New study shows the GRE is a poor predictor of graduate student success in the biomedical sciences

By Sonia Hall

In a paper published today in PLoS ONE, Moneta-Koehler et al. demonstrated that scores on the Graduate Record Exam are not predictive of success in biomedical graduate school. Taking the GRE is required by nearly every biomedical graduate school, and higher GRE scores have been assumed to be indicative of success in graduate school. By taking a comprehensive statistical approach to analyzing the performance of 495 students from Vanderbilt University’s Interdisciplinary Graduate Program, the authors show that the GRE is moderately predictive of first-semester grades and not much else.

The authors explored whether the GRE was a valid method of predicting various forms of graduate success and productivity in the biomedical sciences including passing the qualifying exam, number of meeting presentations, number of first author publications, time-to-defense, attainment of individual grants or fellowships and graduating with a Ph.D. The authors found that the GRE quantitative, verbal, and writing scores were not predictive of any of the metrics they tested, even when controlling for variables such as undergraduate GPA and undergraduate institution selectivity. The only correlation identified was that graduate students that perform well on the GRE also did well on course exams and had higher first-semester grades. However, the authors are careful to point out that successful exam performance is quite different from the skills required for research productivity, such as critical thinking and experimental design.

On the surface, the use of the GRE as a metric for graduate admissions may seem like a harmless obstacle and minor inconvenience. But, the GRE actually places substantial limitations on students that are poor, female or part of an underrepresented group. While the GRE not only fails to accurately measure the skills that are essential for success in graduate school, using this test as a basic requirement for admission to biomedical graduate programs will continue to limit diversification of the field.

This is not the first report on the GRE being a poor predictor of graduate student success. Combined with the publication, these findings should prompt those of us in the biomedical sciences to think critically about the consequences of using the GRE as a first pass metric to narrow down the number of applications. But what are the valid predictive metrics of success in graduate school that can be used in place of the GRE? How will admissions committees compare applicants with drastically different academic experiences in an unbiased way? The answers to these questions will require careful thought and analysis to ensure we select qualified people for graduate school while stopping the continued loss of underrepresented individuals from the talent pool during the admissions process.

Modernizing graduate education is an essential component in building a sustainable biomedical workforce. One key aspect to advancing the enterprise requires that we maximize the capacity of human creativity targeting important questions. To do this, we need to maximize the number of people in graduate school with a legitimate chance of successfully capitalizing on the training imparted. The work by Moneta-Koehler et al. demonstrate that GRE scores have little bearing on whether this goal is achieved.

This is part one of a two-part blog examining two papers published in PLoS ONE today. The other post is here.

Sonia Hall is dedicated to building an inclusive training culture that empowers graduate students and postdocs to pursue a variety of careers to meet the demands of the current workforce. She is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in the Center for Biomedical Career Development and Program Director for Early Career Scientist Engagement at the Genetics Society of America. Sonia can be reached on Twitter (@SoniaHall) or by email (

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