The GRE Causes More Harm Than Good to Women of Color

How one test enforces unfair academic gatekeeping

GRE scores are sometimes used to unfairly limit academic attainment. Image: A brown-skinned woman sits at a computer and takes a test alongside others of varying races, Getty Images

Some time ago, a world-famous White male economist did something unprecedented: He shared his GRE scores publicly — scores that, in his words, would have resulted in him being screened out by the top programs that now swear by his textbooks and resources today. (In the field of economics, the quantitative score must be nearly perfect for competitive programs that yield the best academic career outcomes.) In the tweets that followed, he shared that while he didn’t know if the GRE was useful and that it could be a nontrivial predictor, he ultimately wanted to normalize the fact that not everyone aces the GRE. And he’s right.

As encouraged as I was by his vulnerability, I couldn’t help but note that any Black woman with a score like that today would have not been granted admission because of double standards. There would have been debate about whether she could handle the rigor of a program or if she were adequately prepared by her institution. All of this reminded me of Koritha Mitchell’s words: “I’ve spent my career watching white people use job-performance standards to judge everyone but themselves and each other.” And that’s when it dawned on me: Academic gatekeeping starts early, beginning with how the GRE is used.

The GRE, or the Graduate Readiness Examination, is a standardized exam used to “assess” one’s readiness in reading comprehension, writing, and mathematics for graduate school.

For all intents and purposes, the GRE, like any other standardized test, is meant to be the great equalizer in admissions. The College Board, which administers the GRE through ETS, states that scores “are standardized and objective, giving faculty committees a way to directly compare applicants with different backgrounds and experiences.” In some cases, scores may even serve as another mechanism to assist in a holistic review of an application, especially in the absence of strong letters of recommendation from academic giants or stellar grades.

But here’s the thing: While the GRE may be standardized, the way the test is used is not. Put another way, the test can be used to gatekeep the academy before you even arrive at the gate. As Neil Lewis Jr., an assistant professor and social psychologist at Cornell University, points out:

There’s a long history of tests that were designed to help with inclusion ultimately being used for exclusionary purposes. Because of that, we always have to think about not just the tests per se, but about the goals of decision-makers, and how those goals affect their plans to use them.

Let’s say you want to take the GRE. As it stands, the test is $200, and most of the time, test-takers will opt to repeat the test until they achieve their preferred scores. That aside, in order to prepare for the test, you usually enroll in a test preparation course, which can range from $500 to $5,000. Granted, individuals can self-study with books, but there’s another cost borne here as well: time. After test prep and the actual test, you then have to send your scores to schools you’ve applied to, for which ETS charges $27 if you’re based in the U.S. By the time you are finished, you may have spent upward of hundreds or even thousands of dollars to take a test that tests whether you know how to take the test. And that’s just the cost of taking the test.

Additionally, while there is evidence that other standardized tests, especially at the undergraduate level, can potentially reduce bias in admissions, findings on GRE outcomes are mixed at best. And a recent study found that scores are not predictive of completion of STEM doctoral degrees among U.S. citizens and permanent residents.

Let’s be clear: The GRE is not the problem. Costs aside, it’s a standard test that asks standard questions. What is the problem, however, is how the test is used to ensure mirror-tocracy within academia and how access to resources surrounding the test can also select on certain attributes that characterize the academy, such as wealth, race, and gender.

GRE apologists may feel that the test offers value because individuals who lack privilege are further signaling interest in graduate education, conditional on programs requiring them. They often cite this reason to justify why the test is useful for international applicants and underrepresented groups, both of whom may come from educational backgrounds that may be unfamiliar to admissions committees.

And therein lies the problem. The unfamiliarity admissions committees have with people from diverse backgrounds—because they themselves are largely White—relegates them to use the GRE as a way to “cut off” certain applicants that are, in their opinion, not worth discussing. These cut-off scores can systematically impact Black and Brown students, especially women, who tend to score lower on average. The ETS, the creators of the GRE, even warn against scores being used this way, stating that “using a single score masks critical information about that individual’s specific skills.” And yet institutions blatantly ignore this suggestion.

Though hard evidence is limited on the causal impact of making the GRE test optional, 2020 provided some anecdotal evidence that suggests the positive impact of reassessing how the GRE is used in admissions. At the University of California, Berkeley, for example, the computer science department waived the GRE and ended up admitting a class of which 15% of admits identified as Black (although it is unclear how many of any race in that class submitted a GRE with their application). In a tweet thread, Rediet Abebe, Berkeley’s first Black woman computer science professor, credited the rise in numbers of Black admits to a concerted effort by the department to be more inclusive. And in May, the department voted to indefinitely drop the requirement. That said, the #GRExit movement has been ongoing with now 300 biomedical graduate programs dropping the requirement entirely, and other disciplines, including math, physics, and astronomy, are following suit.

Many of these institutions dropped the requirement because ultimately, for them, test scores didn’t tell them about who deserved to become scientists.

While the GRE may present itself as a standardized test, the scores are ultimately used to assess who has privilege and who doesn’t. Can you afford to take the test? Can you afford to prepare for it? Did you have access to institutional resources? Were your parents academics or professionals? The answers to these questions are inextricably tied to an individual’s identity and background, which means that how the test is used matters.

It matters because while the academy informs the world, it does not reflect the world. It matters because identity guides the kinds of questions we ask and why. It matters because how the academy uses the GRE can and will have lasting implications. It matters because a standardized test used in a nonstandardized test is inequitable.

At the end of the day, reassessing the use of the test may actually allow more people through the gates of academic training, which is a win for everyone.

I am a young Black woman with opinions. Stay awhile.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store