Science

‘GRExit’ gains momentum as Ph.D. programs drop exam requirement amid pandemic

The University of Michigan’s biomedical Ph.D. program was a lonely outlier in 2017 when it announced it would stop asking applicants to submit scores for the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) General Test. At the time, the standardized exam was a nearly universal requirement for Ph.D. programs at U.S. universities. But the Michigan program now has plenty of company. The vast majority of STEM Ph.D. programs have stopped requiring GRE scores, according to an investigation by Science, and the number of tests taken each year has plummeted.

The COVID-19 pandemic, unease about whether the test puts students from less privileged backgrounds at a disadvantage, and doubts about how well GRE scores predict grad school success all helped drive the changes. But whether they will be permanent and how they are affecting the applicant pool or incoming class composition remain to be seen.

To quantify the trend, Science examined the application requirements for Ph.D. programs in eight disciplines at 50 top-ranked U.S. universities. Only 3% currently require prospective students to submit GRE General Test scores, compared with 84% 4 years ago. An additional 5% strongly recommend that prospective students submit scores. Others make it optional; one program’s website reads, “In certain cases, a strong GRE score submitted with your application can improve your chances.” But 36% of the programs explicitly state that GRE scores will not be accepted or reviewed as part of the admissions process.

Early on, the so-called “GRExit” movement was mostly restricted to the life sciences. But the shift away from the GRE now touches every discipline. “It really did spiral” quickly, says Sarah Ledford, an assistant professor in the geosciences at Georgia State University, who maintains a list of earth sciences programs that don’t require GRE scores. In 2018, geology was the only discipline in which every single department Science examined required the GRE; now none does.

Ledford attributes much of the shift to “a reckoning” around diversity. She and other scientists argue that the cost of the test—$220 per attempt, plus travel expenses and training materials—disadvantages students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and dissuades them from applying to graduate school. COVID-19 provided another reason to drop the test requirement, as a move to online testing led to concerns about whether some students had access to a suitable testing environment. “This was low-hanging fruit during COVID for places to give it a shot,” Ledford says.

Fewer tests taken

The number of Graduate Record Examination (GRE) tests administered in the United States has dropped in recent years.

(GRAPHIC) C. BICKEL/SCIENCE; (DATA) EDUCATIONAL TESTING SERVICE

Those logistical concerns came on top of research indicating the GRE doesn’t predict whether a student will succeed in graduate school. “The data—they have to be relevant. … Otherwise it’s just noise,” says Jennifer Gomez, an assistant professor of social work at Boston University who has studied the use of GRE scores in psychology admissions. “The GRE … predicts nothing of substance beyond grades.” On top of that, the test “unfairly privileges certain groups—white men in particular,” she says.

But not everyone is sold on the transition. “I think it’s a mistake to remove GRE altogether,” says Sang Eun Woo, a professor of psychology at Purdue University. Woo is quick to acknowledge the GRE isn’t perfect and doesn’t think test scores should be used to rank and disqualify prospective students—an approach many programs have used in the past. But she and some others think the GRE can be a useful element for holistic reviews, considered alongside qualitative elements such as recommendation letters, personal statements, and CVs. “We’re not saying that the test is the only thing that graduate programs should care about,” she says. “This is more about, why not keep the information in there because more information is better than less information, right?”

Removing test scores from consideration could also hurt students, argues Alberto Acereda, associate vice president of global higher education at the Educational Testing Service, the company that runs the GRE. “Many students from underprivileged backgrounds so often don’t have the advantage of attending prestigious programs or taking on unpaid internships, so using their GRE scores serves [as a] way to supplement their application, making them more competitive compared to their peers.”

Giving it a pass

Since 2018, most STEM Ph.D. programs at 50 top U.S. universities have moved away from requiring the Graduate Record Examination (GRE).

graph showing which programs require GRE scores
C. BICKEL/SCIENCE

There’s no surefire method for “evaluating people’s potential for doing original research,” says Danny Caballero, an associate professor of physics education at Michigan State University who has studied graduate admissions in physics. “And that’s just because that is a really complicated thing to do.” Like Woo, he’s advocated for the use of rubrics that ask reviewers to evaluate prospective students holistically, based on the strength of their academic preparation, research track record, initiative and perseverance, and fit with the program. Before the pandemic, his program included GRE scores in its rubric—giving them a weight of 10%—but when the program shifted to making the GRE optional, it eliminated those scores from the rubric. He has no regrets. “The work of science is not taking standardized tests. The work of science is being curious,” he says.

At Cornell University, the geological sciences graduate program also made the switch to a rubric-based holistic review shortly before announcing it would no longer accept GRE scores in 2020. Matt Pritchard, the program’s graduate director, says the policy switch hasn’t been contentious and the program has no plans to reinstate the GRE. “It is a new system to learn, but once you get into the groove of it … it probably takes no more extra time,” he says. Pritchard is hopeful the shift will result in a more diverse applicant pool. He says it’s too early to tell for sure because there’s so much year-to-year variability in applicant demographics. But since the change, “We have more applicants and more diverse applicants and I would say the quality is as strong as ever.”

In the long run, many GRExit proponents see the new admission requirements as a policy shift that will be hard to undo. “What I hear from students is this is absolutely something that they look for in considering where to apply,” Ledford says. “They don’t want to take [the test].”

Joshua Hall, who was an early advocate for dropping the GRE when he worked in graduate admissions for the biological and biomedical science program at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, agrees that in the life sciences a shift back toward the GRE appears unlikely. “Admissions committees seem to have acclimated to the no-GRE format,” says Hall, now a senior program officer at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. “I have heard no rumblings of going back.”

But in other disciplines, that may not be the case. Dartmouth College’s computer science program has returned to requiring the GRE after waiving the requirement in 2020 and 2021. Carnegie Mellon University’s psychology program made a similar change earlier this year. It later backtracked, however, and lifted the requirement again. When asked about the change in policy, the program’s graduate director, Vicki Helgeson, wrote in an email to Science, “The whole thing is in a state of flux.”

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