Greg Walsh


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Master the GREs for UX Schools

Thursday February 18, 2016

Estimated Reading Time: 2 minutes

Why GREs Our IDIA program requires the GREs. When people ask me about the admission requirements, they either sigh at the mention of the test or try to negotiate not taking them. As a program director, I find them valuable for reasons that were not necessarily intended by the test makers.

First, I understand no one wants to take an extra test in their life. Plenty of controversy has surrounded the test since 1993. I did not want to take them way back in November of 1996 and again in summer of 2007 when I applied to my master's program and PhD program, respectively. They can be stressful because someone is testing you on at least one topic you don't feel you are good at.

But, the GREs help me because they show that you are committed to going to graduate school. You had a goal, set a plan into motion, took the test, and had the grades sent to admissions. So far, they have been a great indicator of who will finish their thesis and the program. When I first took over the reigns of the program, some people were admitted without the GREs because previous directors said if you did well in your classes for the certificate, it showed you could waive the test. But the test doesn't really show how well you'll do in class, in fact, a meta-analysis of GRE research showed that GRE scores don't really mean a whole lot beyond your ability to complete a goal.

That sounds silly except the ability to set and complete goals is my personal, non-tested, favorite indicator of future success. It's kind of like running a marathon because it is something almost anyone can achieve by setting small goals that build to a larger one. That's all grad school is!

If I did have to pick one GRE test to really look at as a program director, I would look at the Analytical Writing test. In grad school, as in most professional endeavors, writing and communicating is extremely important. The analytic test has you write several (two?) essays based on a question and two humans grade you from zero to six in half point increments. The grade is based on your ability to form an argument and logically make that argument within the essay and is the mean score of the reviewers rounded up. Here's a review of how to interpret the scores.

When potential applicants are nervous about taking the test, I give them this study tip:

  1. Go buy a GRE study book that has sample computer tests.
  2. Don't look at the book.
  3. Take a sample test and get the score.
  4. See what you didn't do well in (I prefer over 70th percentile) and study that part of the book.
  5. Take another sample test.
  6. If your score went up and you're relatively happy with it, go take the GRE. If not, study again.

Note: If you want to practice the analytical writing test, ETS has created the ScoreItNow tool/service.

I mentioned 70th percentile but I know that is very ambitious. When I look at applicants, I look at GRE scores, resumes, GPAs, letters of recommendation, and the applicant's personal statement. Those different things give me a good picture of the applicant. A low GRE score with a pretty well defined resume with several years of experience would balance each other out. A high GRE score with no experience and a personal statement that doesn't articulate why UX or UBalt doesn't bode well for the application. An incredibly low GRE score (under 10th percentile) but a great rest of the package usually triggers a call from me to the applicant to talk. The answer is often "I don't test well". OK, sounds good to me.

The GRE score is just one thing I look at when admitting students but I do require it. It gives me a peak at the applicant's commitment to grad school, and the ability to set goals and accomplish them. In my time here, commitment and goal-achieving have been the best indicators of graduate student success.