Cornell, Harvard Drop GRE for English Ph.D.

Move goes against the norm for top-ranked doctoral programs.

March 18, 2019
(Cornell University)

The English department at Cornell University on Friday announced that it would no longer require applicants to its Ph.D. program to submit Graduate Record Examination scores.

The move is rare among top-ranked doctoral programs in English. Among English Ph.D. programs that require the GRE are Columbia University, Princeton University, the University of Chicago, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of California, Berkeley, and Yale University. (Of those continuing the requirement, some require only the general exam and some also require the subject exam in literature.)

But Cornell will not be the first to make the move. Last year, Harvard University's English department quietly made a similar shift, and it plans to continue to operate without the GRE requirement. And some departments in other humanities fields -- such as philosophy at Penn -- have dropped GRE requirements.

Cornell's department issued a statement to explain its shift. "GRE scores are not good predictors of success or failure in a Ph.D. program in English, and the uncertain predictive value of the GRE exam is far outweighed by the toll it takes on student diversity. For many applicants the cost of preparing for and taking the exam is prohibitively expensive, and the exam is not globally accessible. Requiring the exam narrows our applicant pool at precisely the moment we should be creating bigger pipelines into higher education. We need the strength of a diverse community in order to pursue the English department’s larger mission: to direct the force of language toward large and small acts of learning, alliance, imagination and justice."

Jenny C. Mann, an associate professor of English and graduate director of the department, followed the statement with a series of tweets:

The basic fee for the GRE general test is $205, with additional fees for other tests and services, and fee waivers available for low-income students.

Glenda Carpiom, professor of English and director of graduate studies at Harvard, said via email that in the first year in which the department didn't require the GRE, applications from underrepresented minority and international students were up. She said that the department was pleased with the results.

ETS has in recent years stressed that while it believes the GRE enhances admissions committees' decision making, it also believes that departments should not overemphasize scores, or adopt cutoff scores, even informal ones.

Some English doctoral programs tell applicants that they limit their consideration of the GRE. The University of Chicago's English website says, "The admissions committee does not have specific cutoff levels for GRE scores and [grade point averages], nor does the department report average scores or GPAs. Please note that the admissions committee generally considers your writing sample, statement of purpose and recommendation letters to be more important to your application than your GRE scores."

But others, while disavowing cutoff scores, share information on the scores of those typically admitted. Columbia's English website says, "We have no fixed minimum GRE score, but successful applicants trained in the U.S. will almost always have a GRE verbal score in the 95th percentile or better."

David Payne, vice president and chief operating officer for global education at ETS, offered an email response to the decision by Cornell.

"In an environment in which questions of access and equity are more top of mind than ever, it’s concerning that an important program at a well-known global research university would eliminate the only common, objective measure in their admissions process that makes it possible to compare applicants from different educational, social and cultural backgrounds," Payne said. "Without the GRE test, graduate admissions processes tend to rely heavily on subjective criteria. The announcement noted that future graduate admissions decisions will be based solely on each applicant’s writing sample, transcripts and letters of recommendation. These are exactly the measures that that are fraught with bias and may be heavily influenced by parents, coaches or mentors. Access to top-tier institutions, and connections to well-known thought leaders who can write powerful, eloquent letters aren’t readily accessible to all applicants, and this unequal access is likely to negatively affect those who do not complete undergraduate degrees at highly selective institutions."

Payne added, "Improving diversity and student success in graduate schools is a complex challenge that cannot be solved with a single shortcut like dropping the GRE. There’s also a lack of evidence to suggest that dropping the GRE will create any kind of lasting improvement in diversity."

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Scott Jaschik

Scott Jaschik, Editor, is one of the three founders of Inside Higher Ed. With Doug Lederman, he leads the editorial operations of Inside Higher Ed, overseeing news content, opinion pieces, career advice, blogs and other features. Scott is a leading voice on higher education issues, quoted regularly in publications nationwide, and publishing articles on colleges in publications such as The New York Times, The Boston Globe, The Washington Post, Salon, and elsewhere. He has been a judge or screener for the National Magazine Awards, the Online Journalism Awards, the Folio Editorial Excellence Awards, and the Education Writers Association Awards. Scott served as a mentor in the community college fellowship program of the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, of Teachers College, Columbia University. He is a member of the board of the Education Writers Association. From 1999-2003, Scott was editor of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Scott grew up in Rochester, N.Y., and graduated from Cornell University in 1985. He lives in Washington.

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