Should I Take the GRE If It’s Optional? Our Answer — The Admit Lab

Philippe Barr, PhD
9 min readMar 14, 2023

If you’re a student facing the big question: “Should I take the GRE if it’s optional?”, or if you’re having a tough time deciding if the test is “optional” optional, or an unwritten requirement, you have come to the right place.

Don’t worry, we’ve got all the answers and solutions! We are here to offer our insight and provide guidance as you navigate this decision-making process. After all, who better to advise on something like this than those who have gone through it before? Let us share with you what we learned so that your path forward is clear and one that serves your future goals!

An ever-expanding number of educational institutions are now shunning the GRE.

With more universities opting out of the traditional standardized testing procedure for graduate school admissions, it’s becoming increasingly clear that there are other means of gauging a student’s aptitude and potential.

Over the last few years, a growing number of people have expressed their opposition to this exam. This is in part because data-backed studies have proven that it does not accurately predict which students will complete doctoral programs successfully. Other factors that have contributed to the abandonment of the GRE as an entry requirement include its hefty fee — a financial burden that can dissuade well-qualified students from applying to graduate programs — and how it is prone to creating disparities in race, ethnicity, gender identity, first-generation college status, and socio-economic background. In other words, if you are asking yourself: “should I take the GRE if it’s optional?”. You are very likely not the only one.

Educational institutions, faculty members, school administrators, and researchers are all calling for a more holistic admissions process that eschews GRE scores. This is a major milestone in the process of furthering equitable access to higher education and broadening opportunities for students from diverse backgrounds.

By removing this barrier, graduate schools can consider candidates on their merits and potential regardless of their ability to take standardized tests or afford expensive prep courses. As a result, a greater range of students can now apply without fear that they won’t be admitted based on test scores alone. Although the GRE may still be beneficial in certain circumstances, making it optional has opened up more possibilities for prospective applicants who want to pursue their educational goals.

When is it a good idea to take the test even if it’s optional?

For those considering graduate school, often taking standardized tests is a must. Yet some schools offer the option of submitting test scores as optional, leaving prospective students in a state of uncertainty about which route to choose: should I take the GRE if it’s optional or not? In such cases, what should be the ideal strategy?

Does foregoing test scores disadvantage prospective students from being considered for admission to “test-optional” schools? Should students submit their test scores even though the school they are applying to is marked as “test-optional”?

While there is no one-size-fits-all answer, we would suggest taking the test and submitting your results if you score well. Especially if other parts of your educational record are below average compared to admitted students. However, bear in mind that many individuals will be carrying out this same strategy. Therefore, generally speaking, submitted scores will very likely be higher than they would have been if everyone was required to include their test scores.

So, when should be the answer “yes” to the “should I take the GRE if it’s optional” question?

You have a low GPA

Taking GRE is an important step for those applying to graduate school but who have a lower GPA. While your GPA may reflect academic performance in the past, the GRE can demonstrate your current aptitude and potential for success in graduate studies. While preparing for the GRE requires dedication, focus, and hard work, it could be a great way to show that you are committed to succeeding at graduate-level studies despite any challenges you faced in undergraduate education. Use this chance to prove yourself so that you don’t let your past GPA define you.

You have been out of school for a while

The GRE can be a great option for those who have been out of school for some time. If you are returning to higher education after some time spent honing your professional skills, the GRE can provide an opportunity to demonstrate your current skills and knowledge. The GRE often serves as a reliable way to demonstrate a student’s academic ability and potential to succeed in graduate-level studies regardless of the length of their break from formal education.

You’re applying to a quant-heavy program and don’t have relevant experience

The GRE can be a great tool to demonstrate quantitative aptitude and interest in quant-heavy graduate programs. Even if you do not have relevant academic or professional experience with quantitative coursework, the GRE is an excellent way to show schools that you are capable of performing well in these areas. The Quantitative Reasoning sections of the GRE provides an opportunity to prove your mettle in mathematics, data analysis, problem-solving, and other related skill sets. Moreover, many programs also accept scores from specific GRE Subject Tests as evidence of proficiency in certain fields like math, chemistry, or biology. So even if you don’t have background knowledge or experience in the subject area being assessed by the test(s), taking the GRE can demonstrate to schools that you are capable of learning and performing at a high level. It also shows graduate school admissions committees that you are truly passionate about the quant-heavy program you are applying for, which can make all the difference in determining your admittance into the program.

You are not 100% convinced your letters of recommendation will be outstanding

The answer to “should I take the GRE if it’s optional” should definitely a “yes” if you want to stand out from other applicants and make up for any potential shortcomings in your letters of recommendation. A great score can help bolster an application that may have weaker letters of recommendation or transcripts. If you are not certain about how strong or impactful your letters of recommendation will be, consider taking the GRE as a way to further increase your chances of success.

The program is competitive and you want to stand out

Taking the GRE before applying to graduate school is a great way for applicants to stand out from other applicants with similar GPA scores. It demonstrates that the applicant is willing to go above and beyond and invest time and energy into their education, which can make all the difference in admissions decisions.

When should you opt out of taking standardized tests?

As a rule, the affirmative is the best way to answer the “should I take the GRE even if’s optional” question. Why? Simply because it never hurts to find out about your own abilities. Showing that you are capable of academic success is essential, even for average applicants. To make it clear to the school that you can reach your full potential, performing well on one of these tests could be the difference between admittance and rejection.

Candidates with exemplary academic backgrounds and considerable professional experience don’t necessarily need to take the test to demonstrate their potential for success. However, taking it can be beneficial if they are also skilled at testing, as this could help them qualify for merit fellowships and further enhance their application.

Prospective candidates who are not strong test-takers and have lower academic transcripts than they would like often inquire what their best course of action is. A great way to demonstrate your academic capabilities is by completing additional graded courses in relevant topics, especially if you do not have other courses in your field.

Should you consider the GMAT instead?

While many quant-heavy programs now accept the GRE, many also present the GMAT as an option. Should you take the GRE or the GMAT?

You should take the GMAT if:

  • One or more of your prospective programs won’t accept the GRE score.
  • A more thorough look at the wording on your prospective school’s website reveals that, while they may accept GRE scores, it is not necessarily their top preference
  • Your scores on GMAT practice tests are consistently higher than your performance on GRE practice tests.

You should take the GRE if:

  • You’re either still in school or just graduated and feel prepared for another test.
  • You want to save your coins. The GRE is more wallet-friendly than its counterpart, has a wider range of international test centers available, and has an at-home option for those who prefer it.
  • Your practice GRE test scores are better than your practice GMAT test scores.

Ultimately, deciding which exam to take should depend on your performance in practice tests. If the GMAT has yielded you better scores than the GRE, then it stands as a clear choice. Weigh out all potential options and make an informed decision based on what makes the most sense for you and your academic/career goals.

Exam Prep Tips

Preparation for tests can vary from person to person. For example, some applicants establish a particular amount of prep time to get the best score possible, then use their results to choose the right program for them. Others start by selecting programs and deciding on an expected target score based on the program’s average. With this method, they tailor their studying towards achieving that goal; scheduling exams when practice test results are close enough to hit that specific mark. You can’t go wrong with either of these approaches, so find what works best for your particular situation.

Test prep options

You have numerous options when it comes to studying for standardized tests, and which one is right for you will depend on how you learn best and what areas of the test require more attention. For those who often feel anxious or overwhelmed while taking tests, preparation is essential.

When weighing your options, it is important to consider the type of score increase you are aiming for, how much money you can afford to spend, and what resonates with you best. If you want to see a small but noticeable improvement in your exam scores, self-studying may be enough. But if you’re aiming for a more substantial gain, then it’s best to dedicate plenty of time and look into professional courses or tutoring sessions.

  • Self-study is the perfect way to learn more, whether it be through classic reading materials or web-based aids like practice questions and exams.
  • With online courses, the learning process is systematic and comprehensive. Not only do they provide an abundance of self-guided study materials, exams, and quizzes to track progress but also incorporate captivating instructional videos as well as easy-to-follow guides.
  • If you’ve always been a better learner in an academic setting, then conventional test prep classes might be the best option for your needs.
  • Tutoring, whether it be in-person or virtual, could be the optimal option if you’re someone who responds best to one-to-one guidance, or if there are specific topics that require attention during your studying.

Regardless of the approach you elect to take, maintaining a consistent and determined study routine will help you achieve your desired objectives!

In conclusion

We hope you have found our insight into the decision-making process helpful and that it has helped you find an answer to the crucial “Should I take the GRE if it’s optional” question. Whether or not you take the GRE is ultimately up to you, as every person’s academic journey will differ.

No matter what, however, never forget to embrace the challenge of reaching your goals and let nothing stop you from being successful.

The best thing to do when trying to make a tough decision is always to reach out for advice and guidance. If you’re still unsure about taking the GRE or need more help with your graduate school applications, don’t be afraid to sign up for a free admissions consultation with us so that we can give our expert opinion on your specific situation.

Now that you know a bit more about what taking (or not taking) the GRE entails, get out there, show them what you’ve got, and crush whatever obstacle might stand between you and achieving success!

With a Master’s from McGill University and a Ph.D. from New York University, Philippe Barr is the founder of The Admit Lab. As a tenure-track professor, Philippe spent a decade teaching and serving on several graduate admission committees at UNC-Chapel Hill before turning to full-time consulting. With more than seven years of experience as a graduate school admissions consultant, Philippe has stewarded the candidate journey across multiple master’s and Ph.D. programs and helped hundreds of students get admitted to top-tier graduate programs all over the world.

Originally published at https://admit-lab.com on March 14, 2023.

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Philippe Barr, PhD

I am Philippe Barr, founder of The Admit Lab, a graduate school admissions consultancy that helps students get admitted into grad school: https://admit-lab.com/