Is ‘optional’ really ‘optional’ for submitting GRE scores?

The following content originally appeared September 21, 2019 as the post “Is ‘optional’ really ‘optional’ for submitting GRE scores?” on the Vanderbilt University blog Materials and Methods: A blog for emerging biomedical scientists. ASCB has reprinted it here as a service to our readers who are applying to graduate school. There will be four articles in the series.  

As you may be aware, many biology and biomedical graduate programs have eliminated the GRE as a requirement for their applications. While some schools have completely removed the GRE as a part of the application, many others now list the GRE as “optional”. So, what does “optional” really mean and are committees still expecting you to list scores?

First, a short history lesson. Discussions surrounding the elimination of the GRE as a component of the application stemmed from two co-submitted research articles from Vanderbilt and UNC in 2017. The work of Roger Chalkley at Vanderbilt and Josh Hall at UNC should be applauded because within months of their publications, programs across the country started eliminating the GRE as an application requirement.

At Vanderbilt, we have chosen to keep the GRE as an “optional” part of the application. Rest assured that “optional” truly does mean that: we do NOT view the lack of scores negatively. At Vanderbilt, we are NOT expecting you to submit GRE scores. If you have taken the GRE and you feel they would enhance your application, GREAT! Add strong scores to your application! If you haven’t taken the GRE, FANTASTIC! You didn’t spend time preparing for and taking the test and may have devoted that time to the lab instead!

At Vanderbilt, we have chosen to keep GRE scores as an optional part of the application so that students who may benefit from having especially strong scores can add them. For example, strong scores may help an applicant with a lower GPA. This is because, along with other components of the application, strong GREs may suggest that a lower GPA does not reflect an applicant’s academic potential (if this is the case for you, talk about it in your personal statement). We want all applicants to be able to represent themselves in the best possible light; thus, we leave applicants the option of adding scores if it will help them. (I should note here that even exceptional GRE scores may not help overcome very low GPAs. You may want to consider other options to improve your application.)

To be transparent, no application will be dinged by not including scores. Historically, we have given the GRE very little consideration in our review practice and that is even more true now! You do not have to submit strong scores, or any scores, to be among our most competitive applicants. In fact, a large portion of our current class did not submit scores! Rest assured that we don’t see a lack of scores negatively. At Vanderbilt, we recommend that you don’t even take the GRE if you haven’t yet. This test does not evaluate your knowledge of many concepts that you would use in grad school, and studying for it can be a time sink. Why put effort into studying something irrelevant just to list a score?

Pro tip: while the lack of score is not negative, listing a moderate or low GRE score may reflect poorly on your application. Because strong scores are often the only ones submitted, reviewers are getting used to only seeing strong performances when scores are present. Admissions committees may question your judgement if you add weaker scores. You don’t want to stand out in a negative way.

In summary, optional really does mean optional, at least at Vanderbilt. Add scores if they are strong and improve your application, but don’t add scores that will not stand out in a positive way. Note that while this advice is specific for Vanderbilt, I have recently heard many programs reflecting similar opinions. If you are unsure about other programs, you should consider checking in with admissions representatives from those schools.

About the Author:

Dr. Beth Bowman is an Assistant Professor of Biomedical Research, Education, and Training at Vanderbilt University and Assistant Director of Biomedical Graduate Programs (@BiomedVandy) and co-Director of the Vanderbilt Summer Science Academy. Here, she direct admissions and recruitment, teach students in the first year, mentor students throughout their graduate career, and develop programming that will enhance their education. Her passion is to help bourgeoning scientists on their path through guidance and mentoring.