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The GRE and IQ Comparison

Over the years, IQ has become a dirty word. Mention your IQ in polite conversation and you’re seen as showboating (depending on your IQ score and whom you are hanging out with), or as outright gauche (that’s like telling someone how much money, to the nearest dollar, you have in your bank account). Of course the reaction wouldn’t be too different from offhandedly mentioning your GRE score. Indeed the two have a similar history of elitism—some would even say racism.

But what really makes IQ unwelcome company in just about any social context is that the notion of a fixed score—a score no less encapsulating something as fundamental (and intimate) as intelligence—goes against the American ethos of self-improvement and general you-can-do-it-ism. To many, the number has the resounding finality of destiny, and that number follows a person around his entire life, like the mark of Cain or a prison number. Lucky are those who never took the test, or blithely forgot ever having done so.

Unlike an IQ test, which these days is administered only in settings to select for “special needs” children, the GRE is an inevitability for many. Yet sadly the idea of a fixed intelligence, or a number that consigns you to some box, hangs over the heads of many prepping for the GRE. I think that is unfortunate for the following reasons:

First point: The GRE is not the same as an IQ test. They are similar, depending on the IQ test you take. But the GRE, especially in its latest incarnation, tests your ability to work with words in context, take apart dense reading passages, and work with math skills most of us learn the first few years of high school. An IQ test, on the other hand, will ask you to unscramble words, figure out number sequences, and rearrange shapes.

Second point: Both your IQ score and your GRE score can improve. Yes, I’m taking the contrarian approach on this one. While to some the idea of an IQ score is inviolable and is as fixed as the orbit of Jupiter, I aim to explode this as a partial myth. An IQ test, like the GRE, aims to test one’s problem solving ability. As nebulous as that sound, that skill is, to some extent, teachable. And like any test, you can learn to become better by understanding the test, studying pertinent information, and, most importantly, practicing at the test. I’m not implying that everyone can get a perfect score on the GRE, or that everyone, with enough practice, can have an I.Q. of 180 and join Mensa, the high-IQ society (though you only need a 140 for such a distinction). What I’m saying is the number is not fixed but has a certain range, which depends on a number of factors.

What does this all mean for those prepping the GRE? Well, do not think of the GRE as an IQ test. Also, do not think of either test as bequeathing a fixed score that purports to measure this slippery concept we call intelligence. Whether intelligence is fixed is another matter. However, both tests are, to an extent, learnable. Of course, I’m guessing you are reading this post because you are intent on getting more than just a “mediocre” median GRE score. You can go ahead and start practicing at getting better at taking IQ tests. But I don’t think it’s going to help you much on the GRE. And I surely wouldn’t mention either number—fixed or not—in casual conversation.

For an alternate take on standardized tests and IQ correlation, check out Mike’s blog comparing GMAT to IQ.