Changing Chemistry and GRE Exam Requirements for Graduate Admissions? The Answer is Not so Simple

By Larissa M. Williams, Assistant Professor of Biology at Bates College, and Chair, SOT Undergraduate Education Subcommittee

As a mentor and advisor to undergraduates interested in graduate biomedical studies, I have been particularly interested in whether the requirements for admission to PhD programs have changed since I applied in 2005. While many of us can recite the admissions requirements for medical school, I have found it more challenging to advise students about graduate school requirements in the life sciences. Since no two PhD programs are alike in their admissions criteria, I have in the past recommended a strong foundation in biology and chemistry, often also advising students to also take biochemistry, statistics, and sometimes physics based on their particular subject interest(s). The courses that students take during their time as an undergraduate not only have an impact on their own future beyond their bachelor’s degree but also to the enrollment patterns in our own classes at the undergraduate level. Furthermore, many undergraduate schools are responding to national recommendations to revise curricula to include more interdisciplinary approaches and other changes to foster ways of learning that match what education research tells us about learning science. With all of this in mind, we undertook a short survey to ask about whether organic chemistry and the GRE are required for admission into toxicology PhD programs.

Through a survey distributed during the fall to contacts at about 60 graduate programs, we received 29 responses. The first question, which read “In your graduate program, do you require organic chemistry for admission into your Ph.D. program?,” most responses were that organic chemistry was not required, while 13% answered that students needed one semester and 13% reported that two semesters were required. To better understand the responses, one need look no further than the written comments to this particular question. In their explanations, all cited that students interested in the biomedical sciences and toxicology needed a strong foundation in chemistry (sometimes meaning at least one year), but many said that a holistic set of courses was more important to their admissions decision than a strict set of courses.

A second question, which focused on the requirement for the GRE, was rooted in a recent wave of stories that reported some PhD programs are moving away from a formal test requirement. Of note, the University of Michigan’s biomedical sciences graduate program has dropped the requirement (Science). Citing the weak correlation to predict student performance and the knowledge that the test disadvantages women, minorities, and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds, the test has been dropped from their formal requirements. This follows as many (990+) undergraduate colleges and universities have become test-optional given similar national data. In our own survey, though, we found that 26 of 29 respondents required the GRE (many with a set minimum score) for admission to the program; upon inspection of several graduate school admissions websites, it seems this is driven at the college or university level rather than at the department or program level.

Through this survey, we better understand that graduate admissions is more than just courses and numbers and considers “the whole person.” This certainly was the position taken by Aaron Bowman in his presentation during the recent webinar “Accepted! Preparing a Successful Graduate School Admissions Package.” I continue to encourage our discussion around curriculum and testing choices as we enter a new year.   

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