Courtesy of Cornell University

Associate Professor Jenny C. Mann wrote the proposal that would lead to the decision to drop the GRE as an application requirement for English P.h.D. candidates.

March 22, 2019

Cornell English Department Drops GRE Requirement for Ph.D. Applicants

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In a move that marks a departure from its peers, Cornell’s English department announced last Friday that Ph.D. applicants will no longer need to submit their Graduate Record Examination scores as part of their application.

While many elite institutions such as the University of Chicago, Yale University, Princeton University and Columbia University still require the test for their English Ph.D. programs, Cornell joins Harvard in axing the GRE as a requirement for the English departments. The University of Pennsylvania also cut the GRE, but for their graduate Philosophy department.

The exam — which has long served a role analogous to the SAT for prospective graduate students — includes a math section that tests quantitative ability and two sections designed to evaluate students’ verbal reasoning skills.

However, Cornell’s Department of English staff no longer feel that the GRE represents an accurate predictor of success in graduate programs.

“Studies have found that the exam routinely underpredicts the future success of older students,” Prof. Jenny Mann, English, director of graduate studies for the Department of English, told The Sun. “It’s not designed to generate the kind of work that is of interest and relevant to admissions committees in a literary humanities department.”

A bigger issue, according to Mann, is the fact that “the test itself is a barrier of entry to a lot of students who don’t have financial resources.”

The general GRE costs $205, with additional subject tests coming in at $150 each. Mann also pointed out the $27 cost to send scores to additional schools.

“I don’t think it’s right … to ask applicants to spend that amount of money unless it’s crucial data for an admissions committee to make an informed decision,” Mann said. “Our conclusion as a faculty is that it is not crucial data and it provides misleading information about the potential of our applicants.”

Mann added that this financial burden takes a toll on diversity, dissuading or preventing members of disadvantaged groups from applying.

“[Diversity] has been my number one priority as director of graduate studies,” Mann said. “By diverse, I mean diverse in terms of underrepresented minorities, but also first generation college students, applicants from working class backgrounds, people who have graduated from universities that are not just elite private institutions [and] military veterans.”

After discussing the idea of removing the GRE requirement with some of her colleagues, Mann wrote a proposal and shared it with the Graduate Admissions Committee, which sets application procedures.

After considering research on the role standardized tests play in shaping who applies, the committee agreed to support Mann, who then asked the chair of the English department, Prof. Caroline Levine, to call for a faculty-wide vote.

Levine approved — and the vote was overwhelmingly in favor of eliminating the test.

“We are interested in the writing, the research, and the thinking of the applicants,” said Mann. “The really important evidence for an applicant’s’ potential is in their own writing.”