Assemble Your Application

Standardized test scores (GRE/TOEFL) and Transcript

Most schools will also ask you to submit standardized test scores such as GRE (and perhaps TOEFL), and a transcript.  For PhD admissions, even high standardized test scores and a high GPA provide only weak evidence of your ability to do research (since doing research requires very different skills than doing well in coursework).  Thus GRE and GPA by themselves are usually not enough to get you admitted to a top PhD program.  For MS admissions however, these scores may play a bigger role in the admissions decision.

Standardized test scores.  For both PhD and MS applications, a bad GRE score will hurt your application.  Unfortunately however, if you are applying to the top schools, a high GRE won’t really help your application much, since they receive many applications with high GRE scores, and thus  a high GRE doesn’t really cause your application to stand out.  At lower ranked schools, a high GRE score may help slightly, but the other parts of your application are more important.

Because of this, from the perspective of applying to the top schools, if a “Subject GRE” exam is optional for the schools you are applying to, it might not be particularly helpful for you to take the subject GRE (though other may advise you differently than we are doing here).  This is because a low subject GRE score will hurt your application, whereas a high one won’t really help it.  Instead of spending time studying for the Subject GRE, you might therefore be better off spending the time getting more research done and strengthening your application that way.  Of course, if a university requires the Subject GRE, then you should still take it. 

Because GRE and TOEFL seem to  change their exams and scoring conventions every few years, many professors don’t really know how to interpret some of these scores.  At a top school, one might expect Quant/Analytical >= 750, and Verbal >700 (for a native speaker) or >600 (for non-native speaker).  These are rough guidelines though, and some students will be admitted with lower scores. Some reviewers also just ignore these scores and don’t really know how to interpret them. 

Transcript and GPA.  Having a good GPA will help your application.  A good GPA by itself usually isn’t enough to get you admitted to a top PhD program, though a high GPA might be enough to get you admitted to a top MS program (if you attended a good undergraduate university), since it provides evidence of your ability to do well in coursework. 

 A bad GPA might hurt your application.  For example, if you’re applying to Aeronautics Engineering programs, and received bad grades in relevant classes (such as Aeronautics Engineering, Physics and Math classes), then that could significantly hurt your application.  If however your received bad grades in courses that’re less relevant to your area of study (such as Humanities classes), the committee many be more forgiving of that.

However, bad grades can definitely be overcome if you have a really strong research record. For PhD applications, research experience is much more important than standardized test scores and GPA, and each year, there’re PhD applicants whose LORs report “He did great research, and the only reason his GPA is so low is because he spent all his time in research rather than coursework,” and many of these applicants will get into top programs, since the application is providing strong evidence of research ability. 

Because different schools have varying degrees of grade inflation, GPAs vary wildly among schools.  A 3.8 GPA might be good at one university, and merely average at another.  This also diminishes the admissions committee’s ability to evaluate GPAs (unless they’re familiar with the degree, or lack thereof, of grade inflation at your school), which also diminishes the usefulness of GPA for graduate admissions.  With this caveat however, GPAs in the 3.6-4.3 range are typical for admitted PhD students at top schools.  GPAs < 3.2 are usually a bad sign.

US professors also have a really hard time evaluating GPAs from non-US schools, which sometimes have many different ways to convert from their grading scales (perhaps a 1-100 scale) to the US 4.0 scale.  Because of the multitude of conversion conventions, US professors often don’t know how to interpret these.  Consequently, providing more specific information helping the committee to interpret GPA information, such as “2nd highest GPA in a class of 50 CS students from University XYZ,” might be helpful. 

Back to Overview of the application process

Previous Topic: Application Materials - Resume and Publications

Next Topic: Advice for Application Process-Admission Process