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GRE Verbal, how much does it count?

Temesgen Markos's picture

I am in the process of applying for a PhD in computational solid mechanics in the US and I am about to take the GRE. Well I have been kind of busy at my work and didn't really get time to study the word list.

My question is, how much weight does the verbal part have in admission/fellowship/assistantship decisions? If I have really good GPA's and research experience with enthusiastic refrees, can I still make it with medicore results on the verbal part?


My experience and our departmental policies indicate that:

1)   The GRE is just another bureaucratic hurdle required by the graduate school that has liitle impact on your admission/funding.  In our department the range of verbal scores of accepted (but not necessarily funded) students is between 600 and 750.  Very few get a perfect score.  However, all quant scores are between 750 and 800.  The writing scores are between 3.5 and 5.

2)   When I took the GRE many years ago I was also in a similar situation with hardly any time to prepare for the exam.  However, the exam was easy enough to crack without much preparation.  Things may have changed a bit in the last 17 years.  In my case, having a close to perfect GRE score did not help my admission prospects much.

3)  If I were to hire a new student I would look at the following (listed in order of importance):

  • their publication record as first author.
  • their publication record period/conference presentations.
  • their statement of interests.
  • their references.
  • their academic record.
  • their GRE scores.


Dan Cojocaru's picture

My opinion is that if you are not a native English speaker and you apply for Ph.D. in engineering (or related) , the verbal score in your GRE test is the least important. Probably the publications have the greatest weight since it is rather rare to have published a lot before starting your Ph.D. program and because it is good indicator that you will publish during your Ph.D. program. (Publishing is all that matters in the US academia ....after getting money for doing research, of course.) 

YA! I think that use the publication to evaluate someons capability is not fair. Because, before PhD program, not every person has the opportunities to publish research results, especially for people have worked a long time in industries.

As this situation,they don't have good records in publications, but they are great in thinking ,professional skills and learning abilities. You will lose those people if you only put publications in the first priority.

I think that great professors should also consider the working experience and team work characteristics.

Any comments are appreciated.

In my case, prior work experience didn't count at all (probably because it was outside the US) even though many of the skills that were crucial to my research were picked up during those years.  So I do agree that schools should consider prior experience.  However, since most professors do not have any work experience outside of academia, they usually do not have the expertise to evaluate the weight to be given to a period industrial work. 

As the number of students seeking PhDs increases, schools can afford to be more and more selective.   When I completed my undergraduate degree it was extremely rare to see anyone publish at that stage.  Today, most applications from undergraduate students include a list of publications (sometimes three or more).   Clearly these applicants will be preferred over students without any publication record.  

The same thing holds for PhDs who want to go into academia.  A fresh PhD is expected to have at least five major publications to be even considered for a position in our department.   Also, only applicants who have a record of external funding are considered (unless they are from a top 5 school).   You might say that it's unfair to expect a fresh PhD to have secured indepedent funding from NSF or some other funding agency.  However, departments can afford to be choosy because the supply of PhDs is huge but the number of open academic positions is tiny in comparison.

The moral of the story is that to get where you want to be you have to show that you are so far ahead of your peers that the school/department does not have a choice but to select you.   And that bar will shift higher and higher until a point is reached when the effort is no longer worth the expected reward. 

That's my personal view and anecdotal at best.  I think it's time that the professors on this forum chime in.

MichelleLOyen's picture

I was told in the first months of grad school to aim for ten quality publications in order to get a faculty position, and that if this was not attainable by the end of the PhD, that a post-doc was the perfect mechanism for continuing to pursue this goal.  This was actually more than a decade ago, before the rush to electronic publication, and so I'd be very surprised if it was not still a decent benchmark or goal for faculty applications in the first instance (at double your recommended five publications).

I have an anecdote to relate regarding publications. My own personal experience (again!).

This happened in mid-1993, when I was trying (more or less desperately) to gain admission at some good university in USA, *after* I was out of the UAB materials program (after having been failed in the qualifiers). I, presumably, had good references and not too bad a GPA.

But I had no *publications* in fracture, or mechanics. I was only intent on getting in those areas, and had done some research too, but had no publications directly from a mechanics point of view.

At one university, a certain professor wanted to know if I had any publications. (We were talking on phone; I had called him after having written a letter first.) I informed him that I had none. I then slipped in: "But I have some ideas for papers. Could you please...." Yes, he would go through them if I will send him something, please.

That was a matter of joy for me. Here is one established professor willing to consider unpublished ideas too, in lieu of papers. So, I prepared some documents. These had a sizeable chapter in the nature of a literature review (about 20-30 pages), which was followed by another document containing certain ideas for future papers. The ideas for the papers were given with a fair amount of detail. (About 5/6 ideas, about one laser-printed A4 page of material per idea.)

Since so much is being made about publications, you would think that that would help me get admission? Plain wrong again! ... I will never forget those lines from the letter I then received from him (I quote below)

"Dear Mr. Jadhav, Thank you for your interest in doing a PhD [sic] in our group. I have carefully gone through the documents you forwarded. I regret to inform you that at this point of time, I cannot offer you a post-doctoral fellowship [sic]. I wish you well [sic] in your future endeavors. Regards [etc.], Prof XYZ."

I had to return to India. (I am talking of my 1993 return.)

PS: I will not entertain any requests to reveal his name; the matter---and the man---are far too small for *me* to get involved in such things, especially now that I have done many better things than what I wanted to do with him. 

But yes, that's what *can* happen. ... If you have no ideas, you are too dumb to do PhD research. But if you have good ideas, then what? Well, you could still be regarded as no good.

And, no, it was not some sidey, C-rated school in a third world country. It was an Ivy league school, a school with a standing reputation in mechanics. The man himself had done his own PhD from Stanford. He was an experienced professor, a tenured one, with a good name (at least number of publications). He has since then retired; I saw the Emeritus title in front of his professorship some time back at one of the top US schools active in mechanics (I forgot precisely where). But yes, he was acting far too small of stature, and that's precisely how I remember him now.

Moral(s) of the story? (i) It must be published papers---not simply ideas of papers, whether these are worked out in good detail or not being completely irrelevant. At the same time, (ii) you can't be too productive or original---or, some of them could find some politely innovative ways to insult that kind of an initiative on your part.

(BTW, my *references* and GPA were good enough to secure me admission with a sincere promise of financial aid as soon as funds came in, at UCSD. So, he couldn't be reacting to me that way because I had bad references...)

Update on December 15, 2007: I have deleted the portion concerning the *subsequent* telephone, for this reason: After posting this, I got tense, and as I thought deeper and deeper about it, I found I had no exact recollection of the subsequent phone call with that particular professor. Was it a false memory because those were such emotionally charged times for me? Possible. Also consider that I had also applied to several schools, once again, at that time (which was the third wave of applications I was sending to US schools, in all, about some 30 applications), and I could easily be confusing conversations today, more than a decade later. Though conversations in which people did not talk to me but only repeated the contents of their letters and kept the phone down did occur, I do have poor memory of things like phone conversations and names of people. But yes, the letter specific to this instance was there, and it was read and the PhD and post-doc thing noticed by my friends too---not to mention the false incredulity expressed by several professors that I could come up with ideas for several papers completely on my own. Even if I no longer carry a copy of the letter in question, his secretary or department would have records. And more generally and more pertinent to what I wanted to highlight here, it is also a fact that many Americans (and other immigrants to USA) do tend to "use" foreigners (at least Indians) knowing (or at least thinking) fully well that the guy has nowhere else to go.... Not all, but far more of them do that than the decent Americans care to admit to their own minds. The *encouragement* to an Indian student for his *independent* thinking is something I have not seen happen too well on American campuses. There could be cases to the contrary, but one [a bird's name---sparrow?] does not a spring make.

I have seen American-born students get by without having earned even half-decent scores let alone competitive ones. (Verbal < 500 and Quant < 600, and still, doing MS in engineering. (And, I do *not* talk only of UAB, the school I actually attended in the US.)).

However, since you were not born in the USA (I checked your personal Web page today), if you want to get into a highly ranked school (top 10/15), then competitive scores on GRE would be a must. In most US universities, that would also include the verbal part of it.

My application at UCSB Materials department was declined in 1992/93 for the want of a sufficiently competitive GRE score. and I had 710 (96P) in verbal and, of course, a perfect score in quant (which is pretty cheap---as many as 2% people make it). Come to think of it now, that was, I guess, when Zhigang had just begun teaching at UCSB. I then had ideas of wanting to work under or, if that was not possible, to beat, Tony Evans... :) (I just noticed that that's a nice *reversal* of "if you can't beat them, join them.") Doesn't matter, it's just a memory now! But yes, that's how competitive scores many of the US schools do require. Even in verbal.


Note that ETS recommends looking at the percentile part of the score rather than only the absolute score, and this request seems reasonable. A 650/800 on the quantitative section would be mediocre---but not on verbal. For verbal, a 650/800 would roughly translate into mid-80s in the percentile terms (if I remember a 17 year old matter right).

So, don't be too harsh on yourself for relatively lower scores in absolute terms in the verbal section---you might be already doing better in the percentile terms.


The utility of the verbal scores may seem un-reasonable for research in engineering. IMO, the matter is debatable. I won't act as an unpaid salesman for ETS, but the best pro argument for having the verbal section is two-fold, namely, that (i) words stand for *concepts* and (ii) man is a conceptual being, with thinking his fundamental mode of survival. Now, this is a very fundamental argument. Hence, very powerful (at least in terms of its range).

Unfortunately, in practice, the utility of that argument is limited by the fact that the language in which you think may not always have been English, and so, your scores for a verbal test conducted in English may not be a good reflection of your actual conceptual abilities. That is the best (and IMO the only valid) argument against using the GRE verbal scores for competitive admissions in science/engineering departments.


Now, let me share something personal with the hope that it addresses the issues raised. (If the following involves self-promotion in any sense, I couldn't care less---it is the kind of promotion that has neither brought me an honor nor bought me a cup of tea (let alone a job or a promotion in one).)

(i) My verbal scores did increase from the initial level of 450-500 to ~700 as I studied the word lists, all within a matter of 6 weeks.

So, apparently, there *is* something to the argument that while verbal abilities might be fundamental to cognition, the GRE tests themselves might not be all that sound in bringing out your verbal skills, testing them in a very fundamental and consistent manner.

Yet, the way I prefer to think about it is the following: If it takes just 6 weeks for a non-English-medium educated guy like me to take that kind of a jump in the scores (200 in absolute terms and some 25-30 in terms of the percentile score), why not put in a bit of an effort? After all, you will be slogging a lot, including having to read and re-read a lot of hard to read things in graduate school anyways. (This is absolutely true given the way people write papers!... But, that's again a different story.)

(ii) However, there is another side to this "cram the words list" theory/advice. There *does* come a plateau which you can't help. Everybody experiences that. In my case, it was around 700 +/- 20 scores level.... The scores no longer rise that dramatically after the plateau.

The reason, again, is not that you necessarily lack ability.

One real reason (applicable in my case) is that you really can't make up for not having read enough of a general literature *in the English language,* purely through the last-minute cramming. For one thing, you get tired by cramming so many new words. I did, half-way through the Barron's guide list.

Another thing, even if you do manage to cram, you still don't have the time to get the nuances right, and so, you begin to go wrong. In my case, that, in fact, was the primary reason I got so tired---not getting the context or the actual meaning in reality, right. I, in fact, got so tired of the game that I preferred to lose marks (and top universities) than prepare by cramming. (Hey, at the end of the day, it is the same Sun that sets on the horizon whether you attend a top-10 school or any other. The reality is all yours to think about---none can stop you *there*.)

(iii) Finally, a word about the test-taking strategy. Attack the reading comprehension section first. If you have the basic ability but not had your schooling in English medium, then, this is the section that you can use to your advantage. It is very easy not to lose a single mark in that section. I never did---neither in any of the numerous practice tests I took (6 or 7 tests in all, each having 2 verbal sections), nor in the finals (I am confident of that). Regardless of whether you know all the words which appear in the reading comprehension section or not... The thing is, you can always make out what the meaning of those words must be by thinking through the surrounding context, and so, you can *always* get all the questions right. (The passages they select for reading comprehension on GRE may be somewhat complex, but they are, by and large, fairly unambiguous---and that's a real big help for people like you and me!)

All the best.

(Sorry for the diversions---but they still were fairly related, I guess.)

N. Sukumar's picture

I'll assume the prospective student needs admission and financial aid to a PhD/MS program; for admission without financial support the bar would be a lot lower in most schools. Very often the constraint for PhD admissions is faculty funding. Barring some schools that can support students through their 1st year or more with graduate school fellowships, most faculty need funded projects to support a student via a Research Assistantship/RA (and possibly some internal TA assistance). So, if funding constraints exist, then the GRE scores etc. are a moot point since in all likelihood no student in that research area will be awarded admission with financial assistance into the PhD program. Among the GRE sections, the verbal carries the least weight. I'd think > 700 in Quant. and > 400 in Verbal (duly considering the candidate's native language), would fly if the student has the necessary background and has demonstrated some research (via a thesis or publications) in his/her intended specialization. Also, in my frame of reference, one can better judge a MS student's potential to pursue a PhD on more than one count: has demonstrated the ability to do research, professors who know him/her can comment on his/her independence, intellect, acumen for research and work ethic, and the student can very often start exploring research ideas in the very first year. So, if you're interested in graduate school leading to a PhD, demonstrate that you are self-motivated, have concrete ideas of a sub-area within `computational mechanics' (if that's your calling!) where you'd like to pursue a PhD (e.g., multiscale modeling, fracture mechanics, biomechanics, etc.), and demonstrate through examples that you possess the diligence to work hard. These can be conveyed through the Statement of Purpose and also can come through from the external reference letters. I consider intangibles such as these as more important than metrics such as GPA and GRE scores though all things equal, good performance in these can only make an application stronger. If you have a clear picture of what you'd like to pursue to earn a PhD and have identified professors with whom you'd like to work with, then try contacting them (a postal mail would be more likely to be seen/read, rather than a generic e-mail, which might be missed).  Hope this helps?

Temesgen Markos's picture

Thanks all for your responses.

Dear Prof. Sukumar, thanks for the advice on the narrowing down my interests and the application process. To be very specific what I want to work on is constitutive relations in solids, biomechanics and inverse problems. I have tried to investigate which universities and professors are working on those areas (thanks to the internet) and solicited professors who I would like to work with. I am now applying only to those universities where I have found positive reactions from at least one faculty member.

It just happened that the time I wanted to devote for the GRE preparation became occupied by unforseen duties at work. Well I will just do my best in the remaining time and wish for the best.

As a side note, I would like to pass to other aspiring graduate students to really contact professors before sending applications. I had a professor who told me she was leaving the universitiy by the time I wanted to join. It would be a disaster if someone goes to a university and the person he/she wants to work with 'just left'.


Well I just took the GRE this morning and got 600(V) and 750 (quant). I am kind of pissed off for not getting a clean quant score. Anyway although I can't say this result is what will get me in, I can say it won't be the factor keeping me out either.

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