The ‘GRExit’: Cause and Effect

Within the past few years, a growing number of biomedical Ph.D. programs across the country have been ditching the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) as an admissions requirement and moving toward a more holistic approach. With arguably little information about each applicant to use for admissions decisions, admissions committees rely on GRE scores as part of a preliminary scan of applications and as another metric to weed applicants out of the pool. However, students by an increasing number are showing that the GRE is not a good indicator of success during graduate school, and it may be causing programs to indirectly exclude minority and low socioeconomic status (SES) applicants.

Studies by Joshua Hall and Liane Moneta-Koehler both found that GRE scores lacked association with predicting time to degree, passing qualifying exams, quality of faculty evaluations, number of first-author publications, number of presentations and other markers of graduate school success. The list goes on. There are even some surprising and alarming negative correlations between higher GRE scores and other graduate school metrics. For example, in a study by Sandra L. Peterson et. al. examining data from several graduate programs, it was found that men who had higher GRE quantitative (GRE-Q) scores had an increasing rate of leaving their graduate programs, while men in the lowest quartile of GRE-Q scores finished at a higher rate than their counterparts. Interestingly, this was not the case for women. Additionally, Linda Sealy et. al. found that an increase of 20 points in a student’s GRE-Q score leads to a 45% decrease in chances of receiving a fellowship during graduate school. While GRE scores could predict grades during the first semester of graduate school reasonably well, high classroom performance does not necessarily dictate high performance in the lab.

On top of these concerning statistics, using the GRE as an important part of graduate admissions is eliminating many potential female, minority and low SES applicants. Women represent only 25% of those earning STEM Ph.D.s, while they comprise 50% of the population, and non-Asian minorities earn only 9% of STEM Ph.D.s while making up 33% of the population. While there may be many reasons why certain groups have lower GRE scores than others, some include financial issues. It costs a hefty $205 to take the GRE General Test in the U.S., plus additional money for study materials, books, practice exams and more. Then, if you are not satisfied with your score, you may need to do it all over again. Many Americans simply cannot afford to take this test once, let alone multiple times, or they cannot obtain the resources to adequately prepare for such an exam. Not to mention, it costs $100 to apply to each graduate program. Therefore, making GRE exam scores such an integral part of the admissions process for biomedical graduate programs quickly diminishes chances for many potentially worthy applicants.

At the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, several graduate programs relinquished the GRE requirement for this past admissions season. This change resulted in an increase in the number of applicants as well as the diversity of those applicants. For example, the cellular and molecular medicine program dropped the requirement, and this resulted in a 62% increase in applications from the 2018 application season. Also, the amount of applications from underrepresented minority applicants doubled. The resulting GPA of the incoming cohort was also higher (Leslie Lichter). Other Ph.D. programs at the school of medicine also abandoned the GRE and saw similar effects. On the other hand, some programs that kept the GRE requirement had a decrease in applicants this year. Many people applying for Ph.D. programs at the school of medicine apply to several programs to increase chances of admission. Perhaps students are more attracted to applying to programs without the GRE requirement because these programs will not use single exam scores to assess their merits. Taken together, the results from these recent studies mean that graduate programs will have to consider whether the cost of missing out on applicants is worth the minimal to nonexistent benefit of using the exam as an admissions metric.


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