By Chris Lele, February 2014
Getting into a school is the utmost priority—that’s the whole point of going through the application process. But you don’t have to play it conservative with all of the grad schools you apply to. Besides the extra few dollars it costs to apply, you should consider having a couple of dream schools, or, as they are commonly referred to, “reach schools”.
Well, technically speaking, a reach school isn’t quite the same as a dream school. By which I mean, don’t apply to Harvard just because you’ve always wanted to go there. If you have an undergraduate GPA of 3.1, an average GRE score for the 2014 class, and very little related work experience, Harvard will have to remain just that—a dream.
A reach school, by contrast, is one you may have a chance of getting into. Your scores may not be quite as competitive as those of most applicants. But you feel that you stand out in some area of your application and thus have a shot of getting in—even if it’s only a 15-20% chance.
Retaking the GRE
Your GRE isn’t everything when you apply. Indeed, it’s only a small part of your overall application. But if you are below the average for GPA for a reach school and your overall application isn’t as strong in other areas as you’d hoped, a very strong GRE score could signal that you are serious about grad school (most GRE scores for top programs are in the 160’s for both math and verbal).
If you are unsure of whether to take the GRE again, maybe assuming that the test is just an IQ test in disguise—a test in which supposedly you cannot improve—think again. The GRE is a very “study-able” test—we’ve seen a few students improve by almost a total of 30 points—you can do better. Improving your score may be a matter of using the best GRE books and the right study resources.
The Rest of Your Application
If you are unsure about applying to a reach school, that uncertainty might creep into the application process. The thing is, to a certain degree, you have some control over whether you get into a reach school, and some of that control is in how well you burnish your application. After all, you want to present yourself in the best possible light. Though we know students’ average scores for varying institutions, as provided by the U.S. News and World Reports, we never get to see their applications. Yet, I’m pretty confident that a well-crafted application, one that indicates that a lot of time and effort went into it, counts for a lot, too.
So the bottom-line: always apply to a reach school or two. Even if you don’t get in you know you tried; and if you do get in, you will be happy you made the effort.