A Shift from Standardization: The #GRExit Movement in Graduate School Admissions

As a number of European countries are reconsidering their ties to the EU, graduate programs worldwide are having referendums of their own on admissions practices.

Graduate admissions committees have begun evaluating their requirement of the Graduate Record Examination (GRE), a standardized graduate admissions exam created by Educational Testing Service (ETS).

The GRE has been a cornerstone of admissions evaluation since 1949 and has served to assess analytical writing, quantitative reasoning, and verbal reasoning. Currently, there are more than 1,000 testing locations in 160 countries, serving more than 500,000 test takers annually.

However, a number of research studies have been popping up over the past three decades, questioning the validity of the exam and causing grad programs to question its necessity.

Life Beyond the GRE

Beyond the GRE, a coalition of organizations, academics, and researchers, is one of the most notable sources for anyone considering dropping the GRE.

Under the direction of Dr. Sandra Petersen since 2003, Beyond the GRE has compiled and released a number of reports pointing to evidence that the GRE does not correlate with successful PhD completion.

Further criticisms of the GRE argue that it serves as a barrier to expanding diversity in graduate education.

Not only are there time and financial burdens of test-taking, there is also evidence that women and students from underrepresented and lower socioeconomic groups tend to score lower than their white male counterparts.

In 2016, the conversation became more mainstream when The Atlantic ran a provocative piece stating: The exam “is a proxy for asking ‘Are you rich?’ ‘Are you white?’ ‘Are you male?’”

In the piece, Dr. Julie Posselt, a Professor at USC Rossier (then at University of Michigan), said:

Headshot picture of Dr. Julie Posselt who expressed discontent with the GRE“The GRE adds information, but it is a noisy signal that says little about a student’s ability to be successful as a scholar. Yet in many programs it’s treated as a very significant piece of information. And unfortunately, requiring very high GRE scores for admissions undermines diversity.”

Acknowledging the concerns, ETS has put together a number of resources for schools who want to continue using the GRE as part of a holistic admission review. While the testmakers still argue for the importance of their exam, they encourage schools to consider how they use the data from the test critically.

#GRExit Gets Social

With a new generation of graduate education scholars stepping into decision-making roles, discussions on the relevancy of the GRE have moved to social media.

Dr. Joshua Hall, Director of Admissions at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program, manages a live list of bio and biomedical graduate programs who have dropped the GRE, which at the time of this post’s publication included 146 academic programs.

Hall, who has become a social influencer on the so-called #GRExit movement in graduate education, was among the first academics and administrators to tweet their stories of moving away from a GRE requirement.

As Hall notes, despite compounding evidence opposing the reliance on the GRE, changing the status quo is difficult.

And it’s easy to see why. Writing the GRE has been a shared ritual for most academics. It’s almost like a rite of passage.

It’s also a known entity: For admissions teams evaluating applicants from around the globe, the GRE is often seen as the one great equalizer amongst all other credentials. And, for the most in-demand and competitive programs, it can help speed up the admissions process as a quantifiable factor in decisions.

Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Changing from the “way we’ve always done it” can be terrifying.

In higher education, changing “who gets in” to graduate school changes the next generation of academia and knowledge creation.

Graduate programs need to look internally at their values, their mission, and their goals to determine if their admissions practices are in alignment.

Read: Using Your School’s Mission To Drive A More Engaging Admissions Process

Earlier this year, Cornell’s English department released a statement on their decision to drop the GRE requirement, in which they stated:

Requiring the exam narrows our applicant pool at precisely the moment we should be creating bigger pipelines into higher education. We need the strength of a diverse community in order to pursue the English Department’s larger mission: to direct the force of language toward large and small acts of learning, alliance, imagination, and justice. (English Department Faculty resolve to remove the GRE test requirement for graduate admissions, 2019).

Those, like Cornell’s English department, who have dropped the testing requirement have moved to a holistic admissions process that evaluates a number of supplementary materials to get an overall view of the applicant.

Resources to Get Started

Nature.org: Higher Education: On the Lookout for True Grit

Cornell University: De-emphasize GREs, Look Broadly for New Ph.D. Students: Expert

Emory University: GRExit: Why We’re Dropping the GRE

Beyond the GRE: Examples Of Strategies For Reexamining Stem PhD Student Admissions Procedures

Kira Talent: Demystifying Holistic Admissions: The Comprehensive Guide to Holistic Review


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