GRE scores, paint by numbers, and imposter syndrome

Nature: a good GRE score ≠ graduate school success

(Updated March, 2018)

A recent article in the journal Nature (A Test That Fails) reports that GRE scores are a poor indicator of success in grad school.

My first reaction was a not-suitable-for-professional-circles riff on, “Well, isn’t that obvious?!”

And then I remembered. It’s not.

Back when I took the GRE…

These findings strike a powerful chord in me because the overall message resonates with my own experience.

I majored in biology at a small university in Texas. During my senior year, I had a fantastic zoology professor who was impressed by my writing skills and overall aptitude in his course. He convinced me that I should enter a Master’s program and work in his lab. I was excited by the opportunity, and immediately began studying for the GRE.

The Graduate Record Examination is a special beast among standardized tests. It has been around since 1949, and is purportedly designed to test the complex reasoning skills that are required in graduate school. It clocks in at right about four hours in duration, and it’s an ordeal for which no amount of studying a Kaplan guide can prepare you.

I recall having a generalized feeling of bewilderment at some of the concepts and thought processes that I was apparently supposed to have learned during my college years. “Wow, I missed THAT somewhere,” I’d think to myself. During the analytical section in particular, I remember a virtual scream inside my head, “who THINKS like this?”

As I expected, my score wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t stellar either. I knew that I was smarter than the GRE results showed, but the score WAS high enough to get me into grad school, and I decided not to retake it. I completed my Master’s degree successfully. After graduation I worked for a couple of years as a lab scientist, first in an environmental chemistry lab in Texas, and then as a microbiologist in a food-testing lab in Wisconsin.

Back to school…

I wasn’t crazy about the bench science I was doing with my Master’s-level education, and soon decided to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I did some reconnaissance of the various programs and laboratories that interested me before applying to a program. During that process, I met with numerous professors. I was told more than once that my GRE scores weren’t high enough for that particular lab.

Now, that’s a conversation-stopper. Never mind that I had taken the initiative to seek out a lab that fit with my interests, actively contacted the professor with e-mails and phone calls to set up a face-to-face meeting, prepared by reading their publications so that I could ask intelligent questions, and conducted myself well during the interview.

I remember being quietly infuriated. Why should my GRE scores matter now, I wondered, when I have already demonstrated my ability to successfully complete a graduate program? Successfully authored papers?!

Does a test score make one a skilled bench scientist, or bestow the interpersonal skills needed to be successful during a graduate degree and beyond?

Luckily, not all programs paint by numbers…

I wonder what my career would be like now if my admission to a Ph.D. program had hinged solely on that metric.

Happily, as it turned out, I met with the head of graduate admissions for the Physiology program, who never once asked to see my GRE scores. Instead, he told me that I was an excellent candidate for the program, given my prior experience in industry labs and the first author publications I had under my belt from my Master’s degree. He actively encouraged me to apply to the program, even coaching me through the process. I am certain that he went to bat for me with the admissions committee.

I finished my Ph.D. program in under five years, completed three years as a postdoc, and I am now putting the expertise and skills I gained to use in an entrepreneurial venture. I consider that to be a success story, even though I chose not to stay in academia. (I’ll save that topic for another conversation.)

What the GRE doesn’t tell you…

Back to my rant du jour. Over the years, I have seen many graduate students—who were brilliant on paper—succeed in graduate school and go on to have successful careers. I have also seen a few who crashed and burned spectacularly. The crash-and-burners stood out to me because of the apparent paradox.

Despite their stellar grades, outstanding GRE scores, and scintillating recommendations from their professors, these students were incapable of communicating with their advisors, colleagues, or committee members. They didn’t have the best work ethic. They could not bear the stress of having an experiment fail repeatedly, of having a project fall through or change, or of being brutally cross-examined during preliminary exams, presentations, or their thesis defense. And—perhaps most concerning of all—they were ill-equipped to enter the workforce.

If grades and GRE scores translated to success in graduate school, this person should have been on top of the world, I remember thinking one time (somewhat sourly). But the reality is that the GRE doesn’t analyze a candidate’s drive to succeed, interpersonal skills, or the general acumen that is required to make it through graduate school.

As if we don’t have enough reasons for full-blown imposter syndrome…

I felt vindicated, somehow, after reading the article in Nature.

I can’t tell you what a blow to my confidence it was to have professors point at my GRE scores and say I wasn’t good enough for THEIR lab. It was a feeling that revisited me throughout my program and contributed to the imposter syndrome that still haunts me to this day. I suspect that I’m not alone.

What is imposter syndrome?

Imposter syndrome is a pervasive feeling—no matter what you have accomplished—that you’re a fake, a fraud, you don’t belong, you don’t deserve X. In graduate school, I compared it to hiding amongst the reeds, surrounded by professors with metaphorical guns, afraid I’d be found out.

“Hey everyone! LOOK! It’s Michelle! Who knew: she’s actually an AIRHEAD. PhD?! HA!”


These feelings can be quite crippling, and more people suffer from it than you think. We’re talking high-achieving, successful people. Among many other contributing factors, the feeling is reinforced by the tenacious biases—perceived or real—not only of other people, but that we harbor within ourselves. “I only got here because [I’m a woman/ I’m a minority/ my parents know the right people/ I’m a Veteran/ I’m disabled]. I don’t really deserve this.”

And, of course, imposter syndrome is reinforced by any metric that attempts to force pegs of all shapes into a square hole. 

For example, a standardized test that stands in the way of a higher degree.

As it turns out, these tests likely discriminate against the very people that STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) purports to encourage…

GRE and bias in STEM?

The part of the Nature study that I was most fascinated by was that the GRE actually selects against women and minorities. The study reports that while 72% of men score above 700 for the quantitative reasoning section in the physical sciences, only 26% of women do so. That number plummets to 5.2% for minorities (excluding Caucasian and Asian people).

This is especially shocking, the study observes, in light of the fact that some programs use a minimum score of 700 for the analytical section as an easy criterion for winnowing down a pool of applicants. It’s an easy leap of logic to see that this misuse of GRE score by admissions committees may factor strongly into the under-representation of women and minorities in STEM fields.

I will be the first to say that graduate school is not for everybody—but that goes for the GRE “acers” and “muddlers” alike. Many potential applicants who see that they don’t meet the minimum score posted on a program’s admission website will not even bother to apply. Using a dogmatic, narrow metric of any kind to select who can and cannot enter graduate school necessarily excludes talented people and suppresses diversity. It’s really a shame.

I am fortunate to have found a mentor who didn’t use a paint-by-numbers approach for evaluating the merits of applicants. I hope that there will be more like him in the near future.



This is an updated archive post on a topic that I feel strongly about, so I’m sharing it over at #BrillBlogPosts, hosted by Honest Mum.

Brilliant blog posts on

Posted by Michelle Frank

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