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Graduate departments move away from GREs

9 July 2020

The kinds of concerns that are driving schools to disregard test scores during the pandemic have inspired some graduate programs to make permanent changes.

GRE prep books.
Study guides for the GRE fill a shelf in a bookstore. Credit: David Tonelson/

In 1984 Raja GuhaThakurta did so well on one of his Graduate Record Examinations (GREs) that he believes the score alone got him into the graduate school of his dreams. Yet now, as chair of the department of astronomy and astrophysics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, he’s advocating a move away from using the tests to evaluate applicants.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, GuhaThakurta’s department has joined those at schools including Harvard, Cornell, and Caltech in temporarily dropping the requirement of both the general GRE and the GRE subject test in physics (PGRE). And the UC Santa Cruz program is considering making that move permanent, thereby joining the roster of graduate departments that have opted over the past few years to make the tests optional or to prohibit applicants from submitting them. The GRExit movement has been fueled by concerns that the tests lead to inequity in the admissions process and that they do not predict success in graduate school.

An analysis by Science last year found that physics departments at the 50 top-ranked US universities have been among the slowest to drop the GRE. However, more recent estimates suggest that around half of physics and astronomy schools in the US have now either dropped the GRE and PGRE or made them optional.

The general GRE is a nearly four-hour-long test that contains multiple-choice and written questions testing quantitative, writing, and verbal skills. It has been a requirement of graduate admissions at American and Canadian universities since the 1950s. The Educational Testing Service (ETS), the nonprofit firm that administers the GREs, also offers subject tests, including the 170-minute PGRE.

It’s especially important to drop consideration of GRE scores during the pandemic, says Ambika Mathur, who has studied the tests. She is the dean of the graduate school and a vice provost at the University of Texas at San Antonio, which in April dropped the GRE requirement temporarily. Although the ETS has made it possible for students to take tests at home due to closures of testing centers, Mathur notes that some candidates may live in crowded homes and share computers with several people. “Finding a quiet place to take a test [at home] is not an option for a lot of people,” she says. “Why disadvantage those excellent students who weren’t able to do well for reasons beyond their control?”

Andrew Goodliffe, associate dean for graduate admissions, recruitment, and fellowships at the University of Alabama, agrees. His university announced in March that 95% of its departments, including physics and astronomy, have temporarily waived graduate entry tests for 2020 and 2021. He notes that the exams are expensive, costing just over $200 for the general GRE and $150 for the PGRE. “At a time when a lot of people are losing their jobs, the last thing they want to do is splash out hundreds of dollars on this,” Goodliffe says.

Cost is just one reason that over the past few years graduate departments and schools have permanently stopped requiring GRE scores. Several studies have suggested that GRE scores are poor indicators of success in graduate school, including a 2017 paper that found no correlation between general GRE scores and the number of first-author manuscripts a biomedical student produces, or between scores and the length of time it takes to complete a degree.

Mathur previously led a successful effort as graduate school dean at Wayne State University in Michigan to scrap the GREs. Results of a pilot project there suggest there is no difference in student performance and the rate of dissertation completion between those who started graduate programs after taking the GREs and those who began without taking it. “To me,” Mathur says, “the GRE is an artificial barrier, keeping very deserving students out of doctoral training.”

That the GRE often plays a prominent role in the admissions process yet doesn’t necessarily predict future success can disadvantage underrepresented groups in STEM fields. Data from the ETS show that on average, women score lower on the general GRE than men, and African Americans score lower than white candidates.

Another shortcoming is that the GREs are given in English only, which can hinder students who have a different first language, says Adam Burgasser, a physicist at the University of California, San Diego, who coauthored a paper calling for astronomy and astrophysics programs to drop GRE requirements. (See also “Why astronomy programs are moving on from the physics GRE,” Physics Today Online, 31 March 2017.)

It’s easy for faculty to introduce arbitrary thresholds on standardized tests without considering the inequities they may hold, Burgasser says. Goodliffe agrees: “If you’re going to do admissions properly, you have to look at the whole student. You have to do a full, holistic evaluation of the application.” He says discarding GREs has already resulted in a “massive surge” in applications to Alabama from underrepresented groups, including Black and Latinx candidates.

Some research has found that candidates who achieve higher GRE scores generally attain better grades in their first semester of graduate school. David Payne, vice president and chief operating officer of global higher education at the ETS, says the GREs are not perfect, but “extensive efforts” are made to make sure they are fair and reliable.

In response to claims that dropping the GREs leads to a surge in applications from underrepresented groups, Payne cites a 2014 study that examined the undergraduate population at schools where SAT exams are not required. The study found that universities that made SAT scores optional between 1992 and 2010 didn’t enroll more students from underrepresented backgrounds.

Goodliffe and Mathur plan to track student performance data while their schools temporarily stop looking at GRE scores. Goodliffe says he’d be surprised if his school’s physics department has a GRE requirement in two years. Without it, “I am confident that they can get better-quality students and a more diverse student body.”

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