GRE Scores Are Low Predictors for Completion of STEM Graduate Degrees

By Roberta Attanasio, Forever Leaders Editor

In most U.S. universities, the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) score is at the basis of the selection process for admission of students likely to complete science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) graduate programs. However, the value of the GRE as an appropriate selection tool is under debate, especially because of concerns related to the admission of students historically underrepresented in STEM.

Photo credit: Photo by Logan Isbell on Unsplash

Results from a study published in 2017 indicate that the GRE is not the best indicator for predicting a student’s success while pursuing a doctorate in the experimental life sciences. For the study, researchers defined success on the basis of first-author publications—which are a standard graduation requirement for most biomedical PhD programs—and graduation rates. Joshua Hall, a study co-author, said in a press release: “Maybe this will force us to start thinking of other metrics that perhaps are better indicators of the things we’re actually trying to measure and look for in an applicant—things like grit, optimism, perseverance, and resiliency.”

Now, results from a new study indicate that GRE scores do not predict completion of STEM doctoral programs, and therefore could compromise the admission of high-potential students. The study (Multi-institutional study of GRE scores as predictors of STEM PhD degree completion: GRE gets a low mark), published October 29, 2018, in the journal PLoS One, analyzed GRE scores and PhD completion data for 1805 U.S./Permanent Resident STEM doctoral students in four state flagship institutions.

The researchers found interesting differences between male and female graduate students. GRE Verbal (GRE V) and GRE Quantitative (GRE Q) scores were similar for women who completed the program they enrolled in (obtaining a STEM PhD degree) and those who left the program. Noticeably, GRE scores were significantly higher for men who left the programs when compared to those who completed STEM PhD degrees. Indeed, men in the lower quartiles of GRE V or Q scores finished degrees more often than those in the highest quartile. In addition, GRE scores failed to predict time to degree and to identify students who would leave during the first year of their programs.

On the basis of their study results, the researchers believe that addressing the issue of GRE overreliance may be a key to opening more doors to untapped talent, particularly to women and other underrepresented groups in STEM fields who have characteristics likely to better predict success.

Anibal Valentin, a Rutgers STEM alumnus, said in a press release: “As an undergraduate interested in a STEM PhD, I always struggled with standard tests, including the GRE. Underperforming in these tests puts extra weight on minorities during the application and interview process because we have to convince beyond any reasonable doubt that our GRE scores were just an isolated incident. I successfully completed my PhD at Rutgers in molecular immunology, and I am currently an assistant professor at a medical school. If I take the GRE now I will proudly and consistently fail it again.”

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  1. I wholeheardedly agree with these very sentiments. While I don’t know someone who’s within STEM who has been challenged by the GRE’s standards, my step-sister is facing much of these same issues as she attempts to begin graduate school.

    Regardless of graduating with an excellent GPA, her involvement with the school (of which she wishes to return to), and a short span of work experience in the field… she’s thwarted by a standardized test that is incredibly difficult — not to mention confusing. I see mention of there being a lack of biology, physics, or chemistry questions — well, the same goes for business.

    The exam is heavily grounded in confusing algebraic functions that are heavily nuanced in addition to a section of grammar and text interpretation: it’s highly specialized against anyone.

    The article even notes that studies show that the results are not predictive of the student’s completion of their programs, even furthering the perplexing idea that such a test is heavily relied upon for admissions into graduate programs.

    In short, GRE scores are surely held to a greater degree of importance than they should be. Looking further, one can notice the damage this does to minorities and those who come from immigrant families. Standardized tests lack the ability to test utilization of skills, the character and work ethic of those it tests, and they often misrepresent those who have any degree of testing anxiety or who simply are not effective test-takers.

    So why, then, does this culture of inefficacious examination continue to overshadow so many prospective future leaders?

    • Allison,
      I definitely agree with your statement and I can sympathize with your sister as well. Currently, I am applying for Master programs as well for my gap year. I am heavily involved in my community, work experience, and have strong GPA ; however, my GRE scores said otherwise. My question would be: Why should the Graduate Record Examination limit or tarnish one’s potential? A test should never be the sole indicator to be admitted to an institution. The GRE consist of three parts: Analytical Writing, Quantitative Reasoning, and Verbal Reasoning .I feel that the material covered for the GRE is extraneous because it does not test my scientific knowledge .The difficult usage and the complex mathematical equations can hinder one’s growth. As an African American woman, minorities and women are indeed at a disadvantage due to the racial status and pressure from societal demanding standards. Racial prejudice and misogyny are obstacles that impede one’s growth academically, socially, and financially. Gender imbalance has been an issue because it is a fact that women has to work twice as hard just to receive equal or less pay than their male counterparts in the workforce. Also, I saw a post on Facebook that headlined ” An African- American high school graduating senior is accepted to all applied colleges.” Even though I was proud, there was backlash in regards to people assuming that there was an admission scandal rather than praising the teen for his dedication and hard-work ; meanwhile, Lori Loughlin actually performed the illegal act for her daughter admission to the University of Southern California. Not only we live in a double-standard and hypocritical society, but we was taught that standardized tests are important, but it should NOT be a sole factor for one’s capabilities. Overall, the purpose of graduate school is to perform extensive research on an issue that impedes our economy; therefore, GRE should not be a requirement for entry into the STEM Graduate Program. I do believe that mathematical, analytical writing, and verbal reasoning are important, but these skills can be improved through more years in school.

  2. Towards the end of the article, Anibal Valentin describes her unfair experiences in regards to standardized testing. I can relate to her because I too have had difficulty with standardized testing. Growing up, I’ve always dreaded testing. My anxiety goes through the roof, I sweat profusely, and I simply can’t think straight. Even though I haven’t had to take the GRE yet, in order to get into nursing school, I had to take the TEAS. I failed miserably in the science and math section and felt terrible. Like Anibal, I had an immeasurable amount of stress trying to think how I would get selected to be in the program. In the past, when I didn’t do well in testing, regardless of my GPA, community involvement, or personality, I was turned away due to my standardized testing score. Luckily, the basis of getting into the program relied on more than just test scores and I was afforded an opportunity to be accepted into the program. There are other women in the STEM fields that go through test anxiety too and/or may not be good test takers. I agree with the researchers in that in order to address the overreliance of GRE scores, other characteristics and criteria should be added to adequately predict success and open doors to women and underrepresented groups.

  3. I can see why the GRE can be seen as a disadvantage because standardize exams honestly suck. So, in high school I took the SAT and I did extremly poor, but had a GPA of about a 3.8-3.9 because I worked extremely hard to ensure my success in school, but during big exams I always got so nervous and never seemed to be able to do well on them. I am glad that this study is out and I hope that it is viewed by many people because standardize exams are not really easy for everyone and they should not be the main factor that determines whether or not one gets into a graduate, undergrad, or doctored program.

  4. I believe the main issue is not that there is a GRE test, but the content of the test such as verbal and quantitative reasoning is not a good reflection of the content of STEM courses. Although verbal and quantitative reasoning are important in every field of not only education but everyday life, it is not a main component in many STEM fields. This is a disadvantage to those who are in these fields that may have weaknesses in verbal and quantitative reasoning but are gifted and talented in STEM areas and are denied admission into universities based on a test that is not representative of the material in their course of choice. I believe there needs to be a reform in the GRE, where exams are based on the program of interest. To avoid over-complexity there could be a biology GRE covering the basics of biology and those who wish to go into any biological science such as neuroscience or animal biology, can take that test. The same can be done for other areas such as physics and chemistry. There also needs to be more research done into the low retention rate of those with high scores. Where they more suited to areas of study that focused more on verbal and quantitative reasoning? This could further explain why the GRE is a poor predictor of post-doctoral success which could improve admission rate for those who are passionate and talented in STEM fields.

  5. I agree with all the comments above, being an international student the idea of taking the GRE was terrifying. English is my third language, so I knew the test would not be easy. Even though I managed to get a good grade, as I consider myself a good “guesser”, I had no idea what most of the words asked meant. After taking the exam I can say that the GRE has nothing to do about how prepared are you for Graduate school. There were not any Biology, Chemistry or Physics questions. I realized that the test does not measure how good are you at science thus it is not a good way to predict how successful you will be within the STEM field. I believe that, as the others commented, the GRE should not be a requirement to get into STEM graduate programs.

    • I agree. This is obvious proof that the GRE is far from any good predicter of someone’s success in graduate school. This just furthers the argument that the GRE should be abolished from any requirement for graduate school. If a graduate school wanted a way to calculate whether someone is going to succeed or not, they should look at personal essays that are written about their challenges and the ways they managed their obstacles. This way, graduate schools can find potential students not based on a score, for which many feel as if they aren’t fairly judged, but on how resilient they are in their lives.

  6. I can agree with the results from this article because I do not think the GRE is a good determinant for success in STEM graduate programs. As stated in the article, the GRE tests things such as quantitative and verbal skills. While these skills may be important, they are also skills that can be learned along the way as they manifest themselves to be imperative throughout your life journey. People within the STEM field work very hard to complete their program and do well in their classes, only to be denied access based off skills that are usually only practiced when it is time to purchase a GRE prep-book. However, the good news is that many STEM graduate programs no longer require the GRE. This can give one hope because it is bringing us a step closer to discovering “untapped talent” particularly with women and minorities. Also this can bring opportunity to those who can’t afford to prepare for the GRE as it can get pricey.

  7. It is interesting that men within the highest quartile were more likely to leave their graduate program. I wonder what factors may be involved? My thought is that these men may just be good test takers and have good knowledge of vocabulary and language skills. However, why is there a gender difference? I hope they do more studies on this topic because there seem to be some loose ends. However, looking at the takeaway message, I agree that there is an overreliance on standardized tests—especially the GRE. Beyond potential gender differences in scores, individuals who aren’t native English speakers or have learning disabilities like dyslexia are at a great disadvantage. And even if they overcome this disadvantage, the exam is still not a good measure of their research abilities. I recently had a lecture where a woman discussed her issues with dyslexia. She knew the tricks to ace her entry exams during primary school and was able to test into accelerated programs. However, she’d do poorly in these classes because she couldn’t learn the content with her dyslexia. This illustrates the point I’m trying to make. Even if non-native speakers and people with learning disabilities manage to get good scores on the GRE, are there resources in grad school to ensure success in reading comprehension, verbal communication, and/or written communication? These are important skills as a scientist. After all, part of the requirements of grad school is that you share your research with the scientific community and get the first authorship. Therefore, prospective students shouldn’t be penalized as much for not having prowess in language and reading comprehension. These skills can be worked on. However, things like resilience, grit, optimism, and perseverance are harder to come by and close to impossible to teach.

    • I completely agree that the hard skills can definitely be improved. Its the soft skills that you have mentioned that are harder to refine because they are proof of the hardships someone has overcome. You mentioned that men are more likely to drop out of graduate school than women. This shows that although men are good test takers, they may not have the perseverance or resilience than lets say a women does. Women encounter struggles in their everyday lives from society struggles to having to struggle with taking care of the family, herself, and even a job. Men may not have the number responsibilities a women has which may not prepare him for the stress to come in graduate school. The point here is that, although on paper men look superior than, it is what a person is made of to determine their success.

    • The GRE is a massive foreshadowing failure when it comes to graduate program admissions. Why do we have a single test that casts such a wide net for determining success in a particular field? For example, someone who wants to pursue a masters in Marketing is taking the same test as someone trying to pursue their masters in Physical Therapy. I believe that while the test may work for those obtaining higher degrees in business, I believe that specialized fields in STEM should have their tests entirely. This will allow prospective students from more diverse backgrounds a new level of educational equity. They won’t have to try to study a wide range of topics that will never be used in their graduate programs. Titi highlighted a fantastic point that this test indeed hinders people who speak English as their second or third language. They will be tested on factors that will truly determine their success in their program.

  8. As a veterinary medicine prospect, where the GRE is the standardized exam that is to be scored high on, I am not at all surprised with these findings. I always wondered why scientists are put under examination of verbal and mathematical skills. While vocabulary and high school mathematics allow us to critically think and problem solve which may be useful to test upon university entrance, the GRE does not examine our scientific abilities which our undergraduate career has prepared us for graduate programs. I was born overseas and have lived most of my life in the United States, however even I struggle with the GRE verbal and quantitative sections because it is written in a way that is designed to trick the test-taker in reading the question under a short test taking section period. I cannot imagine how an immigrant, who is prone to scientific reasoning and whose second or third language is English, could master such an exam. Those who score highest on the GRE extensively prepare, and have tips to handle the weird language of the exam. It is nice to know that researches will finally take a look at the GRE and look to make it more oriented to branches of science. If studies have shown that men who finish science-related PhDs score lower on the GRE than those who do not finish science-related PhDs, a better measure must be put in place. I indefinitely reside with Dr. Valentin comment, and firmly believe that immigrant women should not have convince the programs that our GRE scores do not mark our intelligence. As immigrant women, we need to be seen for what we have done within our scientific backgrounds, and not marked by an isolated standardized test of scholarly English and mathematical skill that is clearly intended for those of native, English tongue.

  9. The GRE is clearly a disadvantage for those minorities. I believe it is the minorities who have the greatest resilience, grit, optimism, and perseverance. If the GRE was diminished, future leaders can be found because an isolated test won’t be the main predictor whether to someone can be chosen to be accepted into a program. Furthermore, women and people of color have greater resilience because they face societal problems that others may not face. These troubles can be financial related, family related, or even problems due to how people see them and treat them. For example, women have to work twice as hard to be close to equal to their male counter part. This means women take on more of a work load and a heavy stress load. These women will push through the extra stress and still get all their work done and if not more. I would say that these women may be seen as inferior, but they are twice as strong as the men around them. If these women are defined by their single GRE scores, then a lot of programs are missing out on these future powerful leaders.

    • I do agree with you. A test should not be the only factor that determines whether or not someone is capable of achieving something. Scores are not always a true reflection of ability. Simple things such as being better prepared or getting a decent amount of sleep can alter a test score differently. So not allowing someone admittance to a program based solely on that logic does indeed hinder a lot of potential talent from being discovered and nurtured. What are some ways that you think can better test these abilities?

    • Standardized tests have always been a triggering topic for me. I do believe that a lot of people lose out on great opportunities for no reason. Just as you said, women already feel a disadvantage which pushes them to study that much harder, losing out on vital sleep that may have changed the scores otherwise. High stake tests already have a biased towards who can pass it, so minorities feel that extra stress to preform whereas a male counterpart may barely study for such an exam. I feel like there are so many other skills that should be assessed, and the STEM field in general tend to concentrate on a certain type of intelligence. But then the question comes up where, what is another way of assessment that can get rid of these unfair stakes.

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