The GRE, a test that typically has been part of the prospective student’s application to graduate school, is falling out of favor as fewer universities make it a requirement.
Two key data points illustrate the extent of this recent decline:
1. When the academic journal Science examined application requirements for PhD programs in eight STEM-related disciplines at 50 top-ranked US universities, it found that only 3% of schools required prospective students to submit GRE general test scores in 2022—a massive drop from 84% in 2018.
2. Between 2018 and 2021, the number of GRE tests administered in the US plunged 50%, according to data from the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which administers the exam.
The GRE served a real need when it first came about. But universities seem to believe that there are better alternatives for evaluating students for graduate school—and are acting accordingly.
The purpose of the GRE exam
The GRE has been around for more than 70 years. The exam measures verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, critical thinking, and analytical writing skills, which the ETS says reflects “the kind of thinking” demanded in graduate school programs.
In the late 1950s and 1960s, the GRE was designed to allow returning Americans soldiers, many of whom were using an educational assistance benefit within the GI Bill, to apply to graduate school. Many soldiers had taken non-traditional career paths and hadn’t attended elite, private universities with selective reputations, says Suzanne Ortega, president at the Council of Graduate Schools, a higher education advocacy organization.
The GRE allowed the soldiers to demonstrate their preparation for advanced studies. “So it really was a tool that had inclusion as a goal,” says Ortega.
But times have changed.
Why schools stopped requiring GRE test scores
The problems with the GRE are well-documented, including the exam’s limited ability to measure whether a student will succeed in school. Multiple studies also have found that the test is biased against people based on their socioeconomic backgrounds.
All this has led to a public conversation about whether the GRE should even be used in graduate admissions. The volume of this chatter escalated as test centers closed during the covid-19 pandemic and universities began waiving the GRE testing requirement, Ortega says. The exam also is not cheap—it costs $220, and some students choose to take it more than once to try to boost their scores.
The GRE is one data point for universities to look at, says Ortega. There are other measures that can measure students’ critical thinking skills and potential to succeed in a competitive graduate school environment, such as work experience, interviews, and reference letters. She adds that no single measure alone demonstrates a student’s ability to succeed in graduate school.
The risk of removing a “critical datapoint”
ETS says it is concerned about universities doing away with the GRE requirement, which isn’t surprising given the company’s financial incentives.
Alberto Acereda, associate vice president of global higher education at ETS, tells Quartz via email that schools are removing a “critical datapoint” that helps determine a student’s level of preparedness for graduate-level study.
“Long term, institutions and programs will likely discover that dropping the test does not, in fact, help them reach their intended goals,” says Acereda.
He adds that the exam is particularly helpful in evaluating students outside of the US due to countries’ different grading systems. The exam “is the only common denominator available,” he says.
It’s hard to say what the long-term consequences of abolishing the graduate exam will have on the evaluation process. That said, it’s pretty notable to see universities, which are notorious for being slow to adapt, being willing to quickly move against a test that has long been status quo.