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I took the GRE in April and recently received my score. I placed in the 88th percentile, which is respectable but far from impressive. I am hoping to get into a top 25 math grad school for a PhD in pure math. I don't think my score is representative of my mastery of the undergraduate curriculum as I barely prepared for the exam.

I didn't prepare as much as I should have and now am worried about whether I should study over the summer and take it again next year. I have an REU this summer which will eat up eight weeks and would like to get a start on my senior thesis afterwards. As such, my question is:

As far as graduate school admissions are concerned, is it worth it to take the time out of more interesting pursuits to prepare for retaking the GRE next year?

  • Don't waste your time. I know multiple people who've gone to top 5 math departments with GRE scores below the 80th percentile. – Mark Meckes May 19 '14 at 13:52
  • @MarkMeckes Is this comment of yours really true? So, what should an applicant focus on? – Enthusiastic Engineer Sep 5 '14 at 21:46
  • @EnthusiasticStudent: Yes, it's true. In mathematics at least, the most important parts of the application -- by far -- are the recommendation letters and transcript. That means you focus on classes and, if you have the opportunity, research. – Mark Meckes Sep 6 '14 at 2:20
  • @MarkMeckes Exactly how far below the 80th percentile? – Potato Sep 30 '14 at 5:57
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    @Potato: The specific examples I know of were between 70th and 80th percentile. Not drastically low, but enough, I think, to justify my advice to the OP not to stress about being in the 88th percentile. – Mark Meckes Oct 1 '14 at 2:02
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Different admissions committees may handle things somewhat differently, as might different members of the same committee. However, I wouldn't worry about an 88th percentile score. As you say, it's respectable but not impressive, but that's OK. At top five universities, no score is high enough to be genuinely impressive by itself, and I don't think anyone gets that worked up about modest differences. (It's understood that some people are quick enough to score in the 99th percentile without breaking a sweat, while someone else might only reach the 90th percentile, and this difference is at best mild evidence for who has greater research potential.) At lower-ranked universities, there might be a little more scope for standing out via a high score, but it's certainly not necessary. I'm not aware of any university that would rule someone out for being in the 88th percentile (although of course I'm not familiar with every university's policies). By contrast, there are universities at which a 50th percentile score would cause consternation.

Of course, you'll have to have an impressive application in other ways, particularly letters of recommendation. However, you'd need that anyway: the extra margin of safety you would get in your application from having a higher GRE score would be small.

If you feel worried, it couldn't hurt to try taking the exam again. However, doing well in your REU and writing a great senior thesis are far more crucial than improving your GRE score, so you should definitely not compromise on those.

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