Illustration by Yuree Chang

Topical Science: GRE Scores and Graduate School Success

Why top schools are no longer requiring or allowing scores to be sent in from graduate school aspirants.

Apr 19, 2020

The GRE — Graduate Record Examinations — is a standardized test for graduate school applicants. Requiring nearly four hours, the test demands ample preparation and allows graduate school aspirants from all disciplines to prove their merit.
Some major universities and research institutions have been doing away with the GRE in the admissions process. The prestigious National Science Foundation stopped requiring the GRE in 2010 for its Graduate Research Fellowship Program. Since then, many other universities have either made the GRE optional or disallowed it from admissions processes altogether. University of Michigan’s Program in Biomedical Sciences dropped the requirement for the 2018-2019 admissions cycle. Princeton University eliminated the GRE from [14 graduate programs],( ranging from Classics to Molecular Biology, in 2019. This decision was made in an effort to diversify the applicant pool and make the application process more holistic. Brown University also allowed departments to decide whether the GRE should be required for applicants in the fall of 2019. There is a trend of “GRExit” in the biomedical sciences — an analysis of the 50 top-ranked US research universities from the Journal of Science showed that 44% of molecular biology programs did not require the GRE as of 2018 and the number has increased since.
An early proponent of the so-called GRExit push was Joshua Hall from University of South Carolina Chapel Hill, who curates a list of biomedical programs that do not require the GRE.
Why are top-tier programs in the biomedical sciences no longer requiring this time-tested barrier for graduate school admission?
The problem comes down to what the test is actually measuring. Hema Nair, STEM Graduate School Advisor of the NYU Abu Dhabi Career Development Center, notes that the GRE certainly helps compare applicants within the applicant pool. Graduate schools have a multitude of competencies they would like to test in their prospective students and the GRE is just one quantitative evaluation to tie to an applicant.
So what does it actually measure?
Some argue that the GRE is measuring students’ access to resources. The test is 200 dollars each time you take it, which can be a serious financial burden on students. This can make for an unlevel playing field, given that some applicants can afford to retake the test many times in order to obtain a high score.
GRE scores are a strong predictor of the test taker’s race and gender. According to the ETS, women score 80 points less than men and African Americans score 200 points lower than White Americans on the quantitative section of the test.
Many of the arguments in favor of the test’s removal focus on the validity of its prediction of graduate school success. A 2014 study carried out by ETS, the company that develops the GRE, showed that the test has substantial value and is a good predictor of graduate school grades. Another study, carried out by affiliates of Vanderbilt University, focused on the predictive success of the GRE in biomedical graduate programs, showed the opposite effect. There are several ways that the study defined “success,” but found that the GRE was not useful in predicting whether or not a student would attain a PhD, pass their qualifying exams or publish more first author papers, among other factors. Another study investigating a biomedical cohort from UNC Chapel Hill saw that the GRE was an “ineffective predictor tool” and that letters of recommendation were a much better indication of success.
There are some issues with these studies because they were done on accepted cohorts and thus may skew the data to include only higher scoring individuals, excluding those applicants that were not admitted into programs due to lower GRE test scores.
Research in other disciplines such as psychology, physics and nursing has shown similar trends. The GRE was not shown to be predictive of success and presented a barrier for application.
The GRE can be a helpful quantitative analysis of a student, but the usage of it in graduate admissions committees is not always carefully considered. It is easy for busy faculty to simply sort applications by GRE scores and only look at some past a certain threshold, a practice that is a violation of the guidelines set by the test developers, ETS.
The GRE can be helpful in determining the test-taking skills of applicants, but this may prove to be unhelpful in disciplines that are more research-focused. The biases that are inherent in standardized testing can be devastating to candidates who are innovative, adventurous and creative in thought and research. These qualities are paramount for graduate students who embark upon their own research project.
Academia has never been traditionally inclusive, but strong actions that increase access are a step in the right direction. Since most of the GRE optional decisions are by program or department instead of the university itself, you have to go to the specific requirement page for each application. Disbanding the GRE has become as much about the test itself as it is a testament to a program’s commitment to inclusion — at least in the biomedical sciences.
Kit Palmer is a columnist. Email her at
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