Applying to the US:

I just finished my master's in mathematical finance. I want to apply for a PhD in math (but not in mathematical finance).

Can I start applying this year while studying and taking exams (GRE, subject GRE, IELTS, TOEFLS), or might my time be better spent on the latter?

I'm fluent in English, it's my only language, and I have a master's in math so I don't expect the GRE, IELTS or TOEFLS to be too difficult, but I may have to spend a lot of time studying for the Math GRE, which appears to be the equivalent of an LSAT/MCAT for master's or PhD and a bar exam/USMLE for bachelor's or master's.

What is the common practice in this matter? Do graduate school applicants first focus on studying and taking GRE, subject GRE, IELTS, TOEFLS, etc and then worry about applications after?

Suppose a graduate school applicant intends to study for one of those. On average how long does it take to study for, apply for, take one of those exams once (for the sake of example) and get the test (just one, for example) score?

  • 1
    Some applicants spend time studying for those exams, because if they didn't, they wouldn't score high enough to get into the programs they're interested in. Some don't study because they get good scores without studying.
    – ff524
    Jun 7, 2016 at 4:31
  • @ff524 Sorry for being unclear. I edited my post. Thank you
    – BCLC
    Jun 7, 2016 at 4:45
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    Your English seems fine to me. Just do a TOEFL sample test, that's it, and you should be fine. Just tell them that you have a hearing problem and they'll sit you next to the tape player. When I took the test, it was just one tape player for a giant auditorium, I was sitting near it, but I really felt sorry for the people that were sitting far away from it as I am sure they could hardly hear anything. Jun 9, 2016 at 1:34
  • Are you Indian?
    – Michael
    Nov 15, 2022 at 9:08

2 Answers 2


For grad school, the GREs and TOEFL are treated more as thresholds. Once you cross the target score it may not have much of a bearing on your admission. For the general GRE, do some of the sample exams provided by ETS and see how far your score is from the prescribed targets. You can count on improving at about 5 points per week (so if you score 310 and your university needs 325, plan to study for three weeks). The TOEFL shouldn't be an issue for you based on your other Academia posts. The subject GRE requires at least 2 months of serious preparation. Again, try to see where you stand.

Try to do the exams at least a month before the application deadline, as that is how long it could take for the scores to reach their destination. If you are applying for a competitive program, you will need all your scores in place. Since it is only June, you have enough time to apply this year (to join next Fall).

  • Thank you for answering and checking out my other posts Jedi! :) Wait in your opinion, if I start studying for GRE, TOEFL, IELTS and subject GRE and applying for universities right now, I can start my PhD in 2017-2018 if I get accepted in a PhD program? Are you speaking from personal experience? What was your subject GRE?
    – BCLC
    Jun 7, 2016 at 7:39
  • "For grad school, the GREs and TOEFL are treated more as thresholds. Once you cross the target score it may not have much of a bearing on your admission." But if you don't cross the target score, it has huge bearing on your non-admission?
    – BCLC
    Jun 7, 2016 at 7:42
  • I'm Computer Science (years ago). Most application deadlines are early December; so yes, esp. if you can study full-time, giving the exams by mid-Nov should not be a problem for a native English speaker. I read this PhD guide from faculty here before I decided. And yes, admission committees at competitive programs which take in ~10-30 students every year out of 1000+ applicants look for any excuse (e.g. below cutoff TOEFL/GRE) to not have to read your pile. LORs and where you're from matter a lot for PhDs
    – Jedi
    Jun 7, 2016 at 7:48
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    Yep. The general GRE has 2 main components-- verbal and quantitative reasoning.
    – Jedi
    Jun 7, 2016 at 8:22
  • 1
    I mean that the threshold for an acceptable quant score may be in the 90th percentile whereas you may be okay with a score in the 70th percentile in verbal reasoning.
    – Jedi
    Jun 9, 2016 at 1:07

IELTS and TOEFL are equivalent English proficiency test. As such, you normally take one or the other. It is strange you have to take either of these tests if English is your only language. This implies that you may originate from a country were English is not the mother tongue.

I would advise studying diligently for the IELTS/TOEFL even if English is your only language. I have seen too many people who only know English do poorly on the IELTS/TOEFL because they took it for granted. They did not even study how the test was setup and were unprepared. In addition, many people possess native speaking ability by their mastery of the language is unconventional for an academic setting. This has left many students frustrated as they understand everything in English but still score poorly. Familiarizing yourself with the test should significantly reduce the risk of being surprised. You don't want to miss out on a dream because of poor assumptions.

I think you already know you need to study for the GRE. Again you must be familiar with the content and expectations of the exam in order to do even better.

English proficiency is more important than GRE. If you cannot demonstrate English proficiency your GRE score will mean very little. After basic English proficiency comes a closer look at your GRE score.

  • I'm not sure you answered my question, but sorry for the confusion about the IETLS/TOEFLS/GRE. I plan to study those, but not to the extent I plan to study for the Math GRE
    – BCLC
    Jun 7, 2016 at 5:41
  • I think some schools require an English proficiency test for any student who was educated outside the USA. Others do not require it if you were educated in an English-speaking country. Jun 7, 2016 at 10:47

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