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I am applying for a PhD in Sociology. My schools "require" scores of about 300ish and I scored 270. My reason for the poor score is that ETS requires medical tests I cannot afford (more than half my monthly income) to be given accommodations, so I was unable to use any accommodations. ETS was also very careful to say this to me over the phone, so I do not have any records of it. I am unsure of the best way to explain this. Without them, I don't see myself testing better.

I could hardly afford the test with a waiver to reduce the cost, so I am not sure I could pay for the test again. I am also obtaining my master’s degree and studying for the test has severely impacted my life. I know that is a "cost" of being in graduate school and this is a time balance issue that I should not be having. For the schools that have a "can you explain bad test scores" section, I have written out that I was unable to use my accommodations, which had a serious effect on my score.

If I have strong LORs, ten years of working experience, almost three years of research experience, am involved in multiple honor societies, have presented at multiple conferences, and am working on publishing something do I still have a chance to get in? I know that I have the potential to be a strong graduate student, but I am worried with such low scores that my applications will be tossed away.

Has anyone had a similar experience or have any advice?

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    "I am applying for a PhD in Sociology." Where are you applying? There are countries where academia basically doesn't care about GRE.
    – user9482
    Nov 24, 2022 at 6:20
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    @MikaylaMarker I edited to clarify based on yours and GoodDeeds' comments. Hopefully I got it all right. Nov 28, 2022 at 19:04
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    Can i assume from your mention of medical tests costing money you are applying in the united states? Nov 28, 2022 at 19:04

3 Answers 3

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I think you have a few steps to take-

  1. prioritize schools without a GRE requirement
  2. ask your advisors/mentors/letter writers to reach out to schools directly to make sure “your application gets a full look” despite the low scores
  3. work with others to come up with a short one sentence explanation of why your test score doesn’t reflect your aptitude (there may be a place for “other comments” where you can include this)

At the same time, I always advise students who are looking at a PhD to get a full sense of the opportunities available to you with a masters degree and your current experience. This advice goes double for those who are having trouble with the “gate keeping” around admissions to PhD programs. It may be that you do not need a PhD to pursue your goals. Plus, the academic market for Sociology is quite dismal (you probably would need to be in a top 20 program to get an academic job), so you should also be exploring research jobs outside of academia, which may not require a PhD.

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  • I think your three points are good advice. I think the last paragraph is very poor advice. I was once told that I had the potential to succeed in a community college, but probably not higher. My math doctorate proved them wrong (and idiotic).
    – Buffy
    Nov 24, 2022 at 15:20
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    Let me revise- this is advice for anyone considering a PhD and frustrated by the gate-keeping process.
    – Dawn
    Nov 24, 2022 at 16:45
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I honestly think you will be fine if you cast a broad net for doctoral programs. This would be especially true in the US, I think, where GRE is at most a small consideration among a host of others, with letters being very important. Your experience and letters will carry you pretty far and a modest deficit under your circumstances can easily be overlooked.

But don't limit your search to a narrow range of institutions, especially a narrow range of top schools. Your letter writers can help you explain the somewhat low GRE and if they project your success in doctoral study you should be OK.

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    I think this is fine advice, but the Op should also be advised that without a top 20 placement, they will be most likely to be in industry after the PhD.
    – Dawn
    Nov 24, 2022 at 16:49
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The answers by @Buffy and @Dawn here are very good, but I wanted to add some examples to further the point that GREs are just a minor part of admissions, and an even smaller part of your chances of succeeding.

A good friend and college roommate got a GRE score so low that a university told him that while he had been admitted, they did not want to publish that they had admitted a student with such a score. So they asked him to retake the test during his first year as a grad student, and they'd backdate the test on their report. He did, and he's now a tenured professor at an R1. I should note that by the time he decided to do the PhD, he was already recognized as an expert in the field, so there was no risk from the university's side.

Other friends have dramatically improved their scores with a little studying and preparation for the exam. These are people who are genuinely smart, competent, and hard working, but are not used to US-style standardized testing. I think Americans underestimate how much the GRE and other standardized testing is a test of cultural competence. BTW, after improving their scores, they completed their PhDs and are now tenure-track or tenured.

Like others have said, your best option is to broaden your search. However, I think it's a tactical mistake to disregard the possibility that with a modest but consistent effort, you could substantially improve your score.

You didn't mention which type of accommodations you are requesting, but be aware that the issue of requesting accommodations due to learning disabilities has become a minefield. Abuse is rampant. A colleague told me that in her daughter's classroom all but 2 out of 30 students get accommodations during exams. Universities and institutions have pushed back by requiring more and more evidence, in effect just raising the cost for students with legitimate disabilities, while not stopping any rich kid from just spending more money on the right doctors. Since you have stated that you cannot afford the tests anyway, with even more emphasis I suggest that you retake the test so that your score is just above the threshold then leverage your other skills to gain admissions.

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