Candidates for Masters programmes are likely already familiar with GRE General Tests, but the lesser-known GRE Subject Tests offer potential students a way to distinguish themselves from others who are also applying for post-graduate programmes. GRE Subject Tests are offered only for a very limited number of fields (biology, chemistry, literature in English, mathematics, physics and psychology) and only up to three times per year.

► Browse top schools to find the best for you.

Why take GRE Subject Tests?

Institutions offering Masters programmes typically – but not always – require a standardised test score before a student is considered for admission. One of the most commonly accepted is the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) General Test score. B-schools and universities use that score – along with many other pieces of the admissions application – to judge a candidate’s likelihood for success in the post-graduate programme.

However, apart from transcripts, personal essays and letters of recommendation, how can applicants further distinguish themselves from other candidates? One answer is by voluntarily submitting a GRE Subject Test score. GRE Subject Tests are rarely required for admission into a programme, but a high score demonstrates an applicant’s in-depth knowledge of a certain field. In addition, it shows an admissions officer that a student is willing to go above and beyond in the hope of being admitted to the programme, demonstrating both initiative and dedication to the field.

GRE Subject Tests topics

As mentioned above, GRE Subject Tests are currently limited to six fields: biology, chemistry, literature in English, mathematics, physics and psychology. The Educational Testing Service (ETS), developers of all GRE tests, previously offered an option for biochemistry, cell, and molecular biology (BCM). The BCM test was discontinued in December 2016, but its scores will still be valid until 2021.

GRE Subject Tests structure

Each of the GRE Subject Tests is designed for students to demonstrate their aptitude in one of six fields of study. By performing well on a GRE Subject Test, candidates for post-graduate degree programmes illustrate to admissions officers that they have a comprehensive understanding of concepts specific to the subject of the test. If your undergraduate major pertained to one of the subject areas or if you have practical experience with the field, a GRE Subject Test might be a perfect option for you.

Biology Test

The GRE Biology Test covers three primary areas: 1) cellular and molecular biology, 2) organismal biology, and 3) ecology and evolution. Within the 190 multiple-choice questions are sections at the end that test your knowledge of laboratory and field situations and may include diagrams or experiment results to interpret.

Chemistry Test

The GRE Chemistry Test covers four primary areas, with some focus area overlap on individual questions: 1) analytical chemistry, 2) inorganic chemistry, 3) organic chemistry and 4) physical chemistry. The test has been designed in such a way that you will not need a calculator or table of algorithms. Within the test booklet, you will be provided all the information you need to answer all 130 questions, including a periodic table, physical constants, conversion factors, or logarithms.

Literature in English Test

The GRE Literature in English Test is divided into four sections: 1) literary analysis, 2) identification (such as recognising a particular author from a distinct passage of text), 3) cultural and historical contexts and 4) history and theory of literary criticism. There are around 230 questions, and any one might discuss an aspect of literature, such as essays, novels, short stories and language history.

Mathematics Test

The GRE Mathematics Test includes questions on calculus and algebra as well as other related topics, which can be found in undergraduate courses. There are only 66 questions on this test, so each question will take you longer to complete and will have a greater impact on your score.

Physics Test

Most of the approximately 100 multiple-choice questions on the GRE Physics Test will pertain to topics covered in the first year of undergraduate physics courses. Topics covered in the physics test include classical mechanics, electromagnetism, optics and wave phenomena, thermodynamics and statistical mechanics, quantum mechanics, atomic physics, special relativity, laboratory methods and other specialised topics.

Psychology Test

There are around 200 multiple-choice questions on the GRE Psychology Test, all of which cover DSM-5 terminology, criteria and classifications. The test is divided into three sections: 1) experimental psychology, 2) social psychology and 3) other areas such as the general history of psychology, statistical procedures and ethical and legal issues.

GRE Subject Tests specifics

GRE Subject Tests are accepted by thousands of graduate schools and associated departments around the world. They are paper-based tests (rather than computer-based, like the GRE General Test) and take roughly three-and-a-half hours to complete. You must pre-register for a GRE Subject Test and pay the USD 150 fee in advance in order to take the test. You can register either online or by mail.

It is important to note that GRE Subject Tests are only offered up to three times per year, in the months of September, October, and April. You will need to plan far in advance to ensure a testing date will be available when you need it. In addition, you will need to take steps to avoid missing the test since, due to its limited availability, you may not have another chance to take it (and wait for your test score to be sent) before your admissions application is due.

GRE Subject Tests scoring

Scores for GRE Subject Tests range from 200-990, which will indicate how well you performed on the test. As part of the cost of the test, you can choose up to four institutions to which you would like your score sent, and with thousands of schools around the world set up to accept these test scores, there is a good chance your desired schools are included in that list. And not just B-schools or universities accept GRE Subject Test scores. You can also have scores sent to many registered sponsors of fellowship programmes to which you may be considering applying.

Scores are sent both to you and to the schools you selected approximately five weeks after you take the test, and you will be able to access your score through your private online account with ETS. If, after taking the test, you want to have your score sent to an additional school, you can simply make a request with ETS for a small fee per school.

GRE Subject Test scores are valid for five years after your testing date. Prior to July 2016, scores were valid for five years from the testing year rather than the testing date, in some cases allowing a bit longer for your score to be valid.

Preparing for a GRE Subject Test

Preparation for a GRE Subject Test would be identical to any other standardised test, meaning that intensive study and good rest can increase performance. ETS makes available a downloadable practice test in each of the subject areas that is identical in structure to their official test, although the questions are different. A practice test is a great way to gauge your preparedness and to get a preliminary estimate of what your actual score might be. In addition, private tutors and testing services can help you prepare you for the real thing.

If you think your admissions packet for a Masters programme needs a little boost, or even if you are just interested in expanding and testing your knowledge of a particular field, GRE Subject Tests may be just the solution for you. Provided that your field of study involves one of the six available testing subjects – and you are confident in your knowledge of that field – you may be well served by taking a GRE Subject Test.