The aim of the GRE subject tests is to measure a student's knowledge of important concepts in a specific field of study. Only a few schools make submitting a GRE subject test score mandatory, and some schools may say that doing so is recommended.
In both these cases, prospective international graduate students should take the relevant GRE subject test and send in their scores.
Most graduate programs do not require prospective students to take a GRE subject test, but it may be in an international student's best interest to take the relevant exam from the seven offerings: biochemistry, cell and molecular biology; biology; chemistry; literature in English; mathematics; physics; and psychology.
The professors and admissions officials in U.S. universities who evaluate international student applications are usually not familiar with the curriculums of colleges from your home country. They may not know the depth in which you have studied various topics within your field of study.
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For example, a course called Biochemistry II could possibly be the second part of an introductory biochemistry course that introduces the basic biochemistry within a cell. Or, it could also be a less descriptive name for a course that studies the complex array of molecular workings and energy exchange within a cell that determine why and how certain reactions inside cells happen.
The first course is obviously less rigorous than the second. But even if you took the latter, a school official in the U.S. evaluating your transcript has no way of guessing the depth of your knowledge from the course name on your transcript.
But if you were to take the GRE biochemistry, cell and molecular biology subject test, which has a range of topics and difficulty level that is familiar to U.S. university professors, a U.S. university official would have a known metric against which to evaluate you.
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Many U.S. graduate programs can only accept a small number of graduate students relative to the number of applications they receive, and some accept only a few international students from any one country.
Without the option of an in-person interview, your credentials, essay, grades, recommendation letters and test scores are the only things school officials have to go on when deciding which applications to accept and which to reject. A subject GRE score can potentially be what sets you apart from other applicants with similar grades from your country.
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If you are applying to a graduate program that is outside your field of study, a GRE subject test may be immensely useful for establishing your aptitude.
For example, a biologist trying to get into a graduate program in bioinformatics would be wise to take the GRE subject exam in mathematics, which could demonstrate that he or she has enough basic math knowledge to be able to handle the classes that are more quantitative rather than qualitative.
While a GRE subject test requires a lot of additional work and can be a significant financial drain – subject tests cost $150 each, according to the official GRE website – it still can be worth it for an international student.
Taking one can reinforce in the minds of graduate admissions committees that your knowledge is on par with that of your American peers and that you are well-equipped to handle the rigors of the graduate programs to which you are applying.
Swati B. Carr, from India, is currently pursuing her doctorate in synthetic biology at Boston University and advises prospective international students. She first came to the U.S. as an international student for her master's in microbial genetics from the University of Rhode Island.