Advancing graduate admissions with portfolio review: An alternative to the GRE

The GRE test has long been a standard of graduate admissions across the US, but a change is underway led by a growing body of research and a number of trailblazing institutions including Wayne State. The College Board has noted that the GRE “does not and cannot measure all the qualities that are important in predicting success,” and argues for multiple criteria to be used when evaluating applications. In practice however, standardized test scores often weigh heavily in admissions decisions despite the variety of materials included in a typical graduate application. Initial cuts based solely on GRE scores contribute directly to a lack of diversity in graduate admissions by eliminating a number of capable students, including women and people of color, from further consideration very early in the process.

The National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation have eliminated the collection of standardized test score data in fellowship and training grant applications. Likewise, prominent programs at Harvard University (Astronomy and Astrophysics) and the University of Michigan (Program in Biomedical Sciences) no longer require and/or accept GRE scores in their graduate applications. Other programs are following suit, according to data gathered by representatives in the AAMC’s GREAT Group. It is therefore important to use GRE scores in context of other predictors of student performance in graduate school.

WSU’s Graduate School has listened to applicants, current students and alumni, and faculty, staff, and administrators voice their concerns about the graduate admissions procedures, including anecdotes about how the outsized influence of standardized test scores has prevented qualified applicants from obtaining admission to WSU despite abundant evidence about their drive, motivation, and resourcefulness. We have also listened as programs have lamented the fact that these same students have gone on to be successful in other competitive programs. In response to these conversations, the Graduate School has also collected data to examine the role of standardized tests in graduate student outcomes, and found that GRE scores do not appear to be correlated with time to Ph.D. completion or career outcomes.

In response to these findings and data gathered at WSU, with support from university leadership, the Graduate Council, and Graduate Directors, Dean Mathur convened a Graduate Admissions Committee in 2016 comprised of faculty and administrators from a diverse set of doctoral programs to discuss best practices in applicant reviews, including elimination of the GRE from consideration altogether. However, we realized that for disciplinary reasons, some graduate programs require quantitative and/or verbal scores to best evaluate their applicants. For this reason, we decided instead to consider alternative approaches to the admissions process that take various factors into account in the application review, with the standardized score being just one criterion.  The committee proposed adoption of a Portfolio Review Toolkit. This resource aims to inform and support programs with portfolio review efforts. Portfolio review is a process by which each applicant is evaluated as a unique individual based on a broad range of metrics, characteristics, and experiences. In portfolio review, standardized test scores are contextualized by other information that indicates potential success in graduate studies. The goal of this initiative is to invite a diverse and inclusive graduate student body to excel at WSU, contribute to the mission of the university, and become leaders and innovators in Detroit and the world based on their achievements, work ethic, and values. To support this initiative, the WSU Graduate School will base funding and awards, in part, on programs’ development and implementation of portfolio review processes, especially those that recognize the limitations of standardized tests and collect information on applicants’ other qualities and experiences that predict graduate student success.

To our knowledge, there have been no systematic efforts to rework the graduate admissions process for all graduate programs within a single institution. With the portfolio review, the WSU Graduate School hopes to implement a broader definition of merit in order to recruit and train the highest caliber of a diverse student body, respecting disciplinary needs, in a manner that aligns with the mission of Wayne State University, with graduates that contribute to the intellectual and economic capital locally, nationally and globally.

For more information on the development of portfolio review guidelines and data collected at WSU, read the complete white paper and explore the portfolio review toolkit.

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