A history Master’s student from outside the U.S. has a question about the GREs as he readies his applications for Ph.D. programs. Can you help him understand how GRE scores are used in your graduate program admissions, especially those of you who teach in History departments? To the mailbag, friends!
As a student looking to apply to Ph.D. programs next year, I’ve been thinking a lot about the GRE (which my Canadian M.A. program luckily doesn’t require). It seems to me even more absurd than the SAT, and I can’t help but think that admissions committees weight it very highly relative to grades, recommendations, writing sample, etc.. Am I correct in this assumption, or should I go on an anti-standardized testing rant?
With All Due Respect,
GRE-phobic Gordon from Guelph
I know–taking a mass-produced, mass-administered test seems like the height of idiocy, but never underestimate the degree to which history departments in U.S. universities (and probably elsewhere) desperately want to outsource their major decisions to others. Since against all reason and good judgment, you appear to yearn to follow in the footsteps the embittered and frequently underemployed commenters on this blog, I should warn you that taking the GRE is merely the first time that your fate will be (in a small way, to be sure) outsourced to someone outside of the admissions committees who are tasked with reading and evaluating your application.
After you’re admitted to a history Ph.D. program, your adviser will rely largely on the opinions of your other professors for hir own opinions. Future search committees will rely on their opinions in forming their opinions about your record of achievement and your scholarly promise. They will in turn, as the tenure and promotion committee in your department, rely on the opinions of outside reviewers of your dossier in forming their opinions about your tenure case. And so on. If you get the impression that academic life is a much less glamorous version of literary logrolling, you are correct, sir! I salute your perspicacity–and if you don’t know what perspicacity is, then you’d better look it up, because that’s just the kind of word that’s bound to come up on your GRE exam.
But that wasn’t your question, was it? I suppose it’s just as well that you learn that in academic life, “answering your question” is what we professional academics claim to be doing when in fact we’re just finding another opportunity to talk about whatever is on our minds anyway, regardless of your brilliant question, seminar paper, Ph.D. defense, or conference presentation. It’s all about me!
All japing and caviling aside (seriously, Gord–look them up), you should take the GREs, and you should take them seriously. Once upon a time, I too thought they were silly formalities and was confident that my college GPA, my senior thesis, and my enthusiasm for the field were the only things a reasonable admissions committee could want. I expressed this opinion even to my graduate advisor at one point, and he said (and now I’m paraphrasing here): “are you nuts? We use GRE scores as a cutoff. We don’t even open the applications from people who don’t make the score.”
Like my father always says: I’d rather be lucky than good! And boy, was I lucky that I scored highly enough on the GRE to have that conversation with my graduate advisor as we walked across the Walnut street bridge to Center City that winter evening in 1991.
And lo, it came to pass that I joined a history department, and we use GRE scores in a similar fashion. We do not get the same number of applications to our history M.A. program that I’m sure that Penn gets for its M.A. and Ph.D. programs, but I’m sympathetic with the need for big, prestigious programs to look for some kind of sorting mechanism to help them cope with 200+ applications (or whatever–those of you who teach in those kinds of programs, fill us in on the number of applications you’re seeing annually). In my department, we glance at the scores to ensure they’re not alarmingly low, and we use them as a rough baseline against which to compare the GPA. I would say that at this point in my department’s history, people with a verbal GRE score below 550 would be viewed skeptically, and people with GREs below 500 almost categorically excluded from serious consideration. (Silver lining: most history departments will only care about your verbal score, although you should still look like you tried on the math and logic components of the exam. Besides, they’re kind of fun!)
I think your basic instinct is right in that most departments want to consider the whole of an applicant’s record, and speaking for myself only, I think your college and M.A. GPAs, your admissions essay, and your writing sample would be much more important to me, were I reading your application. But the point remains that if your GRE scores are below a given department’s drop-dead GRE floor, then your application won’t get read or considered fully at all.
Dear friends, what do you think? How does your graduate admissions committee use or weigh GRE scores? Gordon already has his master’s degree so your comments about your department’s practices will be infinitely more interesting to him than information about my department.
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