test over the other.
More to the point, business schools as a group tend to place a bit more emphasis on test scores than graduate schools in general do. Whereas there is a ton of variation in test requirements from program to program at grad schools in general, business schools overall are more likely to require test scores and consider them integral to admissions decisions. (Again, every program has its own standards.)
Additionally, business schools tend to place particular emphasis on quantitative skills. So, if you’re planning to apply to MBA programs, you’ll want to pay particular attention to your GRE Quant score.
Now, we can’t say for sure exactly how much weight various schools place on GPA vs. test scores vs. work experience, etc. However, I do think that test scores are generally important enough in business school admissions that they can help balance the scales when you have weak points in your application and provide some serious icing on the cake when you need to stand out.
Of course, there are always caveats. At less competitive business schools, good GRE scores may go a long way toward making up for a lackluster GPA. However, at top MBA programs, high scores may not be enough to balance the scales.
Plus, GRE scores are likely to trend quite high at very competitive business schools. So, distinguishing yourself may require a truly outstanding score.
In general, business schools are likely to require test scores and consider them integral to admissions decisions.
You may have heard that more and more law schools are accepting either the GRE or the LSAT for admissions. Law schools are hoping to broaden their applicant pools by accepting the GRE — for instance, by attracting students who took the GRE for another type of graduate program but decided to switch to law.
At this point, however, the LSAT remains the far more common admissions test that law school applicants take. However, you may be applying to law school with a GRE score for one of the following common reasons:
- you’re switching fields
- you’re interested in a dual JD/master’s program
- you want to have a variety of graduate program options available to you.
If you plan to apply to law school with a GRE score, I would consider the GRE just as important as the LSAT — which is to say very important! Note that virtually any ABA-accredited law school will require submission of either an LSAT or GRE score. So, in general, test scores matter quite a bit for law school.
Virtually any ABA-accredited law school requires submission of either an LSAT or GRE score.
Since the GRE is a relative newcomer to law schools, they currently evaluate GRE scores by comparing GRE score percentiles to LSAT score percentiles. So, you’ll want your GRE score percentiles to at least match the percentile rankings of the median LSAT scores at the law schools that interest you. In some cases, you may want to match the 75th percentile score associated with a class. (You can read more about what a good GRE score is for law school here.)
TTP PRO TIP:
Make sure your GRE score percentiles at least match the percentile rankings of the median LSAT scores at the law schools that interest you.
Does the GRE Writing Score Matter?
Students asking whether the Analytical Writing score matters on the GRE tend to be those applying to graduate programs that emphasize quantitative skills. The fact is, the Analytical Writing section is no different from any other GRE section in that it may matter more for some programs than for others.
For instance, if I were applying to NYU’s M.A. in Journalism program, which requires the GRE, I would want to make the most of every opportunity to show off my writing skills and my ability to logically analyze issues. Thus, I’d want to knock the Analytical Writing section out of the park. (NYU reports that, on average, its Journalism grad students score at least 5.0 on Analytical Writing.)
On the other hand, even at top Engineering schools such as Carnegie Mellon or Purdue University–West Lafayette (tied at #4 in U.S. News’ 2023 rankings), an Analytical Writing score of 3.5 or 4.0 may be perfectly acceptable.
So, in keeping with the theme of this post, research the Analytical Writing average scores at the programs you’re interested in to get a sense of how much the Writing section matters for you.
TTP PRO TIP:
Research the Analytical Writing average scores at the programs you’re interested in to get a sense of how much the Writing section matters for you.
The Perils of Bombing the Writing Section
Even if you’re pursuing a math-focused field, completely bombing the Analytical Writing section could raise some eyebrows with admissions. For instance, scoring 2.0 or 2.5 on Analytical Writing could signal to admissions that you didn’t care enough to even try, particularly if you demonstrate writing ability in your application essays.
Even worse, admissions might wonder whether someone else’s writing ability is on display in your application essays.
So, I wouldn’t make the mistake of assuming that your Analytical Writing score won’t matter for a particular program or field of study. Unless your desired program explicitly states that it does not consider Analytical Writing scores in its admissions decisions, you can’t consider the Writing section a “throwaway.”
Remember also that, for highly competitive programs, all of your GRE section scores, including Writing, may need to be top-notch.
TTP PRO TIP:
Don’t make the mistake of assuming that your Analytical Writing score won’t matter because you’re pursuing a math-centric program or field of study.
Remember, there are a few questions you should ask yourself when thinking about how much a GRE score matters for you.
- Are GRE scores accepted at your desired programs, and if so, are they required or optional?
- How competitive are the programs you’re interested in?
- Are there any weaknesses in your application that a high GRE score, or high score in a certain section, could help make up for?
Wondering whether you should retake the GRE to earn a higher score for your target schools? This guide can help you determine whether a retake is right for you.
Need some strategies to improve your GRE score? Get expert advice on increasing your score here.