This is a very interesting question, and one with diametrically opposed answers, depending how one interprets the question. One common answer is that the GRE is not important at all, and it is an arbitrary test that purports to measure some elusive concept known as intelligence, or, more pejoratively, IQ. It is at best a rite of passage—much like ritual scarring—one must suffer if they are to ascend to the rarefied realm of grad school.
On the other extreme is the idea that the test is a highly valid measure of the intellectual skills required for success in grad school. Get a high score and you’ll do well in grad school, this line of reasoning goes.
So useful or useless?
My own opinion lies somewhere in the middle of these two views. I am loath to consider the GRE some arbitrary intrusion upon the lives—and sanity—of grad school aspirants. I could think of far more whimsical forms of arbitrariness (a test of world capitals or one’s ability to memorize a random series of digits). Ultimately, since much of the reading is lifted from academic journals, being able to understand such writing will make a difference in grad school.
The math may not be as defensible, especially for one looking to write one’s dissertation on motifs of 15th century frescoes. At the same time, the math found on the test isn’t that “mathy” – it is more testing your logical reasoning with number, which, especially for the majority who will have to dabble in statistics side of things, is somewhat relevant.
Then there is the AWA, which tests your ability to logically articulate yourself in writing on a complex issue—anathema to the engineer, not totally irrelevant to one who hopes to have their work submitted to a journal.
Is the GRE too general?
I think what the above points to is the sheer quixotry of trying to create a general test for the diverse range of fields represented by the graduate curriculum. Surely, you cannot cater to every field without making the majority of test takers think, “What does this have to do with graduate school”, and without ultimately condemning parts of the test irrelevant for most.
So for a standardized test that hopes to accommodate disparate fields of studying the GRE could be a lot worse (Let us not forget the analogies from the old GRE, which were largely irrelevant to almost any conceivable field of study). Even the GMAT does not stack up as well, in my opinion, to the New GRE as a general test of skills needed in graduate school (I’m sure the GMAT writers would hardly demur, as they’ve created the test exclusively for one segment of the grad school spectrum).
As to the whether there is a test that would do an even better job of predicting grad school success, I’m sure the answer is yes. But my prediction, once researchers can trace grad school performance back to one’s new GRE score, is that the test will do a decent job for most fields of studies. This invites the question: Why not only include the subject specific tests then? The answer: each test is domain specific, but does not necessarily test overall intellectual aptitude (not that the GRE really does either, but it does a better job of doing so than a subject specific test).
How important is the GRE to your application?
For now, the new GRE is important in that it is a piece—though only a relatively small piece–of an application that gives admissions a somewhat accurate sense of an applicant’s intellectual ability in a highly artificial—and stressful—environment.
This observation allows me to segue into the final interpretation of the title question of the blog post: the new GRE is important to your grad school application. That said, relevant work experience, excellent letters of recommendation, a strong undergraduate GPA can bolster a weak score; a want of any related experience, or an abysmal undergraduate GPA can neutralize a perfect score.
Takeaway – a necessary evil
The GRE, while not a perfect test—if any general test for grad school ever could be—is an important part of your application, so make sure not to take the test lightly, because for most grad school aspirants, the GRE is a necessary evil.
So if you’re a GRE dissenter, what would you think is a better measure scholarly aptitude? Let us know below!