Ignoring Key Data Points Can Make or Break Holistic Admissions

Eliminating the GRE as a requirement will hurt the very students in whose name some colleges are doing so, write six scholars.

June 21, 2021
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Graduate programs striving to admit the most qualified and diverse classes can do so by ensuring their admissions review processes consider insightful and trusted metrics like GRE General Test scores. Waiving the only common, objective measure in a holistic review process will inherently make the process less fair and equitable as the likelihood of implicit bias increases. Instead, admissions decision makers have an obligation in holistically reviewing applicants to consider a multitude of variables, including ones that reliably indicate an applicant’s readiness for succeeding at graduate-level work.

Recently, there have been studies suggesting that not too much weight should be placed on GRE scores.

The Educational Testing Service agrees with this premise, as the scores do not and cannot offer insight about all qualities that are important in predicting academic success or in confirming undergraduate achievement. Unfortunately, though, these studies have sometimes been misunderstood to suggest that there is no role for GRE scores as part of a holistic review. The value in a process designed to look at the whole applicant is not to argue for certain components over others, but to explain why a multitude of considerations, including GRE scores, should be included. Recent research argued against too much reliance on GRE scores and noted that ETS agrees that admissions should be more holistic. But being truly holistic means including all relevant and useful information about an applicant’s skills, background and experiences, including GRE scores. Some scholars have suggested that correlations are low between GRE test performance and future degree completion. Given the top reasons that grad students drop out of school -- change in job or family status and program dissatisfaction -- this shouldn’t be surprising.

Despite the fact that it’s not a lack of cognitive skills that drives students to drop out, a growing body of evidence suggests that test scores can, in fact, be valuable predictors of program completion. For example, the abstract of a 2019 study of physics programs acknowledges that “significant associations” between GRE scores and program completion exist. Other studies also show that the GRE predicts completion in mathematics and economics programs.

Moreover, a recent study that included 320 Ph.D. students indicated twice as many dropouts among students in the bottom quartile of GRE quantitative (GRE-Q) scores compared to students in the top quartile. And although it’s admittedly older, the largest known study of the GRE test’s predictive validity (82,659 graduate students) showed that GRE test scores -- and even more so, GRE Subject Test scores -- correlated positively with degree attainment and research productivity and more strongly with outcomes such as graduate grade point average, publication citation counts and faculty ratings of student performance.

But it’s not only its role in predicting outcomes that makes the GRE a valuable part of a holistic admissions process. The test’s value is really twofold: it’s a valid measure of the critical thinking and reasoning skills that are necessary to do well in most graduate programs and careers, and it’s a research-based and reliable measure that balances out components of the application that are more variable, subjective and prone to bias.

While the reputation of applicants’ undergraduate programs or the status of those who submitted letters of recommendation on their behalf may bias an admissions committee to favor candidates from higher socioeconomic backgrounds or who are more like them, GRE scores provide a more objective, standardized view of applicants’ critical skills. Therefore, their use in decision making can ensure fairness when used appropriately, as three pieces of information (three scores) among many about an applicant. Many current and former graduate students from underrepresented groups, including first-generation students, have said that they believe it was their GRE scores that helped them gain acceptance to a graduate program, since they didn’t have the strong GPA, work/research experience or social connections that other applicants had.

Graduate-level work requires students to have strong critical thinking, reasoning and problem-solving skills to endure a demanding, rigorous academic program. The holistic admissions process, if done correctly, informs decision makers about a prospective student’s readiness for graduate school and future potential. Combining quantitative, objective data like GRE scores with qualitative, subjective information gives decision makers the fullest picture of the applicant and provides insights that would otherwise be lacking. While the use of GRE scores in determining graduate school readiness has been acutely scrutinized, the test’s roles as a valid measure of critical skills, balance to subjective information and predictor of future outcomes make it among the most valuable components of a prospective student’s application packet.


The authors of this piece are Alberto Acereda, executive director of global higher education at ETS; Terry Ackerman, Distinguished Professor of Educational Measurement at the University of Iowa and a graduate education adviser at ETS; John Augusto, associate dean of strategic initiatives, Georgia State University, and a graduate education adviser at ETS; Carlos Grijalva, emeritus professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a graduate education adviser at ETS; Maureen Grasso, professor of textile sciences at North Carolina State University and a graduate education adviser at ETS; and Steve Matson, professor of biology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and a graduate education adviser at ETS.


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