I'll be applying to math PhD programs at the end of this year. I’m practicing for the math subject test, lining up letters of recommendation, etc. Along those lines, I just took the GRE general test.

What I've learned from math professors at some of my target schools is that the quantitative portion of the general GRE can only hurt potential applicants. No one in a math graduate admissions role will be impressed with a perfect quant score but a low score will absolutely raise flags. What I didn’t ask, and what I’m now curious about, is the effect of an average analytical-writing score on an application.

From what I understand, I wont be the biggest fish in any candidate pool. The upcoming GRE Math Subject test is extremely difficult and weighed heavily for a candidate like myself (not from a traditionally strong undergraduate math program). There will be applicants from better schools and applicants with better subject scores. If I expect to compete, it will be because my application successfully signals a strong candidacy for a teaching assistant role.

To that end, do admissions officers in math graduate programs ever look at analytical-writing scores? What is the difference, hypothetically, between a 4.0 and a 5.0? I’m interested in analyzing the cost/benefit of retaking the GRE exclusively to improve my analytical-writing score.

  • I ran out of time and can likely improve (literally cut off mid-sentence, didn’t finish editing/deleting my outlined thoughts)
  • $200 is not a trivial cost but I would consider it given the possibility of a tangible benefit.
  • I’m not an international student.
  • I will have at least one submitted math publication by December.
  • Okay @user153812 I agree that the OP needs to specify the type of programs he is targeting.
    – Dawn
    Jul 4, 2018 at 18:03
  • I would vote no.
    – xuq01
    Jul 5, 2018 at 14:03
  • 2
    For what it's worth, a score of 4.0 is at the 59th percentile, while a score of 5.0 is at the 92nd percentile. Jul 6, 2018 at 4:49
  • 1
    Don't sell yourself short on the subject area test. Yes, it will be very hard, but like you, I went to a school not highly rated (a liberal arts college). I did very well on the exam. The reason for this note, however, is that you should expect that some (many?) of the questions won't make any sense to you at all. The test has to be designed to cover questions from a huge variety of educational programs and none of them can cover everything. So, the test is intentionally broader than anyone's education. Do what you can do and don't worry about the rest.
    – Buffy
    Jul 6, 2018 at 18:58
  • Masters or PhD?
    – Thomas
    Jul 6, 2018 at 19:00

3 Answers 3


I think the entire GRE General carries very little weight overall in admissions nowadays, except for the caveat that extremely poor scores might hurt you, because it betrays a fundamental weakness in the application (usually that language skills aren’t up to par). But language abilities if you’re an international student are usually judged using the IELTS or TOEFL, so it wouldn’t likely matter unless the school imposes a floor on the Analytical Writing score.

In STEM fields in general, including math, I can’t really think of a scenario where a strong writing score will bump a candidate from rejection to acceptance in isolation.

  • It's been a long time since I was in the game, but I would think this varies too much from place to place to make such a general statement. It likely also depends on the state of the academic economy at the moment. Are schools, at that moment, looking for reasons to accept as many as possible or to reject as many as possible?
    – Buffy
    Jul 6, 2018 at 19:04
  • The significance of the GRE has declined sharply in recent years. For instance, the subject tests that were nearly ubiquitous a few years ago have now been pared down to just a small subset of topics. Some schools have even dropped the GRE as a requirement.
    – aeismail
    Jul 6, 2018 at 19:06
  • In my evaluation, an analytical writing score of 4.0 would be good for a foreign student from a non English speaking country. An analytical score as low as 4.0 would be a black mark for a student from an English speaking country. Jul 6, 2018 at 22:26
  • @BrianBorchers: Are there any circumstances under which the writing score would be the distinguishing factor to accept versus reject by itself?
    – aeismail
    Jul 6, 2018 at 22:47
  • 1
    If everything else was roughly equal, then yes, I'd take the student with a 5.0 analytical writing score over the student with a 4.0 analytical writing score. Writing does matter somewhat but it's certainly not the most important factor. Jul 6, 2018 at 23:28

Math grad schools do not care about the GRE analytical writing score. Don't bother retaking the GRE general test to improve it.

Here's my personal anecdote:

Way back when I was applying for grad school, my GRE analytical writing score was 3.5 -- that's pretty bad, it put me in the 23rd percentile. Yet I got accepted into pure math PhD programs at Chicago, and Cornell.

  • Did you ever address or justify that score during your application process?
    – David Diaz
    Jul 8, 2018 at 7:58

I like to imagine that giving the zeitgeist of science communication and visualization, that a bit more emphasis would be paid towards the writing portion.

That being said, a general note about the GRE:

The issue with the general GRE is that it has a severe ceiling effect. For most computationally focused graduate students, having a 780+ on the GRE math is a norm. Most of these students slam right into the GRE's ceiling. That's why the subject specific test is important for assessing graduate student abilities. There is a much higher ceiling on gre math subject test and so this allows for a better distribution of scores for people in the far right hand side of the ability distribution.

Once you get to grad school in math, its more about hard work that brains. Even the most brilliant students can fail if they are not prepared for the rigor of graduate school and academia.

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