Many explanations have been proposed for the underrepresentation of women and members of certain minority groups in a number of scientific fields. In an article in Nature, Casey Miller of the University of South Florida (USF), Tampa, and Keivan Stassun of Vanderbilt University and Fisk University, both in Nashville, suggest a new and intriguing one: over-reliance on the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) to select graduate students. The test, which is required at “most US graduate schools,” is “poor at selecting the most capable students and severely restricts the flow of women and minorities into the sciences,” they write.

In fact, the authors state, the test is only good at predicting first-year grades, not at discerning who is likely to finish a Ph.D. and go on to careers in scientific, technological, engineering, or mathematical (STEM) fields. Women and underrepresented minorities do not, on average, score as well on the GRE’s quantitative test as white men. Therefore, the authors suggest, the widespread practice of using predetermined cut-off scores to eliminate graduate school applicants “may be a strong driver of the continuing under-representation of women and minorities in graduate school,” especially in physical sciences.

“De-emphasizing the GRE and augmenting admissions procedures with measures of other attributes—such as drive, diligence and the willingness to take scientific risks—would not only make graduate admissions more predictive of the ability to do well but would also increase diversity in STEM,” Miller and Stassun write. They base this statement on their experience with innovative programs at USF, Vanderbilt, and Fisk that admit graduate students not on a predetermined test score but on an assessment that includes a 30-minute interview that “examines college and research experiences, key relationships, leadership experience, service to community and life goals,” they write.

“The result is a good indication of the individual's commitment to scientific research and a good assessment of traits such as maturity, perseverance, adaptability and conscientiousness atop a solid academic foundation,” the authors write. “The combination of academic aptitude and these other competencies points to the likelihood of high achievement in graduate school and in a STEM career.”

Students selected on this basis have shown degree “completion rates above 80%, well above the national average, and are greatly boosting participation by women and minorities.” All who have gotten their Ph.D. “are employed in the STEM workforce as postdocs, university faculty members or staff scientists in national labs or industry”—even though 85% of them would have been eliminated by the widely used cut-off of 700 on the math GRE.

Of course, the authors note, making nuanced evaluations of students’ academic abilities and character traits takes more effort and time than looking at a single number and chucking an application in the trash—about 30 minutes more per person. “This is not a call to admit unqualified students in the name of social good. This is a call to acknowledge that the typical weight given to GRE scores in admissions is disproportionate,” the authors write. Instead, they argue, the “deep-seated and unfounded belief” among many in academe that the GRE score predicts graduate school success is depriving capable students—many of them women and minorities—of the chance to pursue studies and careers in STEM. It’s time, Miller and Stassun write, to ditch that misconception in favor of an approach that opens science to individuals who have what it really takes to make the grade.

Beryl Lieff Benderly writes from Washington, D.C.