Deans Identify Critical Thinking and Writing Skills as Keys to Master’s Program Success, New Report Shows

By David G. Payne

Programs and deans surveyed for a new report by the Council of Graduate Schools* identified critical thinking, analytical thinking and written communication skills as top attributes they consider when evaluating an applicant’s potential to be successful in a master’s program.

Aspects of critical thinking and analytical thinking are measured in each of the GRE® General Test’s three sections — Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning and Analytical Writing.

The GRE Analytical Writing (AW) section also measures written communication skills. According to the report, participants think this skill is so crucial that when considering an applicant’s potential for success — which survey respondents defined primarily as course and degree completion — a high score in the writing section could help overcome a low overall test score or low undergraduate grade-point average (GPA).

It is the only standardized measure that is common among all applicants, allowing deans and programs to directly compare applicants with various backgrounds and educational experiences on how they perform in these important skill areas.

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Faith in AW scores is well-placed: Of the three section scores that the GRE General Test provides, student performance on the AW section is frequently the best or second-best predictor of their future GPA. And institutions can view their applicants’ actual AW responses through the ETS® Data Manager, a free service for institutional score users. See the article If You’re Not Using GRE® Analytical Writing Scores, You Might Be Missing Out for more information.

In addition to providing a valid and reliable measure of skills deans and programs have identified as critical to success — in essence, applicants’ readiness for graduate-level work — the GRE General Test also provides a unique value that no other part of an applicant’s file can provide. It is the only standardized measure that is common among all applicants, allowing deans and programs to directly compare applicants with various backgrounds and educational experiences on how they perform in these important skill areas. It is also the only measure that is research based — developed in accordance with standards set by reputable organizations such as the American Educational Research Association (AERA), National Council on Measurement in Education (NCME) and the American Psychological Association (APA) — and subject to extensive fairness guidelines, processes and reviews to ensure it is as unbiased as possible.

Today, as institutions look to enroll more students from underrepresented groups and other nations, the need for a common, objective measure has never been more pressing. Mitigating bias as much as possible from the admissions process is a foundational step to ensuring that all applicants have the opportunity to demonstrate their potential to be successful in the program, regardless of the reputation of their undergraduate institution or the authors of their recommendation letters.

The GRE test is an important measure of academic readiness, but it cannot measure everything that a faculty committee would like to know about an applicant. Other components submitted as part of an application package, such as personal statements and letters of recommendation, give candidates a platform for showing attributes like integrity, professionalism and persistence and to discuss their academic and work experiences. Because they are more subjective, though, if they were to be used alone, they could heighten the role that implicit bias plays in the review and selection processes and result in other unintended consequences. For this reason, ETS promotes the consideration of both standardized, objective measures and more subjective measures to get the clearest picture of a candidate — and the fairest admissions program.

One of the key recommendations the report makes is that those involved in the admissions process receive more training around evaluating submitted materials, including score interpretation and avoiding bias. This may include how reviewers should weight GRE scores — as part of a holistic admissions process that places appropriate value on all submitted materials — to achieve their program’s enrollment goals.

To help, ETS has developed HolisticAdmissions.org, a site with resources for considering and implementing a holistic admissions process, including a discussion guide, presentation and promising practices that we’ve curated from 71 interviews with graduate program deans and faculty involved in the admissions process at institutions across the United States. Practices include ideas for aligning admissions practices with program goals, weighting application materials and moving away from cut scores. And we’re continuing to add more.

These resources can help graduate deans and programs achieve their ultimate goal — ensuring student success in the program and beyond.

 

 

* Master’s Admissions: Transparency, Guidance, and Training was released by the Council of Graduate Schools (CGS), with support from ETS, on December 4, 2018. ETS provided comments on the draft of the survey that CGS developed but was not involved in data collection, data processing or reporting.