What are the GRE subject tests: and why to take them

Davis: Hey everybody, this is GRE Bites. My name is Davis, and I’m an educator with over ten years of experience.

Orion: And I’m Orion, the founder of StellarGRE.

Davis: We’re here to bring you your weekly bite-sized episode on GRE prep and grad school admissions. Check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at stellargre.com. And don’t forget, you can use the code “BITES” for 10% off any membership.

So, with the GRE changing, there are these options called GRE Subject Tests. These have also changed, and now there are significantly fewer: namely, math, physics, and psychology. Orion, I’d love to get your feedback on GRE subject tests in general and on these new ones. When is it appropriate to focus on these or use these as an option?

Orion: Sure, so first of all, let’s talk about what they are. A lot of people don’t even know that there are subject tests for the GRE. And as you mentioned, there used to be a lot more of them. I remember there were some on English literature, chemistry, economics, and apparently they don’t exist anymore. I don’t remember when they got rid of those tests. I don’t think it has to do with the recent changes. I don’t believe they were discontinued just a few weeks ago, though they did change certain aspects of their administration a few weeks ago in tandem with the changes to the general test.

Davis: So, as you mentioned, there are three subject tests currently offered by ETS: mathematics, physics, and psychology. These tests are really only applicable to folks who are applying to graduate school programs in those fields. If you’re not applying in those fields, this podcast episode isn’t for you. Just wait until next week, alright? So, why bother taking these tests? Now you’re studying for two high-stakes standardized tests. What’s the issue?

Orion: First of all, the Subject Tests and the general tests are very different from each other. The general test is an aptitude test; it measures your general competence in a future achievement context. The Subject Tests are achievement tests; they’re testing your knowledge base in specific fields. For example, in the mathematics test, you’ll be asked calculus questions to solve. In the psychology Subject Test, which I took many years ago, you’ll be asked questions about the history and theory of psychology. There is a right or wrong answer, and it’s usually based on factual evidence. The tests used to be paper-based and were only administered a few times a year in major metro areas, which was inconvenient.

However, starting last month, the GRE Subject Tests are now administered in a computer-delivered format. They’re also a bit shorter than they used to be. The Subject Tests, like the general tests, have transitioned to computer formats and are now available at regular testing centers, making them more accessible. They are multiple-choice tests and do have a guessing penalty. This means if you answer a question incorrectly, you lose a quarter of a point. Therefore, the strategy for answering questions is different for Subject Tests compared to the general tests. On the general tests, where there is no guessing penalty, there’s no reason to ever leave a question blank. However, on the Subject Tests, there is a reason to leave questions unanswered. So far, so good?

Davis: Yeah, thank you. So, if you’re considering entering a field and you aim to enroll in a graduate institute, not only might you need an aptitude test as part of the application process, but sometimes they also require, or perhaps it’s often voluntary, the Subject Test. I believe it’s pretty rare for grad programs to require a Subject Test. I’m sure they exist, but it’s more commonly encouraged. Taking one can certainly enhance the strength of your application. If you’re applying to a program in one of these specific fields and achieve a high score on one of these subject tests, it demonstrates a degree of competence that will set you apart from your competition, okay?

Orion: Now, one reason it makes your application stronger is if you can achieve a good score on one of these tests. But another practical reason is that it can potentially exempt you from a number of prerequisite classes. That’s why I took the psychology GRE back in the day. When I first considered going back to grad school for psychology and was doing my research, it seemed like I would have to go back to school just to prepare to go back to school. This was because I didn’t have a bachelor’s in psychology.

Some programs required up to seven prerequisite classes in various subjects. I would have had to attend a community college or earn an associate’s degree, likely spending a year or more just completing the prerequisites before I could even apply to grad school. Considering grad school is about a five-year experience to obtain a doctorate, the idea of going back to school just to prepare for more school seemed daunting. I thought, “Nuts to that.”

Fortunately, my top choice program and several others had, in their fine print, a waiver that said students could bypass those prerequisites if they weren’t part of their undergraduate curriculum, provided they could score at or above a certain level on the psychology GRE Subject Test. I looked into it, and while it was a decent score requirement, it wasn’t a top percentile score. This option was far more cost- and time-effective. I dedicated two months, procured specialized materials, hit the books, and familiarized myself with various facts about psychology and its history. It took me two months instead of two years. I spent a few hundred dollars on the test and the prep materials. This allowed me to bypass seven prerequisites, saving me thousands of dollars and, more importantly, one or two years of work. This expedited my progress toward my career aspirations.

In my opinion, the best reason to take a GRE Subject Test is to bypass prerequisites and expedite the application process. Additionally, it can help distinguish you from your competition, especially if you’re applying in one of these three fields, which often see intense competition.

Davis: Thank you, Orion, for sharing your personal experience. Also, I appreciate your demonstration of the differences between taking the GRE General Test versus a Subject Test. They serve very different purposes and yield different outcomes. So, thank you for that.

Thanks, everybody, for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with another bite-sized episode of GRE Bites. If you have a topic you’d like discussed on a future episode, let us know at stellargre@gmail.com. And if you’re ready to take your prep to the next level, check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at stellargre.com. You can use the code “BITES” for 10% off all memberships there. Talk to you soon.

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