Why Are We Holding Onto the GRE?

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is a standardized test taken by many aspiring graduate students. In fact, until very recently, the GRE test was required nearly universally for admission to US graduate programs. Much like the forms of standardized testing used in undergraduate admissions, GRE scores are often used predominantly with a cutoff to separate the wheat from the chaff, as it were (or as numeric metrics to directly compare candidates, although the administrators of the GRE advise against this).

In my own academic department, the GRE is required, with “desired” scores that are equal to the current mean test scores. This means that 50% of people have scored lower than the desired cutoff, per category, and if we don’t assume that every person who scored poorly in verbal reasoning scored poorly in mathematical reasoning and vice versa, that means that more than 50% of applicants are, at the very least, being told that their test scores are undesirable. So what are these scores actually measuring? What’s so bad about the students below this cutoff that we’re telling them they’re not wanted?

Well, research on the predictive power of the GRE scores hasn’t been particularly promising. The GRE doesn’t predict academic or career success in the short- or long-term, aside from a small correlation with first-semester grades. It seems likely, then, that the GRE measures test-taking or study skills typical of intro courses rather than skills that are essential for the majority of graduate education or academic life. The much more consistent trend is that women and minority students score systematically worse, making it a stumbling block for members of those groups.

Thankfully, some academic departments are starting to move towards more holistic hiring approaches using things like portfolios. Virginia Tech’s graduate school no longer requires GRE test scores for admission. But many individual departments still do.

I don’t think it’s enough to waive the GRE scores listed on your application that are telling half of your potential applicants (more than half of underrepresented students) that they aren’t your first choice. I don’t think it’s enough even if you do waive it every time, because not every student will feel confident enough to apply anyways–often having to spend money to do so. In fact, I think it’s foolish to assume this won’t select for those overconfident or well-off enough to spend money applying for a school that seems out of reach, and that this in turn won’t further exacerbate inequality in admissions.

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