Thursday, 26 September 2013

Applying to SAIS Europe: Standardized tests, bowls of porridge and more

Standardized tests: To take, or not to take.

That was one of the questions tackled during an online information session that Amina, current student Jenny Lu and I tackled today.

We are interested in two categories of standardized tests: English-language competency tests for non-native speakers on the one hand, and the GRE and GMAT on the other.


Non-native English speakers must submit the results of one of three competency exams as part of their application to SAIS. The three exams are the TOEFL, IELTS and the Cambridge Proficiency Exam.

For definitions of a native English speaker, you can review this document.
Nelson, Amina and Jenny during today's online information session
Note that if you are a non-native English speaker but have completed or are completing a full undergraduate program, taught in English, in a country where English is an official language, you do not have to submit the results of a competency test.

However, if your undergraduate institution is in a country where English is not an official language and you are a non-native speaker, you will have to submit the results of such a test.


All U.S. citizens applying to SAIS need to submit the results of either the GRE or GMAT. All non-U.S. citizens who want to start their studies at SAIS DC or who are open to starting in either DC or Bologna need to take either of the two tests.

Non-U.S. citizens who want to start their studies in Bologna do not have to take either the GRE or GMAT. However, we strongly recommend that candidates take one or the other. Why?
  • A relatively strong score can help one's application;
  • The results can address questions about a candidate's English and/or quantitative skills;
  • A relatively weak score can send a warning signal to both the candidate and the Admissions Committee.
Do keep in mind that the results of the GRE or the GMAT will very rarely make or break an application; they are part of a complex dossier that the Admissions Committee reads very carefully.

Here is a slide that we showed at today's session that captures the middle 50% range of scores submitted by this year's SAIS students. These ranges do not include the top 25% or the bottom 25%, and so they reflect the middle tier:

Thus, of the incoming students who took the GRE, 50% scored between 157 and 165 on the Verbal section, and between 153 and 161 on the Quantitative section.

To a certain extent, therefore, these are the average scores.

Last year we published a post on the GRE and GMAT exams that you might like to look at.

Here are some of the questions that came up during today's session:

Q: Should I submit my GRE scores if I had a strong Quantitative score and a weak Verbal score?
A: Our advice would be to take the exam again and submit those scores. If you feel that your Verbal score continues to be weak, you can address this issue in your statement of purpose.

Q: What if I took few quantitative courses in my undergraduate studies? Should I take either the GRE or GMAT?
A: If your application does not give an indication of your ability to handle quantitative work, you would be best to take either the GRE or GMAT. The Admissions Committee wants to make sure that SAIS students can handle the challenging economics courses that are required of all.

Q: Will it help my application if I already have a master's degree from elsewhere?
A: The Admissions Committee is keenly interested in the applicant's academic background. A master's degree, especially if it is relevant to what is taught at SAIS, could strengthen the candidate's hand. However, the Committee is looking for a range of skills, qualifications and experiences, and each candidate brings a different mix.

Q: How long should the letters of recommendation be?
A: Long enough to present as persuasive a case as possible as to why the candidate should study at SAIS and what the candidate would bring that is unique to SAIS. Letters that are too short beg questions; letters that are too long can strain credulity. It's a bit like Goldilocks and the bowls of porridge: not too long, not too short, just right.

Q: Would you accept three letters?
A: We ask for two letters. We would prefer two strong letters of recommendation to three weaker letters.

Q: Can a recommender submit a letter in Spanish?
A: We ask that all letters be submitted in English.

Q: How can I organize a one-on-one chat with SAIS Europe Admissions?
A: You can send an email to, call +39 051 29 17 811 or send a message through Skype via jhubc.admissions.

Q: Will you be offering an information session on the analytical essay?
A: Yes. Below is the schedule of upcoming sessions. If you are interested in participating in any of them, please send an email to, and we will send you the instructions for connecting.

- October 23 at 4 pm CET (1400 GMT) - statement of purpose
- November 26 at 10 am CET (0900 GMT) - letters of recommendation
- December 12 at 4 pm CET (1500 GMT) - analytical essay

We recorded today's information session. If you would like to view it, please send an email to, and we will send you the link.

Nelson Graves