Skip to content

When you choose to publish with PLOS, your research makes an impact. Make your work accessible to all, without restrictions, and accelerate scientific discovery with options like preprints and published peer review that make your work more Open.


GRE and Graduate School Success: The Key is in the Writing

GRE study medium
Vocabulary study materials for the general GRE. Many students memorize hundreds of vocabulary words in preparation for the general GRE.


What is the remainder when 1416 + 1614 is divided by 10? Do you know what sinecure, plutonian, and interregnum mean? If not, you’re probably like the rest of us applying to graduate school and beginning to prepare for the GRE. The general GRE consists of three sections. The verbal section, in addition to reading comprehension, largely consists of vocabulary-based questions, testing your knowledge of archaic English words, many of which are likely never to appear in a scientific context. The math sections contain problems relating to topics covered in high school, ranging from geometry and algebra to probability and statistics. Do these types of questions really fairly assess your ability to be a successful graduate student in the sciences? Does the exam analyze your capability to interpret data, think creatively, be innovative in your research, or solve real world problems? I, like most frustrated students hastily attempting to memorize antiquated words and math tricks, would argue that it does not. Instead, I argue that the third section, the analytical writing portion of the exam, is best able to indicate potential for success in graduate school in the sciences.

Common sense tells us that being familiar with the number of degrees in each interior angle of a polygon or knowing 10 different obsolete synonyms for an everyday word will in no way contribute to success in a graduate program. Many studies have focused on the relationship between general GRE scores and graduate achievement. While the results have varied greatly based on the metrics used for success, most are far from encouraging. One study found that there was no statistical difference between GRE scores of students who succeeded in graduate school and those who did not (Nelson and Nelson). The same study even found that in graduate programs in the life sciences, students that did better on the GRE were more likely to fail in graduate school (Nelson and Nelson). A more recent study found that students in the top 25% of GRE scores were 3 to 5 times more likely to have a 4.0 GPA after their first year of graduate school, but also conceded that variation in the data was so great that attempting to draw conclusions based on GRE scores about graduate school success was nearly impossible (Bridgeman et al.).

A student fills out answer on a standardized test. Both the MCAT and SAT will be changed significantly in the coming years.

While the makers of the MCAT believed that the writing section “offered little additional information about the applicants’ preparation for medical school,” the prerequisites for success in graduate school are fundamentally different (AAMC press release). In the general GRE, the essay section consists of two components. The first asks you to identify flaws in a given argument. When considered in a broader context, isn’t this a large part of what is done as a student in science? Identifying flaws in logic and assessing whether claims are backed up by the evidence presented are essential skills for students to master. The second essay evaluates your ability to form and defend your own coherent argument. These skills are directly relevant to the production of a body of work sufficient to complete a graduate school thesis.

Some students argue that the writing samples do not accurately reflect their abilities and that their undergraduate scientific training did not focus on the types of writing measured by the general GRE. However, whether you have an outstanding vocabulary and ornamental writing style or your approach is to be simple and to the point, you should be able to cogently express your ideas in writing. Like it or not, writing is the medium through which scientific discoveries are shared. What is the good in having brilliant ideas and remarkable data if you cannot relate your findings to others?

In the future, the graduate school admissions process for programs in the sciences would benefit from emphasizing a student’s writing score above their math and verbal scores. A student’s ability to analyze the arguments of others and to defend their own in writing is likely to be a better indicator of success in scientific fields than their knowledge of geometry or the size of their vocabulary. While other standardized exams are moving away from required essay sections, doing the same in relation to the GRE will eliminate an opportunity for scientific graduate programs to gain insight into their applicants’ abilities to synthesize and express their findings as a graduate student.

Rebecca Marton is a senior Biological Sciences major at the University of Notre Dame and co-Editor in Chief of Scientia, the undergraduate journal of research for Notre Dame’s College of Science. She studies retinal regeneration in the adult zebrafish and plans to pursue a Ph.D. in stem cell biology. 

  1. The GRE does not test one’s ability to succeed in graduate school or beyond. I’m good proof of this. My scores were miserable, yet I got a 4.0 GPA through grad school, was in Phi Beta Kappa, and finished a Ph.D. magna cum laude. Like you said in this article, success in grad school is not just about intelligence and ability to pass standardized exams, it also involves being able to simply sit down and grind out the work, jump through the bureaucratic hoops, and finish what you start.

  2. My understanding though, is that the GRE grades the writing portion according to a well-defined rubric. Friends of mine in undergrad who read a short book on “how to take the GRE writing test” scored 6s. None of us who didn’t read that book (and therefore weren’t aware of this checklist that the graders adhere to) managed such a good score. Though 8 years later we all have advanced degrees so… who cares. It seems that most engineering programs anyway use the GRE to eliminate applications who cannot do high school level math – get a high score in the math section and make sure your score isn’t too embarrassingly low in verbal and writing and you’re ok. At this point you are evaluated on the rest of your body of work as a person up to that point in your life. So I’d argue don’t place more emphasis on the writing (unless it’s evaluated according to your ability to do whatever critical thinking is necessary rather than a well-defined rubric) – eliminate the GRE entirely! And for undergrads who have universities and faculty they want badly to work for in grad school… email those faculty. They appreciate enthusiasm and people who are proactive in achieving what they want. GRE scores, good or bad, pale in comparison to having an advocate inside the department to which you are applying!

  3. Great post! I also had to take the GRE so I sympathize with the challenges. Would love to showcase it at the PLOS Sci-Ed blog. Can you send me an email so we can chat? Couldn’t find yours listed. Thanks!

  4. The GRE is a standardized test, and shows you know how to do standardized tests. As a predictor of graduate school success, I am skeptical – the biggest character trait I find differentiates successful and unsuccessful graduate students is their ability to persevere and handle negative feedback. Even the best experience (good supervisor, good school, good environment) will be fraught with problems both with your project not working, manuscripts being rejected, and things generally not going your way. Being able to handle these problems as they arise is what sets students apart.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Add your ORCID here. (e.g. 0000-0002-7299-680X)

Back to top