Maybe you didn’t have enough time to study. Maybe you weren’t feeling your best on test day and that lead to poor performance. Maybe you were always weak in Math. Maybe you got a few questions wrong early, and it hit your confidence hard, and you went downhill from there. For whatever the reason it was, you couldn’t get a score you wanted.
But don’t worry. You are not alone. This is perhaps a question that is on the minds of thousands of students every year. Getting a GRE score 10-15 points lower than your target can be disheartening. But that is not the end of the world. There are still ways to get into a decent university, if you can send in a well-rounded, and impressive application.
Many students mistake their GRE score as a representation of their abilities or talent. No, it is certainly not. You will have to understand that the GRE score merely reflects your performance on the test that you have just taken, and that’s it. You shouldn’t think of the score as a reflection of your intelligence, your abilities or even your chances of getting into a good graduate program. Students who score higher on the GRE have done so only by understanding the exam better, honing their math and verbal skills and building their test endurance. You can get there too, if you can do all that.
So, if you scored low on the GRE, there are two options in front of you. You can either retake the test and improve your score, or go ahead with the score you got. If you want to retake the test, you will have to make sure you are doing it right. You cannot afford to repeat the same mistakes, and you will hence need to come up with a robust study plan. However, if you don’t want to, or rather don’t have the time to retake the test, you will have to see how you can work on your applications and get yourself a place in one of your dream schools.
Whichever path you end up choosing, this post will guide you towards a better university. We have dealt with both the scenarios separately, and have given guidelines as to what you can do.
Retaking the GRE
If you are retaking the GRE, you will definitely have to figure out a solid study plan, and focus on studying in a smart way. Usually when you are retaking the test, there won’t be much time available for you to relax and learn everything from scratch again. So, here are the 5 things that you can do when you are retaking the GRE.
Were you struggling to keep up to the pace during the test? Did you find that the time ran out and you still had a few questions left? Were you not able to go back to your marked questions and review them because there wasn’t enough time? Did you find yourself stuck for more than ten minutes at that one challenging question? If your answer to at least one of these questions is a yes, then you have pacing issues. Not something to worry about much, though. All you need to do is practice a ton of questions or take as many free practice tests as possible, and improve your efficiency, one step at a time.
Here’s what you can do. Every time you take a practice test, you should have the following points at the back of your mind, and you should make sure you are enforcing them while you’re solving questions.
You shouldn’t spend more than two minutes on each math question in the first few tests. And as you move further and take more and more practice tests, you should be able to solve any question within 100 seconds. Similarly, spend no longer than 90 seconds on every verbal question. Download a stopwatch application for your computer and use it effectively every time you are taking untimed practice tests.
Use a countdown timer whenever you are solving practice questions, and try and solve them before the clock hits zero. Set the timer to 100 seconds and see if you can beat the clock. This is not only a fun way of learning, but also vastly improves your time management skills.
If you are sure that your answer is right, or if the path you are going in is correct, don’t bother rechecking it time and again. You are only wasting precious seconds that you can use on the next question. So, unless you are unsure, don’t double check any answer.
Never leave a question unanswered. If you don’t have the time to solve it, make an educated guess, mark it for review, and move on. Do not waste time trying to figure out how to solve.
Use the scratch paper properly and save lots of time during the test.
Always remember that you should answer every single question you face. Every question you fail to answer reduces your overall scaled score. So, if you’re leaving out three or four questions unanswered, it could make a difference of a few points in the end.
2. Memorize the basics
If you couldn’t solve many questions because you forgot or didn’t know formulas or grammar rules, if you couldn’t recognize certain GRE vocabulary terms, then you will have to review the basics repeatedly. If you can spend a week or two concentrating on math formulas and GRE vocab, you will see a significant rise in both math and verbal scores. If you need a very quick review of all concepts, however, check out Manhattan’s Eight GRE Strategy Guides. It is one of the best resources out there, and there won’t be a need for any separate learning material.
One thing you need to remember is, to memorize each and every formula and word while you study, and write them down in a notebook, so you can remember them better. Also, writing them at one place means you will have a one stop resource for your future revisions, making your prep a whole lot easier. Because this is probably the reason behind your low GRE score, you should pay utmost attention and memorize all the things you learn.
Remember, there’s no shortcut, or a cookie cutter formula for success. You have to work hard, and learn all that’s needed. Because when it comes to learning, nothing beats ‘doing’.
3. Turn weaknesses into strengths
Think of the day you learnt how to drive. You hadn’t been a great driver for several days, but suddenly, one day you learn that one important trick that makes driving easier for you. You might have learnt that you had been doing that one or two things wrong, and since you overcame those minute weaknesses, you are now confident about driving. A few days later, and you find yourself driving on the highway already. It’s easy to turn weaknesses into strengths. All it needs is practice; smart practice that is. When you practice over and over again, your weakness becomes your strength.
Though refreshing the basics and studying new shortcuts and formulas may boost your score by five or ten points, it’s the elimination of weaknesses that actually propels your score even further. And when you improve your score dramatically, you suddenly stand a chance to attend the college of your dreams.
All you need to do is practice smart. Whenever you go wrong somewhere, analyze the mistake. Find out what went wrong, why it went wrong, what sort of mistakes you are making, and what you can do to avoid them. These daily acts of self assessment and analysis will take you far enough, in a few weeks. But, remember: you will have to be brutally honest with yourself about your weaknesses. You can’t eliminate them until you accept them.
4. Enroll in a GRE prep course
If you think it isn’t possible for you to do the things mentioned above on your own, if you aren’t confident enough or if you don’t have the time to do so, try and take help from professional instructors. In order to fully unleash your potential, it would help if you enroll in a GRE course, which will not only help you reach your target score, but also help you with other aspects of your application. If you think a coaching class may not be suitable or effective for your schedule or your skill set, try and enroll in an online course. There are many benefits of online prep courses and your test prep can be more effective and efficient, especially if you are a busy student, or a working professional.
5. Other factors
Sometimes, you may not do as well as you wanted to, even after solid preparation, sufficient practice, and doing almost everything right. It may or may not be your mistake, but you have to think of the reasons that led to a low score. Take a look at all the factors that you were influenced by, factors that have nothing to do with your abilities or skill. Was the test too tiring and long? Were you unwell on test day? Were you hungry during the test? Did you not sleep enough the previous night? Or did you oversleep? Did you have too little or too much caffeine? Did you eat too much before the test? Was the test center too cold? Or too noisy? If you were to change any of the conditions on test day, would you perform much better?
Think about these questions, and analyze if any one of those factors affected your performance. One extremely important factor that many students often overlook is the sheer length of the test. The GRE is an experience that you might have never had before. A strenuous 4-hour test that constantly needs your utmost attention, where you cannot afford to relax even for a minute. The test begins with an hour of writing, which most students are not used to. The test is so stressful, that even if you were completely alright to begin with, halfway through the test you will be hungry or tired or both.
The GRE needs both concentration, and stamina, both mental and physical. And because you need to maintain constant concentration levels for extensive time intervals, any sort of physical weakness could severely interfere with your performance. This is the reason we tell students that the GRE can be compared to an athletic event. Athletes need to be trained both physically and mentally, so do you. During you practice sessions, try and build your endurance, patience, and concentration levels so it would help you conquer the test.
Not Retaking the GRE
Even though you have a low GRE score, you don’t have to worry much about it. In fact, the GRE score isn’t a deal breaker when it comes to your grad school admissions, as the test score is only one of the factors. Usually, universities give about 30-40% weightage to your GRE score, but this varies from one university to another. This means, when an admissions officer has to decide if you should be accepted into their program or not, he/she will look at your entire application and not just your GRE score. They will assess your entire profile, including things like undergrad GPA, relevant work experience, extracurricular and co-curricular activities, community service, previous research works, project work, TOEFL/IELTS scores, etc., all of which constitute the remaining 60-70% of your profile. So, the GRE score is but one part of the entire application, and you need not worry if it isn’t as high as you would like.
Now what this means is, if you are not retaking the GRE, you will obviously have to focus on the rest of your application. Here are 5 things that will dramatically improve your overall profile, and hence help overshadow your GRE score.
1. Write a great SOP
The Statement of Purpose is probably one of the most misunderstood aspects of graduate applications. Most students pass it off like it is just another essay about themselves, and naturally, write monotonous stuff that doesn’t stand out. That is why, the university admissions committee puts a hefty weight on SOPs and their structure – they want to see whether you take the interest in letting them know how much you want to study at their university. So, learn how to write a powerful SOP, and impress the admissions committee.
2. Get three strong recommendations
Letters of recommendations are probably as important as anything else, when it comes to your applications. While many students try and get ‘just a recommendation’ from a professor they know or someone at their office, it is important to know that what your recommenders say about ‘you’ in particular is very important. Most letters of recommendation are nothing but mere samples that just speak of how good a student/employee you are and that they have no problem in recommending you to pursue a graduate course.
But that’s not how you should be doing, especially if you are looking to stand apart, and make your application look special. Ask your recommenders to talk not just about your technical expertise or knowledge of the domain you work in, but also about how special you are as a person, and why you are different from others in your office/college. If your recommender is a professor, ask him/her to talk extensively about ‘how’ your involvement in a particular project affected them, and ‘why’ they think you are very special. Ask them to provide examples that support their claims. If your recommender is your supervisor at office, ask them to illustrate how good you are at not just your job, but making others do what they do best. Ask them to provide examples of when you showed leadership qualities and persuasive skills, and the way you inspire everyone by being a great team player, or a small case of how you solved a particular problem, etc.
These examples provide great insight into your personality, and the admissions officers will be impressed by you as an individual, rather than just as an applicant.
3. Do some community service
One of the most underrated aspects of graduate applications, community service can be a fantastic profile booster to any student looking to apply for a Master’s degree. Apart from technical acumen and analytical skills, universities, especially the good ones, expect students to possess leadership qualities. Now when we say leadership, most students start thinking about leading a college club, or organizing a college fest or activity. While such things are good ways to develop your team building skills or communication skills, these college activities do not necessarily impart or improve your leadership skills.
Leadership is when you take an action towards solving a problem in your neighborhood or college, or your community. Leadership is when you lead a few people successfully in working for a common cause or a goal. Leadership is when you do something by yourself, and affect the people around you in a positive manner. Now, all the aforementioned things happen when you are working for the community. Helping others makes you a better leader, a better citizen, and overall, a better person.
So, go out and do something meaningful. Join a local NGO, teach kids how to read and write, start a hobby club, raise funds for cancer awareness, fight for equal rights and women empowerment; do something that matters. It will not only make your neighborhood a better place, but also makes you a better person. Meeting new people, working for a cause, helping someone you don’t know; all these things give you new perspectives every day, and will help you mature as an individual. This sort of leadership is what admissions committees love to see in students. They badly want such people to study at their university; so much that, if you have a good academic and work profile, and also have demonstrated leadership skills, universities will not think twice before offering you a generous scholarship.
4. Enroll in a certificate course
If you want to show the admissions committee that you are very much interested in studying a particular course/subject, you can let them know by showing that you have already taken one or two basic courses in that field. Enrolling in a certificate course prior to graduate school will tell the admissions committee that you are a serious candidate, looking to really learn the things you are passionate about.
There are several websites that offer certificate courses on a wide range of topics, from engineering to management, from arts to medicine, from sciences to philosophy. Websites like Coursera, Udacity, Udemy, Khan Academy, Codecademy, and also open courseware sites by Harvard, MIT, Berkeley, Yale, etc. offer free courses to students interested in a variety of topics. So, go ahead and enroll in such online courses, and improve your technical skills, update your knowledge, and score extra points when it comes to graduate admissions.
5. Research about universities
There are some really decent universities that do not require a high GRE score. Plus, the GRE score requirement varies from one department to another, depending upon various factors like competition, reputation, among others. Who knows? Maybe the department you are applying for accepts low GRE scores. Better find such things out from the college websites before deciding on where to apply. If there isn’t much information available on the websites, you can directly call or email the admissions office, and find out the scores they normally consider, so you’ll know if you fall under their score bracket. They would be more than happy to give out information to prospective applicants, and you’ll have the official data, instead of speculations from outsiders.
Now It’s Your Turn
So, at the end of the day, it is certainly not impossible to get into the university of your choice, and a low GRE score shouldn’t be a barrier for you, if you can make sure the rest of your application stands out, and speaks for itself. However, if you want to ace the entire application process, and if you are lucky enough to have the time, try and improve both your GRE score, and your overall profile, by doing every single step we discussed above. Do that, and see yourself at your dream university.
So, what do you think? Do you have any other strategies that you think will help improve your GRE score or your overall profile?
Let us know in the comments section, and we’ll be glad to add them to the list.