What Are GRE Subject Tests? Should I Take One?

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Are you thinking about taking a GRE Subject Test? Maybe you’ve heard of them but aren’t sure what they are or if you should take one. GRE Subject Tests are much less well-known than the general GRE, and it can be hard to get information on them.

Read this comprehensive guide for everything you need to know about GRE Subject Tests including which topics they cover, how important they are for grad school, if you should take one, and how to register for a Subject Test.

 

What Are GRE Subject Tests?

If you know what SAT Subject Tests are, GRE Subject Tests are similar. As opposed to the general GRE, which tests your knowledge on a variety of topics, GRE Subject Tests focus on a specific topic. They’re designed to let you prove your knowledge in a specific subject area that you have a strong background in.

Like the general GRE, GRE Subject Tests are taken by prospective grad school applicants to include in their application. Subject Test scores are used to help grad schools determine your knowledge in a specific area and decide if you’d be a good fit for their program. You can’t take a Subject Test in place of the general GRE. Instead, you take a GRE Subject Test in addition to the general GRE.

All Subject Tests share the following similarities:

  • 2 hours and 50 minutes long
  • Contain only one section
  • Completely multiple-choice
  • Have five answer choices for each question

There are currently seven different Subject Tests. They are each listed below, along with the number of questions that exam has.

Subject Test Number of Questions
Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology 170
Biology 190
Chemistry 130
Literature in English 230
Mathematics 66
Physics 100
Psychology 205

There also used to be a GRE Subject Test in Computer Science; however, it was discontinued in April 2013.

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How Are GRE Subject Tests Scored?

All GRE Subject Tests have score ranges of 200 to 990, in ten-point increments. The Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology, Biology, and Psychology Subject Tests also report subscores in several more specific areas. These subscores are on a 20-99 scale, in one-point increments.

For all Subject Tests, you earn one point for each question you answer correctly and lose ¼ a point for each question you get wrong. This raw score is then converted to a scaled score between 200 and 990. Like general GRE scores, GRE Subject Test scores are valid for five years after you take the exam.

Even though all Subject Tests use the same score scale, you shouldn’t compare scores from different Subject Tests. For example, if you got an 820 in Biology and a 700 in Physics, that doesn’t necessarily mean you are better at biology than physics because the expectations for each exam vary.

Check out our guide on the GRE scoring process to learn more about how general GRE and Subject Tests are scored.

 

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How Are Subject Tests Different From the General GRE?

Both the general GRE and GRE Subject Tests are developed and administered by the Educational Testing Service (ETS), and both are used as part of grad school admissions. However, there are some key differences between the two types of tests:

 

#1: How Broad the Exams’ Focuses Are

The general GRE tests subjects on a wide variety of subjects, including math, writing, and critical reading skills. The Subjects Tests focus on a much more specific area.

 

#2: How the Tests Are Taken

Subject Tests can only be taken with paper and pencil while the general GRE is almost always taken on the computer. This creates some differences in the registration processes for both types of tests. I’ll go over the registration process for the Subject Tests in detail below.

Additionally, the general GRE is section-level adaptive, which means your score on the first sections of Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning influences the difficulty level of the questions on the second sections. GRE subject Tests, because they are taken on paper, are NOT adaptive.

 

#3: How the Exams Are Scored

There are also differences in the way both exam types are scored. For the GRE Subject Tests, you lost a ¼ a point for each question you answer incorrectly. On the general GRE, you don’t lose any points for wrong answers. Therefore, you should answer every question on the general GRE, but, if you’re stuck on a question on a Subject Test, you should only answer it if you can eliminate at least one answer choice.

 

#4: How the Tests Are Organized

The general GRE is separated into six separately timed sections. The GRE Subject Tests, on the other hand, do not have separately timed sections. The timer will start, and you’ll have 2 hours and 50 minutes to answer all the questions. There won’t be any breaks or moving from one section to another.

 

#5: The Types of Questions the Exams Include

Finally, the general GRE includes a writing component and numeric entry questions while the Subject Tests do not. For the general GRE, the exam starts with two writing prompts. You’ll have 30 minutes to write each essay. Additionally, some questions in the Quantitative Reasoning sections require you to enter a numeric value instead of just selecting an answer choice. The Subject Tests have only multiple-choice questions.

 

Which Programs Ask for GRE Subject Tests?

GRE Subject Test requirements vary from school to school, and within a school, can even vary by program and by individual degrees offered within a program. This can make getting information on Subject Test requirements confusing and tedious.

However, there are some patterns for Subject Test requirements. These trends aren’t true for every school, but they can help you get a basic idea of what to expect before you do your own research.

  • Most programs don’t require a GRE Subject Test score.
  • Of those that do, you only need to submit scores for one test. A specific Subject Test is usually not named; you’re instead asked to take the test in the subject closest to your future area of study.
  • The majority of programs that require Subject Test scores are STEM programs (those that focus on science, technology, engineering, or math). This makes sense because most Subject Tests are on STEM subjects.
  • Highly competitive schools, such as the Ivy League and Stanford, tend to require Subject Test scores more often than other schools.
  • PhD programs typically require or recommend Subject Test scores more often than Master’s programs.

While knowing these patterns can be helpful, to get the best information you’ll have to check the Subject Test requirements for each program you plan on applying to. This information can often be found on a program’s admissions page. There will usually be a section that lists each of the application requirements you must complete.

Here the program may say something like “GRE Subject Test scores are not required,” “A GRE Subject Test score is required,” or “A GRE Subject Test score is recommended.” Make sure you don’t confuse general GRE requirements with GRE Subject Test requirements. If something is referred as just “GRE”, that means the general GRE, not Subject Tests.

If nothing about Subject Tests is mentioned under application requirements, that means they’re not required, although you may still want to contact someone in admissions to see if Subject Test scores are taken into account if you submit them. If you can’t find information on the program website, use the contact information on the admissions page to ask someone directly about Subject Test policies. They should be able to quickly tell you whether the program requires a Subject Test, doesn’t look at Subject Test scores, or will look at scores if you send them.

 

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Each school will have its own policy for GRE Subject Tests.

 

Should You Take a GRE Subject Test?

Now you know that there aren’t many clear-cut guidelines for which types of programs want Subject Tests and which don’t. So, should you take one?

The first and most important consideration is the policies of the grad schools you plan on applying to. As mentioned above, you can get this information by looking on the program’s website or contacting someone directly. Use the information you get to help make your decision. If one or more schools requires or strongly recommends submitting a Subject Test score, then you should take it because not doing so could hurt your chances of admission. If all the schools you’re looking at have made it clear that they don’t give Subject Test scores much or any consideration, then there’s no reason for you take one.

However, what if the schools’ policies aren’t as clear as that? What should you do if they don’t require Subject Test scores but will take them into consideration if you submit them? This is a common situation, and you should ask yourself the following questions to make your decision:

 

#1: Do Any of the Subject Tests Relate to Your Area of Study?

There are only seven Subject Tests, and most of them focus on STEM subjects like biology and mathematics. If your grad school program isn’t related to any of these subjects, say if you’re going to grad school to study American History or Russian Literature, then taking a Subject Test won’t improve your chances of getting into a grad school. This is because, even if you got a perfect score, the skills the Subject Test measures won’t be closely related to what you need to know for your program and thus what admissions officers are interested in knowing.

If your grad program is closely related to one of the areas tested by Subject Tests, then you still have a few more things to consider. Keep on reading.

 

#2: How Well-Known Is Your Undergrad Alma Mater?

Some programs that require or strongly recommend Subject Tests use them to evaluate the skills of students who went to small or lesser-known undergrad institutions. If admissions officers don’t know much about a particular school’s reputation, strong Subject Test scores can help reassure them that you have the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in grad school.

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If you went to a large or well-known school, like a major state school, prestigious liberal arts college, or top-20 research university, grad programs will know enough about your school to not need a Subject Test score for verification. However, if you went to a small school that’s not very well-known outside the area, you may want to take a Subject Test to prove your skills in the area you plan to study.

 

#3: How Strong Is Your Application?

Your GRE Subject Test score is never going to be the most important part of your grad school application; at best it’s a supplement that can give your application a bit of a boost. If your application is already strong, and you have top grades, great score on the general GRE, strong letters of recommendation, etc., then you likely won’t need a Subject Test score to further prove your skills (although you can always take a Subject Test anyway).

However, if there’s an area of your application that’s weaker, you may want to take a Subject Test to show your skills in that area. For example, if you’re applying to a program that has a strong math focus, but your math grades from undergrad aren’t great, taking the Mathematics Subject Test and getting a high score may help show admissions officers that you do have strong math skills and can handle the math the program will involve.

 

#4: How Difficult Will It Be to Prepare For and Take a Subject Test?

If you’re currently in school or recently graduated, and you’ve been immersed in the subject you plan to take the Subject Test in, then you may not need to study much at all for the exam. This is also true if your current job closely relates to the material tested on the Subject Test, or if you just happen to know that subject area very well. If it’s been a few years since you’ve actively studied the subject, or if it’s a subject you don’t have a lot of background in, it could take a substantial amount of time for you to be prepared enough to score well on the test.

Take your schedule and the amount of time you’re willing to devote to the Subject Test into account when making your decision. Also note that Subject Tests cost $150 to take, which may influence your decision.

 

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How Do You Register for a GRE Subject Test?

So, you’ve decided to take a Subject Test. But how do you go about setting up a test date and location? The process for registering for a GRE Subject Test is a bit different than the registration process for the general GRE, so even if you’ve already taken the GRE, you may still want to read through this section.

The Subject Tests are only available three times a year, in September, October, and April so, unlike the general GRE, registration is not available year round. Registration only opens up a few months before each exam. ETS lists when test dates will be for different countries on their website. If you’re interested in seeing which test centers offer GRE Subject Tests, here’s a list of all the paper-based testing centers.

Follow these steps to register for a Subject Test:

 

Step 1: Get Your My GRE Account Ready

First, you’ll need to sign in to your My GRE account or register for an account. If you’ve already created an account for the general GRE, you’ll use that same account and don’t need to create a new one.

 

Step 2: Choose Your Exam Date and Location

Once you’re on your homepage, click “Register for a Subject Test”. After confirming your personal information, you’ll be able to see if registration is currently available. If it is, you’ll select which Subject Test you’re interested in taking. You can then find an available seat by either searching by test center location or test date.

 

Step 3: Choose Where to Send Your Score Reports

Next, enter where you completed your undergrad degree and what you majored in. This is also when you can choose which schools to send your scores to. You don’t have to choose any schools now, but this is the only time you’ll get to send up to four score reports for free. If you wait until after you take the Subject Test, you’ll have to pay for each score report you send. After you take the test, you can request scores to be sent to specific schools through your My GRE account. Each score report will cost $27.

When sending scores, you can choose to send only the score of the test you’re registering for, or you can choose to send scores from all the Subject Tests you’ve taken. However, you cannot send Subject Test scores and general GRE scores together. You have to send these scores separately.

 

Step 4: Answer Background Questions

You’ll then be asked if you’d like to get emails from the GRE Search Service, which will send you information from various grad schools if you agree to it. Then comes a series of background questions. You only have to answer the ones with red asterisks next to them. Not answering certain optional questions won’t negatively impact your score. Finally, you’ll review your order and pay the $150 fee.

 

How Can You Prepare for GRE Subject Tests?

To get a high score on a Subject Test, you’ll likely have to do some studying. One of the best resources to study for a GRE Subject Test is the official practice book for each Subject Test, developed by ETS.

Each practice book contains a complete practice test, answers and scoring instructions, as well as more detailed information on the content the exam covers. Practice books are free to download, and each is linked below.

Psychology

Taking an official practice test gives you a great sense of what the real Subject Test will be like, and you’ll be able to get an idea of how well you’d score, as well as your strengths and weaknesses.

To supplement the practice book, you can look over old class notes or textbooks you have on that particular subject, and/or get related books from the library. Use the section on test content at the beginning of each practice book to see every topic the exam could cover. You can then use this information and your test score to choose which topics to study.

As mentioned above, if you’re already very knowledgeable on the subject, you may not need to do a lot of preparation. If you’re happy with your practice test score and feel confident about the material, a bit of light review may be all you need.

 

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What’s a Good Subject Test Score?

It’s difficult to say exactly what a “good” score on a Subject Test is because GRE Subject Tests are taken by only a fraction of the students who take the general GRE, there are seven different Subject Tests, and far fewer schools use them in their admissions.

To see how well your score compares to those of other test takers’, you can check out data released by the ETS on Subject Test scores. This data tells you how many people scored below a specific score. For example, if you got a 780 in Biology, 81% of other test takers scored lower than you, making you significantly above average.

While it’s difficult to make generalizations on GRE Subject Test scores, one common trend is that most schools don’t expect perfect Subject Test scores. Even top-tier schools that might expect near perfect scores on the general GRE don’t expect anything near that high for Subject Tests.

Getting above the 80th or 90th percentile is great, but students have gotten below the 50th percentile and still been accepted to top schools. It’s important to remember that your Subject Test score is just one small part of your application, and your goal when applying to grad school should be to make your entire application as strong as possible to maximize your chances of getting in.

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What’s Next?

Want to know more about the scoring process for GRE Subject Tests? Read our guide for an in-depth look at how Subject Tests and the general GRE are scored.

If you want more information on how to register for the GRE, check out our step-by-step guide to GRE registration.

How much does it cost to take the GRE or a Subject Test? Learn the costs, what hidden fees there are and how to reduce them.


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Author: Christine Sarikas

Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.

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