“I can’t concentrate, worry about little things, and have trouble sleeping. I am just so nervous,“ said Maria, a prospective doctoral applicant who was concerned that making the wrong choices might sabotage her chances of acceptance. Maria’s distress was not surprising. I had received multiple emails, telephone calls, and text messages from other clients who were grappling with similar questions. Brian, for example, reached out via phone to ask if he should delay his application for a year, and Corinne asked if graduate programs were cutting back on acceptances with the onslaught of what can only be described as the Covid Conundrum. These questions and concerns escalated as COVID affected not only the application process but also new methods of course delivery, including Zoom, Google Teams, Fully Online, synchronous, asynchronous, and multiple combinations thereof.
I listened carefully as they shared their frustrations and fears, and I promised to brainstorm some strategies and follow up in a week. After some thought, I decided to “borrow” some of the skills I teach in my research courses, which I have named “The Triple-A Plan“ (for Analyze, Address, and Apply).
The Triple-A Plan to Facilitate Decision-Making
Analyze the Situation
- The graduate school interview process was changing from an up close and personal visit to a university to, in some cases, telephone interviews or online interviews via Zoom or Google Meet. Some applicants were informed that programs were eliminating the interview requirement completely. Clearly, this was distressing to both the applicants and faculty committees because applicants hope that their interview will reveal their disposition for their field of study, and faculty members value the opportunity to learn firsthand about the background and interpersonal skills of the applicants. None of this can be measured by reading a candidate’s application, letters of recommendation, or essays.
- Some programs added one, two, and in some cases, even three additional short essays specifically related to how COVID impacted course delivery, interpersonal relationships, and academic achievements. Candidates applying to programs that required internships, shadowing, and volunteer hours were “hit” particularly hard on this issue. [As a side note, I helped many of my clients seek out creative solutions to meet these experience requirements for programs such as PA, PsyD, MSW, and Counseling.]
- Amidst all this angst, the GRE element of the application went from “required” to “optional.” Most applicants were relieved by this turn of events because this appeared to be one less thing to worry about.
Address the Concerns
Clearly, if programs went the optional route with regard to the GRE exam, applicants were forced to decide whether to take the exam or not. There was no perfect answer to this question.
Some of my clients were deeply concerned by this decision. Here is a sampling of the many queries I received:
Question #1– If I take the GRE exam, can I review the score and then decide whether I should or should not submit it?
Answer #1– The choice to submit only the scores you like is NOT an option from ETS, the company that builds and manages the GRE, SAT, and other such tests.
Question #2– Could taking the exam negatively impact the school’s decision-making process?
Answer#2– A very low GRE score has the potential to affect your chances of admission. You also need to understand that the raw scores on the verbal, quantitative, and writing components are less important than the percentile of your score. If your score falls in the top 80th percentile, this would be a very high score. A score in the 30th percentile would be a poor score. ETS develops the scores based on the mean of the scores of all test takers on a given day. One of my clients somewhat jokingly said, “So, should I take the test when I score higher than the vast majority of other test takers on a given day?” The short answer is yes. But of course, that would be impossible.
Apply Your Knowledge
How do you use this information to make an informed decision? The simple answer is to develop a plan of action, which might look something like this:
- Conduct research, if possible, on the mean GRE scores over the past five years of the applicants that were accepted to your target graduate program. You might have to poke around to access this data on the graduate websites. Some programs do not publish this info because it can negatively impact the program’s reputation and/or standing. (Graduate programs are very concerned with rankings.)
- If you cannot find the data on the university website, try contacting the dean of graduate admissions and/or the graduate program coordinator. They often have access to this information, which will help you determine how competitive you are at the program in question.
- It is more probable that I, as a former dean of graduate admissions, can access this info, rather than my clients. Current deans who know me either personally or by reputation are more likely to confide in me. As a result, I can reach out to my former colleagues, have productive conversations, and gain a lot of helpful “insider” info. I openly and freely ask them for their top tips to stand out, as well as what their “dealbreakers” are. In the past, this information has helped my clients get accepted. Of course, there are no guarantees.
- Lastly, create a balance sheet that lists the gains and/or losses of each of the two choices (i.e., taking the GRE or not). Review and weigh your balance sheet findings in terms of both the number of items and the critical importance of each item. Now you should be fully ready to make an informed decision.