The GRE: A Scam of Graduate Proportions

Robert McKeon Aloe
4 min readMar 3, 2020

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I have taken the GRE twice, and while it was required for admission into graduate school, I don’t quite see why it would be useful for two reasons: the test itself and the variability in scores. As I reflect on the exam, the only reason I could think it would be useful is that someone scammed universities into believing the GRE was as vital as the SAT because the only thing the GRE is good at is generating income for those running the test.

GRE in theory, but not useful in practise.

GRE == Cash Cow

The Test

The GRE test is supposed to be the SAT’s of grad school. I’m an engineer, and when I went to grad school, I had trouble seeing how a high GRE score would be better than my GPA, how the math portion was applicable, and how the reading portion would even be useful for engineering.

Engineering schools are accredited through ABET (at least the University of Detroit Mercy was), so graduating from an accredited school already means they meet certain criteria for learning. Therefore, your GPA and classes taken are a good indication of your quality as an engineer.

For the math portion, the most complicated problems were Algebra 2 problems, which junior year of high school for most people. Considering that I have taken one class more advanced than Differential Equations, I could easily do poorly on the math GRE just from boredom alone. The test is really to make sure you are not a complete idiot as an engineer. For degrees which don’t involve math, I also don’t see why it is important aside from trying to find a standardized way to distinguish people.

For the reading section, again, this is to make sure an engineer could read. I don’t think it is a valuable tool to distinguish engineers. For liberal arts, I also don’t think it is a good tool either, and I’m struggling to find a field where this would really be useful. It would not be a true test of anyone in liberal arts on whether they would be good at research or graduate coarse work.

Additionally, the test adapts to find right where you fit it after every question. That means the first few questions matter the most, and a small mistake at the beginning is very costly. The test is not repeatable in that sense because one could easily make mistakes or have a bad day causing their scores to widely fluctuate.

Test Score Variability

I have only two samples of data, but I think they are interesting. The first time I took the test (2005), I woke up early, and I didn’t feel rested. I had been taking a practice test everyday for the past few weeks. I had to take the exam early in the day at 7am. I ended up getting a 470 on the reading, 740 on the math, and 3/5 for the writing. 470 for reading was around the median, but it was low. I was upset because it was lower than any of my practice exams.

One could only take the GRE once a month, but because I took it at the end of one month, I could take the exam again a week later. Unlike the first time when I had studied and done practice tests, I followed my gut just like I had for my classes in school, and I didn’t study.

I took it a second time in the afternoon, and I got a 540 on the reading, 770 on the math, and 4/5 for writing. The change in the math school wasn’t much; over 700 was high for the test. However, the reading score moved by one standard deviation from the mean. That’s a huge jump without many variable changes.

470 -> 540 Reading

740 -> 770 Math

3 -> 4 Writing

Maybe the GRE was started as a way to make more money, and they got everyone to buy in. Aside from an exchange of money for studying material, practice tests, classes, and the exam, I don’t see a purpose to the exam’s existence. It lacks a repeatability for assessing skills and is not valuable for grad school entry in the same way the LSAT and MCAT are for law and medical schools respectively. Maybe those exams aren’t good either, but we’re stuck with them.

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Robert McKeon Aloe

I’m in love with my Wife, my Kids, Espresso, Data Science, tomatoes, cooking, engineering, talking, family, Paris, and Italy, not necessarily in that order.