What to do about a low GRE verbal score

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These two have already learned two languages.

How can you fix a low GRE verbal score when it is dependent on a lifetime of reading, listening to complex language, and writing? Little children have no control over the richness of language they hear. They don’t get to pick whether they were in a family where complex ideas were discussed at dinner. They don’t get to pick whether they had a lot of siblings close to their age, naturally bringing the conversation level down, or were alone and had to listen to the adults.

Today the New York Times had an article about how much harder it is for a school to raise reading test scores than it is to raise math scores. Part of it was based on a Mathematica Policy Research study of KIPP schools that showed 11 months advancement in math and 8 in reading at middle school. Part of the argument in the NYT is that children differ more in reading than math exposure at home.

But what does this have to do with improving a low GRE score? Only that it can be challenging. I think there are two basic approaches. One is to really cram hard for the test. If you study an hour a day for a few months, memorizing words, working examples, reading, and answering questions you will undoubtedly bring your score up. How much you bring it up will depend in part on how long and hard you study. It should be in the hundreds of hours, not the tens of hours. But you already knew this.

I think there is another perhaps more thoughtful approach that involves the reasons universities even care about your verbal GRE in science programs. To be an effective scientist, you need to be able to communicate what you do. You need to be able to think through verbally the steps you need to take in your research to make a strong argument that your experiment actually addresses the questions you want it to address. You need to understand the nuances of language in other people’s work, from letters of recommendation to review articles to original research. If you can somehow show directly that you have mastered these skills in spite of a low GRE, then your evaluators are less likely to hold the low GRE against you. Furthermore, this will actually help you with your career.

What does improving in this way look like?  First of all, you should set aside time to read for pleasure every day, without fail. I would choose fiction before bed time. There are a lot of older authors you can get tons of work by for very cheap on your smart phone or pad. I’m working my way through Willa Cather right now, having obtained her entire works for under a dollar. I’ll probably move to someone else after the third book. Actually, I see a lot of the individual books are completely free Kindle edition on Amazon. I read so far O Pioneers! and The Song of the Lark, and just began My Antonia. After reading Larry McMurtry about the Texas West, I wanted another perspective, much as I loved Lonesome Dove. So I chose a female writer and sodbusters. But you should choose something you like and read it not only for the story but look at how it is constructed.

Spend some time just watching comma usage. Then focus on the first sentences of paragraphs. Then see how seldom the author uses that weak linker, “and.” Don’t only let the story flow in. Examine it, maybe for the last few minutes of your reading period.

Reading is important not only because it brings joy to uncertain lives, but also because it gives you information. But it is not enough if you want to become an effective scientist. You also need to write. Write often. Write clearly. Share your writing. Read about writing. You can write every day or once a week. You should have something to say and find an audience. A blog is a natural way to write these days, but it should be focused on a topic you know something about. Your writing should be evidence based, not just opinion. This means you need links and sources.

You could also begin to contribute to Wikipedia in areas that interest you. Just be careful to maintain a neutral tone, to put in citations to evidence-based research, and to see what others think of your work. After awhile you will have a portfolio of writing that you can link to in your graduate school application. You can point out that while you may not have the highest of verbal GREs, you have mastered the kinds of skills that are behind why we care about this in the first place. Furthermore you will have demonstrated initiative and drive, the grit that we look for most of all in our graduate students.  Good luck!

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
This entry was posted in Graduate school, Undergraduates, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to What to do about a low GRE verbal score

  1. dinoverm says:

    Your suggestion to read older books is very important.

    Even native English speakers who read frequently can get low scores on the GREs. That’s because the vocabulary used on the test is out-dated (in my opinion). When I first started studying for the GRE, I obtained the recommended vocabulary list. I was ashamed to find that I didn’t know half of the words. I think that’s because even though I read frequently, I tend to read ‘modern’ books that don’t use most of that vocab. I improved substantially by doing two things: studying the vocab like crazy and reading old classics.

    I will say that the new GRE doesn’t need as much random memorization of vocab as the old one did. The old “analogy” exercises were nearly impossible for me, so I can’t imagine how a non-native English speaker could be expected to perform well.

  2. Bill Rubink says:

    Joan: This is a tremendous essay. Why don’t you submit it to the times editorial board?

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