Editorial: Breaking the link between grad school and the GRE

Universities should consider a more holistic approach when it comes to graduate school admissions.

With the semester over and summer officially upon us, recently graduated students are looking forward to the next chapter in their lives. For the vast majority of students, this includes running the interview circuit and tracking down that foot-in-the-door position that will hopefully lead to a lifelong dream career. For some, the next step after graduating college is to apply for college again — for graduate school.

Traditionally, entrance into graduate school requires the submission of several components like academic transcripts, a statement of purpose, two to three letters of recommendation and/or test scores from the Graduate Record Examination, also known as the GRE.

It’s not a secret that the GRE’s ability to equitably select students for admission to graduate school is under question. Several research studies have recently begun to take a closer look at the need for the GRE test for admittance into graduate school, with a 2014 article in Nature noting that past research indicated that the GRE is “poor at selecting the most capable students and severely restricts the flow of women and minorities into the sciences.”

Many people are critical of the GRE’s ability to indicate success in or out of graduate school and of whether or not it realistically keeps admissions open to all prospective students.

An increasing number of university life sciences departments and medical schools offering graduate degrees have decided to get rid of the GRE test score requirement that was previously required for admission to their programs — including the University of Minnesota.

Katie Langin of Science, a premier peer-reviewed academic journal, gathered data for Ph.D application requirements at 50 of the highest ranked U.S. research universities, finding that of the programs that did not require GRE scores in 2018, 44 percent were molecular biology, followed by neuroscience and ecology at 35 percent and 29 percent, respectively.

These findings beg the question of whether additional graduate programs — such as those in the physical sciences or liberal arts — should, or will, follow suit.

Indicators of success are top priorities for graduate admission committees when deciding on prospective graduate students for their programs and are found through gathering as much data as possible through tests such as the GRE. But are those test scores an accurate depiction of success compared to other elements of the application materials?

Students deserve an answer.

Indicators of Success and Holistic Reviewing

The Educational Testing Service, which creates and administers the GRE, offers several guidelines on their website regarding the use of GRE test scores in the graduate admissions process. The guidelines recommend having numerous sources of information in admission decision-making processes and say GRE scores are not perfect measures of students’ academic capabilities.

Of course, all measures of academic knowledge inherently possess some error of measurement, including all other application materials. But despite not having a perfect measure, graduate admissions committees should be engaging in a process that considers all application materials they receive.

We should not assume that graduate admissions committees disregard all application materials except GRE scores or that there is more emphasis put on test scores. However, some graduate admissions committees have strict cutoffs for GRE scores that deter students from applying, despite potentially having other qualifications. Getting rid of strict GRE standards would open opportunities for more students to apply that could have scored either low on or below a graduate program’s threshold, especially those belonging to underrepresented groups.

Moving Forward

To be clear, we are not condemning the use of GRE test scores or the graduate programs that still require them for admission. It would be academically irresponsible to continue the process that seemingly expects the GRE to be a perfect one-size-fits-all test. Among the seemingly innumerable amount of applicants that graduate programs nationwide receive every year, it is understandable to want to incorporate a standard, objective measure into the review process in addition to other application materials.

For graduate program admissions decisions, too much weight should not be placed on student data obtained from the GRE. We should be encouraging discussion around the usefulness of GRE test scores and advocating for admissions committees to practice a more holistic approach when reviewing students who’ve spent their time and money applying to the program.