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The Daily Tar Heel

Column: Stop gatekeeping graduate school admissions

Rajee headshot

Opinion writer Rajee Ganesan poses for a portrait. Photo courtesy of Rajee Ganesan.

Driven by COVID-19, various graduate schools across the United States have made the executive decision to waive standardized testing for this upcoming admissions cycle. This comes in response to many of the testing dates being pushed to online environments or being canceled altogether. However, standardized tests, such as the GRE, have long been points of contention in discussions of admissions committees, and this year could be a major decider in whether or not the tests ever return to application requirements.

Several graduate programs at UNC, including the School of Public Policy, have already announced that GRE scores will not be required for this upcoming admissions cycle. Waiving these requirements is definitely historic, with test scores generally being a significant factor in separating applicants. However, many programs across the nation have been working to remove the GRE from admission requirements for several years now.

When the University of Michigan’s biomedical sciences graduate program stopped requiring GRE scores in 2018, multiple other programs followed suit in order to prevent losing applicants who may not have completed the test.This push, known on social media as #GRExit, has been led primarily by the life sciences programs, with at least 50 percent of molecular biology Ph.D. programs removing the requirement altogether. 

And for good reason — the GRE is not an effective predictor of success in graduate school. A study by Joshua Hall, director of graduate admissions for the biological and biomedical science program at UNC, showed GRE scores were not correlated with the number of first-author papers published during graduate school, nor the time it took them to complete the degree. So, while several universities use the scores to decide who meets a program's rigorous standards, the test itself likely isn’t the best indicator.

The standardized testing requirement functions as a gatekeeper, making the admissions process particularly exclusive. These tests aren’t cheap — taking the GRE, for example, costs $205. Along with the actual cost of taking the test, test preparatory materials, from workbooks to courses, can quickly add up. Individuals who come from more comfortable socioeconomic backgrounds have the upper-hand in time, finances and opportunities to study for these tests, while others who may be working part-time jobs, taking a higher course load to keep a scholarship or facing financial hardships are at an obvious disadvantage. 

Now, with some of these tests being pushed online, many individuals have raised concerns about how the new testing environment disadvantages prospective students from rural and low-income backgrounds. Test-takers are required to have access with a computer with a webcam, as well as a private room in a home with a stable internet connection. With the combination of a slew of other requirements and technical issues already being reported, administering these tests online is proving to be controversial.

The GRE has been proven to be an inadequate predictor of success in graduate school, with no correlation to graduation time or research productivity. With these tests moving online, the possibility of equitable test administration as well as the reliability of the scores are also brought into question. Standardized testing has long disadvantaged prospective students from diverse backgrounds, effectively gatekeeping graduate school for decades. Graduate programs should use this unprecedented year as an opportunity to not only waive standardized testing requirements for program admission, but remove them altogether in the years to follow.


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