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I have been fortunate enough to sit on a grad school admissions committee as part of my training as a graduate student in social psychology. This view from the inside gave me some interesting information about what the GRE means to the most important people: the ones reading your application.
To start off, it’s important to understand exactly how admissions committees work. Admissions committees, especially for small programs, are not as organized or as consistent from year to year as you might think. This is because there is often a high degree of turnover in the grad school admissions committee staff from year to year. While with business schools there may be a fully-staffed admissions committee with only a handful of academics sitting in, in other programs the admissions committee consists entirely of professors and graduate students, many of whom are serving for their first time. What this means is that there is no secret formula for a winning application, since the committees change drastically from year to year.
However, there are certain aspects of your application that are sure to get you noticed by the grad school admissions committee.
First, make sure your admissions essay really pops. Admissions committee members are exceedingly busy and overwhelmed with applications. Many have to read all the applications (which could total in the hundreds) in addition to doing their own work.
So you have to understand that, while you may have invested countless hours in preparing your application, grad school admissions committee members spend a mere fraction of that time reading it. Indeed, once you have read a couple dozen applications, you get very good at recognizing quickly whether an application should pass the first round or not. As I mentioned, this is partly based on the quality of the personal essay.
The personal essay should immediately grab the reader and engage his or her attention. Sharing perspectives, points of view, stories, or experiences that are authentic to you will help give the reader a better and quicker sense of who you are and what sets you apart. This individuation is critical because otherwise you will just blend into the rest of the crowd.
Think about what your handle would be if you had it—that is, how you would be remembered by an admissions reader. For instance, if you are interested in education, consider telling an embarrassing story with a clear lesson that allows the reader to say to himself, “Oh, right. That’s the person who learned about intellectual humility after she sprayed herself with sodium peroxide.” The better you can be remembered, the more you’ll be able to distinguish yourself from the crowd.
When it comes to the GRE, the key here is not to let yourself be hurt by your score. Unless you do exceptionally well on the test, the GRE is rarely going to be the element that pushes you over the edge. Instead, it’s simply a way for admissions officers to verify that the grades you got in college are good by some objective measure rather than just a bunch of “easy As.”
A lot of people ask what a “good” score is on the GRE. Here’s how to calculate it. Navigate to the website of your first choice graduate school. Figure out what percentage of applicants they admit each year. Then, figure out the score equivalent of this percentile on the GRE. For instance, if your school of choice admitted 340 out of 2000 applicants last year, that would mean it has an admissions rate of 17%.
This suggests that you want to be in the 83rd percentile or higher on the GRE. 83rd percentile corresponds to a score of 160 on the test. So you will want to get a 160 or better on the GRE. Anything below 160 is likely to hurt your chance of acceptance. Anything close to 160 will help your chances of acceptance.
In conclusion, admissions readers are frequently inundated with applications and often overworked, so you want to make your applications great while making the committee work as little as possible. The more obvious it is on first glance that an applicant is competitive, the better his or her chance of being admitted. ?
After you calculate your school of choice’s percentage of admitted applicants, comment below—what’s your GRE goal score?
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Daniel Yudkin is a Manhattan Prep instructor based in New York, NY. He has been a test prep instructor for over seven years and is currently in the final stage of a Ph.D. program in social psychology at NYU. In his spare time, Daniel writes popular science articles about psychological phenomena and is a devoted jazz pianist and vocalist. Check out Daniel’s upcoming GRE prep offerings here.