Why does the GRE exist at all?: understanding the origins of the test

Davis: Hey everybody, this is GRE Bites. My name is Davis, and I’m an educator with over ten years of experience.

Orion: And I’m Orion, the founder of StellarGRE.

Davis: We’re here to bring you your weekly bite-sized episode on GRE prep and grad school admissions. Check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at stellargre.com. And don’t forget, you can use the code “BITES” for 10% off any membership.

So the main question in this episode is a little different from previous ones where we dug into the weeds. I just want to take a step back; this is for grad school admission, for getting a good score. That’s what Stellar GRE exists for, but why does the GRE exist in the first place? Why do you think the GRE exists?

Orion: Why do I think the GRE exists?

Davis: Yeah, do you have an idea?

Orion: Well, I mean, analogous to the LSAT, it’s like you come out; you need a standardized test for different colleges, presumably for different colleges, to admit you based on some kind of merit, namely, the score that you received on the standardized test.

Davis: Sure, seems that way.

Orion: And that’s where most people go, that the SAT is developed by the College Board. The GRE is developed by ETS, Educational Testing Services. But they’re both standardized tests for university admissions. And the idea here is that these tests are assessing, let’s say, college or grad school readiness, right? And research has indicated that these tests aren’t very good at doing that. So, for example, the SATs don’t generally correlate with college GPAs, for instance, and the GRE doesn’t correlate very well inversely with grad school attrition rates, which has to do with whether you finish the grad school program or not. So if these tests are designed to measure university readiness, they’re not doing a great job with that, to be honest.

Davis: So, okay, so you’re saying that the general idea most people have, and the main advertisement, is that these tests, you know, test you to see how prepared you are to succeed in college. And thereby, you know, you have that as a factor in your admittance process. But what you’re saying is that they’re not actually correlated with those success metrics. Once you get in, once you’re admitted to said college. And so what, you know, what would be a different take? Well, what’s the reason then for taking them?

Orion: Sure. I mean, again, if readiness were the primary reason why these tests exist, why, especially in the last two years, during the age of COVID, has there been a systematic move in many universities away from these tests? You know, the narrative is that it has to do with access to the tests. ETS did a really beautiful thing earlier on in the pandemic, where they laterally added home administrations; usually, you’d have to go into a secure testing environment to be able to take the test. But they worked with an online proctoring agency for students to be able to take the GRE from the comfort of their own home, so that they could continue to engage during the pandemic. That said, a great number of grad school programs waived their GRE requirements for the last two years. And ostensibly they were citing, you know, not every student has equal access to computers or the internet, which is true. But I don’t think that warrants 75% of universities waiving that requirement during that time, to be honest.

Davis: So what were the effects of waiving on admissions? Do you know it?

Orion: Yes, in general, programs that don’t require the GRE receive three to five times as many applicants as programs that do. Spoiler alert: students don’t like taking the GRE or other standardized tests. And if they can get what they want, i.e., apply and be admitted to a grad school program of their choice without taking it, they will take advantage of that. So, it’s in a university’s, say, “best interests” to forego the GRE requirement because it increases the number of applicants, and that obviously comes with application fees. And it makes sure that those universities have a better chance of filling their cohorts. And in recent years, that has been very difficult. Grad School Admissions across the board are going down, and they went down significantly during the pandemic.

I mean, the median cost for professional school like a business school is $150,000. And a big part of that is to be able to go there, make connections, go out after class; that’s going to be your cohort. Those are going to be your professional network for the next three to five years. You don’t get any of those intangibles on Zoom, right? So, the prospect of paying six figures just to engage in Zoom classes was less interesting to prospective students during the pandemic, and admissions were tanking. And I think the decision to waive the GRE was primarily motivated by the falling enrollment numbers in grad school over the last two years than any legitimate concern associated with access to computers.

Davis: So that’s interesting because, you know, I’ve heard you talk about this before, but I want to make sure I’m understanding it clearly right now, which is that, you know, it sounds like okay, we’re going to waive the GRE so we can get more people to apply and to come in, because we need that; we need to fill our cohorts. It almost sounds like the GRE is a deterrent, or has been used as a deterrent, or a reason not to admit people or to keep, you know, from it being too competitive or to over, you know, having admissions be overwhelmed.

Orion: Yeah, it seems kind of counterproductive.

Davis: So if waiving the GRE leads to more applicants at any given program, why don’t all programs waive the GRE, if it’s purely a financial incentive?

Orion: And I think the reason has to do with the realities of grad school, which is not all grad school programs are equal. And throughout the pandemic, applications to let’s say, top 10 or top 15 Business Programs remained constant.

Davis: Okay.

Orion: But applications to lower-ranked, less competitive programs tanked. And it was precisely those programs that waived the GRE requirement. It’s still required to get into GSB at Stanford, for instance, okay. GSB, the business school at Stanford University, is one of the most competitive grad school programs in the world. I think last time I checked, they have an acceptance rate of 6% out of, like, how many applications usually, I don’t know off the top of my head, but I would assume at least in the four figures. I think they’d probably get thousands per year. 6% is basically around one in 20.

Davis: Okay.

Orion: And these are not just schmoes off the street; these are usually very intelligent, hardworking, ambitious young people. And these top-ranked programs get thousands of applicants every admission cycle, and I don’t really envy their job; they have to say no to 19 out of 20 ambitious, intelligent, hardworking young people. That is not an easy job. And it’s made more difficult by the fact that there are few, we could say, objective and quantifiable parameters in the application materials, right? And so, if you’re on one of these admissions teams, and you have five otherwise completely equally qualified people, but one of the only empirical hard data sets that you can use to decide who to say no and who to say yes to is a couple of percentile points on the GRE, is that you as the GRE used in that way to say, “Oh, well, this person had the higher GRE.”

Davis: Sure. I mean, if we can potentially have a thought experiment where two applicants are exactly the same with respect to their undergrad universities, their GPAs, their extracurriculars, their CVs, let’s just assume that they’re identical twins, but one scored three points higher on the GRE than the other. Why not? If you are able, like GSB, to choose the cream of the crop, why not choose the slightly more competitive applicant?

Orion: I mean, that seems to be kind of common sense to me. But I think the main reason the GRE exists is again, so at these programs, the admissions committee have to reject 19 out of 20 people. And we’re talking about high-stakes, competitive academic environments, with deep pockets. And we also live in the context of a very litigious society. There’s very few objective, quantifiable parameters on an application; it’s like the GRE score and GPA.

Davis: Everything else is what, personal demographics?

Orion: Yeah, and Statement of Purpose essay, these are subjective, or rooted in identity. So the reason that GRE exists, especially, will continue to exist at the most competitive levels, is that it gives grad schools a legally defensible way to reject people without getting sued, right for being based on discrimination or totally. I mean, if you get rid of the GRE, what, it’s like, what’s the problem? You don’t like my background? You don’t like my gender or my sexual orientation or my race, or what, my plans for the future. That would be, it’s tricky to prove. There’s been some lawsuits recently in that direction to prove racial discrimination at the college admissions level. We can see that there are obviously differences in outcome when you look at the cohorts that actually get admitted, but it’s hard to actually prove that there were discriminative policies in place.

So grad school programs, the easiest way, for them, the least amount of headache, is just to say it has nothing to do with any of that stuff. It’s that you had a GRE score of a 161, and the average score was a 165. It allows programs to wash their hands of the vast majority of applicants without getting sued, which they have to anyway because they have to reject 95% of applicants. And so this is by far the easiest way to just thrash through the applicant pool. And that’s why the GRE isn’t going anywhere for the most competitive programs, which consistently still get high levels of admissions, even during pandemics.

Davis: Yeah, no, that’s really good. So, bottom line is that, you know, if you’re looking, if a student, you know, headed to graduate school, is looking to where they go really matters, that they’re really wanting to get that level of connection and, you know, the prestigious accolades that come from being in one of the Ivy League schools or these big graduate schools, then, you know, if they can, here’s a question, if they can bump their GRE score and get like a perfect score, which I know you’ve had many students do who’ve taken stellar GRE, they can get a perfect score, that top percentile, does that give them an edge in the admissions?

Orion: Great question. So as you know, I got a perfect score on my GRE and I was still rejected from more programs than I got accepted to. So that’s almost like, you have to have a stellar, like a really excellent GRE score. It’s more like this: getting even a perfect score on the GRE is not a golden ticket into the Chocolate Factory. It’s not like the schools were stumbling over themselves to get me on the phone and offer me merit scholarships and admissions letters. The GRE, the best possible outcome with respect to the GRE, is not the securement of a positive; it’s the avoidance of a negative, for okay, it’s for it not being a reason that they reject.

Davis: Exactly

Orion: Students are going to do all this prep, they’re going to spend all this time, energy, and money, just so that they can dodge a bullet. That’s the best possible outcome with respect to the GRE. And if you can pass through that filter, then maybe the admissions committees will look more closely at your materials to determine Goodness of Fit. Goodness of Fit is why people actually get in. The GRE is one of many reasons why students are kept out.

Davis: Oh, that’s, that’s hugely insightful. I hope everyone feels the same.

Thanks, everybody, for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with another bite-sized episode of GRE Bites. If you have a topic you’d like discussed on a future episode, let us know at stellargre@gmail.com. And if you’re ready to take your prep to the next level, check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at stellargre.com. You can use the code “BITES” for 10% off all memberships there. Talk to you soon.

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