Graduate schools make changes to standardized testing admission requirements in light of COVID-19

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Various graduate school departments at Stanford, including the Graduate School of Business (GSB) and the physics department, are reconsidering aspects of their admissions process for applicants in the fall and the coming year in response to the difficulties posed by COVID-19.

Applicants to the physics department will no longer be required to submit scores for either the general Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) or the GRE subject test in physics. The Master of Business Administration (M.B.A.) and Master of Science in Management programs at the GSB are accepting scores for online versions of standardized tests and are conducting interviews virtually. 

In addition, applicants to the School of Medicine will not be required to submit a Medical College Admissions Test score for the 2020-21 cycle, though other application requirements remain in place. 

“We understand that due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so much is changing, and so fast,” wrote Kirsten Moss, Assistant Dean and Director of M.B.A. Admissions and Financial Aid at the GSB, in an email to The Daily. “There is much that may be out of an applicant’s control. Rest assured that we understand this, and will evaluate every applicant’s candidacy with this in mind.”

However, specific views and policies on standardized testing vary across campus. According to Graduate Student Council (GSC) co-chair and theater and performance studies Ph.D. student Kari Barclay ’21, Stanford is “a very decentralized university [and] graduate admissions are done on a department by department basis.” 

Some believe that scores from standardized testing serve as a useful diagnostic measure alongside other factors in admissions, such as research experience, letters of recommendation and demonstrated leadership potential. 

“In assessing intellectual vitality, we believe applicants are far more than their GPA or standardized test scores,” Moss wrote. “However, these measures still play a helpful role in the evaluation process and assessing someone’s readiness for our academic program.” 

She encouraged candidates who were having trouble reserving a testing appointment to contact the admissions office to discuss their individual circumstances or to report any concerns about their testing experience in the additional information section of the application. 

“Generally speaking, we are less interested in factors outside of someone’s control and more interested in understanding those factors as background to evaluate someone’s choices, actions, and contributions within that context,” Moss wrote.

At the same time, other faculty argue that in the context of a system that often places additional challenges on under-resourced and foreign applicants, COVID-19 has made it especially difficult for students to take standardized tests.

“The faculty felt that, this year in particular, that the additional obstacles that the GRE presents due to COVID — for example whether a testing environment would be safe for students — combined with the other reasons for being skeptical about the usefulness of the GRE warranted removing the GRE as a requirement for this year’s applicants, to be revisited later,” Sean Hartnoll, Director of Graduate Studies at the physics department, wrote in an email to The Daily.

Members of the graduate student body recognize the difficulties that have arisen as a result of the pandemic as well. Barclay cited financial challenges as well as disrupted coursework and research opportunities for those already in graduate school. 

“In the COVID era, what we’re seeing is that the inequalities that existed beforehand are exacerbated,” Barclay noted. “From my perspective and those [of others] I know, we recognize that objective measures are never entirely objective.”

Barclay also praised programs that seek to involve student voices in the admissions and selection process and to diversify academia, such as Modern Thought and Literature and Sociology, saying that “these are priorities we need to prize.”

When asked about what was being done to reduce inequities in the admissions process, Barclay referenced successful initiatives by current students to recruit students from marginalized identities for incoming cohorts. 

“I can’t claim to speak on behalf of all graduate students, but I think we have a mind towards equity, and I think that people are interested in looking beyond standardized test scores,” he said.  

Contact Alena Zeng at alenazeng ‘at’ gmail.com.

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Alena is a high school student writing as part of The Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop. She was also a high school intern for The Daily in summer 2019.