How Do We Stop Using the GRE?

Quite a few people ask me this question. I wrote this basic overview to help colleagues figure out how to do this on their own campus.

It helps if you are the Director of Graduate Studies, Director of Admissions or Chair of your department. If not, hopefully you are serving on admissions. If you are not on your department’s admissions team but want to get involved, serving on campus-wide committees may be the way to go.

Find out if your department has written the GRE requirement into departmental stone. In the documents that describe your department or program’s degree requirements, are the GREs listed as a hard requirement for admission to the program?

If the GRE is included in the kind of policy whose revision requires a vote, you will need to revise that document within departmental and campus governing protocols. Put it on agendas, collaborate with colleagues on making space to reflect on their role in admissions, and if there is support for moving away from them, work on revising the policy.

Note: some programs do not require GREs from applicants with recent MAs. Many do not require them from international applicants who have taken the TOEFL, or from graduates from their own campus. If you can’t or don’t want to eliminate them, you might exempt some applicants from needing to take them.

If your program/department documents do not list the GRE as an admissions requirement (of the order of, say, the undergraduate degree and transcript), then raise your desire to stop using them with your grad admissions committee, Chair, and in department meetings. And take the conversation to the administrator running your graduate school (Dean, etc.).

Find out if your graduate school requires them in admissions. Is it written into admissions requirements for your school? I recommend looking around to graduate programs that strike you as unlikely to require them. If they are in the same governing structure (college/school) as your department, this a good, easy-to-find clue regarding the flexibility of your college/school regarding the use of the GRE. If it is hard-wired into university admissions, changing that will take some coalition-building, committee work and voting. When we see a press release from a school announcing that they are dropping them (like Brown), it is likely because they had to revise a university-wide policy to allow individual departments to stop using them.

Surprisingly, at UCR (where I work), the GRE is not hard wired into the admissions process (it isn’t like, for example, undergraduate transcripts). This is likely because we have one college for all our graduate programs, including studio, practice-based MFAs (for which GREs are not standard). In my conversations with our graduate dean, the practice of admitting fine artists without the GRE (into a funded three-year MFA) was a useful precedent for us.

If neither your department nor your graduate school have baked the GRE into the campus’s admissions requirements, and you want to stop using them, you will need to talk with your graduate dean etc. about how the GREs are used in the distribution of fellowship awards. More and more administrators are moving away from their use.

If your grad dean and colleagues are on board, you will need to write out a guide for assessing files. Your graduate dean will want language from you about how you evaluate applicants. You will need to articulate the questions that guide your assessment of their strengths, and as your department writes memos supporting the admission and funding for individual students, you’ll touch base with that guide in your language. Holistic file review practices, it is worth noting, do not lean on one standard for all applicants.

My experience is that many faculty are hesitant to let them go, but are nevertheless open to the idea. You can ease your department into letting the GRE go by requiring them but not using them, then by testing out not requiring them. You can go slow. You can reassure colleagues that if the department does not like the result of not using them, you can go back to using them. The most intense concern in the humanities, on my campus, is that applicants without GRE scores will suffer when it comes to the distribution of awards. But if your graduate dean is on board, this is unlikely to be the case.

If your graduate school does require them, you will likely need to work with a few other faculty to change admissions requirements, you will likely need to bring that change to the committee governing graduate student education and admissions. You might apply for a grant supporting the formation of a working group and the development of a better understanding of best practices for supporting diversity and inclusion in admissions on your campus. I was part of a Mellon-funded working group at the University of California; cross-disciplinary dialogue about admissions can be really enlightening — my STEM colleagues were way ahead of us humanists when it came to understanding the difference between good and bad data in admissions.

If you, like me, want to see your field move away from their use — consider bringing this issue up at your discipline’s annual convention, engage colleagues working with your national organization in conversation — your organization might be in a good position to write a statement about the GRE’s impact in admissions, holistic file review, and diversity and inclusion in admissions.