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Princeton eliminates GRE test requirement for 14 graduate programs

Sept. 17, 2019 1:21 p.m.

Fourteen Princeton University departments will no longer require the GRE test for graduate admission. Princeton is among other universities across the country that have eliminated the standardized test requirement for graduate study. 

The decision to make the Graduate Records Examination (GRE) optional is among Princeton’s efforts to attract and enroll a wider range of graduate students. Students entering Princeton this fall are among the most diverse at the Graduate School. Of the incoming graduate students from the United States, 43% are minorities and 28% identify as low-income and/or first-generation college students. 

“The continued excellence of graduate education at Princeton depends crucially on our ability to attract talented students from all backgrounds and identities,” said Dean of the Graduate School Sarah-Jane Leslie, the Class of 1943 Professor of Philosophy. “I’m delighted that our programs may now decide for themselves whether to require GRE scores from their applicants, and I’m excited that the faculty of 14 of our programs have decided that their applicant pools may be richer and deeper without this requirement.”

Applications for master’s and doctoral programs starting in fall 2020 are now available on the Graduate School website. The following academic departments will not require a GRE test, making it optional for graduate applicants.  

  • Art and Archaeology
  • Classics
  • Comparative Literature
  • Ecology and Evolutionary Biology
  • English
  • French and Italian
  • Geosciences
  • Molecular Biology
  • Music Composition 
  • Neuroscience
  • Psychology
  • Religion
  • Slavic Languages and Literatures
  • Spanish and Portuguese 

Renita Miller, associate dean for access, diversity and inclusion for the Graduate School, said Princeton wants to make it easier for students from all backgrounds to apply for graduate study.

“We believe that demographic and intellectual diversity drives innovative research and discovery, it expands our capacity for teaching and learning, and it equips us for lives of leadership in an increasingly pluralistic society,” Miller said. “To achieve our academic mission requires Princeton to identify, attract and develop the most promising individuals from as many segments of society as possible.”

Miller said diversifying graduate students is also key to diversifying the faculty pipeline, as many of those students who earn Ph.D.s from Princeton and other selective universities will become professors at higher education institutions around the world.

“Universities like Princeton have done a good job at expanding and diversifying their undergraduate populations,” she said. “If we want to make similar strides on the graduate level, we must find new ways to recruit and enroll graduate students who may be the first in their families to attend college, and from low-income and underrepresented backgrounds.” 

Renita Miller speaking at podium

Renita Miller, associate dean for access, diversity and inclusion for the Graduate School, says Princeton wants to make it easier for students from all backgrounds to apply for graduate study.

Princeton encourages graduate applicants from all backgrounds

Admission for Princeton graduate programs is overseen by faculty within individual academic departments. Of the departments that have eliminated the GRE requirement, many professors said the test is not the best predictor of academic ability or success.

“Our goal in the Department of Molecular Biology is to get the best students from the widest set of backgrounds as possible to apply to our program,” said Zemer Gitai, the Edwin Grant Conklin Professor of Biology and molecular biology’s former director of graduate students.

Gitai said the department’s goal is to attract talented students who are passionate about science research.  

“Studies suggest that GRE scores are not great indicators of graduate school success and underserve students who cannot afford test prep or taking the exam multiple times,” he said. “We thus believe that making the GRE optional could help us attract more students to apply without sacrificing much in our ability to assess student performance.”

Professor of Classics Johannes Haubold said his department was also compelled by such studies.

“Specifically, there is concern that standardized tests are culturally biased in favor of certain groups; and that they end up testing primarily how good one is at taking tests,” said Haubold, director of graduate studies for classics. “Resource too is an issue, as some students can afford to receive coaching for the test and there is a fee for taking the test.”

Professor of Neuroscience Mala Murthy said her department considered both the positives and negatives of standardized tests. She added there are no minimum scores for neuroscience graduate students.

“We were swayed by research suggesting that the GRE is biased against underrepresented groups, and we also acknowledge that the test is expensive to take,” she said. “However, some research also suggests that standardized tests can increase diversity by allowing students we might have missed otherwise to be noticed by the committee. For these reasons, we decided that making the test optional was the best course of action”

Murthy said she hopes making the GRE optional will “make the application process fairer, and this will thereby increase our ability to attract the best students in the world to our program.”

“The neuroscience graduate program at Princeton is relatively young (about 10 years old), but has been extremely successful at attracting a diverse group of students and training them for careers in neuroscience,” Murthy continued. “Students come from a variety of backgrounds, undergraduate majors, and places over the U.S. and the world. Our goal is to find students who will thrive in the program, with a love for neuroscience and a strong interest in the breadth of research represented at Princeton, and to foster their development.”

To evaluate applicants, professors said their departments consider a variety of materials and information. Gitai said molecular biology faculty consider a student’s past research experience, their personal statement and letters of recommendation. 

“We also recognize that not all students have access to research opportunities at their undergraduate institutions, so for these students we focus on their academic trajectories and the extent to which they take advantage of opportunities like summer research programs,” he added.

Haubold said he encourages students to think of applying to graduate school as a two-way process. 

“What we do when we review applications is that we try to match aspiring researchers to programs that enable them to flourish to their best potential. For us to be able to do that effectively it is important that applicants are as clear and candid about their work as possible,” Haubold said. “I would encourage prospective graduate students to not worry about appearing as the 'perfect grad student,' but to give us a clear and accurate a picture of what interests them and how they work.”