iStock.com/bluestocking

A wave of graduate programs drops the GRE application requirement

For decades, one standardized test has been key to admission to U.S. science graduate programs: the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) General Test, a nearly 4-hour marathon of multiple-choice and written questions that test quantitative, verbal, and writing skills. But the long reign of the GRE may be drawing to a close. In response to recent studies showing little correlation between GRE scores and success in graduate school and concern that the test puts underrepresented groups at a disadvantage, a growing number of programs are dropping the GRE as an application requirement.

Science examined Ph.D. application requirements for eight disciplines at 50 top-ranked U.S. 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.

GRExit snapshot

Percent of programs at 50 top-ranked U.S. research universities that didn’t require GRE general scores in 2018. (Programs in some disciplines weren’t offered at all universities.)

44% 35 29 8 8 4 2 0 Molecular biology Neuroscience Ecology Chemistry Computer science Psychology Physics Geology
(GRAPHIC) K. LANGIN/SCIENCE; (DATA) K. LANGIN/SCIENCE

“It’s such a time of flux right now,” says Joshua Hall, director of graduate admissions for the biological and biomedical science program at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, who 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. A few other programs followed, and “as more and more schools dropped it, it created a little bit of a peer pressure situation” because schools worried that they’d miss out on applicants if they required the GRE, Hall says.

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 scores are an easy thing to sort to find people who are plausibly more or less admissible,” which can be particularly appealing for scientists who are accustomed to looking at quantitative data, says Julie Posselt, a higher education researcher at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles who has studied the use of the GRE in admissions. Posselt has also found that many faculty members view GRE scores as a measure of innate intelligence. “They associate a high GRE score with somebody who is more likely to be successful,” she says.

But “those are faculty members’ assumptions,” she emphasizes; the reality is different. For example, Hall authored a 2017 study showing that for 280 graduate students in his program, GRE scores weren’t 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 didn’t 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. “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.”

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 $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. “The problem with looking at a strong GRE score is you don’t know what the student did to get that score,” such as whether they took the test many times, says Linda Sealy, director of the Initiative for Maximizing Student Diversity at Vanderbilt University. “Having a high GRE score alone shouldn’t necessarily be a factor that pushes someone over the edge for a Ph.D. program,” agrees Hall.

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.”

Many Ph.D. programs that have dropped the requirement give students the option of submitting GRE scores, but Posselt recommends against that approach. Applicants who submit GRE test results will, on average, have higher scores, and “this might skew the way that faculty look at people who don’t submit scores,” she says. Programs should “either look at scores or don’t look at scores.”  

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 sent out a survey to biomedical graduate programs last month, 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. “We’ll have to see,” he says. “I have a feeling we’re going to have to be looking at this for more years to really get a sense.”