GRE: Just How Important Is it?

We’ve been writing about PA school admissions for more than fouryears now, and we were a little embarrassed to realize the other day that we’ve never written specifically about the importance of the Graduate Requisite Exam.  So just how important is the GRE?  First, it’s important to have a little background.

What is the GRE?

The GRE is a computerized exam that was developed by a private company called the Educational Testing Service (ETS).  ETS created the test to sell to graduate schools as an equalizing factor in their admissions process.  Interestingly, though it was sold to graduate schools as the standard, it is paid for by the test takers.  The idea is that from school to school, the quality and difficulty of college education varies widely.  This is no surprise, as we all know that an A from an Ivy League school is worth much more than an A from a lesser school.  In fact, the GRE was originally introduced to reduce the effects of grade inflation, the tendency for grades for comparable work to increase over time.

The test is supposed to evaluate test-takers’ ability to perform verbal and mathematical reasoning and to write in essay format.

Does the GRE Matter in PA School Admissions?

The answer here is easy.  “It depends.”

Think of the GRE as a data point that PA schools have for each student.  They can’t really compare students directly based on that one data point alone – that would be too arbitrary to be useful.  So GRE scores become part of a list of factors on which applicants are judged.  So the question becomes: how highly is the GRE valued in the admissions process?

In most cases, not that much.

Here’s why:

  • The GRE is a measurement of a student’s performance at one point in time on a very specific set of criteria.
  • The skills measured by the GRE (verbal and mathematical reasoning), though very general, are very artificial.  As a PA, you don’t sit around answering questions on a computer all day.  Research has shown that it is a poor measure of an applicant’s intelligence, study skills, persistence, graduate school performance or completion, subject knowledge, or eventual clinical skill.
  • With practice, anyone can improve their GRE scores.  ETS now lets you take the test every 30 days if you choose to.  Remember that ETS is a business?  You pay them $185+ every time, and that doesn’t include the money they make on study materials for their own test.  Why would you evaluate a group of people using a method that didn’t assure that everyone had the same amount of practice at the task?
  • Students can now select which score(s) to send to graduate programs, so there is a huge incentive for students to repeat the test until they are happy with their scores.  This means more money for ETS, and less validity to GRE scores.

When you put all these together, in our opinion, the GRE is rarely, if ever, make-or-break for any PA school applicant.

computerized testWhen the GRE Matters Most

  • When you have consistently low grades in either math and/or English.  Here, good scores show that despite your weak grades, you are still capable in these areas.
  • When you apply to a program that has a huge number of applicants.  Here the GRE is a time saver for schools; it’s a quick way to reduce volume of applications to consider for interviews.
  • When you have particularly low scores.  This can call your academic ability into question with admissions committees.

What to do about the GRE

  1. Think ahead.  Plan to take the exam well in advance of when you will submit your application.  This will give you time to prepare and time to retake it if you choose to.
  2. Take a practice test.  Make sure it’s as close to the real thing as you can.  Time it for 3 hours and 45 minutes and take breaks when you would if you were taking it for real.
  3. Assess your areas of weakness based on your practice test results.
  4. If you are scoring below the 50th percentile, you have work to do.  Get a good GRE test prep book and start practicing on your weak areas.  If you’re well below the 50th percentile, consider a test prep course, such as Kaplan, Princeton Review, or Magoosh.
  5. For most PA school applicants, being somewhat better than 55th percentile (310 total) is good enough.  Once you’re there, be done with the GRE.  Busting your hump for 60% is probably not going to move you into the accept pile if you aren’t there already.


The GRE isn’t a great indicator of anything.  It’s yet another hoop you need to jump through to get into PA school.  Once you can show that you’re somewhat better than average, you’ve completed the hoop and you can pour your time into more important application factors, such as your CASPA essay and your health care experience hours.

We’ll be writing more on the GRE – let us know what you what to know about it…


  • Rina January 26, 2013, 6:58 pm

    This is great information, thank you for posting. What are your thoughts on PA schools that don’t require the GRE versus schools that do? I’ve noticed certain schools that have higher expectations within areas such as the number is health car experience hours and higher course grades whereas required programs have less. Thanks!

    • Paul January 29, 2013, 10:35 pm

      If I understand you correctly, the schools with higher GPA and hours requirements are less likely to require the GRE. I haven’t looked at this. If it’s true, it’s because some schools use the GRE to try to intuit your strength as a student in the case that your grades aren’t stellar. If they are going to select a candidate with lower grades, they would like to see higher test scores, thinking that they indicate your academic potential. It isn’t great logic, but it is what it is. It may also represent a way for schools that accept less competitive candidates to deter excessive numbers of applications. Usually when the acceptance standards are lower, they get overwhelmed with huge numbers of applications.

      • Rina February 11, 2013, 5:03 pm

        Makes sense, thank you! Apologies for the previous poorly written post.

  • Alix January 31, 2013, 8:20 am

    Unless things have changed since I last took the test in June 2012, I believe that if you choose to cancel your scores (they give you this option at the end of the test) you have to wait 60 days to retake it. And if you choose to cancel them, you don’t get to see how you did. I am really not a fan of ETS, argh. At least the new version of the GRE is slightly less ridiculous and arcane than the version I took to get into grad school the first time around, but it’s still completely irrelevant as a measure of how well you’ll do in PA school, IMHO.

  • Spencer February 16, 2013, 12:04 pm

    Do you know of any schools that accept the GMAT in place of the GRE?

    • Paul February 16, 2013, 10:12 pm

      Sadly, after a search of my database, no, there do not appear to be any schools that will accept the GMAT. The GMAT is (for those who don’t know) a pre-graduate exam for management professions. The tests that are required or allowed by all of the programs are listed below. Schools require different combinations of them, or even none at all.

      • GRE (Graduate Requisite Exam) The most common test required
      • MCAT (Medical College Admission Test) Sometimes by itself, but usually as an optional alternative to the GRE)
      • SAT – (Scholastic Aptitude Test) for undergrads
      • ACT – (American College Testing) also for undergrads, usually as an alternative to the SAT
      • MAT (Miller Analogies Test) Only required by Southern Illinois University with the GRE
      • TOEFL (Test of English Language Proficiency) For non-native English speakers
      • APIEL (Advanced Placement International English Language examination) An alternative to the TOEFL accepted/required by some schools.
  • Shar March 6, 2013, 6:09 pm

    What are some of the best GRE test prep materials? Does it matter?

    • Paul March 10, 2013, 10:17 am

      There are several excellent companies that provide GRE test prep. You can take a course for $500-$5000 depending on how much supervision you are needing, or you can do it your own with some of the GRE prep materials, such as Kaplan and Princeton Review books. These are cheap and will provide you with a feel for the tests. Leave yourself 3 months or more to study for the GRE if you really need to crush it. We will be doing an article on GRE prep in the near future, so stay with us…

  • Laurel August 18, 2014, 7:25 pm

    Hi. I just thought I would give everyone a heads up on my experience. I took the GRE a couple of months ago. Since then I have received several spam emails and letters from other schools saying they thought I’d be interested in their program based on the information they received from my GRE scores. None of these have been PA schools by the way. It would seem that ETS sold my information. I have applied this year and believe me, every time I get an email or a letter with the word Admissions on it, my heart skips a beat. But then it sinks realizing its not from a school I applied to. I am not sure if I missed a check box saying keep my information private or not but be on the look out for one when you take it.

  • Brooks August 19, 2014, 6:21 am

    Is it still possible to be a competitive applicant with scores below the 50th percentile?

    • Paul August 29, 2014, 4:57 pm

      Competitive is a relative term. I will say that many students who apply have scores under 50%. Higher is more competitive, but you should be able to tell from this article that we do not believe GRE scores are a very strong factor in admissions. This means that you can get in with weaker scores — it just depends on how you put the rest of your application together.

  • Amanda August 20, 2014, 6:45 am


    First, thank you so much for this article! I am eager to see your future publications regarding this subject matter. My question for you pertains more towards the CASPA and submission of GRE scores. I am currently a college senior and will be taking a year or two off after graduation this Spring to earn my medical assistant certification, and to collect my direct patient care hours. I would like to take the GRE while I am still an undergrad as my university offers free GRE tutoring for students. Do I have to submit my scores to CASPA when I take the GRE this year? Or, can I wait and submit them when I start my application in a year or two? Also, do scores ever expire?

    Thank you for your time!

    • Paul August 29, 2014, 5:14 pm

      According to the GRE website:
      How long are GRE scores valid?

      GRE scores are valid for five years after the testing year in which you tested (July 1–June 30).

      So if you’re sure you won’t be away from the PA school applications process for more than that length of time, you should be fine to take them now and apply later.

  • Jen September 16, 2014, 12:02 am

    Thank you for the information included in the article! I took the GRE and received a competitive Verbal/Quantitative Score based on the criteria you outline above, but didn’t do so well on the Written score (I received a 3 – which placed me in the 15th percentile). Is there value placed on the written score? Also, is there greater value placed on either the Verbal or Quantitative Scores? I’m just curious if I should plan to retake it. Thank you in advance for any guidance!

    • Paul September 17, 2014, 8:25 pm

      I think if you have time you might do well to retake it. The written can be improved with practice. They need to know that you can write reasonably well.

  • kacy Christopher October 2, 2014, 12:44 am

    Is there a free pretest for the GRE?


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