It is getting close to the time for graduating seniors to submit applications to PhD programs, and I’ve been reflecting again on our discipline’s practices in this regard. Especially, I’ve been thinking about the role of GRE scores in the process.
The role of GRE scores in any given graduate program is fairly obscure, but it is fair to say that there are institutional pressures to recruit students with higher GRE scores. There are various ways to succumb to these pressures, from a crass preference for higher GRE scores to a system in which first cuts are made on the basis of GRE scores. I don’t mean to attach any significance to the question of whether such practices amount to succumbing to pressure, however; my concern is with the practices themselves.
My concerns about the role of GRE scores are two-fold: an issue of fairness, and an issue of substance.
It is by now well-known how malleable GRE scores are. Because of the nature of the game, I’ve told students with scores in the 1100’s that they must do whatever it takes to get their scores up. In some cases, the scores have gone from the 1100’s to the 1500’s.
So suppose a grad program is evaluating such a student: multiple takes of the GRE, scoring from the 1100’s to the 1500’s (maybe the multiple takes were of actual tests, maybe only of practice tests–it makes no difference to the case, though of course it would make a difference to what an admissions committee knows regarding the number of takes). Compare such a student with another student who takes the GRE once, scoring in the 1200’s. I have only anecdotal evidence for the following claim, but I’m quite confident the first student will pass GRE scrutiny at any of the top 20 PhD programs in philosophy, and the second student will fail nearly all the first cuts.
First, the issue of substance. I doubt there is any evidence in these two records to sustain a judgment that the first student is more likely to be a credit to a top 20 PhD program. Whatever evidence there is in favor of using standardized tests, I’m pretty confident that there is no data available to show that those who take the exam (or a practice exam) every day for three months have a better chance of success in graduate school and in the profession. It is true that the stamina and determination shown by a willingness to undertake such an effort is relevant to success in philosophy, but such characteristics alone are surely inadequate and much less important than evidence of philosophical ability.
This point leads to my second point. If one wishes to stake the relevance of higher GRE scores by multiple test-taking on the personal qualities displayed, there is a critical unfairness involved in such practices. We don’t know why the single test-taker, scoring in the 1200’s, took the test only once. But it is a certainty that those with lower income and less leisure time will have less opportunity to take practice tests, enroll in prep courses, etc. So not only is there a question of the relevance of comparisons between the best score by a multiple test-taker and the best score by a single-test taker, there is also a question of unfairness involved.
The question is what to do about this. One might argue for averaging the GRE scores of multiple test-takers, but such a practice will prompt even larger amounts of test-taking and test-preparation by the most advantaged, in order to continue to raise one’s average. I’m uncertain what practices to recommend here, but here’s a quick idea, and I solicit other ideas as well. Why not set a reasonable lower limit on GRE scores, high enough to predict success but low enough to discourage multiple test-taking? (Maybe 1400 at top 10 or 20 programs, maybe 1300 for those a bit lower, and maybe 800 for . . . U. of Dallas. Something of a joke, that is, to see if you are paying attention, but see the Hirsch number rankings in the right sidebar for the basis of the joke … 🙂 ) (One could insist, for example, that the lowest GRE score will be used, and then have an appeals process if anyone on the admissions committee is inclined toward the candidate in spite of the score, thus allowing students who claim to have had a “bad day” to make a special appeal and have the lower score not counted. Whatever policies are adopted, they’d have to allow room for exceptional cases, so one shouldn’t object to the general policy recommendation because of the need for exceptions–that’s just to favor the status quo policy, which, I’m arguing, is wrong both on grounds of fairness and substance.) Then applicants could be evaluated by the admissions committee on the basis of applicant information in which the GRE scores have been removed.
There is also the option of no longer using GRE scores, but I doubt that will happen anytime soon. In the meantime, I think there is both an argument from fairness and one from substance for minimizing the effect of higher GRE scores.
One other point worth making. If you knew that a student could get his GRE scores up enough to get into your program with enough effort, you’d surely prefer that effort to be devoted to philosophy itself rather than a standardized score. Of course, you don’t know that. But the preference itself counts as an additional consideration in favor of a negative view of multiple test-taking.
UPDATE: In response to some of the comments below: My concerns here are not meant to be general concerns about the role of standardized tests such as the GRE. My primary concern is rather with what I perceive to be the growing preoccupation with getting higher and higher GRE scores to compete at top departments. When prospective students spend thousands of dollars and hours trying to get scores higher than 1500, there is something seriously wrong. Such expense and effort is surely a waste in terms of the interests of our discipline in recruiting and developing the brightest and best who are interested in philosophy. It is a gross extravagance that responsible departments need to respond to, by adopting practices that discourage such a disorder among priorities, a disorder that stunts philosophical development in favor of competence at a certain type of test-taking.