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The Surprising Thing I Learned about the GRE

This guest post comes from Yun Ye, who is not only interning at VOA this semester, but also applying to graduate school. She recently attended an information session for her top choice school, and came back with a new perspective on the role of the GRE in admissions.

More and more Chinese students are attending graduate school in the U.S. – 88,429 at last count, an increase of 15% from the previous year – and how to get into the dream school is something weighing on the minds of many Chinese students.

Among my friends in China who, like me, wanted to pursue higher education in the U.S., the conversation was often about what schools we were planning to apply to and how we planned to get in – and when we thought about how we planned to get in, we often thought about our test scores.

In Chinese education, grades are the most important thing to a student. When I was at school, I remember striving for an excellent grade had been almost everyone’s goal. With that mentality, when my friends and former classmates started applying to U.S. grad schools, they put a lot of pressure on themselves to get a high score on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). The GRE is a standardized test required for admission at most graduate schools.

People who got a good score on the GRE would share their study experiences on online forums, which others would read in the hopes of emulating their performance. Chinese students preparing to study abroad get very familiar with forums such as “,” “Taisha” or “Jituo.”

I also know people who spent a lot of money on classes to prepare for the GRE test, and people who dedicated a couple of months to studying; some people even took half a year to study.

I’m sure all that studying will eventually pay off in their scores, but I learned something valuable when I visited graduate schools recently in preparation for my own applications: the GRE score isn’t as important as my Chinese classmates made it out to be.

What I learned at a grad school information session

I went last month to an information session for one of my ideal schools. I’m planning to pursue a graduate degree in journalism, and I picked this school because it offers a unique program focused on practical experience. Luckily, the information session was held in Washington D.C., which is where I am right now.

There were about 10 people at the session, not including the university personnel. We had speakers who were current students and alumni, and the director of the program and the dean of the office came too.

At the session, most people were more interested in information about the program than in admission questions. They asked about the curriculum, project design, different concentrations, and career development after graduation. The answers from the representatives were very detailed and useful; especially for career planning, having the representatives talking about their own experiences gave us a prospect to think about for the future, which was very valuable.

I planned to ask about the school’s minimum GRE requirement; however, a girl who seemed to be even more concerned than me about her score asked the question before I got a chance.

The representative from the school responded that a bad GRE score would not disqualify you from applying to the program and, likewise, a really high score doesn’t automatically make you qualified for admission.

In other words, the GRE is not the standard by which admissions officers decide if you are qualified for their school. The representative also said that when they view applications, they’re putting the most emphasis on personal statements and work samples. Many graduate schools don’t even set minimum requirements for the GRE.

That’s not to say that the GRE doesn’t play a role in admissions decisions, or that applicants shouldn’t take it seriously. I know that some education agents in China use the GRE and other test score to help determine where students should apply. If you go in with a low score, they may not even recommend the top ranked schools to you. They will try to persuade you to consider applying to a school in the middle rank because your chances of admission would be higher.

When I was applying to undergraduate schools, my TOEFL score was a barrier to applying to higher ranked schools. One of my friends from China encountered the same thing when she tried to apply graduate schools.

But it’s nice to know that the GRE doesn’t make or break your application, and that admissions committees understand how little our GRE score says about our ability and desire to study in their program.

Finding the right amount of effort for the GRE

My friend Yaqi Tong, who majors in Sociology and International Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and is also applying to graduate schools for next year, said of her experience taking the GRE, “Particularly for test-takers whose first language is not English, they may memorize enough vocabulary to strive for an outstanding score on GRE. But, what’s the point?”

She added, “I believe GRE can only reflect a student’s short-term ability in taking an examination. Because after taking the exam, people will tend to forget everything they memorized before the test, especially the vocabulary.”

Yaqi took the exam last year, and said she studied a bit, but didn’t feel too stressed out about either the test or the score.

When I went to take the test, my Chinese friend told me, “Yun, math shouldn’t be a challenge for you at all! Most Chinese people almost get full points on the quantitative section.” It made me think it would be shameful for me to get a low score in math as a Chinese person. But I hadn’t studied advanced math in almost three years, so it wasn’t easy for me.

I realized the key was to go in with a plain heart – not to be overwhelmed by the pressure from my peers, and equally not to underestimate the difficulty of the section.

I’m not sure of my chances of getting into the school I went to the information session for, or any of the schools I’m applying to. But my GRE score is not affecting my decision on choosing any of the schools. The information session reminded me that the most important thing is whether the school is a good fit for my interests and intentions.

To all of you applying to grad school this year, I hope you get admitted to your ideal school, with or without a perfect GRE score!