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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.


8 Responses to The GRE and IQ Comparison

  1. John August 13, 2013 at 3:04 am #

    Chris – thanks for all of the valuable blog posts.

    I understand the point you are trying to make in the above article. With practice you can greatly improve your GRE score. I completely agree.

    I just have an issue with your IQ analogy “An IQ test, like the GRE, aims to test accrued knowledge (knowledge we gain over time).” This statement is completely inaccurate.

    An IQ score does not test accrued knowledge. It tests someone’s innate ability to problem solve. Thus the reason it is typically tested at a young age. Dustin Hoffman’s character in the movie Rain Man was based on Kim Peek who was considered a mega-savant – yet his IQ was below 87. Look him up on You Tube if you are not familiar with him. Very impressive memory, but he could not apply his knowledge to solve problems the way a person with an average IQ does. I’m pretty sure he could do well on many aspects of the GRE, simply because he could memorize most questions that could be tested. He may not understand the answer, but he would know the answer. Similar to many students knowing the square root of 144 = 12, yet if asked what the square root of 196 is they won’t have a clue. Maybe a better example would be naming prime numbers. You and I could calculate a longer list of prime numbers than him, but if given a list of every known prime number he could literally memorize the list in a matter of minutes. He memorizes at the speed he reads.

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele August 13, 2013 at 11:51 am #

      Hi John,

      That’s a good point–what I said is incorrect, to a degree. What I should have said was that the problem solving skills on an IQ test are to some extent teachable (if you practice, you get better). I shouldn’t have said that doing well on an IQ test is simply a matter of accrued knowledge, a claim that is mostly false (Some verbal measures of IQ will test your vocabulary capacity (which does rely on accrued knowledge). Though many measures of verbal IQ test asks things like unscrambling yulovacrab to find a common word.)

      Mentioning Kim Peek is apt, as his life starkly shows how IQ score and sheer mnemonic prowess are not the same thing (I’ve read up on Kim Peek in the past, and was surprised to learn that he didn’t have autism, but some rare growth in his brain as a child. Some much for Hollywood faithfully representing reality :)).

      Anyhow, thanks for catching me on that inaccuracy :). I’ll edit the post so that it focuses more on the teachable (to some degree) aspect of problem solving (both on an IQ test and on the GRE) and less on how accrued knowledge relates to an IQ test.

      • John August 13, 2013 at 2:26 pm #

        Hi Chris – That makes a bit more sense. I think we can train areas of our brain to perform better, similar to improving a physical reflex (hitting a baseball) can be improved.

        Playing video games, or utilizing brain games (like those at can lead our brains to adapt by creating more neural synapses. But I’m not sure they can drastically change our innate intelligence or IQ score. On the other hand, I’m confident Kim Peeks could memorize most items tested on IQ tests and achieve a near perfect score.

        I’ve read a couple interesting articles on about IQ and Working Memory. I think you’ll find them interesting:

        General IQ scores ranged from 108 to 142 points (an average score is 100). While all prodigies were intelligent, researchers concluded that extreme IQ was not a determinant.

        Take care,

        • Chris Lele
          Chris Lele August 15, 2013 at 10:32 am #

          Hi John,

          Thanks for sharing those articles–they are illuminating. I don’t think one can change his or her innate intelligence (after all, it is innate) but I do think one can change their IQ score quite significantly, only because an IQ score is an attempt at measuring innate intelligence but is not the same thing. And that’s the whole Luminosity paradigm: train your brain–constrained though it may be by innate capabilities–and boost your IQ.

          I had a student a few years back, during the old GRE, which was accepted by Mensa as a valid IQ test (I don’t think the current one is conferred such an august status). When she first came to me she was scoring around 800. I worked with her over the course of almost 2 years, as she diligently went through the big book tests five times (that’s 135 GRE tests in all!). By the end of our session, she had transformed. She had become highly analytical and eloquent. She also ended up scoring around 1400 out of 1600. I’m not sure what the exact IQ change is but she she is probably going from 105 to about 130. Pretty crazy.

          Thanks again for the articles :)!

          • John August 15, 2013 at 6:36 pm #

            Hi Chris,

            Impressive story about your former student. She obviously put in a lot of hard work and the results showed – both in her GRE and improved IQ scores. Its encouraging to know its possible. Now I just have to apply that same methodology. 🙂

            • Chris Lele
              Chris Lele August 16, 2013 at 1:16 pm #

              Good luck, John! And let me know if you have any questions along the way :).

  2. Amey Deo July 2, 2013 at 7:06 am #

    I’m sure of this that even if I read all the posts written by Chris. That will be enough for GRE verbal preparation. 🙂

    That is if you confident about GRE Quant.. 🙂

    Thanks Chris!! Keep blogging.. 🙂

    • Chris Lele
      Chris Lele July 2, 2013 at 10:59 am #

      Thanks for your positive words :)!

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