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GRE Subject Test vs GRE General Test

Many aspiring graduate students wonder: should I take the GRE General Test or a GRE Subject Test? Or multiple GRE Subject Tests? And what’s the difference between these two types of GRE, anyway? In this post, I’ll help you answer these questions.

GRE General Test: Overview

According to the ETS, the GRE General Test “measures your verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, critical thinking and analytical writing skills — skills that have been developed over a long period of time and are not related to a specific field of study but are important for all.”

A score on the GRE General Test is required by nearly every top-tier graduate school.  This exam is also a near-universal requirement for graduate degrees with courses in math, science, or research methodology. Graduate programs ask for scores on the GRE General Test because it provides a standard way to compare candidates to each other; in fact, the GRE General Test may be only common measure amongst all applicants.

This is not to say that other individual factors aren’t considered. When an applicant submits a GRE General Test score that is below the average for students accepted into a  program, an admissions office may look at other individual aspects of the application packet. Other considerations beyond the GRE General Test include past GPA, relevant work experience, and so on.

Similarly, if someone applies to a graduate school with a weak undergrad GPA or little work experience, a high GRE General Test score may still allow them to be accepted. Ultimately, your GRE General Test score is the most measurable way to make your grad school application competitive.

GRE General Test: Content

The GRE General Test contains three sections: the Verbal Reasoning Section, the Quantitative Reasoning Section, and the  Analytical Writing Section.

The GRE Verbal Section focuses a lot on vocabulary. In fact, two of the three GRE Verbal question types simply involve selecting correct vocabulary words. Sentence Completion questions ask test-takers to fill in the blanks in sentences, inserting words that are appropriate to the sentence’s meaning and tone. There are “single-blank” sentence completion questions, but you can also be asked to fill in two blanks And there are even some triple-blank Sentence Completion questions.

Sentence Equivalence questions are also vocabulary focused. But here, the task is to select two different words for just one blank in a sentence, so that you create create two sentences with the same meaning. If this sounds a little complicated, check out Magoosh’s Sentence Equivalence video tutorial by clicking the image below:

GRE General Test, GRE Subject Test, GRE Subject Tests

Magoosh Video Lesson: Intro to Sentence Equivalence

Then there are Reading Comprehension questions. This Verbal question type does involve some vocabulary skill. But the main focus of GRE Verbal RC is whole-text understanding. Here, you’ll go through longer academic passages and answer questions about the passages’ meaning, ideas, and tone.

In GRE Quantitative, there are quite a few unique question types as well. But what’s really important in this sections is types of math. GRE Quants covers quite a few different math concepts, including algebra, statistics, geometry, exponents, fractions and ratios, and so much more. For more information, see Magoosh’s breakdown of the most commonly tested GRE Quant concepts. Or watch our introductory GRE Math video lesson by clicking the image below.

GRE General Test, GRE Subject Test, GRE Subject Tests

Magoosh Video Lesson: Intro to GRE Math


Finally, the GRE General Test includes an Analytical Writing Assessment, or AWA. While the verbal and Quant sections are multiple choice, AWA involves essay writing. The AWA has two different essay tasks, one where test-takers analyze an issue and another where an argument is analyzed.

GRE General Test, GRE Subject Test, GRE Subject Tests

Click the image to go to the Magoosh Video Lesson

GRE Subject Tests: Overview

You can take a GRE Subject Test to highlight your strengths in a specific subject area, such as Biology, Math, or English. In rare instances, a graduate program will actually require a GRE Subject test score. When a GRE Subject Test is required, it’s usually required by a grad program at a top university. Examples of this can be seen at the University of Notre Dame, which requires GRE Subject Tests for its graduate programs in Mathematics, Physics, and English. NYU also requires GRE Subject Tests for some of its programs, as do Yale and Stanford.

More often than not, however, taking a GRE Subject Test is simply recommended. This can even be true at top schools. Notre Dame, NYU, Yale, and Stanford all have programs where GRE Subject Tests are just recommended, along with select programs that actually require a GRE Subject Test score. Mid-tier programs such at the ones in the University of Connecticut’s Graduate Psychological Sciences also recommend the GRE Subject Test, but will accept applicants who haven’t taken it.

Now, sometimes a GRE Subject Test can give you a competitive edge over other applicants even if a school doesn’t specifically recommend that option. Take UC-Berkeley’s program for Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences. Berkeley doesn’t recommend taking a GRE Subject Test per se. The graduate admissions frequently asked question page for this department merely says that “The Computer Sciences division accepts the Subject GRE in Math or Physics. Subject GRE tests are not required and there is no penalty for not taking one.” Berkeley doesn’t clearly recommendation taking a GRE Subject Test. Still, they did mention subject tests and tell you which graduate program accepts Subject Test scores. So it’s likely a score in GRE Math or Physics can help your chances of acceptance into graduate Computer Science.

If the graduate degree you’re applying to doesn’t mention a GRE Subject Test at all, however, you can probably treat it as a fairly low priority. If you’re not sure whether a program will value a GRE Subject Test score on your application, contact the school and check.

Which GRE Subject Test Might You Need?

You may be asked to take a GRE Subject Test that’s closely related to your major. If a school you’re applying to doesn’t require a GRE Subject Test, but you want to take one that will increase your chances of acceptance, you’ll again want to take an exam that’s clearly related to your field of study.

ETS offers seven different GRE Subject Tests, in the content areas of Biochemistry, Biology, Chemistry, Literature in English, Mathematics, Physics, and Psychology. ETS has a web page to help you prepare for any GRE Subject Test. This GRE Subject Test preparation portal includes free PDF guides of all seven subject tests. Each PDF comes with a full sample test.

GRE General Test vs. GRE Subject Test: Take one? Or both?

To get into grad school, you will likely need to take the GRE General Test. Whether you should also take a GRE Subject Test— or multiple GRE Subject Tests— depends on a lot of factors. If the program you’re applying to actually requires a GRE Subject Test, then of course you’ll need to take one. If you’re looking to get into a program that recommends a GRE Subject Test, you should probably take the recommended test if possible.

Taking a relevant GRE Subject Test may be good for any highly competitive graduate program, provided you have time to take an extra exam. However, if you are applying to a mid-tier program that’s only lightly competitive and doesn’t require or recommend a GRE Subject Test, a Subject Test might not be worth your time.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in December 2010 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.

By the way, students who use Magoosh GRE improve their scores by an average of 8 points on the new scale (150 points on the old scale.) Click here to learn more.