Scott: GRE fails to offer accurate assessment

Scott argues the GRE isn’t a good indicator of graduate school potential.

Zach Scott

Zach ScottFor the uninitiated and lucky alike, the Graduate Record Exam is a standardized test a prospective graduate student is usually required to take. Think of it like an advanced version of the SAT.

Except, this test occurs entirely in front of a computer screen. And takes almost four hours to complete. And it adjusts the level of difficulty based on how you’ve done in previous sections, creating an all-consuming feeling of paranoia derived from the gnawing worry that if you think you’re doing well, that means you did poorly before. It is a gauntlet that I, personally, never wish to relive.

Besides the obvious criticism of the test’s sadism, the usual complaints against standardized tests — that it is an arbitrary way to evaluate students and that it disadvantages poor test-takers — are levied at the GRE’s just the same.

To some degree, all of these complaints have their merits. But the counterpoint is equally as persuasive. Curriculum can vary widely for undergraduates program to program. Standardized tests provide a way to level the playing field and evaluate everyone under the same set of circumstances.

If the topic of discussion was the MCATs or LSATs, I would absolutely agree. Those tests are subject-focused. Sure, the LSATs don’t test on jurisprudence, but they test the overall critical thinking abilities that are a requisite to succeeding in law school and beyond. And the MCATs look for just the sort of scientific minds that one would expect a doctor to have.

Now consider who would need to take the GRE. Someone who is pursuing his or her masters in sociology and a Ph.D. hopeful in economics would both have to sign up. Two radically different subjects, yet both take the exact same test.

That’s right. Everyone is tested in the same sections — verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning and analytical writing — without being tested on anything from a chosen field.

Let’s look at a simple example. Suppose, from the time you were little, you desperately wanted to grow up to be Indiana Jones. Right after a fedora and a whip, the third most important thing you would need is a doctorate in archaeology.

You do exceptionally well in all your classes and build excellent relationships with your professors. You have a great personal statement, academic statement and writing sample. All that’s left is to sit down and bang out the GRE.

So you show up, only to find that not a single question on the test concerns dinosaur bones or Arks of the Covenant. Instead, you’re being questioned on what “loquacious” means and the rules of combinations and permutations.

Tragically, you don’t do as well as you expected.  Meanwhile, there is another student who didn’t do quite as well as you in their archaeology classes, but nailed that one question where the two answers were whimsical and capricious. This person now gets a spot in your program of choice, despite never even seeing “The Last Crusade.”

And, make no mistake, they really are that important.

When a student gets to the point where he or she is seriously considering graduate school, chances are it is during late sophomore or junior year. Maybe even senior year. By that point, your GPA is mostly set. You may be able, through hard work, to raise it a few hundredths of a point. But significant fluctuations aren’t likely to happen. In that case, since improvements to your GPA aren’t likely to be massive, the best way to increase your chances at acceptance or feasibility is to perform spectacularly on the GRE’s.

Now, it would be misleading to continue without mentioning that there are subject tests available. So, if you’re interested in biochemistry, biology, chemistry, computer science, literature in English, mathematics, physics or psychology, congratulations. You get to take a test that will actually attempt to measure the knowledge that is useful to you in your future career.

Otherwise, the person sitting next to you could be trying to pursue a degree in a field on the complete opposite spectrum from you. And yet you’ll both be taking the same test.

In other words, that makes about as much sense as asking a political scientist what the length of a diagonal of a cube with a surface area of 54 is.

Zack Scott can be reached at

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