You Are Not a Number


Your GPA? GRE? GMAT? MCAT? LSAT? OK – it’s true to some degree, you are a number. Top graduate programs do often care about the numbers. Many faculty members of top programs think that these numbers may be their best way of gauging whether you are ready for the academic rigor of graduate school. However, this is not the whole story with many programs – several excellent graduate programs recognize that there are many factors that go into a GRE score. For example some people do not do well on standardized tests – but are very bright and clear thinkers. And really, how often in grad school do you need to answer a series of rapid-paced vocabulary questions in front of a computer? Certainly GPA has numerous flaws as well. Some schools are notorious for grade inflation, while others are incredibly rough on grades. In addition, many students work part and even full time during their undergraduate years, in order to take care of family obligations, making their GPA a poor index of academic ability.

Two things you should know about the numbers:

1) Some schools ask for these numbers (e.g., GPA, GRE) – even tell you on their website that they are very important, and then proceed to pay less attention to them then you might think. I’ve sat on admissions committees where the numbers were a mere afterthought to the applicant’s experience or their statement of purpose. In fact it is very common for top graduate schools to have a threshold that they set (arbitrarily and internally by the person reviewing that application) and then ignore the meaning of the numbers after that … 3.6 or 3.9 GPA? Who cares! In other words, once you do ‘good enough’ on the exam or your GPA passes a threshold, they no longer factor it in to who is accepted.

2)The crucial components to your application that are not ignored are: your experiences, your critical thinking abilities (reflected in your statement and your letters of recommendation), and your fit with the program. Oddly, this is the place where many students spend the least amount of time. In other words, yes, study hard for the GRE/GMAT/LSAT … but don’t neglect your experience or your statement of purpose. These are the things that will actually make the biggest difference in your application.

So why do grad applicants focus on their numbers so much? I think it is because it is a measurable threshold that they can easily compare themselves to others (“my school of interest accepts on average only those scoring in the top 5 percent of the GRE, and I’m in the top 12 percent“). Perhaps this way they can be ready for any rejection. It is a concrete number that says, ‘you are good enough.’ The other stuff feels more amorphous and hard to pin down.

Unless the school is unambiguous about cutoffs (“We do not review applications where the applicant has a GPA below a 3.5”) always apply to your top program. What do you have to lose? Most importantly – be sure to strengthen your application with experience (applied or research, depending on what your program values). Finally, take the time to really write a solid statement of purpose. This is where attention to detail can make the biggest difference.

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2 Responses

  1. Colin says:

    Hi Dr. Gard, good to know that the Statement of Purpose and Letters of Rec is something to focus on and to not be consumed by scores. But this being said, is there still a range of GRE scores or GPA that matters for getting into a school (like a rule of thumb to be a certain number close to the average for the school?). What matters more GRE or GPA? (And I recognize that the point of your post is to let people know not to worry so much about the scores, but I’m still worried! haha). And what holds more weight, Statement of Purpose or Letters of Rec?

    • David Gard says:

      This is a really tough question — but one that I think one most people have. The answer likely varies A TON depending on the grad school, whether it is research or applied, the specifics of the program, etc etc. I think my post is to encourage people 1) see what the program school says about scores, 2) just do their best on the GRE/GMAT/LSAT, 3) let it go and WORK ON YOUR STATEMENT 🙂 . For GPA it is somewhat different as you can always go back and take other classes if need be.
      Your standardized scores (GRE/GMAT/LSAT) hold more weight than GPA usually.
      And your Statement of Purpose is often more important than letters (but both are important)