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Updated: Biomedical Ph.D. program at major research university drops GRE requirement for admission

The University of Michigan’s biomedical sciences graduate program announced last week that it will no longer require GRE scores for its Ph.D. admissions. Following a review of the available evidence and a public discussion involving the program’s faculty, staff, and trainees, the exam’s ability to predict student performance seems “weak at best” while it significantly disadvantages women, minorities, and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, writes Scott Barolo, director of the Program in Biomedical Sciences (PIBS), in the announcement. Continuing to ask “students to invest money and effort in a test whose usefulness our faculty cannot agree on [would be] a questionable policy,” adds Barolo, so he and the Office of Graduate and Postdoctoral Studies decided to scrap the requirement starting with the 2018–19 admissions cycle. In an interview with Science Careers following the announcement, Barolo says that PIBS will decide by next spring whether they will still accept GRE scores if applicants choose to send them in, and how they will handle them.

Barolo initiated a program-wide reexamination of the GRE requirement earlier this year, after recent policy changes by the university’s graduate school and the decision by major agencies that PIBS seeks funding from to drop their GRE requirements. (The National Institutes of Health changed its GRE policy for its institutional training grant and individual fellowships in 2015. The National Science Foundation’s Graduate Research Fellowship Program stopped asking for GRE scores in 2010.) Members of the PIBS community convened at a town hall meeting in early August to discuss their views. Faculty members in favor of continuing to require GRE scores offered anecdotes about the scores’ utility and cited a 2007 meta-analysis concluding that the exams were good predictors of graduate school performance, did not correlate with students’ background, and were not influenced by test preparation. Professors supporting eliminating the requirement argued that the costs and logistics of taking the exam disadvantaged students from low-income backgrounds and rural areas, pointing to studies finding that GRE scores were biased against students from underrepresented groups and did not meaningfully predict graduate school success.

The Educational Testing Service (ETS), which develops the GRE exam, worries that proponents of dropping the GRE misunderstand the test. The GRE scores' correlation with students’ background doesn’t mean that the exam is biased against certain groups, but that it reflects differences in environment and access to opportunities, says David Payne, vice president and chief operating officer of global education at ETS. Moreover, the exam is designed to predict coursework performance, which a 2014 study by ETS reported that it did. It was not intended as a predictor of other Ph.D. outcomes, such as passing the preliminary exams or publication rate, he says. “Test scores at the end of the day can be an important part of the process. They shouldn't be the only thing that excludes someone, but it should be considered, and if you're throwing it out, you're throwing out useful information,” he says.

Although taking the GRE was a distant memory for most University of Michigan professors, it was still fresh in the minds of the students who attended the town hall meeting. Many argued that the GRE evaluated their test-taking strategies, such as eliminating answer choices and finding loopholes in how the questions are written—skills that they never used in their research. “I don’t feel like [the GRE] was a real metric of my success at all during graduate school,” sixth-year student Nicholas Silva, who tweeted about attending the meeting, says in a follow-up interview. His scores were far below average, he says, but he did fine in his graduate coursework—what GRE scores are often argued to predict—and is well on track to finish his Ph.D. next summer, despite the setbacks to his progress from switching labs in his third year.

With its announcement, PIBS joins a growing number of science and engineering Ph.D. programs that no longer require the exam scores. And programs that have had such a policy in place for many years haven’t felt compelled to reinstate the GRE requirement, the chairs of the admissions committees of those programs tell Science Careers. Shyam Sablani, associate chair of biological systems engineering at Washington State University in Pullman, whose program not only doesn’t require GRE scores but doesn’t include them on the application form that the faculty sees, says that the question to bring back the requirement has been raised twice in the 10 years he has been with the department. But, each time, the consensus was that other components of the application provided the same insight that GRE scores do, and many of the program’s graduates who were recruited with the current policy have since gone on to successful careers, he says.

Other programs that haven’t required the exam for several years still maintain the option of sending scores and do receive them from many of their applicants. However, in the 6 years that Suzanne Bart has been on the admissions committee for the chemistry program at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, which does look at the scores if provided, the faculty wouldn’t consider making the GRE mandatory because of the exam’s financial burdens for prospective students, she says. And “we don’t really think it’s a representative metric for how the student is going to do in our program,” she notes.

For the University of Michigan students, although they are done with GREs themselves, the discussion among their faculty struck their passions for diversifying science and ensuring equal access to all. “This is how future graduate students are going to be chosen, and these [people] are going to be your colleagues,” fifth-year PIBS Ph.D. student Sara Wong, who live-tweeted the town hall, tells Science Careers. “It’s just going to affect the Ph.D. workforce in general, so it does matter to all of us.”

*Update, 30 August, 1:50 p.m.: This story has been updated to include comments from the Educational Testing Service, which develops the GRE exam.

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