Is the GRE Useful?

The Atlantic has an article criticizing the GRE, which is the main graduate school entrance exam for most fields (professional schools like law, medicine, and business have their own exams). As with the SAT, also an ETS test, there is a general GRE (with verbal, math, and written parts) and a bunch of subject tests for various individual fields. Prospective physics grad students typically need both the general test and the physics subject test.

The main criticism in the piece is that the GRE too often acts as a gatekeeper that prevents many talented students from being accepted to grad school. In physics, I would say that the opposite is most likely true for the general exam. The general exam has little relevance to physics grad school (as the piece argues), but it is in many ways far too easy. The math section covers math only up to early to mid high school level, so physics majors would be expected to get perfect or near perfect scores. Having lots of students pile up around the maximum scores means that it becomes basically impossible to use the test to compare students. The verbal and written parts are largely irrelevant, although it might be nice if schools spent more effort on improving technical writing. I would guess that the physics test is much better, but it’s still very different than the kind of problems that students will see in either college or grad school. Like the SAT, the subject GREs are mostly about solving many fairly simple problems quickly. Most of the time, students will actually be confronted with long, open ended questions that require a lot of work.

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