Oh, and by the Way, Your GRE Math Score Doesn't Matter

Readers of this blog who are thinking of Ph.D. studies are not likely heading into programs requiring mathematical prowess. (If you are, however, heading into a quantitative program, good for you! My wife likes calculus so much she took it as her one elective course in her undergraduate degree in physiotherapy. Just to relax.)

So, non-mathematical types, don’t bother spending one minute or dollar preparing for the Math portion of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE). A bad score won’t hurt you and a stellar score won’t help you. What matters (unlike the SAT or ACT) is your Verbal score and your Writing score–since (duh) those are the zones pertinent to what you’re going to do in religious/theological studies.

I’ve checked this advice with friends who teach at Yale, Duke, Notre Dame, Chicago, and elsewhere. So I’m pretty confident it’s reliable–although if you know differently, please sound off below!

Since you can’t read that advice officially anywhere and yet pretty much “everybody knows” that’s the case, I thought you ought to know it, too.

0 Responses to “Oh, and by the Way, Your GRE Math Score Doesn't Matter”

  1. Jonny

    I would make an important nuance here. Some schools list the combined GRE score they desire to see. 1200-1300 is common.

  2. Steve

    I think this really depends on the program. I also think that humanities don’t care about GREs that much. To relate this to my experience, I scored well enough in verbal but bombed the math (though I did consistently well on the practice tests leading up to the actual exam day.) I applied to several programs, was accepted to two. Now I’m at the University of California Santa Barbara’s religious studies.

    Now GREs may affect whether you get funding or not. So that’s the thing to look out for.

  3. Alejandro Escalante

    A professor of mine (who did his PhD under A-Y Collins at Norte Dame) told me almost the opposite. He advised me that the math section is as important because it helps the school “rate” how logical of a thinker you are and your ability to complete the PhD program.

  4. Ross Banister

    This is really funny now as I remember the anxiety 38 years ago applying for my seminary with a math score that reflected only 16% of others scored less.

  5. Michael

    Wheaton’s BTS PhD program is GRE competitive. They publish what the GRE scores are for their lucky few who make it and it looks as though I’ll be doing Math GRE prep work 🙁

    • John Stackhouse

      Check with Wheaton again. I spoke with Professor Treier there today and he doesn’t recognize the situation you’re describing. Instead, he told me that they look hard at the verbal and writing scores, not the math ones, and that everyone who is accepted gets the same funding.

      • Michael

        Dr. Stackhouse, thank you very much. I had actually emailed Treier myself earlier today (before reading your comment) about matriculation academic demands.

        Also received a notice from my college today that they want me to do the GRE as well (previously they did not).

        Unusual day!

  6. Robert

    I too have heard mixed points on this. For instance as another poster mentioned some schools look comprehensively at your score and some consider a strong quantitative GRE score as a logical thinker.

    For my applications I took the GRE and MAT and submitted both for schools I was applying to just in case. My verbal on my GRE was rather high, over 600 I think (it’s been a while), and my quantitative was meager (I’m a theologian, not a mathematician.) What made a significant difference, I was told by three schools, was that I got a 6 on my writing score. Combing these with a strong MAT let me find the best school and have options about my doctorate.

    If I were advising a humanities student now, I’d encourage them to really work on their verbal and written scores. The qualitative is helpful but not overly burdensome for your efforts. Work those word lists and nail the style writing they are looking for, that is a key. Then have a slam-dunk research sample as part of your application.

    Great post!

  7. KC Flynn

    For what its worth, it matters at Baylor University for at least one important reason: funding. Baylor has a generous “baseline” stipend that every PhD student (at least in Religion) receives. However, the Graduate School adds what they call a “bonus” to each student’s stipend, up to $6,000. This is based SOLELY on cumulative GRE score. So it matters quite a bit!

  8. D C Cramer

    I second what my Baylor colleague KC says above. Baylor (and other like schools, I’m sure) like to post their combined scores and rate them against other schools or previous classes. (I’ve been in multiple venues where the graduate school has made a big deal about the strength of its combined GRE scores and what it says about the caliber of students entering each year.) It’s true that the verbal is most important for theology (and other humanities), but if a good math score pushes your combined over 1400 or so, it certainly doesn’t hurt (for acceptance and funding). And, strangely, I never hear anything mentioned about the writing section scores–presumably because applicants usually submit a writing sample with their application. That said, the math section on the GRE only covers high school math, so spending 6 months on the verbal and 2 weeks cramming for the math section is still probably your best bet.

  9. John Stackhouse

    Thanks for these comments, friends. I am investigating further. I seems to me patently stupid to attach any meaning at all to “combined GRE scores”–even as it is highly problematic to do the same thing with SAT scores. (I’ve been dubious for a long time about SATs, GREs, and the like. I did very well in such testing and yet friends whose scores were significantly lower have gone on to highly productive careers while a few people I know whose scores were in the same range as mine have not.)

    As if it makes sense for students trying to go forward in the humanities to backward to high school math to improve their Math GRE scores! Insane. It certainly cannot possibly correlate with “logical reasoning” or the like.

    So when smart people do stupid things, one looks for alternative explanations. Hoping that the people I have just written to will assure me that their schools do not attach such significance to Math scores, I can guess that if they do it’s because it is bureaucratically so much easier to make decisions this way: quicker (no deliberation: one score is higher than another), politically calmer (no professor has to get mad at another professor for getting more money for her student), and legally unquestionable (no lawsuits from students who don’t get as much aid as others). But boy, is it ever dumb to do it this way. I surely hope they don’t…!

    I’ll report back what I find out. In the meanwhile, sound off if you have something to add, please.

  10. Joel

    Thanks for this. I’d sure like to think this is true. I feel fairly confident about verbal/writing sections, but my tremendous inadequacy in the math department is one major factor that has kept me from tackling the GRE. (Its been twelve years since I’ve taken a math class–to say I’m “rusty” is putting it kindly (it seems to presume that I was once good at it!).
    If a potential applicant were to ask a school of interest, what are the chances of getting an honest answer?


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