Do Clinical Science Programs Need GRE scores in admissions this year, or ever?

By Anna Lau & Gregory A. Miller, University of California, Los Angeles

This article was originally published in the PCSAS newsletter on July 21, 2020. Click here to subscribe

Headshot photos of Dr. Anna Lau on the left and Dr. Gregory Miller on the right. Both are smiling with teeth showing and wearing glasses.

National unrest over racial violence in policing is drawing renewed attention to systemic racism that remains institutionalized and harms Black Americans. This crisis is layered upon the COVID-19 pandemic, with one consequence being that many fall 2020 applicants to graduate programs may encounter new barriers to taking the GRE and performing well. Here, we discuss the option of waiving the GRE requirement for the coming admissions cycle for clinical science PhD programs, which may provide momentum for its elimination long-term.

Current Context:

Due to COVID-19, many GRE test centers have closed or reduced capacity. Internationally, testing has been suspended in China and Iran and is limited in many other countries. Domestically, testing availability varies. Applicants can take the GRE General Test in-person as long as a testing center is open or can take an at-home version if they meet certain hardware and software requirements. Beyond access barriers, applicants are burdened by the unprecedented strain and collective trauma associated with the pandemic and painful evidence of fundamental racial injustice. These dual crises are disproportionately impacting students from underrepresented minority (URM) groups. Low-income and Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities are suffering higher COVID-19 infection and death rates, greater losses to income and employment, and heavier caregiving burdens. These are the same communities most directly impacted by the trauma of racial violence and police brutality.

The GRExit Movement:

The GRE is a 4-hour multiple choice and written examination that tests quantitative, verbal, and writing skills. There is already a national movement away from requiring the GRE in graduate admissions in some fields, such as the Life Sciences. Half of the 50 top-ranked Molecular Biology PhD programs have stopped requiring the GRE, and about one third of Neuroscience and Ecology programs have done so (Langin, 2019). This trend has been accelerated by accumulating data showing that, beyond first-year grades, GRE scores show no association with graduation or time-to-degree, passing qualifying exams, publication counts, first-authored publications, or receipt of fellowships or grants (Hall, O’Connell, Cook, 2017; Miller, Zwickl, Posselt, Siverstrini, & Hodapp, 2019; Moneta-Doehler, Brown, Petrie, Evans, & Chalkley, 2017). In the spirit of Richard McFall’s (1991) Manifesto for a Science of Clinical Psychology, arguably the founding document of the psychological clinical science movement, the GRE should not be required unless the evidence in favor of its incremental validity is compelling. Educational Testing Service (ETS) data show that students from URM groups consistently score lower on the GRE than do Whites and Asian Americans. It is widely believed that dropping the GRE will diversify applicant pools, entering classes, and ultimately the scientific pipeline (Miller & Stassun, 2014; Posselt, 2016), which could advance social justice and contributions of science to population health and welfare.

Consequences for Applicants, Students, and Faculty:

The task demand of the GRE Quantitative test is to complete 50 questions in 80 minutes. Here is an example item on the ETS site. Data are lacking on the typical time spent in preparing for the GRE, but many students invest considerable effort to increase their speed and improve their test-taking strategies. We may question not only the ecological and the predictive validity of the GRE, but also the opportunity costs for applicants to study, practice, and receive coaching to improve performance. This is money and time that applicants might otherwise spend preparing for graduate studies (e.g., mentored or independent research, clinical training experience, information gathering to understand what programs might best fit their goals and needs, service to the community).

Example question from the ETS site

Faculty of color and faculty who study diversity issues in clinical science often draw diverse applicants with sometimes lower GRE scores. In our experience, such applicants often present with larger discrepancies between GPA and GRE scores. Prospective faculty advisors who advocate the admission of students with lower scores, often referring to points discussed above, may face some stigma by others who view this as compromising standards of excellence. The applicants may also be stigmatized, affecting their experience during interviews and even after admission to the program.

Our Own Context:

At UCLA, Psychology is currently the only Department in the Division of Life Sciences that requires the GRE in admissions.* The interdisciplinary Neuroscience PhD program does not require the GRE, and our students populate many of the same labs. National trends show that Psychology lags behind the other Life Sciences in dropping the GRE, with only 4 of the top 50 Psychology Departments having done so as of 2018 (Langin, 2019). Psychology Departments that take this action now have an opportunity to provide national leadership to our field.

Over the years, the admissions committee of our clinical science program has had many conversations about how to consider and weigh the GRE. There is uniform agreement that high GRE scores alone provide no basis for admission, as holistic review demands evidence for likely success in the conduct of clinical science and in the provision of psychological care. Committee members often make the case for admitting applicants with low GRE Quantitative scores based on good grades in math and statistics classes, letters that attest to analytic competencies, or demonstrated skill in applying and understanding statistics in research. The question becomes one of value added — why start with the premise that we need the GRE if we readily ignore it on the basis of other more proximal data?

A Proposal for PCSAS Programs:

Programs can act now to waive the GRE requirement for fall 2020 admissions in light of the crises applicants are now facing, as well as the lack evidence for the value-added of GRE scores. Programs can make admissions decisions without the GRE this year as an experiment and evaluate the impact on the diversity and quality of the applicant pool and on the admissions decision-making process. Admissions committees can reflect on what information is lost that cannot be provided by other data. But as discussed above, the burden on applicants to provide GRE scores is rising, and the incremental validity of GRE scores in predicting success in graduate school may be close to zero. Faculty who themselves are the products of a system that values GRE scores may hesitate to walk away from criteria on which they excelled. Yet, consistent with our values as clinical scientists, our admissions practices should be data-driven.

___________________________________________________________________

*After this article was accepted, the UCLA Dept of Psychology decided to waive the GRE requirement for applicants in the Department’s 2021–2022 admission cycle, to reduce barriers for applicants most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and the unrest sparked by racial injustice.

___________________________________________________________________

References

Hall, J. D., O’Connell, A. B., & Cook, J. G. (2017). Predictors of student productivity in biomedical graduate school applications. PLoS One, 12(1). Doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0169121

Langin, K. (2019). A wave of graduate programs drops the GRE application requirement. Science Magazine, 29.

McFall, R. M. (1991). Manifesto for a science of clinical psychology. The Clinical Psychologist, 44(6), 75–88.

Miller, C., & Stassun, K. (2014). A test that fails. Nature, 510(7504), 303–304.

Miller, C. W., Zwickl, B. M., Posselt, J. R., Silvestrini, R. T., & Hodapp, T. (2019). Typical physics Ph. D. admissions criteria limit access to underrepresented groups but fail to predict doctoral completion. Science Advances, 5(1), eaat7550. Doi: 10.1126/sciadv.aat7550

Moneta-Koehler, L., Brown, A. M., Petrie, K. A., Evans, B. J., & Chalkley, R. (2017). The limitations of the GRE in predicting success in biomedical graduate school. PloS One, 12(1).

Posselt, J. R. (2016). Inside graduate admissions: Merit, diversity, and faculty gatekeeping. Harvard University Press.

--

--

SSCP Diversity Committee
Society for a Science of Clinical Psychology

The SSCP Diversity Committee was established in 2014 to promote a more diverse clinical science.