Most U.S. graduate schools rely on the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) to predict readiness for graduate degree programs and differentiate between applicants in verbal and quantitative reasoning, critical thinking, and analytical writing skills. Many times, low GRE scores create a barrier to entry into U.S. graduate programs despite research showing that selecting graduate applicants based solely on academic metric thresholds does not guarantee graduate student performance and many low scorers still attain a graduate degree on time (Miller et al., 2019b; Pacheco et al., 2017; Petersen et al., 2018; Wang et al, 2013). In this study, we used a constructivist grounded theory approach to develop a theory on how low GRE-scoring students managed to succeed in their graduate programs. Participants included 17 low-scoring yet successful doctoral students from seven universities across the U.S. The results show students’ self-determination and emotional and financial support and the university’s climate contribute to the success of doctoral students with low GRE scores. This study builds a theory that admission review boards and faculty members can use when weighing standardized testing admission requirements.


GRE, doctoral students, admissions, student performance, constructivist grounded theory

Author Bio(s)

Dea Mulolli is a Ph.D. candidate at Western Michigan University in the Evaluation, Measurement, and Research program. As a former Fulbright fellow, she holds a master's degree in Educational Leadership also from WMU. Dea works on a research project funded by the National Science Foundation to improve evaluations of STEM programs. Her research interests include multilevel modeling, power analysis, and moderators. She works with large administrative datasets to better understand factors influencing student achievement. Please direct correspondence to Dea.mulolli@wmich.edu.

June Gothberg, Ph.D., is a Senior Associate for Data at the K. Lisa Yang and Hock E. Tan Institute on Employment and Disability (YTI) at Cornell University. She currently serves on three projects: (a) lead evaluator for the New York SPDG grant, (b) a technical assistance provider for the New York TAP for Data, and (c) an external evaluator for the National Science Foundation’s INCLUDES grant TAPDINTO-STEM. Prior to joining Cornell, she served as Assistant Professor at Western Michigan University. Dr. Gothberg has spent a lifetime researching and advocating for inclusive communities, work environments, and school settings. Please direct correspondence to jg922@cornell.edu.

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