Two unused standardized test sheets sitting side by side on desk with pencil

What You Need to Know About 5 Common Graduate Admission Exams

Knowing which entrance tests to take for your grad school goals is crucial so you don't waste valuable time. Here's some advice on which ones to take!

Going to grad school can be one of the most professionally and personally rewarding decisions you make, but the application process can certainly feel daunting. One of the most important pieces of the process is satisfying your prospective schools’ standardized testing requirements. Here’s an overview of five common standardized tests required for graduate school admission 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.

1. Graduate Record Examination

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is a computer-based general knowledge exam for applicants interested in pursuing a master’s or doctoral degree. The GRE is accepted 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 taking the exam and that you take the test at least four months before your application deadline. This will leave you plenty of time to have your scores sent (which can take up to 15 days) and for retakes. Retaking the GRE is common and encouraged; most people feel more comfortable the second time around, and you'll likely see an improvement in your scores. The GRE also offers the option to choose which scores to send with your applications, so you’ve got nothing to lose by taking it twice (except an afternoon).

Related: Succeeding on GRE Test Day: The Best Ways to Prepare

2. GRE Subject Tests

The GRE Subject Tests measure your in-depth knowledge in one of three key subject areas. More so than with most of the other grad school standardized tests, whether or not you need a Subject Test depends on your 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 not mention them at all. Reach out to your prospective programs to get a sense of whether a Subject Test is worth the extra study time and expense. These paper-based tests are offered in:

  • Mathematics
  • Physics
  • Psychology

Subject Tests are available at 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 standard GRE, retakes are allowed and encouraged. 

3. Graduate Management Admission Test

The Graduate Management Admission Test (GMAT) is the standard exam used for business schools. Accepted by more than 2,100 institutions, it’s required as part of most MBA program applications. The computer-based test 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 of 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 gives you 30 minutes to make an argument about a business topic or 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 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.

Related: 10 Tips to Help You Prepare for the GMAT

4. Law School Admission Test

The Law School Admission Test (LSAT) is designed to measure key reasoning skills in applicants. It’s the only test accepted for admission by all ABA-accredited law schools, so you must 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 measure the following three things:

  • Reading comprehension: Your ability to read and understand examples of complex long-form materials
  • Analytical reasoning: Your ability to grasp and draw conclusions from a structure of relationships
  • Logical reasoning: Your ability to analyze, critically evaluate, and complete arguments

In addition to four scored sections covering these skills, test-takers must also complete two unscored sections:

  • A mixed-question segment, used to test out future LSAT questions
  • A 35-minute writing segment that presents a problem and you choose a course of action and defend it

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 end up with lower scores.

5. Medical College Admission Test

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 institutions in the United States. Clocking in at seven and a half hours, the computer-based test is the longest of the grad school admission exam and contains four multiple-choice sections:

  • Biological & Biochemical Foundations of Living Systems tests your knowledge of concepts in biology, organic and inorganic chemistry, and biochemistry.
  • Chemical & Physical Foundations of Biological Systems tests your grasp of basic biochemistry, biology, general and organic chemistry, and physics.
  • Psychological, Social & 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 sessions can fill up 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 due to its length 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 and doesn’t meet the requirements for your prospective programs. The most successful test-takers put in about 200–300 hours (aka three to six months) of study time.

Related: 5 Questions to Ask Your MCAT Tutor

Which grad school tests do you really need to take?

The conversation around standardized testing in admission is changing. Many grad schools have de-emphasized the role test scores play in admission decisions. Many universities and 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 undergraduate GPA. More flexible schools may accept proof of work experience or another degree in a related field as a replacement for test scores. Read up on test-flexible and waiver options for each school of interest before you register for any exams. Some schools might recommend submitting scores but not require it. If this is the case, contact the admission office to get more information about how heavily scores factor into their decisions. These relaxed testing requirements tend to apply mainly to the GRE General and Subject Tests. Exams like the GMAT, LSAT, and MCAT are still required at most reputable business, law, and medical institutions. 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.

Weighing the rest of your application

If you’re still 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 field of study, a strong undergraduate GPA, good references, and other assets that make your application strong, you may not need to go through the hassle of studying for tests. 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 worth the investment. Even if tests aren’t required, good scores can help tip the scales in your favor if an admission committee is on the fence about your application. If you’re an international student, 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.

Related: Guide to Grad Admission Tests: GRE, GMAT, LSAT, MCAT

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!

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