UCLA’s Carlos Grijalva: Is there a benefit to GRE® scores?

All students with aspirations to further their education should have the opportunity to show their skill set and readiness for graduate school. If we agree with this premise, it follows that graduate admissions should be a fair and inclusive process. While in theory many schools would agree with this idea, it’s only recently that programs have begun making changes to their admissions policies, practices and processes to work toward making this a reality. 

We all know that graduate school applicants have disparate access to opportunities. Some applicants have access to rich academic and cultural experiences, and their parents set the expectation that they will pursue higher education early in life and reinforce that expectation throughout their formative years. For other students, as was the case for me, this is not the norm. In fact, because I did not come from a well-to-do background, I learned at an early age how much harder I would have to work both inside and outside of the classroom to keep pace with my peers. As the first member of my family to go to college, no one expected me to attend graduate school, much less complete a Ph.D. degree. I attended two different junior colleges and the University of Arizona as an undergraduate. Although I had scholarships my first year at the University of Arizona, I left for California only to return to Arizona for my senior year. During the last three years of my undergraduate education, I did not have the opportunity to engage in research or internships because my reality was that I had to work to support myself. Holistically, I believe my application was viewed as someone with potential, grit, persistence, motivation and sufficient cognitive skills. My GRE® scores were part of that assessment. 

In my many years as a college professor and graduate dean, I have known dozens of students who, like me, were first generation college students from underserved communities and who lacked good role models and mentors. Some of these students were especially disadvantaged because they attended lesser-known schools and lacked the opportunities to get involved in research and extracurricular activities because of the need to support themselves. It was difficult for these students to connect with faculty outside of class due to time constraints or a more reserved personality. They struggled to find faculty members who could say they know them well enough to provide a strong letter of recommendation. The game changer for them was that that they were able to leverage the GRE® General Test scores to open the door to graduate school and their future. The GRE test served as an equalizer within the graduate admissions process and provided the lifeline to rise above the sea of other applicants.

Institutions forgoing the GRE test requirement in their admissions processes are shortchanging both their programs and their applicants ― especially those from underrepresented groups. GRE scores serve as a competitive chip for many students from marginalized backgrounds who leverage their GRE scores to show that they have the requisite cognitive skills to be successful in graduate and professional school and that they can compete with (and oftentimes outperform) their counterparts who come from more privileged backgrounds. And some of these students do so without the benefit of test preparation and educational experiences. Despite the obvious benefits that the GRE test brings to holistic admissions, critics of standardized tests argue that eliminating the GRE test from graduate admissions will somehow create a fairer review process. I not only disagree but can speak from my own experience — both as a former student and as a faculty member involved in making admissions decisions over several decades — that the GRE test is a necessary tool to ensure that every student has an opportunity to pursue their dreams of higher education. 

A truly holistic admissions practice considers an applicant in their entirety. This means evaluating a student based on both quantitative data which is measured using a scientific-based assessment such as the GRE test. A student’s undergraduate GPA, letters of recommendation, work experience, research experience, personal statement, statement of purpose and inter- and intrapersonal skills are also essential points to look at when examining a student’s quantitative and qualitative profile, but all of these pieces of the puzzle can introduce bias as they are influenced by socioeconomic factors. The GRE test currently serves as the only standardized and truly objective benchmark in the graduate admissions process. It helps to level the playing field between privileged applicants who had the financial and social resources to gain admission to top undergraduate programs and gain pertinent research experience, and less privileged applicants who had very different life experiences but earned GRE scores high enough to further their candidacy as a prospective student who can both compete academically and bring a versatile and diverse perspective to the classroom. 

Looking beyond the GRE test’s role as a quantitative benchmark, there is another often-overlooked role for GRE scores: they can help identify applicants in need of extra support. For example, an applicant who earned a low score on the GRE Analytical Writing section but who was admitted to a program for other skills and experiences they can bring may benefit greatly from additional writing instruction, especially if they’ll be writing papers and a thesis someday. By using GRE scores in this way, rather than just as an admissions metric, programs can help students with diverse backgrounds to achieve success.

The GRE test helps to facilitate a more equitable and inclusive admissions process because it is the only component of the application that is research-based, objective and standardized, allowing for direct comparisons between candidates. Without the GRE test, many students from less privileged backgrounds, myself included, would be gated out of the graduate education system. This type of gatekeeping is the exact opposite of what many schools are trying to accomplish by no longer requiring the GRE test. I wholeheartedly advocate for the use of the GRE test as a necessary and objective measure in a holistic admissions process. It can help welcome and support the best candidates who bring not only academic skills but also a wide array of personal experiences that enable schools to develop a more inclusive student body that better reflects the world around us. 

Carlos Grijalva is a professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a graduate education advisor for ETS. 

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