I'm just starting to investigate doctoral programs in education in the United States, and I'm considering how to handle the GRE requirement:

  1. Hardline Activism: submit my incomplete application with a well-researched essay justifying my refusal to take the GRE.
  2. Soft Activism: submit my complete application including my first-try GRE scores along with a well-researched essay debunking the significance of my GRE scores related to my value as a candidate in the Ed.D. program, AND flatly stating that I spent no more than four hours (the length of the exam. i.e. No test prep.) on the GRE, in light of my scientific conclusions about it's relevance in this situation.
  3. Passive Acceptance: submit my complete application with my first-try GRE score and hope for acceptance.
  4. Active Acceptance: Study hard and take the GRE, then study some more and take it again. Submit my complete application and hope for acceptance.

Are there other options that I'm overlooking?

My position is not "the GRE has no value." My position is "I'm an excellent candidate for this doctoral program, as evidenced by my application. GRE scores would not alter that conclusion."

I found this discussion very useful, especially the answer and citations by Jeromy Anglim.

As an aside, I admit that I enjoy testing boundaries just for fun, but this issue is more than that. As a proponent of thoughtful, responsible education reform, I'm leaning toward options 1 and 2.

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    I feel the goal is noble, but very dangerous given the power structure among the selection committee and candidates. There is a fine line between appearing confident and pompous, and if the application pool is large or if the committee is very conservative, you may put your application at risk. I'd suggest perhaps get a good score, get in, and volunteer to serve in a student senate or rep, and start working from inside the department as one of the members. That way you may get better buy-in. Commented Jul 30, 2014 at 13:41
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    4. Then write your essay and publish it. You will have much more weight as a critique of a test if you passed it with a good score. And you won't jeopardize your chances of getting accepted.
    – Cape Code
    Commented Jul 30, 2014 at 14:12
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    Let me get this straight, you did poorly on the GRE and now want to argue that it is valueless. I would be much more likely to believe you if your convictions were so strong you refused to take the test.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Jul 30, 2014 at 19:01
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    I think it is probably of critical importance that you are applying to Education departments. From my experience the field of Education has very different views of what is important from many other fields.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Jul 30, 2014 at 19:04
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    I agree with @StrongBad: your position would be more noble and more interesting had you categorically refused to take the GRE. People who went to war and decided that it was not for them do not make ideal conscientious objectors. And I agree with the following comment: I think the fact that this is the education department must have some significance here: if you were applying to a PhD program in (say) mathematics, a research essay about your refusal might make interesting reading, but: not only would we not consider your application, we would feel honorbound not to consider it. Commented Jul 30, 2014 at 19:30

7 Answers 7


I think the answer to your question is this:

How much do you value getting into graduate school versus how much do you value feeling like you are making a point?

If you value feeling like you are making a point, by all means, pursue the Soft Activism. My guess is that it will come across to the department like a complaint that you didn't do well enough on the test and are going rogue to make your point.

If you value getting into graduate school, then engage in "begrudging acceptance" that this is how you get into that particular graduate school. Like it or not, there's often a line of people willing to take your place, suffer the test, and smile. Moreover, if there's money on the line in the forms of scholarships or fellowships, consider the time/money you put into the test an investment. Study, practice, and prepare until you get a score you can submit in the hopes of getting in. You don't have to actively like the idea, you just need to accept this is the means to acceptance in graduate school.

For middle ground possibilities, I actually think the "hardline activism" approach is softer and less whiney than your "soft activism", because true or false it makes it seem like you've had a principled stand against the GRE since the beginning. Depending on the contours of the education program that might bode well for you. Some education programs might agree that the testing is bunk; my colleagues in education don't like standardized tests.

You can of course just submit the scores you have, but if you think they are inadequate for acceptance, that seems unwise.

After you're in, then write all the principled essays you want against it and try to change the system.


These opinions are based on my discussions with faculty members involved in PhD admission committees.

I think your crusade against the GRE will be more productive when you become the department chair or the dean of a school. Right now it just sounds like you're afraid.

Among the options you've listed, I would recommend #3. You should know that the GRE plays a small part in what gets you accepted in a good grad school. The admission committee cares about your essay, your letters, your past productivity, and how you've done in specific hard courses.

The GRE is correlated with IQ and simply enables the committee to focus their efforts on a smaller pool. They know that they might miss on a good candidate who inexplicably bombed the GRE but they also know that they would easily find many many equally good candidates in the pool of those who did average and above on their GREs.

If you do exceptionally well in your GRE (98 percentile +) then you will stand out. If you do average, the committee will focus on what they really care about, which is your essay, your letters etc. If you bomb it then your application likely won't be looked at.

Don't waste your time and money taking the GRE many many times. Your score won't change very much and what's really important is the rest of your portfolio.

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    @RoboKaren - that might be because you only get to observe the correlation in a very small sample of applicants: those who were accepted. Those generally tend to have a narrower range of scores than the entire pool, and they are (hopefully) on the far end of the distribution, ability-wise.
    – Ana
    Commented Jul 30, 2014 at 18:28
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    The GRE tests one thing: skill on taking the GRE. The fact that GRE prep increases your score indicates that it's not testing anything inherent.
    – RoboKaren
    Commented Jul 30, 2014 at 19:37
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    "The GRE tests one thing: skill on taking the GRE." The Nobel Prize tests only one thing: your skill in getting the Nobel Prize. This is a tautology. "The fact that GRE prep increases your score indicates that it's not testing anything inherent." I don't happen to think it's testing your immortal soul, but your statement does not logically follow. Clearly most people cannot be prepped to get top GRE scores. Conversely, you seem to discount that studying for the GRE actually increases knowledge and suitability for grad school: on the math subject exam, this is at least somewhat true. Commented Jul 30, 2014 at 19:42
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    Merely because prepping for the test can increase your score does not mean that the test only tests your ability to prep. One obvious area where prepping matters is in understanding the instructions for the test. One area where it has limits is that part of the prep is learning / reviewing a large number of vocabulary terms.
    – virmaior
    Commented Jul 30, 2014 at 21:58
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    ....One could argue that math research has little to do with the undergraduate material tested on the GRE math subject exam, and that someone who did badly on this exam could still have all the inherent promise of a great future mathematician. My response: sure. But on the one hand that's even more true if someone has scored well, and on the other hand the exam is testing things we want the students to know upon arrival. If you have the inherent aptitude to do well on the exam but don't, that does say something about your current suitability for grad school. Commented Jul 31, 2014 at 14:05

One word of caution regarding options 1 and 2: In many (if not most) U.S. colleges, the office of the Graduate School has the final say over who is admitted to candidacy for a graduate degree. GRE score requirements for that candidacy are usually a matter of official university policy and cannot simply be overridden by the faculty committee reviewing applications in a particular department. Getting an exception to university policy just because you don't like the GRE requirement seems very unlikely. There might be a few schools where that would work, but I would guess it to be a small minority.

I would agree with the advice of others that you play by the rules to get into the program and then work from within to change the requirements for others in the future. This doesn't require several levels of administration to approve exceptions to university policy, it doesn't make it look like you just don't want to take the test, it doesn't make it look like you're trying to hide or excuse a poor test score, it doesn't make it look like you feel entitled to special treatment that other candidates aren't getting, and it doesn't make it look like you're going to be unwilling to work with others when you can't have your way. Of course, as virmaior said, this decision also depends on how much you value getting accepted into the program. My answer is assuming you value it highly. Also, again, results at your particular school will vary and will depend strongly on the university policy of the school as well as the viewpoints of the graduate admissions committee in your department as well as any levels of administration that may be required to approve their decisions.


If you want an exception from the GRE requirement policy, submit other materials and politely ask the head of the admission committee for an exception. In the request build carefully your case as why you think you would be successful in the school. Remember, the school admission is not about your principles, it is about the Department having confidence you would be successful. And that's what you need to show in your petition.

In my case, my GRE scores were excellent, but too old (10 years). Since taking the test I completed a Masters at one of the top schools with high GPA, and had a successful employment record at reputable (and picky) employers. The Department for my PhD program had no issues waving the requirement to retake the GRE, simply because I had other means to show that I would be successful in the program.


As someone who recently took the GRE for grad school I feel your pain. I didn't do badly but certainly not as well as I would have liked. I'm not a good standardized test taker and felt at a disadventage when taking it.

BUT, my department (no idea about yours), does not weigh the score of the GRE very heavily. Unlike the SAT or ACT, there is no minimum score that you have to meet. I actually emailed my advisor for grad school, asking him about my scores and if they would do (or if not, would I need to take it over). There is no "this score is good, this one is bad" scale so I really didn't know how I stood from other candidates.

My advisor essentially said this: they have the GRE as a requirment because they have to (or at least, it's the standard). However, they look more at GPA, letters of recom., and advise from the faculty. There are students from foreign universities who bomb it because of language barriers but that doesn't prevent them from getting in.

Bottom line, I would ask the school(s) you are appling to directly if you are worried about getting in to see how heavily it weighs. In my opinoin and from those that I've talked to, nobody really believes the GRE is some great test that determines sole ability for getting through grad school.

Now, if you just want to kick up some dust and try to take down the GRE all togehter, more power to you :p It's an antiquateated and unfair test and through my previous points of most schools (well, my school at least) not really caring about it, it's just a way to make more money.

Though I would advise against option #1. Not submitting a GRE I don't think will do anything than merely have your application by incomplete. Mine was all done online so without having every box checked off, it wouldn't let you submit it anyways and as fair as I know you can not apply unless it's online.


Best option if you want to make a point: Take the GRE, get a perfect score, then write a letter asking them to disregard your score in their evaluation of your application on the grounds that it is not an appropriate measure of your ability.

Don't expect that if you submit an incomplete application the people evaluating it will see your application or if they do see it, they may not have time to read your well-researched letter.

It will likely be a committee, some of whom may not have looked at applications before the meeting (for an academic job hunt, my wife once learned she was on the short-listing committee when she got a 300 pg pdf file consisting of all the applications on Friday and was told that the meeting was on Monday).

Someone not involved in the decision process may go through and throw out any applications that don't meet the admission criteria - if you're admitted despite failing to meet the criteria they are opening themselves up to a lawsuit.


Consider a PHD program in Europe. To my knowledge and experience, you will get more papers published during a European program, and the number of papers in good journals is what determines your future academic career.

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    ...but for most of them, you need a Master's first.
    – Cape Code
    Commented Jul 30, 2014 at 16:17
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    There are a lot of other implications of doing a PhD overseas, see here for a few, and some people think it is harder to get a job in the US after doing a PhD in Europe. It seems to me that suggesting that someone change countries simply because they don't like the GRE is rather extreme. There are many pros and cons that are far more significant than the GRE. Commented Jul 30, 2014 at 18:01
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    And many English-language PhD programs overseas require a GRE for admissions purposes. (Mine does, for instance.)
    – aeismail
    Commented Jul 30, 2014 at 18:16
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    I am not sure why someone interest in a EdD in the States would benefit from a PhD in Europe. This seems like awful advice.
    – StrongBad
    Commented Jul 30, 2014 at 19:07

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