GRE Hate

January 27, 2010

If I may indulge myself here a bit. I’m reading our graduate applications at the moment. We have lots and lots of them… by which I mean, lots and lots. When they come in, we sort candidates by several categorization standards, including their GPA, their last name, their stated area of interest, and their GRE score.

I’m sure I’m not alone in this, but so far as I can tell, the GRE is a near meaningless measurement of a candidate’s potential. I fail to see why we (academics) place so much weight on it.

Oh, sure. Since the GRE score is the only standardized metric between all candidates, it offers a compelling measurement against which to compare. X person got 720/760/5; Y person got 680/720/5.5; Z person got 500/620/4. (These are made up numbers.)

Seems like a no-brainer. Z person doesn’t make the cut. It’s a battle between X and Y.

And yet, there’s considerable vagueness in the scores. When one looks at the statement of purpose, or at the letters of recommendation, it frequently turns out that X and Y are boring drones, where Z is an interesting and motivated prospective, maybe with a serious and well-conceived project, or maybe even in some cases with a significant history of professional accomplishment. The “bad GRE effect” is amplified in candidates who haven’t been in the educational system for a while, perhaps because they’ve been in the business world doing something that doesn’t demand that they calculate the volume of a sphere.

Moreover, it’s not entirely clear how standardized they in fact are. I’ve heard from more than one candidate with widely discrepant scores between two contiguous test sessions. To my mind, if there’s a discrepancy of several hundred points between a set of scores from the same person, this test doesn’t have much to offer in the way of measurement.

So what, exactly, are the GREs in place to measure? And why do we (academics) continue to rely on the GREs as strongly as we do? Why do we (academics) sing the praises of our departmental units when we have a high GRE average, all the while admitting to one another that the GREs are unreliable?

I’m very much persuaded that the GRE ought not to play a strong role in admissions decisions at all, and at best should serve only as a vague data-point or an extra accomplishment signalling positively in a person’s favor, but not negatively in a person’s disfavor. Others with whom I’ve spoken disagree. They think the GRE can serve as a workable cutoff.

What do you think?

(With my luck, I’ll get sued by ETS for disparaging the GRE, but I think this is a legitimate academic concern. I suspect that they disclaim the value of the GRE as the sole measure of a candidate’s fit; but I similarly suspect that they think it’s a valuable measure of something. Just what it’s a valuable measure of is beyond me.)


  1. Hi Dr. Hale,

    I enjoyed reading about your annoyance. This is exciting to read about a graduate application reviewer that understands how vague standardized tests are. I often do not hear your perspective in the academic community.

    As a dyslexic, I have never performed well at standardized tests, especially with the difficult testing time constraint. I hope that the next generation of academics begin to contemplate in more depth how the numbers, especially the GRE, can mislead a reviewer on the capability and potential success of an applicant.



  2. Well, fortunately for our applicants, there are actually quite a few of us who don’t lean too heavily on the GREs. We just live with them and acknowledge that they’re there. We’re actually looking for a fit with our program, so we’ll look pretty deep into the files (many of which are quite good) to find that fit.

    The question for me, in part, is how to use the GRE information appropriately, if at all. My attitude is to take GRE scores with a grain of salt. If they happen to offer an extra reason in favor of an already promising candidate, then maybe that’s okay; but I try to look past them as a first measure of a student’s promise. I know I’m not alone. I would bet that there are many admissions committees that are skeptical of the utility of the GRE.

    I think you can probably feel pretty confident that decisions are never made solely on the GREs. Unfortunately, they do seem to have some kind of magical power over people, such that they are a topic of conversation, and in some cases, something to boast about.

    Maybe I’ll tell you what I tell my undergrads when they’re applying to grad school. The best approach, it seems to me, is to study hard and do as well on the GRE as you can, not because the GRE is a great indicator of your promise, but because you just don’t want to make it hard for an admissions committee to admit you. If you have a great file, that’s great. But if you have a great file and very good GREs, that’s even better. The GRE score will then serve as a proxy for a case that has to be made by argument, which is quite a bit harder.

  3. My general feeling is that the general GREs are worthless. The subject tests (mostly in the sciences except for English lit) have some value.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: