Should I take the GRE Physics Subject Exam?

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The auxiliary verb should is not correct when the school you are applying to requires the GRE test. There are instances, however, when it’s optional as designated by the college or university. This post is not a grammar lesson but an examination of the captioned question and others regarding the tests. First, what is the GRE? is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.


Some colleges and universities use the standardized Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) for admission to a graduate program. The Educational Testing Service (ETS) owns and administers the tests, which originated in 1936 by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. Andrew Carnegie, industrialist, and philanthropist established the Foundation in 1905 to dignify and bolster the teaching profession at higher education institutions. The Foundation remains a viable and thriving organization dedicated to improving learning.

GRE Components

The General Test consists of six sections; the first involves analytical writing and critical thinking. It is divided into two 30 minute tasks, titled Analyze an Issue, and Analyze an Argument. The former presents an opinion on an issue of general interest followed by specific instructions. You then consider the complexities and write your reasons to defend your viewpoint on the issue.

The Argument task presents a detailed viewpoint, which you evaluate and write an analysis supporting the position – without agreeing or disagreeing.

In addition to the General Test, there are six Subject Tests:

  • Biology – discontinued as of April 2021
  • Chemistry
  • Literature in English – discontinued as of April 2021
  • Mathematics
  • Physics
  • Psychology

According to the ETS, tests taken on or after July 1, 2016, scores are valid for five years. The five-year reportable timeframe is per their reporting policy.

Whether the GRE Physics test is optional or mandatory, it’s a good idea to know what’s involved. Here are some of the features of this subject test:

  • Tests one’s knowledge of fundamental principles
  • Consists of approximately 100 five-choice questions
  • Questions pertain to graphs, experimental data, diagrams, and physical situations
  • Undergraduates with three years of physics should be able to pass
  • Testing time is 2 hours and 50 minutes

There is a Test Practice Book with further instructions and sample questions.

Individuals looking into potential schools for a master’s in physics have numerous possibilities that do not require the GRE Physics test. One source is the Washington University (St. Louis) Physics Club that links a Google sheet of universities with their respective GRE policy. The Excel sheet with its extensive school list specifies these categories:

  • N = Does not accept
  • O = Optional
  • R = Reporting recommended
  • Y = Still required

Many learning institutions have suspended the GRE physics requirement due to COVID-19. One example, the Homer L. Dodge Department of Physics and Astronomy at The University of Oklahoma stipulates that the General or Physics scores are not required in 2021. On the Google sheet, Texas A&M has a ‘Y’ – meaning they require the GRE. However, the Physics and Astronomy Department website states that graduate programs suspended the General and Subject tests for Fall 2021.

The answer to the captioned question refers to instances where the student applicant has a choice. If optional, should I take the Physics Subject Test? If you took the free practice test on the ETS site and aced it, then you may be confident to pay the $150 fee for the physics examination. A high score may elevate your status for acceptance. Regardless of the exam scores, there are other elements to your application. Examples are your GPA, Personal Statement, references, and college transcripts.

Over the years, more conflicting opinions on the validity of the GRE tests have emerged. According to ETS, the GRE scores are an objective way of identifying who may struggle academically in a particular skill. The organization also issues the caveat that the admission departments should not over-rely on the scores. ETS appears to disagree with itself by advising the scores do not and cannot predict academic success, as other factors are involved.

Studies cited by in 2007 indicated that the psychology subject test’s predictive power was 1% at Yale University. Research results at Bowling Green State University in Ohio concluded that students with a higher GRE score took longer to complete a master’s degree in geology.

Another criticism of the GRE is that the tests favor a student’s socioeconomic background, race, and gender. Studies by Stanford, New York University, the University of Missouri, and the University of Florida reported that the GRE is invalid as a predictor of academic success for minorities and women.

Unfortunately for GRE opponents, the physics subject test requirement appears to be alive and well. An article in Science magazine in May 2019 reported the results from 50 top-ranked research universities in the United States. In 2018, 44% of molecular biology, 35% of neuroscience, 29% of ecology, 8% of chemistry, and only 2% of physics Ph.D. programs dropped the GRE.

In a post-pandemic world, those institutions that have suspended the GRE tests may abandon the requirement permanently. Only time will tell. As a student, there are numerous opportunities to apply for a master’s program in physics without needing the GRE General or Subject test.

Additional Resources:

Top 50 Highest Paying Master’s Degrees 

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Is there a professional reason to study the history of Physics?

What undergraduate degrees, other than in Physics, will help my acceptance into a Physics Master’s program?

How long is a typical Master’s program in Physics?