Last Updated: May 20, 2020
Going to grad school can be one of the most professionally and personally rewarding decisions you ever make, but the application process can certainly feel daunting. One of the most important pieces of this process is satisfying your prospective schools’ standardized testing requirements.
Here’s an overview of the five major standardized tests most often required for graduate school admission—the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, MCAT, and GRE Subject Tests—as well as tips on which test you may need to take, which ones you might be able to skip, and how to get started on the path toward your best scores.
The 5 major grad school tests
The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is a computer-based general knowledge test used by grad school applicants interested in pursuing a master’s or doctoral degree. The GRE is accepted or required by graduate programs at thousands of schools worldwide.
The GRE is designed to measure your verbal and quantitative reasoning, critical thinking, and analytical writing skills. It contains three types of questions/sections:
- Verbal Reasoning tests your reading comprehension, text completion, and sentence equivalence skills based on written passages or sample sentences.
- Quantitative Reasoning tests your ability to understand and analyze quantitative information, solve problems with mathematical models, and apply concepts of arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and data analysis.
- Analytical Writing requires you to write short responses that demonstrate your ability to articulate complex ideas and build arguments using evidence as well as prove your grasp of written English.
Widely available at more than 1,000 test centers in over 160 countries, the GRE is offered several times per month and takes about three hours and 45 minutes to complete. (A slightly shorter paper-based test is available if there are no computer-based facilities near you.)
It’s recommended you begin studying two to three months before you take the GRE and that you take the test at least four months prior to your application deadline. This will leave you plenty of time to have your scores sent (which can take up to 15 days) and give you ample time for retakes. Retaking the GRE is common and encouraged; most people feel more comfortable the second time around, and it’s common to see an improvement in your scores. The GRE also offers the option to choose which scores to send to your prospective schools, so you’ve got nothing to lose by taking it twice (except your afternoon).
Related: How to Succeed on GRE Test Day
The Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) is the standard exam used for admission to business school. Accepted by more than 2,100 institutions and universities, it’s required as part of the application for most MBA programs.
The computer-based GMAT takes about three hours and 30 minutes to complete. It contains three multiple-choice sections and one writing assessment:
- The Quantitative section tests your knowledge in arithmetic, algebra, and geometry.
- Integrated Reasoning measures your ability to infer information from data presented in charts, graphs, and tables.
- The Verbal section tests your grammar, logic skills, and ability to answer questions about a written passage.
- The Analytical Writing Assessment is a 30-minute essay that requires you to make an argument about a topic related to business or a general interest.
The GMAT can be taken any day of the year (except holidays) at over 600 test centers worldwide. It’s recommended you take it at least three to four months before your scores are due to your business schools of interest. This gives you time for retakes if needed; most applicants take the GMAT more than once. You should also factor in two to three months of study time before taking the test.
See the Graduate Management Admission Council’s GMAT website for more information, including testing locations.
The Law School Admission Test (LSAT) is designed to measure key reasoning skills of law school applicants. It’s the only test accepted for admission by all ABA-accredited law schools, so it’s highly recommended that you take it if you plan to apply to law school in the US or a growing number of other countries.
The digital LSAT is designed to assess reading comprehension and analytical and logical reasoning. It contains five 35-minute, multiple-choice sections and a writing exercise:
- Reading Comprehension tests your ability to read and understand examples of complex long-form materials.
- Analytical Reasoning measures your ability to grasp and draw conclusions from a structure of relationships.
- Two Logical Reasoning sections measure your ability to analyze, critically evaluate, and complete arguments.
- An additional Unscored section is used to test out future LSAT questions.
- An unscored but required Writing section (a 35-minute exercise) presents a problem and asks you to choose a course of action and defend it. (As of summer 2019, the writing sample is no longer given along with the test; applicants must register for and take it separately on their home computers.)
The LSAT is given on select dates several times per year. Most law schools require applicants to take the LSAT by December for admission the following fall. Retakes are generally discouraged; applicants who retake the test tend to improve by only a point or two, and many actually end up with lower scores.
See the Law School Admission Council’s “Taking the LSAT” for extensive information about preparing for the test, FAQs, upcoming test dates, and more.
Related: 5 Tips for a Better LSAT Score
The Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) is the standard exam for medical school applicants. It tests critical thinking, problem-solving, and knowledge of natural, behavioral, and social science concepts required for medical school success. It’s required for admission to almost all medical schools in the United States.
Clocking in at seven and a half hours, the computer-based MCAT is the longest of the grad school admission tests and contains four multiple-choice sections:
- Biological and Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems tests your knowledge of concepts in biology, organic and inorganic chemistry, and biochemistry.
- Chemical and Physical Foundations of Biological Systems tests your grasp of basic biochemistry, biology, general and organic chemistry, and physics.
- Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior measures your knowledge of introductory psychology, sociology, and biology.
- Critical Analysis and Reasoning Skills tests your reading comprehension of a variety of passages in the humanities and social sciences.
It’s best to take the MCAT by September for December application deadlines, but as sections can fill quickly, aim for earlier if possible. The test is normally available several times per month. As with the LSAT, retaking the MCAT is uncommon; only about a quarter of applicants take it more than once, not only because it’s seven and a half hours long but because scores typically improve by only one point on average (if at all). Plan to test once and early, and only retake the exam if your score is very low or doesn’t meet the minimum requirements for your prospective schools. Note that the most successful test takers put in about 200–300 hours (aka three to six months) of study time in advance.
For more information about the MCAT, including a wealth of test preparation options and a full schedule of upcoming test dates, see the Association of American Medical Colleges website.
Related: 5 Questions to Ask Your MCAT Tutor
5. GRE Subject Tests
The GRE Subject Tests measure your in-depth knowledge of a particular field of study. These paper-based tests are offered in the following subjects:
More so than with most of the other grad school standardized tests, whether or not you need a Subject Test depends on your school and subject area of interest. Some master’s programs require them for entry, others might recommend them as an optional supplement to your application, and some may make no mention of them at all. Read each school’s admission web page or reach out to your prospective programs to get a sense of whether a Subject Test is worth the extra study time and expense.
Subject Tests are available at paper-based test centers on specific dates throughout the year. If you decide to take one, plan to put in two to three months of study time and test as early as possible. As with the GRE, retakes are allowed and encouraged. Visit the GRE Subject Tests website for more information on test centers and dates near you.
Which grad school tests do you really need to take?
The conversation around standardized testing in university admission is changing. Many grad schools have de-emphasized the role standardized test scores play in admission decisions, especially when it comes to the GRE General and Subject Tests.
Many universities and graduate programs now offer exam waivers for applicants who meet certain conditions. For example, some grad schools will waive the GRE requirement for students who can provide transcripts showing they met a minimum required undergraduate GPA. More flexible schools may accept proof of work experience or another degree in a related field as a replacement for test scores. Be sure to read up on test-flexible and waiver options for each of your schools of interest before you register for any standardized tests.
Other schools might recommend an exam but not require it. If this is the case, contact your program’s admission office to see if you can get more information about how heavily test scores factor into their admission decisions.
Factoring in the rest of your application
If you’re wondering whether you should take a test, consider the rest of your grad school application. If you have related work or extracurricular experience in your prospective field of study, a strong undergraduate GPA, good references, or other assets that make your application strong, you may not need to go through the hassle of studying for and taking tests that aren’t required. But if you feel your application is otherwise lacking, or it seems like good test scores might give you a significant competitive edge, testing is likely worth the investment. Even if tests aren’t required, good scores can help tip the scale in your favor if the admission committee is on the fence about your application.
Note that relaxed testing requirements tend to apply mainly to the GRE General and Subject Tests. When it comes to professional tests like the GMAT, LSAT, and MCAT, most reputable business, law, and medical schools still require you to take the respective exams. Test scores are used heavily by professional schools to narrow down enormous and diverse applicant pools, prove baseline knowledge, and demonstrate an applicant’s readiness for long, rigorous programs.
If you’re an international student, it’s important to be aware that you may face additional requirements besides standardized test scores. Many graduate programs require students from outside the United States to provide proof of English proficiency via TOEFL or IELTS scores or other documentation.
Ready to apply?
Meeting standardized testing requirements can be one of the most time- and effort-intensive steps of applying to grad school. But by keeping organized, planning plenty of time for review, and making strategic decisions about which tests to take, you can be sure your final application will be the strongest possible representation of your academic and professional potential.
Have you found your best-fit graduate program yet? If not, use our Grad School Search tool to get started!