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FastWeb Column: What Your GRE Score Means

This story was published in 2007 for FastWeb, an online education resource and scholarship search engine.

A month after taking the GRE, what I remember most is the GR part. (“Grrrrr” n. 1. exclamation indicating extreme frustration, 2. sound a bear makes.) You see, I’ve gotten my scores.

I’m in the 91st percentile on verbal, which means only 9 percent of this year’s test takers scored higher than me. (I am also in the 91st percentile for people who disregard statistics.) Here’s where the GRE is different from the SAT – percentage is worth more to schools than your actual number. It’s more important to place highly among your peers than to get a big number score.

You might have noticed I didn’t start with my math score. How astute of you. That is because I’m in the 15th percentile there, meaning just about everyone scored higher than me. The people around me, the people not around me, the receptionist…. students who didn’t even take the test did better than me! The fact is, however, my success in journalism probably won’t hinge on my geometry skills. And I didn’t study for the math section. In fact, after I tried practice questions and was asked to find the radius of a square within a circle with the variable x – an equation with two shapes and no numbers – I threw the book under my bed and tried not to think about it. And then I drew variables (X’s) on my eyes to signify acknowledgment of my impending doom.

The point of this column isn’t just to reveal my abysmal score in a public arena. Instead, it’s to tell you that I don’t think the GRE matters much when it comes to admissions. As a note, I have no experience on admissions boards, nor do I have any inside information. I’m going on logic and the experiences of my friends and relatives. (Logic wasn’t tested in the GRE, but you can trust me.)

Firstly, the amount of importance the GRE has in your application varies drastically from school to school. Columbia University, one of the top journalism schools in the country, doesn’t require it for their general program. The Univeristy of Missouri, however, (another top j-school) has a cutoff – you have to score over 1000 to even apply.

If you do poorly on the SAT, you’re like a deflated basketball – it’s hard for you to bounce back. I suspect that many schools have an SAT score cutoff point, so if you don’t do well, they may not even look at your application. Graduate schools are a different kettle of fish. It’s like auditioning for MTV’s The Real World. You have to convince them that you’ll be an asset to their program while you’re there, and as my mother puts it, a good ambassador for them once you graduate. You have to be unique and different, but fundamentally the same as them – they want to feel connected to you and know that you share the same values (not moral values, but work ethic, dedication and so forth) but also think you bring something different to the table.

In the end, I got used to the fact that I’m worthless when it comes to math. The rest of my application is strong, and hopefully, I’ll get into grad school. I think 15th percentile is just a blow to my ego, not a death knell.

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