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Graduate school entrance exam to get tougher

Starting fall 2007, getting into graduate school will be more difficult.

The Graduate Records Examination (GRE) is undergoing its first major change since 2002 and the biggest in its 55-year history. The newest version of the test required by most English-speaking, graduate-level institutions will be longer, with changes to the verbal, math and free-response questions. The GRE will also have a revised scoring scale, and the testing format will change from computer- to Internet-based.

It’s set to debut in September 2007.

Educational Testing Services (ETS) is the nonprofit organization that created and administers the GRE, as well as other college-based programs such as the AP, SAT and TOEFL tests.

According to the ETS Web site, the exam was redesigned for several reasons – to increase the test’s validity, to better measure a potential graduate student’s skills and to more effectively present that measurement to graduate school admissions officials, as well as for security reasons.

The Web site states that the GRE’s purpose remains to test verbal and quantitative reasoning, critical thinking and analytical writing skills: “Each of the sections will be revised to better focus on skills that are necessary for success in graduate school.”

Essentially, the revised version is supposed to more accurately measure how an aspiring student would perform in graduate school. For example, test-takers will be expected to use higher complex reasoning skills and answer more math word problems on the test related to real-life scenarios. No more analogies, less vocabulary questions and more specific essay topics allow less room for memorization.

“That means that students cannot just guess,” said Jung Lee, program manager for the GRE at Kaplan Test Preparation and Admissions. “They’ll have to type in an answer. Just based on probability alone, it’s going to become a little tougher for (some) students to do.”

Lee heads Kaplans’ GRE preparation courses – one of several private organizations that offer test preparation classes and advising for a fee to students taking the GRE and other college-based exams.

According to data gathered from pilot tests of the revised GRE, he said, students have a statistically slightly lower chance of getting the right answer because the new format includes less multiple choice answers and more free response and fill-in-the-blanks, leaving students to formulate their own responses.

The latest version will also take about twice as long to complete as the current one, increasing from about two and a half hours to more than four hours. Because the current computer-adaptive test program presents questions based on how well a student answers the previous one and its level of difficulty, the harder questions a test-taker answers correctly, the more points he or she gets.

Next year, the revised GRE will be administered about 30 times a year – compared to the current continuous schedule that offers test-takers more than one test time a day, several days a week. All students taking the GRE on one of the fixed dates will be answering the same test questions for that day.

New scoring system

The scoring system will change from a range of 200-800 points to 130-170. ETS said new test questions and technique requires a new scoring method so test versions will be not be confused. With the smaller point range, graduate officials should be able to compare candidates’ success in each section. ETS plans to provide charts to graduate school admissions officials that compare both scales side by side to facilitate understanding.

Brent Weisman, associate dean of USF’s graduate school, said that when the time comes, the department plans to use the new tables to ensure applications – including scores from either test version – are equally understood.

“We’re not anticipating it will have a drastic effect on the admissions process,” Weisman said. “The best practical use of the GRE is not to use the scores for cut-off admissions anyway.”

Weisman said about 10,000 students apply to USF graduate programs every year, and although academic merit measurements such as high GPAs and test scores are important, each program evaluates applications differently and should consider the whole package, including portfolios, personal essays and student experience.

Admissions committees now consider applicants’ GRE scores. Starting next fall they will also have access to the actual essays students write for the new critical thinking and analytical writing section.

Lee advised students to start considering the graduate programs they might be interested in as early as their sophomore year of college, not only to know what scores they need, but also so aspiring graduate-degree seekers can start collecting the grades, experiences or letters of recommendation they need for the coursework once they’re in.

“Obviously, GRE scores are very important for getting yourself into your target schools,” Lee said. “However, it (seems) like the GRE scores (also) are playing a very important role in whether you get a merit-based scholarship. So, the higher score you get, the more likely you’ll get a merit-based scholarship that you won’t have to pay back, like grants and assistantships and fellowships.”

Financial assistance

The exam costs $130 and includes practice tests and software mailed to the person’s house when he or she registers.

Laura Renne of USF’s Financial Aid Office recalled taking the GRE several years ago before she received her master’s degree in human relations from the University of Oklahoma.

“It’s like putting needles in your eyes,” she said.

Renne said the process could be a little bit easier for students if they applied for the waiver to cover the cost of the test, but students don’t seem to know about it.

“We have financial aid money available to help low-income students to take these exams,” she said.

The GREW (Graduate School Test Fee Waiver) application can only be submitted online and should be turned in when students fill out FAFSA forms.

Trying it out

ETS is set to publish a sample version of the revised GRE and a testing schedule on its Web site in spring 2007.

Most universities accept GRE scores for a five-year time period. For those students who have already taken the current test and are happy with their results or those not planning to attend graduate school for a while, Lee recommended checking for how long their potential graduate programs accept scores.

“We have about 10 months left,” Lee said. “If students are ready, they should take the current test. Even if you’re not sure you’re going to grad school next year, the scores are good for five years. It’s not a bad idea for our students to be thinking about these things.”

Once the revised GRE starts in September, anyone taking the test will have to take the new one.