GRE subject tests are designed to test your knowledge of a particular subject area to determine if you have a strong enough foundation for graduate-level work. In order to perform well on a subject test, you should have a considerable background in the particular subject area—the background you would be expected to have if you had majored in the subject.

The weight that a subject test carries in admissions decisions varies considerably from school to school and program to program. However, many schools use subject tests, along with the GRE and GPA, as a means of winnowing out applicants. Failing to score well on a subject test can damage your chances of being considered for a spot, especially for a competitive program.

Should you take one?
Not every graduate school or program requires a subject test, so check admissions requirements at those schools in which you’re interested. But even if it is not required, you should consider taking a subject test if you are prepared and think you can do well. This is especially true if you are applying to graduate programs that are in a different field from your undergraduate major or if there is some significant weakness elsewhere in your application.

You can gauge your performance on a subject test by taking a released one under test conditions. These are available from ETS and in many bookstores.

What are they like?
Except for the music test, subject tests consist exclusively of multiple choice questions designed to assess knowledge of the core areas included in the typical undergraduate curriculum. On the tests, you’ll earn 1 point for each multiple choice question that you answer correctly; but lose 1/4 point for each incorrectly answered question. Unanswered questions are not counted in the scoring. Your raw score is the number of correctly answered questions minus 1/4 of the incorrectly answered questions. This score is then converted into a scaled score, which can range from 200 to 900. The range varies from test to test.

Some subject tests also contain subtests, which provide more specific information about your strengths and weaknesses. The same questions that contribute to your subtest scores also contribute to your overall score. Subtest scores, which range from 20 to 99, are reported along with the overall score. For further information on scoring, you should consult the relevant Subject Test Descriptive Booklet, available from ETS.

Since subject tests will continue to be given in the paper & pencil format, your basic test-taking strategies for them should be quite different than that used for the GRE CAT. For instance, unlike the GRE CAT, you do not have to guess at a question on the subject test in order to see the next question.

In addition, since multiple choice questions on subject tests have a wrong-answer penalty of 1/4 point, you should not necessarily attempt to fill in an answer for every question. You should guess only if you can eliminate one or more of the answer choices.

When should you take a Subject Test?
ETS has tentatively said that GRE Subject Tests will generally be administered in December and April of each year. Check with ETS to find out specific test dates. It’s recommended that you take the general test and your subject test(s) on different days. Schedule them when you have had enough time to prepare and still meet the application deadlines.