Browsing various PhD admissions programs, I consistently find that there is a higher expectation of international students on the physics GRE for admission. For example, at UT Austin, the average score on the physics GRE for students accepted for Fall 2011 was 907 for international students and 777 for US students.

Why is there such a difference in expectations?

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    @CapeCode I don't think it's accurate to say that these schools "require" a higher score for international students. They simply report that the average score of international students is higher; they don't say anything about a policy requiring that. (And the rest of the post refers to expectations, not requirements.)
    – ff524
    Jul 11, 2016 at 14:41
  • Ok, so OP is speculating that this is an expectation, I misunderstood that part. Would "seemingly expect" be better?
    – Cape Code
    Jul 11, 2016 at 14:59
  • @CapeCode Probably
    – ff524
    Jul 11, 2016 at 15:49

4 Answers 4


(Some) US departments seek to maintain a critical mass of US students. (I expect that) such departments accept a critical mass of US students - the best that they can get - and then accept some number of international students to fill up their ranks - the best that they can get. Since international students generally score higher on standardized tests such as the GRE general/subject test (for all sorts of reasons), this leads to the accepted international students having higher test scores than the accepted US students.

A more general point, I believe, is that international students are often 'unknown quantities'. While a US student might have recommendation letters, research experience, etc. that gives an admissions committee a well-rounded perspective on them and could potentially make up for less-than-stellar test scores, this is not always possible for international students. So in some sense an international applicant has to have exceptional test scores to make up for being an unknown quantity in other respects. I believe this partly because international students who have been undergraduates in the US seem to fall into the `domestic students' box more so than the 'international students' box.


The physics GRE is not a very good test of one's knowledge of physics or ability to solve physics problems. Most physics homework questions students will encounter are quite a bit lengthier and more involved than the sort of question that appears on the GRE. What the GRE tests is the ability to solve lots of very simple problems very quickly. Students who haven't specifically practiced for that will often do poorly even if they know the material well. Physics departments in the US typically don't give students this sort of practice. In some other countries, it's much more standard for departments to encourage such practice and provide assistance with it (e.g. students might train on lots of old exams). So it's a mistake to interpret this statistic as implying that international students are better educated than US students.

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    It might be a mistake to use this phenomena to infer that foreign students are better educated, but that's not what we are proposing. We are proposing that foreign students are better educated, and therefore they have a higher GRE requirement.
    – cduston
    Dec 11, 2014 at 2:01
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    From my own experience it does not appear to be true that students outside the US are better educated than US students at the undergraduate (as opposed to, say, high school) level. I don't know if my experience is representative.
    – Matt Reece
    Dec 11, 2014 at 22:37

Another issue that may play a role is that it is much harder for faculty to accurately evaluate international students than US students. The recommenders and their institutions are less likely to be known to the people evaluating, and there is generally less of a good match between expectations in the different systems.

Thus, it is often the case that an international student needs to be much more obviously excellent than a US student, in order to obtain admission to the same program, and this would be expected to be reflected in GRE scores as well.


First answer: education systems in the rest of the world include physics earlier in the curriculum than in the US, so one would naturally expect a student with more experience to score higher.

Second answer: Some countries have explicit "GRE training" to get their students into the highly-regarded US higher-education system (grad school). (this is an editorial answer - I have heard of such things but not in an official capacity).

Third answer: Before you get to graduate school, science/math education in the United States is terrible (googleable fact). If you held students to the same requirements, there would be zero US citizen graduate students in US graduate programs.

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    Possible fourth answer - people who want to travel to the US for grad studies (quite a commitment) might be among the best in their class; US students going on to grad school are a rare breed - and don't have far to go. In other words - is the foreign student with an 850 score rejected or is this pre-selection at work?
    – Floris
    Dec 10, 2014 at 5:11
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    Cynical answer 2': many of those training programs employ people to sit in the exam and memorize the questions. Once you have a list of every question asked in the last 5 years, it's trivial to "teach to the test" since many questions are recycled.
    – user4512
    Dec 10, 2014 at 5:15
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    A comment on the second answer: "GRE training" exists only for the general test (mainly English). Few people take GRE physics, and it is hard to make a profitable business out of it.
    – higgsss
    Dec 10, 2014 at 6:20
  • ^^ higgsss: My personal experience (from my foreign friends) was that it occurs with Physics as well, but that's certainly second hand. Not hard to imagine - a tutor can tailor to specific needs, and there's good money in that kind of thing. But yeah, I admit my answer is a personal one and not completely objective.
    – cduston
    Dec 11, 2014 at 1:58
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    -1; it's clearly true that early US science/math education is not the best, but the claim "If you held students to the same requirements, there would be zero US citizen graduate students in US graduate programs." is just plain silly and insulting. Aug 20, 2018 at 22:45

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