Taking the GREs

If you’re applying to math grad school, you’ll need to take two tests:

  • GRE general test
  • GRE subject test in mathematics

The General GRE covers reading, writing, and (high school-level) mathematics. The Math Subject GRE covers MAT 203-204 material plus some basic point-set topology, analysis, algebra, and miscellaneous topics. Not surprisingly, the Math Subject GRE is weighted more heavily than the General GRE. Let’s first get the general test over with.

GRE general test

General GRE: http://www.ets.org/gre/revised_general/about

More GRE info: http://www.onlinemastersprograms.org/exam-prep/gre/

The math and verbal sections are very much like the SAT math and critical reading sections. There are also two essays you will have to type on a computer. This writing section is much more specific than SAT writing.

The test itself costs $175.

Importance of the general GRE

From talking to many professors, the GRE general test isn’t that important, but it’s required by most schools.

When to take it

The General GRE can be taken almost any day, but you must sign up in advance. At the testing center, they administer the exam on a computer. The closest center is in Hamilton, about 10 miles from campus. It’s not easy to get to without a car, so some people take the train to New York to take the GRE.

GRE subject test in mathematics

Math Subject GRE: http://www.ets.org/gre/subject/about/content/mathematics

The Math Subject GRE is a paper-based examination (much like the SAT). It is offered three times a year: April, September, and October.  so it is HIGHLY recommended for juniors to take it in the spring (early April). Although there are 2 test dates in the fall (late Sep and early Oct), the results from the September test don’t come back until after registration closes for the October test, so you’ll probably have to sign up for both. The closest exam site is Princeton High School, about a 10-minute walk from campus.

The test costs $150.

Importance of the math GRE

Professors recommend getting at least 80th percentile. Schools receive lots of applications, and the GRE is an easy and objective way to filter out the applications. 80th percentile is a good benchmark. If you reach it, you’re safe. If you fall below it, you’ll need to make sure the rest of your application is especially strong.

Since the math GRE score is mainly used as a filter, there’s no need to aim for a 99th percentile.

When to take it

It is highly recommended for juniors to take the GRE in the spring (in April).

Here are some problems with waiting until the fall of senior year: (1) The September scores do not come out until a day after the October registration deadline. Think about what that means for a few seconds. (Clearly, ETS planned this…) Unless you feel super confident about your performance on the September test, you’ll probably end up signing up for both September and October tests. (2) This is a busy time of year (with grad school applications, senior thesis and all that), so you probably won’t be able to set much time aside to prepare in the fall.

That’s why we recommend you to take the GRE in your junior spring. That way, if you do not do well, you still have two more chances.

How to prepare

This is not an easy exam. It is rather time-pressured — approximately 66 questions in 3 hours, so not only do you have to know how to do math, you have to be able to do it quickly. There are lots of calculus and linear algebra questions, so if you’ve been doing nothing but pure math in your most recent semesters, it’s time to practice some computations!

The best way to start preparing is to take a timed practice test — this shows you what areas you need to work on. There are a few practice tests floating around: you can find one on the ETS website and some in prep books.

It’s not just about doing math quickly, it’s about switching gears quickly — from calculus to algebra to combinatorics, from one problem to the next. This is why taking a timed practice test is so important.

Sending scores

For some reason, when you register for an exam, you can select four schools to send your test scores too. (Maybe ETS likes to give us more stress with grad school applications.) Just select ones that you think you’ll have a good chance of applying to and don’t worry about this too much.

You can always send more scores later via https://mygre.ets.org. Of course, ETS charges a fee to send scores…

(Grad programs are a little bit looser about late score reports past the deadline.)

Alan Chang ’14
Bowel Liu ’13
Evangelie Zachos ’14