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This is one question that has been bugging me for a long time now. Why do universities consider GRE/TOEFL scores at all? Perhaps it is fine for master's degrees, where there will be an enormous number of applicants whose language abilities cannot be otherwise established. But what is the necessity for a PhD degree? Why not zero in on a small group of candidates based on their profiles and then conduct a Skype interview? That way the professor gets to know both the verbal and the research potential of the student. Why isn't this the case for PhD admissions?

1 Answer 1

Firstly, not all schools place weight on GRE/TOEFL for PhD admissions. Some do, Some don't.

A publication and good grades but bad GREs/TOEFL does not immediately guarantee rejection. Nevertheless, I had done some research on this and here is what I learnt :


  • GRE (I talk about the old pattern, I have no clue about the new one) tested both Quantitative and Verbal aptitude along with the ability to write and analyze arguments.
  • Quant section is essentially a sanity check. A 780/800 or above indicated that the student has well founded basics and he is able to solve everyday math problems. This was meant to test only those parts of mathematics which everyone applying to graduate school does encounter. Thus, no Calculus or Linear Algebra. Universities find this score useful since it is a good indication of the mathematical basics of the student.
  • Verbal. This initially irritated me since I saw no benefit in testing my vocubalary for a technical PhD. But later, I learnt that the verbal section actually varies with IQ. There were numerous high IQ societies which gave out invitations on the basis of GREV marks. This is a comparison of the different high IQ socities with their GRE marks requirement. The GRE (together with Quant) was an instrument for checking IQ without making it too blatant. Here are a few citations:


from 5/94 to 9/30/01 (quantitative + verbal + analytic) 1875

Triple 9 Society :

Graduate Record Exam (GRE), combined verbal, quantitative, analytical (June 1994 through Sept 2001) : 2180

One in a Thousand Society :

GRE (verbal + math + analytical scores) 2180 (6/94 till 9/01)

Prometheus :

GRE (“old”): a score of 1610 on the “old” GRE (taken before October 1, 1981)

Personally, I think of all this as pseudo-nonsense but c'est la vi

  • The argument section is (arguably) the most useful for PhD admissions. The 2 parts (writing and analyzing) are along the lines of how one writes research papers. The writing sections teaches/tests for rigor in ones' arguments and requires that each statement be backed up appropriately. The analysis section tests the students ability to read "actively" just as how one would read a research paper. The question requires the student to point out flaws in the argument presented and the more the number of (realistic and nontrivial) flaws you find, the more you score. GRE tests students for critiquing general arguments such as building a new library since "the old one is far away from campus" and similar flawed arguments while in research a paper could state something similarly inane in that field.


Among Reading, Listening, Speaking and Writing, I think none of them are useful. Reading gets covered in the Comprehension questions in GRE (with a notch higher difficulty). Listening and Speaking are almost useless since it is fairly simple to memorize generic things to say and still get above the 24/30 marks threshold. Writing gets covered in the GRE as well (At higher difficulty). If the university needs to know if the candidate can speak good english, I think an interview is a good alternative or (as some universities seem to be tending to) IELTS is a good option since you actually interact with a examiner rather than recording answers for "The city you love most" to be evaluated later.

But, I Think TOEFL does filter out students with extremely poor English skills (beyond repair for the university), so it does help in spite of having overlaps with GRE and being inherently flawed (IMO).