An unnecessary necessity? Why the GRE is useless for graduate school admission

By Editor-In-Chief Chelsea Cabral.

When I arrived to take the GRE this past October, it was hard to tell whether I was in a testing facility or a harsh airport security line.

After submitting my identification and placing all my belongings in a locked drawer, I was waved over by a security wand and instructed to turn out my front and back pockets, shake out my sweatshirt hood and lift up my pant legs. During the more than three-hour exam, my fellow test takers and I were under constant video surveillance and permitted to leave only once, for 10 minutes, provided we signed in and out.

We were allowed to write on only official GRE scratch paper, which seemed suspiciously identical to normal paper, except for the text printed at the top reminding us that cheating was, as a matter of fact, forbidden.

After all this, the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) still remains a core facet of my graduate school application for a program in English and for all other prospective graduate school applicants, and I still had to take it—protracted and belittling though they may be—because one could not become a graduate student without it.

The problem? The GRE as a standardized test fails as a method of indicating intelligence/probable success in a graduate program and graduate applications should consider removing them from the application and placing a stricter focus on more pertinent materials such as writing, recommendation letters, and GPA.

According to U.S. News and World Report, of the top 10 English graduate programs in the United States, only one, Stanford University, is test optional, and, historically, a low GRE score means no admission to any graduate program, in or out of the humanities. The logic, according to the website of the GRE’s administrative company, Educational Testing Service, or ETS, is that the GRE is “a proven measure of an applicant’s readiness for graduate-level work” and “gives you more opportunities for success.”

This description seems reassuring, as the future of academia rests in the hands of graduate students who have passed through the GRE. But what kinds of students tend to do well on the test?

According to Robert J. Sternberg, a professor of human development at Cornell University, mostly rich, white, and male ones do. Sternberg, talking to The Atlantic, refers to decades of research from Stanford University, New York University, the University of Florida and the University of Missouri showing that women and racial minorities consistently underperform on the GRE compared with their white male counterparts.

A 2014 Nature article by Casey Miller and Keivan Stassun supports Sternberg’s claim, stating, “in simple terms, the GRE is a better indicator of sex and skin color than of ability and ultimate success.”

A central problem of utilizing the GRE as a measure of intelligence/probable graduate school success is that the uniformity and rigidity of the test allows little room for creativity and innovative problem solving to occur. In our contemporary time, graduate schools should be seeking out students who can think outside of the box, are ingenious, and unafraid of tackling problems/issues from fresh perspectives.

Because the exam is narrow in scope, graduate schools wouldn’t have an accurate measure about potential students who are original and inventive thinkers. And for the students who fit into this category of thinking creatively, they will feel discouraged taking the GRE and scoring well because the GRE isn’t an exam that is tailored to their skills, but to those who are, instead, deftly experienced in logic, reasoning, and thinking under timed constraints. The applicant pool, then, is skewed to those who have an obvious mastery in logic but overlook the creatives.

Not to mention too, that the hardest working students and best applicants are likely the ones most apt to do poorly on exam in the first place. Instead of attending the $3000 test-prep courses, and hiring the best GRE tutors, the best prospective graduate students are the ones working double-shifts on weekends to support their sick uncle or grandparent because the family can’t afford healthcare, or because they can’t pay a tuition bill. Again, with this in mind, it doesn’t seem like it’s measuring intelligence or aptitude, but something else altogether.

Doing away with the GRE is in fact a feasible option because it is already being done. The fact is that many graduate schools around the country have programs in which they have waived the addition of GRE scores on students’ applications. Those schools include ones like UMass Amherst, Purdue, John Hopkins, University of Rhode Island, Boston University, among others.

These schools are all nationally ranked, so if they are able to forgo the use of the GRE in terms of grad applications and still admit students who do well in their programs and go on the greater endeavors and find themselves placed in elites professions, professional school, and professorships following their studies, then it does not hinder the success of the program at large.

The fact that these tests still exist, is a reflection of something deeply wrong with American society. But I’ll tell you why it does still exist—the GRE still exists not because it provides an accurate assessment of graduate school readiness, not because it allows across-the-board comparison among applicants from various schools, and not because it creates educational opportunities, but because business executives with no interest in the humanities or education can earn huge sums of money from the proliferation of a discriminatory exam and because universities are complicit in that effort.

Each time a graduate program requires applicants’ GRE scores, it is dissuading low-income, female, and minority students from becoming academics. The field of humanities has probably lost thousands of creative, hard-working, curious individuals by demanding they participate in an outdated, discriminatory examination system that exploits students to enrich those at the top.

It’s time schools start dropping the GRE as a mandatory part of graduate school applications to reduce biases in their application process, as it is neither fair nor objective, promotes narrow curriculums, and undermines America’s ability to produce innovators and critical thinkers.


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