Science examined Ph.D. application requirements for eight disciplines at 50 top-ranked US research universities. The life sciences have led the so-called GRExit push: In 2018, 44% of molecular biology Ph.D. programs stopped requiring GRE scores. That number will rise to at least 50% for the 2019-2020 application cycle. In neuroscience and ecology, roughly one-third of programs dropped the GRE requirement between 2016 and 2018, and more plan to do so this year. The movement has yet to take hold in some disciplines—more than 90% of the chemistry, physics, geology, computer science, and psychology Ph.D. programs that were surveyed by Science required general GRE scores in 2018. But a few programs in those fields have also joined the exodus.
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Joshua Hall, director of graduate admissions for the biological and biomedical science program at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, said:
It’s such a time of flux right now.
Hall keeps a list of life science programs that don’t require GRE scores. A year ago, only a handful of institutions were on his list; now there are 74. One impetus for the change, he says, was a 2017 decision by the University of Michigan’s biomedical sciences graduate program to stop requiring GRE scores in 2018. Many others have followed suit since then, fearing that that they would miss out on applicants if they required the GRE.
GRE supporters say the change is misguided. They say the recent studies that have questioned the GRE’s value are flawed and that it remains a useful predictor. And although schools have other tools for comparing prospective students—such as grades, recommendation letters, and research experience—few are as convenient as the GRE.
The GRE test as a predictor of success
Hall authored a 2017 study showing that for 280 graduate students in his program, GRE scores were not correlated with the number of first-author papers the students published or how long it took them to complete their degree. A study published in tandem with Hall’s, looking at 495 biomedical Ph.D. students at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, found that applicants with higher GRE scores tended to get better grades in their first-semester grad courses. But GRE scores did not predict which students passed their qualifying exams or graduated, how long they spent in the program, how many publications they accrued, or whether they received an individual grant or fellowship. Other recent studies come to similar conclusions.
However, those studies only sampled admitted students, most of whom had relatively high GRE scores, notes David Payne, a vice president at the Educational Testing Service (ETS)—the company headquartered in Princeton, New Jersey, that runs the GRE. He says:
What they don’t really have is the full experiment that you would really, from a scientific research methods perspective, want to do: Randomly admit students over the full range of abilities, as reflected in GRE scores, and see what you find.
Payne argues that GRE scores should be considered as part of a holistic review process.
When programs drop the GRE, they’re throwing out data.
Worries about diversity
Others worry that the GRE may hinder diversity and inclusion efforts. ETS data show that women and members of underrepresented racial and ethnic minority groups score lower on the GRE than white men and Asian men do. (ETS argues that this reflects educational background and unequal access to opportunities, not bias against these groups per se.) Paying for training and taking the test—which costs USD 205 a pop, plus travel in some cases—can be a burden for low-income students. The timed test can also present a challenge for students who don’t speak English as a first language.
Payne and others argue that scoring well on the GRE can help students who might otherwise go unnoticed, including students who had fewer opportunities because of structural disadvantages. But GRExit proponents disagree.
Linda Sealy, director of the Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity at Vanderbilt University, says:
The problem with looking at a strong GRE score is you don’t know what the student did to get that score.
Dropping the GRE “just seems like a no-brainer,” says Arthur Kosowsky, chair of the physics and astronomy department at the University of Pittsburgh in Pennsylvania, which eliminated the GRE requirement in 2018.
This test is both not really measuring something useful … and at the same time discriminating against students who we are trying to work very hard to increase the numbers of in our program.
Whether dropping the GRE requirement will diversify applicant pools is far from certain. But Jon Gottesman, director of the Office of Biomedical Graduate Research, Education and Training at the University of Minnesota Medical School in Minneapolis, hopes to find out. He and his colleagues have sent out a survey to biomedical graduate programs, asking for information about their admissions process and data on their applicant pools, such as the total number of applicants and the percentage from underrepresented groups. He says:
We’ll have to see. I have a feeling we’re going to have to be looking at this for more years to really get a sense.