If you’re applying to graduate school, you’ll most likely have to take the GRE.

You probably already knew that. But did you know you may have to take a GRE Subject Test as well? Don’t panic—we’re here to help you figure out what the GRE Subject Tests are and whether you need to take one. Read on for our overview.

ETS, the testmaker of the GRE, created the GRE Subject Tests to give students a chance to prove their knowledge in specific subject matter, often in addition to showing their overall aptitude on a general test like the GRE. The GRE Subject Tests are essentially another tool that admissions committees can use to evaluate your ability, fit, and qualifications for their programs.

FIRST, THE LOGISTICS. THE TESTS ARE GIVEN IN A FEW SUBJECTS:

Each test is 2 hours and 50 minutes straight (no breaks or separate sections) and is scored on a scale from 200–990. It is given on paper—not a computer, like the general GRE—three times a year: April, September, and October. See the ETS website for specific dates and registration protocols.

Now, should you take a GRE Subject Test?

If there is no GRE Subject Test in your field, then don’t sweat it! If there is, it doesn’t automatically mean you have to take it. All graduate programs do not require GRE Subject Tests. Check your intended departmental websites for each program’s requirements. Sometimes, graduate programs will recommend or encourage all applicants to take a GRE Subject Test without requiring it. If this is the case, it’s a good idea to take the relevant GRE Subject Test, since your toughest competition probably will have taken it.

Even if there’s no mention of the GRE Subject Tests on your target department’s website, you should seriously consider taking one.

This is because standardized tests allow non-specialists to get some sense of the strength of your application. For example, if you want to study some esoteric subfield of mathematics, the math professors who work in that area will (usually) understand why that topic is important and how well you are qualified to take on that research. However, there are many types of people on a graduate admissions committee other than professors who work in your field. There are professors who work in unrelated fields, administrators with little or no expertise in your field, and students. Your GRE Subject Test scores (and your GRE scores, for that matter) may speak volumes to these non-specialists.

The GRE Subject Tests can also be especially helpful to your application if you are pursuing graduate study in a new field—that is, a field you didn’t study in your undergrad or other graduate work. The same can be said if you did study the same field but did poorly. Your high subject test score will show the depth of your knowledge and reassure the admissions committee that you are cut out for graduate work in this field.

And remember, when the GRE Subject Test is not required by your intended department, taking the test can’t hurt you.

If you don’t do well, you do not have to send your scores.

To find out how you’ll fare on the test and what you’ll need to do to prepare, you can take an official practice test (available here) under realistic testing conditions (ie., time yourself; be prepared with scratch paper, extra pencils, and a calculator if permitted; find a quiet space, etc.). Depending on how you do, you should work through a prep book or hire a tutor to review test strategies and content. If you’re not sure how to proceed, give us a ring after taking a practice test; we’ll talk you through your results and give you honest and specific recommendations for getting ready.