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I am writing to ask if there is any consensus on the role of (i) the GRE General Exam and (ii) the GRE Mathematics Subject exam in the PhD admissions process for Mathematics Departments in the United States...and I want information specific for 2023.

Some context: I spent many years involved with graduate admissions in my department (Mathematics at the University of Georgia) and was Graduate Coordinator (the faculty member most closely involved in graduate admissions) from 2016 through 2019. At that time, most top 100 PhD programs required one or both of these exams, so I advised any prospective mathematics graduate student to take them.

As of this semester I took a role as an advisor to (many) undergraduate students in our department, and I will be giving a workshop on Graduate School in mathematics. I know that following the COVID19 pandemic my own department no longer requires either GRE exam (nor does it seem to be much used anymore in our admissions process). I am currently in the process of looking up what is happening with other schools. From what I have found so far, the most common status is "Not required but can be submitted" followed by "Not required but recommended." This makes me wonder what is the role of the GRE for contemporary students applying to graduate school in mathematics. If you are involved in graduate admissions from the other side, would you advise prospective students to take one or both exams? Why?

Added: Here is one example of something I found that seems to be staking out a rather subtle position:

GRE Mathematics subject scores are not strictly required for the application. You may submit unofficial scores if you wish. Omission of the GRE test score will not negatively affect your application.

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    Hi Pete, I haven't done grad admissions in awhile either, but I think the main role of GRE then was (1) weeding out really weak students, or (2) showing students (often foreign) from unknown places have at least a reasonable background. I don't think this aspect would have changed. So for students with good grades from UGA my guess is it'd only be helpful if some places they're considering applying to either require or recommend Math GRE.
    – Kimball
    Sep 11, 2023 at 18:28
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    @Kimball: Thanks for your reply. My thought at the moment is also that these scores would be more helpful for applicants coming from places other than a nationally known large state university, namely (i) foreign countries and (ii) smaller regional institutions where it is hard to know how their very strong students compare to students elsewhere. Sep 11, 2023 at 18:33
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    In the US there was never a "consensus" about the GRE in the sense of universities getting together and making a joint decision. What there is, though, is a legal "fairness" requirement that must be met. The GRE seemed at the time like a good way to help ensure that, but there is no requirement that the standard be met in that particular way. Each university is free to make its own rules within the law.
    – Buffy
    Sep 11, 2023 at 19:12
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    No idea about the general pattern, but at U of MN in math we do not currently look at GRE scores. This may change in the future, due to many faculty members' enthusiasm for single numbers that supposedly adequately reflect mathematical potential. The Dir Grad Studies for several years (Dick McGehee: he deserves credit for all his efforts!) and I had realized many years ago that the GRE really tests for lots of things that are not what what we want to know about... and the pandemic aided us in explicitly disregarding the GRE. But, as I said, this may change... sigh... Sep 11, 2023 at 19:46
  • There is no consensus. Sep 11, 2023 at 20:31

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I spent about an hour looking into this question. I looked at the mathematics PhD programs ranked numbers 21 through 61 on the US News and World Report List. I found five that require at least one of these two GREs: Michigan State, Texas A&M, UC Davis, UC Irvine and UMass Amherst.

It was interesting that there was a diversity of language used among the others.
The most common verbiage I found was "no longer required" or "optional." I found only one program that said that the scores would not be considered if sent. Several institutions managed to convey to me (a former graduate admissions chair) a lot of ambivalence about the exam, as in the quote I put into the question. Here is another interesting one:

Both the GRE general exam and the GRE math subject exam are optional. If you feel that your GRE math subject exam score contributes positively to your application, then we encourage you to submit it, and unofficial scores will be provisionally accepted.

Several other programs indicated that GRE scores would only be used to help applicants, not to hurt them, which -- I pause to give respect to a truly difficult situation -- upon scrutiny doesn't seem to make much sense. (This is a highly competitive process. If submitting something can help your application, then how can you ensure those who do not submit are not being hurt?)

I also saw language saying that these requirements were "waived for 2023" or "suspended in 2023," indicating that many institutions are openly unsure of what they will do in the longer run.

Taking all this into account, it is hard to make a clear, uniform recommendation to prospective students. (Compare to five years ago, when I recommended that all prospective students take the GRE. Without the GRE they would have been unable to apply to at least two thirds of the programs.) I do think that there are some good test-takers out there whose strong scores would help their applications, especially if they are coming from programs whose overall academic standard will not be known by admissions committees and/or for which the recommendations of the local faculty may carry less weight. But it is hard for me to broadly recommendthis time-consuming, expensive exam that most schools say they won't hold against you if you don't take.

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    It's been interesting to see how quickly university stances on the GRE have changed as a result of COVID era policies. My university doesn't have a math major, but we have some incredibly bright and gifted students. I've suggested to them that they take the GRE to better position themselves by demonstrating that they have the requisite knowledge. Sep 11, 2023 at 22:25
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    When I see language like "GRE scores would only be used to help applicants", I always understood it to mean that good GRE scores would be used to help applicants that submitted them, and be ignored otherwise (so applications with bad GRE scores == applications without any GRE scores at all) ... essentially meaning that submitting a score, good or not, won't hurt your application. Whether it would hurt somebody else's application, ah well, ...
    – muru
    Sep 12, 2023 at 10:21

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