Tips on Applying to Grad Programs in Religious Studies: GRE (Part V)

In this post I would like to discuss one of the most time consuming, yet least significant components of the application process–namely the GRE.

I’d appreciate any input anyone else has on this, especially since my take on this is limited to my own experience and the discussions I’ve participated in regarding admissions to the programs I applied to.

I’ll address the topic of the GRE using some common questions potential students ask.

What are GRE scores used for?

The GRE scores are one of the factors used in determining admission to a program. More specifically they can be used for a couple of different things. First off, if a score is too low (more on exactly what this means below) the application could be disqualified in the first round of cuts. If a potential student can’t meet some bare minimum, then the idea seems to be that time spent reading through the rest of the application is not time well spent.

Secondly, GRE scores could be used as a factor to determine funding. In other words students with higher scores could receive a better funding package. I actually don’t have much experience with this, so if others do, please chime in. Many of the programs I am aware of offer their candidates a standard package (in other words all 10 admitted students get the same funding), or they have three (or so) different packages–more funding, less funding, no funding; with one or two students getting more funding, 3 or 4 getting less funding, and 3 or 4 getting no funding. From what I know, in this latter scenario the GRE is  just one factor, and my or may not be a significant factor. Although of course administrators approving departmental selections may not have many other factors with which to judge how well the department has done in its admissions process.

Lastly, the GRE could become kind of a “tie-breaker”. In other words, as I think pointed out in one of the earlier posts, if two potential students appear equal, and only one can be admitted, the GRE could become the determining factor. With that said, however, the GRE scores for PhD programs in Religious Studies (and the humanities in general) carry no where near the weight that the LSAT and GMAT carry for their respective programs. I would say that the GRE ranks towards the bottom of importance as far as admission factors are concerned. I’ve heard it said more than once by admissions committees that the GRE is not determinative of success in a program, and is not weighed as heavily as other factors (the statement of purpose, etc.), although I’m sure that there are some profs on some admissions committees that would disagree with this.

How high of a score is “high enough”?

This is difficult to stipulate. I’ve heard it said that anything below a 1250 would hurt (but not eliminate) the applicant. I would imagine that anything in the 75th percentile and above will not get your application tossed out at the first round. An even lower score for the math section is probably permitted given that those skills are even less of a determining factor of success in a program. This, however, is more guess-work than anything else, so if anyone could provide specifics, it would be appreciated. A “higher score” (above 1400) can also become an asset (as in the tie-breaker discussion above).

Should I take a prep class? Or, how should I study for it?

This certainly depends on how you test. I took the GRE a couple of times and I found that the flash cards for the vocabulary section sold at Barnes and Noble helped more than anything else (I think they sell them in 500 and 1000-word packs, and I bought the larger one). I also bought a study book for the math section that provided some basic strategies for taking multiple choice tests rather than specific instructions on using the mathematic formulas to arrive at the answers. I did not take a prep class. Perhaps the best thing to do would be to take one of the free exams offered on the GRE’s website, and determine whether the do-it-yourself approach, which will probably lead to a slight improvement, will be sufficient; or whether a prep class, which might lead to a larger improvement, will be necessary.

Previous posts in this series: Part I. Part II. Part III. Part IV.

Spotlights: YDS. UNC.

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