From the MiSciWriters Editorial Board

What qualifications does one need to demonstrate in order to get into a PhD program?  

In the United States, there are a few requirements that most PhD programs use to select their students: statement of purpose, recommendation letters, Grade Point Average (GPA), and results from a standardized test. One widely used standardized test is the general Graduate Record Examination (GRE), which is divided into three sections: verbal, quantitative, and writing. The test compares your performance to other test-takers, showing your performance for each section by percentile rank.

Although GREs are required by many PhD programs across the nation, some PhD programs, like the one at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, do not require the GRE (although sending your GRE score is highly recommended).

Since this spring, the community at the Program in Biomedical Sciences (PIBS) at the University of Michigan brought up the possibility of making the general GRE optional. PIBS director Dr. Scott Barolo initiated the idea of having a public discourse about whether to drop the GRE in the list of requirements for PhD admissions. Several PIBS faculty and staff contributed to a white paper presenting their arguments for either keeping or removing the requirement to submit the GRE. On August 3rd, PIBS hosted a town hall meeting to discuss both sides of the argument and get input from other members of the community.

Standardized tests like the GRE are partly used to normalize the applicants. Graduate school applicants come from diverse institutions, so GRE scores might be more informative than institution-specific measurements like the GPA in assessing the applicants fairly. They allow a direct and objective comparison of students’ performance on the same task.

In addition, there are studies* showing a correlation between success in graduate school and high GRE scores, suggesting that using the GRE as one of the criteria for graduate school applications can help programs admit students who will be successful.

Dr. Stephen Ragsdale, who represented the pro-GRE side at the town hall, said that the GRE assesses certain skills that are necessary for graduate school that other parts in the application do not necessarily measure; so removing the GRE from the application could cause schools to lose promising students. He added that GREs could reveal certain deficiencies in the incoming students, which could help mentors in better individually guiding students to improve those deficiencies and/or shaping thesis projects based on what areas the individual student excelled or struggled in.

GRE scores, Ragsdale added, are part of the “holistic” evaluation of the applicants, emphasizing that no students will be rejected solely based on low GRE scores. Instead, the test becomes another attribute of the application as opposed to the only metric. In fact, he said that sometimes high GRE scores could save an applicant with low GPA.

However, there are also studies* showing that GRE scores are correlated with gender and ethnic group identity, suggesting that use of GRE scores biases against females and applicants from underrepresented minority (URM) groups. This can adversely affect the diversity of an incoming class, which raises a concern about how fair the admission process actually is to the previously mentioned groups. Even if there is no score cut-off, can the reviewers really correct for this bias, especially when they see a low GRE score before other parts of the application?

The correlation may stem from limited access to GRE prep classes or even the exam itself, some of which is for  financial reasons. Currently, the general GRE test costs $205 in the U.S. and as much as $230 in other countries, and there are fees for changing your test center ($50), reviewing scores ($50), or sending additional scores to schools ($27 per school).

In addition, international students in particular sometimes have to travel far to take the test if the test is not offered in their hometown or even their home country, increasing the burden represented by requirement of the GRE.

Dr. Beth Moore, who represented the con-GRE side, said she is not comfortable using GRE as a metric since it has discrepancies across gender and different ethnicity groups. She also criticized the studies that showed a correlation between success and GRE scores, saying that they did not include students who took the GRE but did not attend graduate school.

Other attendees chimed in during the meeting to ask questions or raise concerns. One concern was that the test measures test-taking skills rather than abilities or passion. Ragsdale responded that identifying the passionate, intelligent students is a common goal for all members of the admission committee, whether they support use of the GRE or not, and the GRE is only part of the application.

In terms of diversity, PIBS might be doing well with the current admission system compared to other programs since the percentage of URM applicants roughly matches the percentage of URM students at PIBS. Perhaps this means that the GRE does not affect the diversity of the incoming student body.

Based on the discussion, both sides seemed to want to identify committed, promising, and diverse students who will be successful. The main difference was whether they see GRE as a reliable way to measure an applicant’s ability to succeed in graduate school and beyond. This question is heavily nuanced. First, how does one even define “success”? The number of publications? The number of students who pursue academic jobs? Fellowship and scholarship attainment?

To address such questions, it is important for the community to continue to discuss the issues at hand and weigh the benefits and drawbacks of all possible solutions. Some proposals, such as creating program-specific subject tests to assess the applicant’s’ ability, were made during the town hall meeting, and these will also need to be considered to reach a decision.

But most important of all, the community needs to keep one question in mind and analyze all GRE-related studies as scientists: critically and thoroughly. What does the GRE measure, and is that measurement relevant for assessing the next generation of scientists?


To watch the video recording of the town hall meeting, click here.

*For a full list of studies cited during the town hall meeting, please see the white paper.

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