GRE Subject Tests: To Take, or Not To Take

Wait. There are subject tests, too?!

Wait. There are subject tests, too?!

Remember when you took the SAT for the first time? You were so anxious because it was the SAT AND IT WAS THE BIGGEST TEST YOU WERE EVER GOING TO TAKE! And just as you got up to the front of the line to check-in, they asked you if you were taking an SAT II. A WHAT?!

And, indeed, it turned out that on top of the SAT reasoning tests there were other subject tests that were “optional.” Perhaps if you’re a strange Martian who is immune to the horrors of standardized testing, you were excited for another chance to show what you know, but more likely, your heart sank with the realization that “subject tests” meant that more future Saturdays would begin with your stomach in knots at 8 AM in a cold testing center.

You may have thought applying to graduate school would be more straightforward, but if you’re taking the GRE, you’re likely to find yourself at the same crossroads. Yes, luckily for you, if you’re applying to graduate school in the field of Biology, Biochemistry, Chemistry, Literature (in English), Mathematics, Physics, or Psychology, you have the option to take a GRE Subject Test to support your graduate school application. The tests are administered in April, September, and October and scored on a scale of 200-990 in ten point increments. The Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology; Biology; and Psychology Tests all have subsections scored on a scale of 20-99 in one point increments. The question is, do you need to give up $150 and a weekend?

If you turn to Google for an answer, you’ll immediately find about 394 different opinions, and, if you’re lucky, two will be helpful. Of course the ETS (Educational Testing Service), the company in charge of administering the GRE, makes it sound like coughing  up an additional registration fee to them is the best idea you ever had, while bitter graduate students who were burned by their own scores argue vehemently against the oppressive institution of standardized testing. Ultimately, you’re the only one who has all of the information to make an informed decision about whether or not  you need to take the GRE Subject test for your field. With that in mind, here are some things to consider:

  • Did you check all the programs you’re applying to? Some programs require the GRE Subject tests as part of their application. Figure out if any of your programs require the test NOW! You’ll need to plan ahead if you’re going to study for a subject test while you’re preparing for the standard GRE.
    • “What if the program says the Subject Test is ‘Recommended'”? Here’s where thing get hazy. I mean, if it isn’t “required,” how recommended is “recommended”? Well, for one, how competitive is the program? If you’re applying to one of the top ten programs in your field, “recommended” probably might as well say “required.” But, again, reading through experiences on any graduate school/GRE forum will turn up examples of students who didn’t submit the “recommended” test scores and were unconditionally accepted by their programs as well as students who feel that their submission of said “recommended” scores is the only thing that got them an interview. Really, “recommended” means just that, “recommended;” yes, you can get into the program without submitting scores, but are you really putting your best foot forward if you deny information the program politely asked for?
  • What was your undergraduate program like? If you graduated with honors from the top undergraduate program in your field, you can probably save the $150. However, if you went to a small liberal arts school, you may be just as competitive an applicant, but, if they’ve never had an applicant from your school before, how will your dream program know you’re a star? It may not be the most glamorous option, but showing up at a testing center in sweatpants one extra Saturday may be the best way to show what you know.
  • What was your undergraduate career like? If you have a resume full of REUs, internships, and extracurriculars as well as glowing recommendation letters and a 4.0, you’re probably safe. However, if maybe your GPA could have been better, or you spent your summers working, or you majored in something else altogether in undergrad, a good GRE Subject Test score may help set you apart as a competitive applicant, especially among students who didn’t bother to send in a score.
  • How important is that $150? Students applying to graduate programs come from all different backgrounds. If you’re still completing undergraduate school, the time and money spent preparing for and taking yet another standardized test may simply be out of the question, and that’s OK. However, if you’ve set aside time to and resources to prepare for grad school, there’s no real reason not to take the test. GRE Score Select is available for the subject tests, so if you aren’t happy with your scores, no one has to see them!
  • How will the graduate program use your score? Some programs use the subject tests (particularly those with subsections) for placement purposes. Keep in mind, this could be one reason a program recommends but does not require scores. If you’re confident that your score will help place you out of some coursework, you could end up saving money in the long run; however, if this is the only reason you’re taking the subject test, you should try to figure out if any of the programs you’re applying to actually do use the test for placement purposes.

Important take away? Don’t stress over the GRE Subject Test! Yes, some programs require scores, but even so, your score will just be one number on a multifaceted application—probably the least important one! Remember, the nice thing about the subject tests is that they’re in your field; a little practice and preparation is really all you need.


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