My TOEFL score is 85, but the minimum requirement of the school I'm applying to is 90. My GRE verbal score is also not very good. However, I have dedicated a month to contribute to the community of people studying for the GRE (more specifically, I have built a well-designed and information-rich Anki deck). Here is what I can sell in the SOP (they are the last two paragraphs of the What are you working on now? part):

Once complete I posted it on my website, and the result is incredible. Every month there are approximately a hundred visitors visit my site to download it, and within a couple months this popularity has pushed my site to the front page of Google*. Another good news for me is that I haven't forgotten a single word since.

Although my TOEFL or GRE score might not be high yet, the scores themselves don't reflect everything. After all, English should be a medium to communicate, not the opposite. I plan to upgrade the deck to make the it more consistent in the future.

But I'm worried that my application will be screened out before the SOP is read. Even if it is read, after all I built it to learning GRE vocabulary, not to training speaking or listening (my speaking score is only 18). I can take another TOEFL exam, but I want to make sure that my English has improved enough so that the money spent to retake it will not be wasted. It should technically not be a problem, if the deadlines are not coming.

My questions are:

  • In schools that care about the scores, is there a way to make the committee read the SOP first? Like the professor I'm following sending an email to them to rescue me?
  • After that, do my scores still matter?
  • I also have created a deck just for the speaking test, but haven't published yet because I still can improve it. And if I explain that I have generate a feasible, scientific plan to improve my English, with studies back up in psychology and/or neurosciences, would this helps? The only thing it needs is time.

* Just google gre anki
Related questions:
Do admissions care how close a TOEFL score is to the minimum?
Why do universities place a weight on GRE/TOEFL scores?

  • 7
    Ooker, my friend, you have a lot of worthwhile things to say, but your English does need work. Please, find a good class at your level where you can hone your skills. That would be the best use of your time. Nov 30, 2015 at 1:48
  • Can you explain what "sell in the SOP" and "screened out before the SOP is read" mean? Nov 30, 2015 at 4:12
  • @DanielR.Collins the first means that I can show that I have enough ability to improve my English, the latter means that my SOP won't be read (and all my effort is wasted) because my score is low.
    – Ooker
    Nov 30, 2015 at 4:26
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    The only thing that can overcome poor scores on a language proficiency exam is evidence that you actually have a much higher level of language proficiency than your scores suggest. Anything that doesn't show evidence of language proficiency - whether designing flash cards, describing your plan to improve your language skills, whatever else you come up with - is not going to help.
    – ff524
    Nov 30, 2015 at 4:37
  • 4
    @Ooker If statistics was an important part of your graduate program and your record in it was weak (e.g. a bad grade in your undergraduate statistics coursework), you would definitely want to show evidence of overcoming it. You might take more advanced coursework in statistics and do well in it, or have work/project experience in a field that relies heavily on statistics, or get a reference letter from a professor who can attest that you are much better at statistics than your record shows, etc.
    – ff524
    Nov 30, 2015 at 5:10

6 Answers 6


English competency is not a field in which you can earn "extra credit." While it is possible that a graduate program may be moderately impressed by your enthusiastic creation of study materials (but you can't count on this: as a data point, I had never heard of an "anki deck" until now), such activities certainly do not directly compensate for low TOEFL scores.

No one can speak for every graduate program at once, but in my professional opinion your low TOEFL scores will prevent you from getting serious consideration for admission in most US graduate programs. For instance, you can see my own university's requirements here. Your overall TOEFL score meets our requirements but your speaking score does not, which means that you would not be able to be admitted as a graduate student in my department. Moreover the speaking requirements for TAs are significantly higher: see here. The TOEFL speaking test is truly difficult for many foreign students, and your score is low enough so that admissions faculty would have serious concerns that you would never be able to get it high enough in order to be a TA, which is a significant source of funding in our department. We could perhaps carry one or two graduate students on grading-only assignments, but not many. Moreover, in my field (mathematics) getting a PhD with no teaching or TAing experience whatsoever would be a significant -- perhaps crippling -- disadvantage in the academic job market (as usual, there are a tiny number of exceptions here).

To address your precise questions:

In schools that care about the scores, is there a way to make the committee read the SOP first?

Most (or all) schools I know will care about the scores. No, there is no way to make the committee read the SOP first. Nor do I see any significance in the order your application is read.

After that, do my scores still matter?

What? Of course they do. I think you've been told this before in response to other questions, and I don't want to pile on too heavily, but: you seem to have some very serious misconceptions about the way academia works. You seem to often generate "strategies" for doing things in a nonstandard way or for circumventing requirements. If you want to get into a graduate program in the US and be a successful academic, you really need to stop doing that. You need to learn what the requirements are and acquire at least some understanding of why they're there, and then you need to fulfill the requirements, not sidestep them or talk your way out of it. The honest truth is that your excerpted, proposed statement of purpose would not help your case at all but in fact would make a distinctly negative impression. You don't understand the English proficiency requirements very well at all if you think that making a popular set of vocabulary flash cards is relevant to fulfilling them. It simply isn't. Most of all, your proposed improvement is to make more vocabulary flashcards...but this is a poor diagnosis of the problem. You need to improve your speaking score substantially -- by at least 8 points (out of a total of 30) to be able to take on TA duties in my university. If you raise your speaking score by that much, your total score will meet minimum requirements at most departments I'm aware of.

One final tip: I know exactly one way to use your personal statement to ameliorate commmittees' opinions of your speaking and writing skills -- namely, make sure your personal statement is a flawless specimen of English writing. Thus, rather than saying that your scores don't reflect your true ability (which is a worthless thing to say; we understand that various metrics are imperfect and limited, but we are using them anyway in the manner we think best) this shows that, which is much more convincing.

  • When I created this deck, I didn't think about to use it to compensate my TOEFL score (at that time I hadn't taken the test). It was purely to improve my GRE vocabulary (and to build my personal brand, if I ever need it later). Yes, I really love to generate new strategies, but this time I didn't intend to do that, until I receive the TOEFL score. Also, about the tip, I have my SOP checked by my native (British) friend. I think I'm running out of ways.
    – Ooker
    Nov 30, 2015 at 4:11
  • 3
    To echo Pete's links, here are my university's minimum requirements for graduate admission and for teaching assistants. Short version: you need at least a 24 on the speaking subsection of the TOEFL to be a teaching assistant. My department has a TA requirement for all PhD students; as a result, nobody with a TOEFL speaking score below 22 is admitted to our PhD program. (And PhD students with scores of 22 or 23 are required to raise them to 24 within one year of admission.)
    – JeffE
    Nov 30, 2015 at 5:23
  • @JeffE so the score is solely for TA, right? Is there any other funding sources that I can find?
    – Ooker
    Nov 30, 2015 at 5:33
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    @Ooker Let me repeat: Nobody with a TOEFL speakng score below 22 is admitted to my PhD program. It doesn't matter whether you have other funding sources.
    – JeffE
    Dec 1, 2015 at 3:45
  • 2
    Maybe I'm cynical, but if you get an applicant with a low TOEFL score and a SOP in perfect English, will you think "Their TOEFL score doesn't reflect their true ability", or "They probably got someone else to write their SOP for them"? Dec 13, 2015 at 23:47

This may not be a direct answer to the question, but I think the fact that the question is asked reflects some basic misunderstanding of TOEFL and GRE.

I want to point out the TOEFL and GRE are two completely different tests designed to assess different aspects of your language skill. TOEFL is a test for people whom English is not the first language, and thus the emphasis of TOEFL is whether the test taker has sufficient mastery of English to survive the day-to-day interaction with other students and professors on a English-speaking campus. GRE, on the other hand, is concerned with your ability to express, analyze, and comprehend at a level demanded in graduate studies. Thus what you have done for GRE probably does little to rescue your low TOEFL score, given that the two tests have fairly different objectives. Moreover, mastering the vocabulary is only the first (albeit necessary) step to ace these exams. Even if you have mastered GRE vocabulary through your contribution, there is still a long way to go before you can use English to express yourself fluently.

As someone who have been studying in the US as an international student, I want to also point out, from my personal experience, that TOEFL is really an easy test. Of course when you first encounter the test as a non-native speaker, the level of English demanded may seem unreasonably high. But don't complain yet, because actually living in an English-speaking environment demands even more. There is really no excuse for a low TOEFL score if you really want to study in the US, no matter how many Anki cards you've made.

  • this might be off-topic, but do you have any tips to improve speaking skills? I tend to speak complicated things, so with little time usually cat got my tongue.
    – Ooker
    Dec 15, 2015 at 16:55
  • 1
    @Ooker Second language acquisition is a complicated matter. You cannot expect me to explain it meaningfully within the confine of the comment section.
    – Drecate
    Dec 15, 2015 at 17:00

Whether a department will read your file if the scores are low depends on the department. My department generally would, but others do not. While your work to help other students studying for the GRE is admirable, it will probably carry very little weight. Your weak English fluency is evident in the title and body of this question, and departments may find your dismissal of language competence in your statement of purpose offputting.


While I believe you're hoping the answer to your question is "no, the scores won't matter," I believe that the real answer is otherwise.

In many cases, minimum TOEFL scores are required by universities to ensure a certain level of competency which may be necessary for credentialing either as a research assistant or a teaching assistant. In the absence of such scores, securing funding may be much more difficult, if not downright impossible.

Moreover, the fundamental issue is that the work that you've done—creating a website for people preparing to take the GRE—does not actually demonstrate familiarity with the English language. All it demonstrates is your ability to code up a website. It's great that it's helped you a bit, but as far as admissions committees are concerned, it's unlikely to sway their decision in your favor.

Also, as far as graduate admissions committees are concerned: no, there's no way to guarantee that they'll read the SOP before looking at your test scores. And yes, the scores will still matter, even if they read the SOP.

  • 3
    In this particular instance, all of the content in the OP's slide deck comes from another deck or other sources. The contribution is entirely design/technical. So "does not actually demonstrate familiarity with the English language" is exactly right.
    – ff524
    Nov 29, 2015 at 19:33
  • @ff524 yes, it's is. But my point is that from the day the deck was entablished, I have never forgotten a word (really).
    – Ooker
    Nov 30, 2015 at 3:37

This differs between departments, so there's no way to predict what will happen without information about your specific case. In my department, it would be nearly impossible to get admitted with a TOEFL score of 85. It would require an exception to a departmental policy and probably a university-wide policy as well (I'm not sure how flexible that one is, because the departmental policy is stricter). The department has had bad experiences with exceptions in the past, with graduate students who were not capable of teaching undergraduates or even communicating effectively with faculty, and it has been years since the admissions committee was willing to even consider an exception. All students with low TOEFL scores explain that they intend to improve their English, but they do not always do so, so these predictions carry little weight.

In my department your application would be read, but it would be rejected unless you looked absolutely brilliant. Other departments might be more willing to make exceptions or have completely different policies. If you are confident that the departments you are applying to will be flexible, then you don't need to worry, but I don't think you can determine this without specific knowledge.

Although my TOEFL or GRE score might not be high yet, the scores themselves don't reflect everything. After all, English should be a medium to communicate, not the opposite. I plan to upgrade the deck to make the it more consistent in the future.

I don't understand your argument here. You start by saying your scores don't reflect your true ability, then you comment about role of English (what's the opposite of a medium to communicate?), and then you suggest the desk needs to be more consistent and say you will improve it.

This paragraph really isn't making a good case for why the GRE review deck should substitute for higher TOEFL scores. I doubt such a case can be made effectively (the review deck is a nice contribution to the community, but it's not at all the same sort of thing), but if you want to try you'll need to restructure things somewhat.

  • "what's the opposite of a medium to communicate?" An obstacle like the TOEFL requirement?
    – Ooker
    Nov 30, 2015 at 4:16
  • 4
    @Ooker It's a little bit concerning that you describe the TOEFL as an obstacle. It seems to me that the obstacle is your lack of English proficiency, not the exam itself. You'll probably get better results from working on the real problem (the lack of English proficiency) instead of trying to get around what you perceive as the problem (the exam.) (P.S. "an obstacle like the TOEFL" is not the opposite of "a medium to communicate.")
    – ff524
    Nov 30, 2015 at 4:40
  • @ff524 it's not the way that I think about it. Yes, I know my problem is the problem. It's just that I don't have enough time, and everything is half-baked.
    – Ooker
    Nov 30, 2015 at 4:44

I think there may be a way to use the web site to help your application, but not by discounting the English requirement as you seem to be trying to do.

I have never been involved, other that as an applicant, in the admissions process, so take this for what it is worth.

Instead, recognize in your SOP that your English skills are not where they will need to be when you start your studies in the USA. The web site can be cited as evidence of the effort you are putting into improving your English. If you plan to take any English language courses between now and when you would start your USA studies, list them as well.

The general position would be "I know I need to improve my English, and these are the things I am doing to achieve that."

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