Why you should take a GRE Subject Test

Tyler York
Image representing the different GRE subject tests

Students often have a lot to accomplish even before graduating. Aside from getting good grades, they need to take qualification exams if they want to further their education and get into a good graduate school program. One of them is the GRE or Graduate Record Examination. 

Now, there are two types of GREs. The first one, and the most common requirement from top graduate schools, is the GRE General Test, which tests skills in the following areas: verbal and quantitative (math) reasoning, and analytical writing. The other type is the GRE Subject Test, which we will be discussing in more detail here.

What are GRE Subject Tests?

According to the ETS, “GRE Subject Tests are achievement tests that measure your knowledge of a particular field of study.” They’re designed to showcase your subject matter expertise, which helps you stand out from all other applicants. The scores you get here provide graduate and business schools with more factors in evaluating your qualifications. It is often reviewed with your undergraduate record, recommendation letters, and GRE General Test scores.

Unlike the GRE General Test, which are computer-based exams that can be taken at any time of the year, Subject Tests are paper-based and only given three times a year in April, September, and October. The General Test is also structured so that each section is timed, while with Subject Tests you’re given 2 hours and 50 minutes to answer all the questions. 

The fee for the GRE Subject Test is also cheaper at $150 worldwide.

There are currently six Subjects Tests available with ETS. These are:

  • Biology
  • Chemistry
  • Literature in English
  • Mathematics
  • Physics
  • Psychology

In December 2016, the GRE Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology Test was discontinued. Earlier still, in April 2013, the GRE Computer Science was dropped from the GRE Subject Tests.

Should you take a GRE subject test?

Not all graduate schools and institutions require a GRE Subject Test, but most of the top-tier universities do. The most important factor to consider before taking any of the subject tests is whether the business school or graduate program you are applying to needs or recommends a Subject Test score. In which case, you need to take the exam.

However, if any of the programs you are considering doesn’t require or mention the GRE Subject Tests at all, or if the subject tests are not related to your target program, then you can skip it. 

But what if the program’s policies are not clear? Or they don’t require Subject Test scores but do recommend or take them into consideration if you submit them. Then the good rule of thumb is to take the test. It can only help your application especially if you don’t have particularly competitive grades in your college courses.

Finally, you may consider sitting for a GRE subject test if you are moving into a new field of study. Most graduate programs have a number of course requirements for admission; however, if you earned a bachelor’s degree in that field, you likely already completed them. For many students, entering into a new field of study can mean going back to school for post-bachelor credits to complete these course requirements. That said, many graduate programs will waive these requirements if you score above a certain threshold on the relevant GRE subject test. So sitting for the exam in this situation could save you a lot of time, energy, and money.

GRE Chemistry is one of the GRE subject tests
Photo by ThisIsEngineering RAEng on Unsplash

The GRE Subject Tests

The Subject Tests are intended for students who have an undergraduate major or extensive background in any one of the six different GRE Subject Tests, namely Biology, Chemistry, Literature in English, Mathematics, Physics, and Psychology.

GRE Biology

This Subject Test covers three primary areas: cellular and molecular biology, organismal biology, and ecology and evolution. The test has approximately 188 multiple choice questions with some grouped in sets and many that require problem-solving skills and analysis on descriptions of laboratory and field situations, experimental results, or diagrams.

The following is the test content distribution of a Biology GRE test. As you can see they are equally divided, so having knowledge in all the major subject areas will be valuable.

  • Cellular and Molecular Biology (33–34%) – covers fundamentals cellular biology, genetics, and molecular biology
  • Organismal Biology (33–34%) – covers topics on  structure, physiology, behavior, and development of organisms
  • Ecology and Evolution (33–34%) – covers topics on interactions of organisms and their environment, emphasizing biological principles at levels above the individual

GRE Chemistry

This Subject covers four major areas in Chemistry: analytical chemistry, inorganic chemistry, organic chemistry, and physical chemistry. The test has been constructed to simplify mathematical manipulations so you will not need a calculator or table of algorithms. The test booklet also contains a periodic table, conversion factors, logarithms, and physical constants — all the information you need to answer all 130 questions.

The following is the test content distribution of a Chemistry GRE test:

  • Analytical Chemistry (15%) – covers topics on data acquisition and use of statistics, homogeneous and heterogeneous equilibria, and environmental applications
  • Inorganic Chemistry (25%) – covers topics on general chemistry, metals and semiconductors, and concepts of acids and bases
  • Organic Chemistry (30%) – covers topics on structure, bonding and nomenclature, reaction mechanisms, and organometallics
  • Physical Chemistry (30%) – covers topics on thermodynamics, quantum chemistry and applications to spectroscopy, and dynamics

GRE Literature in English

This Subject Test is divided into four sections that consist of approximately 230 questions on poetry, biography, drama, the short story, the essay, the novel, literary theory, criticism, and the history of the language. The test highlights authors, works, genres, and movements.

The following is the test content distribution of a Literature in English GRE test, which includes factual and analytical questions:

  • Literary Analysis (40-55%) – includes questions on the interpretation of selected passages of prose and poetry
  • Identification (15-20%) – includes questions on recognizing dates, authors, or works by style and/or content
  • Cultural and Historical Contexts (20-25%) – includes questions on literary, cultural and intellectual history, as well as identifying an author or work through biographical information
  • History and Theory of Literary Criticism (10-15%) – includes questions that test your knowledge of various critical and theoretical approaches

GRE Mathematics

This Subject Test covers major topics in Mathematics including calculus, algebra, and number theory. There are 66 multiple choice questions on this test, drawn from common undergraduate level courses.

The following is the test content distribution of a Mathematics GRE test:

  • Calculus (50%) – covers questions that test your knowledge of differential and integral calculus including geometry and trigonometry
  • Algebra (25%) – covers topics on elementary, linear, and abstract algebra
  • Additional Topics (25%) – includes topics on introductory real analysis, discrete mathematics, probability, and statistics

GRE Physics

This GRE Subject Test consists of approximately 100 multiple choice questions that focus on the basic principles of physics and the application of these principles to solve problems. Most of the test questions will test your mastery of the first three years of your undergraduate physics.

The following is the test content distribution of a Physics GRE test:

  • Classical Mechanics (20%) – includes questions on kinematics, work and energy, Newton’s laws, oscillatory motion, etc.
  • Electromagnetism (18%) – covers questions about electrostatics, currents and DC circuits, Lorentz force, magnetic fields in free space, etc.
  • Optics and Wave Phenomena (9%) – includes questions on wave properties, interference, superposition, geometrical optics, diffraction, polarization, and Doppler effect
  • Thermodynamics and Statistical Mechanics (10%) – includes questions on thermodynamic processes, equations of state, ideal gases, kinetic theory, etc.
  • Quantum Mechanics (12%) – covers questions about solutions of the Schrödinger equation, spin, angular momentum, wave function symmetry, etc.
  • Atomic Physics (10%) – includes questions on properties of electrons, Bohr model, energy quantization, atomic structure, etc.
  • Special Relativity (6%) – covers questions about time dilation, length contraction, simultaneity, energy and momentum, etc.
  • Laboratory Methods (6%) – includes topics on electronics, instrumentation, radiation detection, counting statistics, etc.
  • Specialized Topics (9%) – covers questions about nuclear and particle physics, condensed matter

GRE Psychology

This Subject Test covers six areas in the Psychology field and consists of 205 multiple-choice questions. The questions are taken from the fundamentals of psychology most commonly encountered in courses offered at the undergraduate level. The test requires recalling factual information, applying principles, analyzing relationships, drawing conclusions from data, and/or evaluating a research design.

The following is the test content distribution of a Psychology GRE test:

  • Biological (17-21%) – covers questions about sensation and perception as well as physiological/ behavioral neuroscience
  • Cognitive (17-24%) – covers questions about learning, language, memory, and thinking
  • Social (12-14%) – covers topics on social perception, attitudes and behavior, emotions, and cultural or gender influences
  • Developmental (12-14%) – covers topics on nature-nurture, physical and motor skills, language, learning, and socialization
  • Clinical (15-19%) – covers questions about personality and behavior, causes and development of disorders, and health psychology
  • Measurement/Methodology/Other (15-19%) – covers topics on general history, psychometrics, research designs, and ethics

Wrapping up

While a good score on a GRE Subject Test is not definite — most top universities and graduate programs don’t expect you to get even near perfect scores as the General Test — getting into the top 80th percentile is advantageous. However, there are also test takers who rated in the 50th percentile range and still able to get into their graduate program. It is always good to keep in mind that your Subject Test score is but a small part of your application.

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