04 Sep 2019 18:07 IST

The GRE reigns supreme

With increasing number of colleges accepting GRE, LSAT and GMAT scramble to protect their turf

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE), conducted by the Princeton, NJ based Educational Testing Service (ETS) has always been the standardised test of choice for universities worldwide, offering post-graduate programmes in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM).

But today, the GRE is increasingly being accepted by B-schools, thereby threatening the GMAT. And with the recent announcement by Harvard Law School that it will allow the GRE instead of the LSAT, the GRE is making inroads into the exclusive domain of legal education too. Twenty other law schools already accept the GRE.

It was a long time ago — in 1983 — that I first took my GRE. Back then, the exam was a novelty all around, a feature that is still central to its success.

As an engineering student from Bangalore University, I was accustomed to chaos during the exam season. Question papers often leaked. As a result, exams would be postponed. Security on test day was always suspect with rumours circulating that sit-ins would write exams for unprepared students for a small fee. Copying was rampant. The day the results were announced created even more anxiety. Students who were known to be solid in class would often end up failing an exam. But students who rarely showed up would score distinctions. These were just problems within Bangalore University.

The masterstroke

For those of us whose career aspirations lay beyond Bangalore, our grades and degree certificates seemed to be inadequate. They were not only an inaccurate measure of our performance within the university, but they were worthless as performance measures across universities. How did my score of 81 in Strength of Materials compare with a Madras University student’s score of 81 in the same subject?

The GRE addressed all of these issues in one masterstroke. The exam was intended to measure scholastic skills learnt through a student’s college career, such as the ability to solve fundamental college-level mathematics problems, interpret passages in English, demonstrate an understanding of vocabulary, and showcase logic and analytical skills that are so useful in a career. So students didn’t have to learn anything new. They had to practise what they knew and frame it to the test. The syllabus was detailed, and the official GRE guide left no doubts at all about content — a welcome change from Bangalore University exams.

Rock-solid security

Exam security was rock solid. Authentication meant that students had to show multiple forms of identification to get into the exam centre. Once inside, spread-out individual booths meant that looking over a neighbour’s work was difficult. And even if one did, what would one gain? All answers were multiple-choice, and selections were to be marked by filling an entire oval using 2HB pencils. Even if one could glean that the neighbour had selected “C” as the choice for question #23, the copying effort would be useless. Because the separate order of questions for the neighbour would be different from your own: If the neighbour was answering a Math section and you were answering an English section, what good would copying the answer to question #23 do?

Question paper security was absolute. At the end of the test, the proctor carefully collected all the question papers and stored them back into his secure case. Only then would he collect the answer sheet. A single piece of paper would serve as the answer sheet for an entire exam. Barcodes on the top of the answer sheet showed the sectional order of questions. The whole sheet would be a piece of paper with black ovals with no relation whatsoever to a question paper.

Still, students from the IITs would try and beat the system by memorising just one question (with its multiple choice answers) and writing it down on a sheet of paper as soon as they exited the hall when the memory was fresh. A senior group of IITians would then assemble these sheets of paper from hundreds of students to create “question banks” to benefit future students. This trick was to upend ETS policy at its roots. ETS was known to recirculate question papers within five years, but retire questions for older years forever, publishing them as practice questions on official guides. IIT question banks made it possible for students to know hundreds of recent questions beforehand with a high likelihood that they would be reused on test day. It was little wonder that IITians always seemed to score better on the GRE.

Even the GRE had no defences set up against such jugaad practices, but the exam has evolved significantly from the 1980s. The GRE adopted computer-based testing more than 15 years ago. Better yet, it made the test adaptive, meaning that the questions given to you reflect how you did on preceding questions.

The uniqueness

For example, if you perform well on an item of intermediate difficulty, you will be presented with a more difficult question. If you do well on this too, you will next see an even more difficult problem. This cycle continues. Once the algorithm decides that it has measured you effectively, the test stops. You could finish your exam with up to 50 per cent fewer questions than your neighbour.

On the other hand, if you performed poorly on a question, the next question would become more straightforward. If you miss this too, the following question will be even more straightforward. But you will have to handle many more questions — which is why the test can run for nearly four hours.

An adaptive test can typically be shortened by 50 per cent and still maintain a higher level of precision than a paper-based test. This translates into time savings for the test-taker. Also, adaptive tests elevate exam security to near 100 per cent. Copying is rendered useless because at any given time, each question served to test-takers in the room is likely to be different.

With the growth of the internet, there are hundreds of online resources to practice for the GRE. The Khan Academy offers a load of quality content for free. This, along with the GRE official guide, is all that a student needs to do well on the test.

The GRE is the most accessible standardised test in the world. Unlike the GMAT or the LSAT, which are only offered on specific days in a year, the GRE is offered every day of the week, except Mondays. You can take the GRE at over 1,000 test centres in nearly 160 countries. And in a nod to countries which don’t yet have the technology infrastructure to offer computer-based tests, the GRE still offers paper-based tests on many days throughout the year.

As the GRE reigns supreme, the LSAT and the GMAT are scrambling to protect their turf, including attempting to implement many of GRE’s innovations. The outcome will be closely watched.