I recently received my Mathematics GRE subject test score of 650 ( 48%). I know this score is miserable but in my country, I have the option to retake the GRE next year October only.

Assuming otherwise I have a strong profile (with achievements in other examinations in my country and some research experience ) Should I be reporting this score to universities where it is not mandatory (but highly encouraged) to submit Math subject GRE scores? I mean will this score weaken my application?

Before this score, I was thinking of applying to universities like Upenn, Penn State etc but feel really nervous about my admission prospects now..

  • 2
    If the university you are applying to requires GRE Math Test score, I don't think you have choice.
    – Nobody
    Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 7:55
  • yeah, I think so. what about universities where it is not mandatory (but highly encouraged) to submit Math subject GRE scores ?
    – MathMan
    Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 7:56
  • 2
    @RenaeLider I find it hard to believe that a very poor score is as good as no score. How certain are you that this is how admissions committees look at scores? My feeling is that a missing score would mean that there should be something else in the application that shows mathematical proficiency, which is still not as bad as basically telling the committee "look I am below average at math". Commented Nov 24, 2014 at 18:05

3 Answers 3


Since the admissions office receive applications in large numbers they would prefer to work the application that corresponds to the "required list", otherwise it would delay the process. Sending in documents, in your case a low subject score, could have an adverse effect on your application. If the application does not require a subject score, do not send a weak subject score as it will not make your application stronger.

There is a GRE general test and subject test. As far as i know, the general test is mandatory for most programs, but the subject test is optional.

General rule: do not send anything that is optional and does not strengthen your application.


@Ben Webster asked me to answer this, so I will. It's a tough one!

The problem here is that I don't feel that PhD programs are all on the same page here, and their differences from one another are not easily visible to the outside (e.g. two departments of similar quality may well differ on the issue). Here are two different philosophies for departments that recommend but do not require the math subject GRE:

  • We don't take the math subject GRE that seriously. A really good score is positive, but it is certainly not sufficient to get you admitted. We don't use poor scores to exclude candidates...but we admit that all else being equal, higher scores are better. A missing subject GRE score just means that we don't take this part of the application into account.

  • We do take the math subject GRE seriously, and a low score is a red flag for us. However, although we will almost never want to admit a student with a poor score, we understand that sometimes really strong applicants just don't take the test. If we get a fantastic applicant who didn't manage to take the subject test, we would like to have the right to admit them anyway. Making the subject exam strictly required would call that right into question, so we won't do that. But if you are trying to best compete with the heart of the applicant pool, we advise you to take the test and do well on it.

So you see the problem. The 48 percentile score makes it quite likely that the OP is not (or not yet) a latter-day Gauss. Thus for a department with the second philosophy, he should submit his score. For a department with the first philosophy, maybe not...but there's another wrinkle.

The OP characterizes his 48 percentile score as "miserable". That is a misperception beyond mere histrionics: I believe this is actually a decent score for a range of programs. (I think it would be fine for mine, but I am no longer on the graduate committee so can't speak so specifically.) Let's get real: the 48 percentile is on a test which is only taken by people who are seriously considering math grad school but the converse does not hold: a lot of people who are considering math grad school -- and even many that are admitted to a certain range and class of programs -- are not taking this test. Further, I have heard rather convincing rumors that many of the highest scores on this exam are attained by foreign students taking the exam under what we Americans would politely call nonstandard conditions. Apparently this is true to an extent that it does skew the results a bit, so 48 percentile is probably not below average for "reliably honest" scores.

So the situation is even more confusing: I'm not quite sure, but I believe that there are US math PhD programs which fall under the first philosophy, but for which nevertheless turning in a score of 48 percentile would help, rather than hurt, the OP in terms of his placement in the pack.

Let's bring this back to the poor OP. He has gone to all the trouble (and money) of taking the test. As a result there is information out there about the OP's math skills that most PhD programs would want to know. Whether it is in the OP's best interest for them to know it is highly unclear: it varies in a way that is a bit opaque to me, let alone the OP. Because his score is under 50% he thinks it is bad and thus doesn't submit it to certain schools. (And maybe he is right.) Isn't everyone but the Educational Testing Service losing out on this proposition? What a mess.

For the math faculty who are reading this: I hope you now understand why I contributed in my own department's changeover from recommending the exam to requiring it. I recommend that you require it too (!). When people are taking the test, not telling us their scores, and we understand why they are doing so, then we are not setting things up in the best way.


Lets assume a GRE test is a good thing to show on a PhD. So almost all candidates will take one, so to show their grade.

A priori the distribution of grades, in percentiles, is, by definition, a uniform distribution, from 0 to 100.

Assuming only candidates with a grade in the top half will submit it, then the graduate committee may make a a posteriori inference of the grade distribution of the candidates that do not show their grade. A rough first approximation is that those grades have a uniform distribution from 0 to 50. So they estimate the students not showing a grade had, on average, a grade in the 25th percentile. Or worse, they did not even dare to take the test because they assumed the grade would be lower than that.

So you'll be better of showing a 48th grade.

Actually everyone with more than a 25th percentile grade should show it. Now, if we plug that back in the starting reasoning, we may show by induction that any student with any vanishingly small grade should show it.

Yes, this is mostly a joke.

Or is it? :-)

(not on academia, not even a math student, but considering the possibility to get back and do a unfinished degree :-)

  • Sorry, I don't follow your logic. Why So you'll be better of showing a 48th grade.? To show that I am worse than many applicants?
    – Nobody
    Commented Nov 26, 2016 at 3:11
  • @scaaahu The point is that the expected grade for applicants not showing their grade is 25, so 48 is better than that. So by showing a 48 grade, yes one shows to be worse than many applicants, but not as bad as it will look like if they do not show a grade. In other words, why would one want kook as bad as all the bottom half of the applicants, when one may show they are the best of that half? Commented Nov 26, 2016 at 13:34
  • I think they estimate the students not showing a grade had, on average, a grade in the 25th percentile depends on the school. For the low rank schools, 25th percentile may be correct. But, I think the standard UPenn (The OP mentions that school) uses is higher than 25. So, I don't follow your logic.
    – Nobody
    Commented Nov 26, 2016 at 13:46
  • So, you would make the test optional and if someone doesn't submit the result you would just assume that he would score 25 %. Seems flawed to me. Commented Nov 26, 2016 at 17:10

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