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I'm taking a gap year and I plan on applying to grad schools again this fall. I'm wondering if the GRE Math subject test is helpful/required anymore?

Personally, I have very low grades in some important math courses (imagine like C+'s/B-'s in algebra/analysis because I could never force myself to study for them) and I haven't taken anything like topology/geometry either. I want to go to grad school for applied math, but I do think proving that you are capable of understanding these fields is somewhat necessary?

But, does the math GRE actually show that? Most of it is calculus based, so does it actually help? And does anyone know if grad schools in general still care for it? Most waived requirements during covid, but since we're in a post-covid(-ish) time, would anyone happen to know if it still matters?

Edit: adding some more details.

I plan on applying for both masters and PhD applications (I'd prefer a PhD but I don't have too much research experience). Since I messed up my GPA a bit (~3.25), I know that top ranked programs are probably out of reach so I'm mostly planning on applying to mid-high ranked programs (imagine ranked top 30-100 in the US.) I have done a senior year research project but it didn't lead to a thesis/report and we were only required to do a presentation. But it was using a niche-ish topic that isn't taught at the undergrad level mostly. I've taken majorly graduate level math courses, and I do have at least 2 good recommendation letters, and possibly a third from the instructor who taught my C+ (grad only) course. I've also been a head Teaching Assistant for a calculus course this past semester, and I'm trying to get a TA-ship for a differential equations course this summer. But yeah, pure math course grades are still pretty low so I wanted to see if there's anything that can prove I can still work on those subjects.

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  • Masters or Ph.D.? What type of programs -- highly ranked, mid-ranked, low ranked? Do you have anything particularly distinguishing to offer as evidence of your potential (e.g. publications, summer research work, strongly excelling in some difficult applied math courses, top 100 Putnam exam score, etc.)? May 29, 2022 at 6:45
  • Thanks, @DaveLRenfro! I've added this stuff as an edit. Forgot to mention that, yes, I've done pretty well in some difficult applied math courses (numerical linear algebra for example was a graduate course co-offered to undergrads, and I got an A-, so I think that counts? And there are others as well, but this one was quite difficult, especially with the way the instructor grades.)
    – Deirdre
    May 29, 2022 at 6:55
  • The actual grade of A- is not really relevant, but how you did relative to others in the class (best in class, only others better are going to top 10 Ph.D. programs, etc.) and whether your performance could be something the teacher of that class could base a letter of recommendation on. Also very important is the baseline competence required in pure math courses/qualifying exams for the program you're applying to. May 29, 2022 at 7:00
  • Ah yes, fair point. We're graded on a curve in most of our courses, including this one, and the average score usually gets around a B, so I was well above that? And in another class with this instructor, I was ranked 3rd out of the students as well (incl. grads). I have heard that she thinks highly of me from another instructor, and she did agree to write me a letter, so I'm hoping that it'll turn out well. Your second point is really important too, tbh. Some programs I applied to last year required all students to take some pure math courses, so I'd probably have to do well in those too.
    – Deirdre
    May 29, 2022 at 7:14

2 Answers 2

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While the GRE is required less frequently than in the past, the advanced (subject) tests can measure your overall understanding of a subject. But, unless things have radically changed in the last half century, the math test is very hard. I was a top student and did well on the test, but there were quite a lot of questions that I had no basis to answer, as it is very broad. I don't recall applied math being part of it then, but that may well have changed.

But you need a reality check. Analysis, Algebra, and Topology are core subjects in most math programs and if you did poorly in some and missed others you are in a poor place to do well on the math GRE since it reflects that core. It is possible that you learned a lot outside class, of course, as some do.

I recommend that you take the exam without sending your scores anywhere and see how you do. If you get great scores then send them everywhere that it is possible. If you get mediocre scores then send them only to places that require them.

But, expect a very hard test. Expect to feel disappointed when you leave the test (as I did), though you may do well in spite of that feeling of dread. The exam is very broad and the undergraduate curriculum can hardly capture the breadth of mathematics. And, repeating, it is very hard.

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  • Thank you for the response! I do understand that it's quite difficult. I have improved my knowledge in algebra quite a bit, and I plan on revising analysis and self studying topology over the summer so that I'm able to prepare by Sept/Oct. I'll take a practice test to see where I stand though. I don't think applied math is part of it, but I do believe the math itself is probably going to be quite difficult. I'll follow your advice and only send my scores if they turn out good enough. Would you have any tips on how to do well? (Other than to just study a LOT)
    – Deirdre
    May 29, 2022 at 14:49
  • The standard advice on taking such exams is to so a quick pass over all the questions answering only the ones you find easy. Then do a second and third... pass for the harder ones. Don't get bogged down since time is a factor.
    – Buffy
    May 29, 2022 at 14:57
  • Ahh yes, understood. Thanks!!!
    – Deirdre
    May 29, 2022 at 14:58
  • You used to be able to buy study guides for all the exams with advice and typical questions. I used them for several standardized tests as well as general study.
    – Buffy
    May 29, 2022 at 15:00
  • Ahh okay, yesss, I'll see if I can find some where I am (not in the US so might be difficult if it's not online, but I'll look online as well). Thanks again!! Really appreciate the responses!
    – Deirdre
    May 29, 2022 at 15:05
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This question should go to some of the universities that you are applying to. The program determines what is required and what can be provided. There are admission directors of graduate programs and admission office people who will be able to answer your question. They will also tell you if they would look at secondary data such as the scores of the GRE subject test if they do not require it.

Since you are applying to a Mathematics program, it makes sense to invest into taking the GRE subject test as well. You can show that you understand the basics of an important subject. Calculus is pretty fundamental in applied Mathematics, and showing that you master it despite having gotten a so-so grade in Analysis would be information that I would like to see if I sit on the admissions committee. More important would be of course a good recommendation letter that has some information on your thesis.

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  • Hmmm. The math subject test doesn't really focus on Calculus but on things far more advanced than that.
    – Buffy
    May 29, 2022 at 12:36
  • Thanks for responding! I agree with you that it would be better to ask each school I plan on applying to. I was just wondering if the general policy was being modified post covid (as it was for all the UC's I believe, along with quite a few other institutions). Calc is like ~50%, while there's a lot of other stuff as well, but yeah, I do think it's quite important. Will definitely be taking the test then!
    – Deirdre
    May 29, 2022 at 14:55
  • @Buffy I'm not sure I agree - I recently took the subject test, and even if you don't want to count diffeq stuff as Calculus, a good 1/3-1/2 of the test are questions well within the realm of a Calculus I/II class. Nov 15, 2023 at 16:15

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