<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=381893259123400&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1">
Skip to content
All Posts

What's the GRE? Everything International Students Need to Know

A diverse group of students focused on their studies in a classroom, with a young south asian woman in the foreground looking thoughtful.

The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) opens doors to graduate programs worldwide.

Overall, this standardized exam evaluates your potential for advanced study — and for international students dreaming of higher education in the U.S., conquering the GRE is key.

Two Paths, One Destination: GRE General and Subject Tests

There are two main versions of the GRE: the General Test and Subject Tests. Most programs accept the General GRE, but subject tests focus on specific fields like biology or psychology and may be required by a select few.

With one measure, the general GRE helps compare applicants from diverse backgrounds. For international students, acing this exam means you'll shine among the competition.

Is the GRE Required for Grad School? 

Wondering if you need the GRE to apply? Requirements vary by school and program. Many graduate programs are now optional for the GRE, meaning you don't have to submit scores. 

There is (sometimes) a catch: international students may still need to prove English skills depending on the program.

The Decision Is Yours

If the program doesn't require the GRE, you're all set without it. But if it's listed as optional, a strong score can boost your chances. Schools like SMU, among others, have gone test-optional nationwide.

Application Strength Beyond Tests

More and more schools are taking a holistic approach to applications; now, students from all over the world can shine through GPA, research experience, recommendations, statements, and interviews — not just test scores. 

For example, organizations like the American Psychological Association (APA) report the percentage of psychology graduate programs requiring GRE scores as decreasing substantially:

“Between the 2020–21 and 2021–22 academic years [GRE requirements] continued to decrease in the 2022–23 academic year. The percentage of doctoral programs requiring GRE Quantitative and GRE Verbal scores decreased from 45% to 14%, and GRE Writing score requirements decreased from 40% to 13%.”

Whether you’re planning to study humanities or STEM, thoughtfully weighing all the components of the programs you're considering can help you stand out from other applicants.

What's on the GRE Test?

The GRE will evaluate critical thinking, writing, verbal, and math skills during your test — but don’t worry — it’s much less intimidating when you know what to expect.

Let’s break down the three main sections: Analytical Writing, Verbal Reasoning, and Quantitative Reasoning.

The Analytical Writing Section

What it is: In the analytical writing section, you'll analyze an issue and an argument. You must build a persuasive case and articulate complex ideas clearly.

The Specifics: These tasks require critically evaluating the prompts. You'll need to support your positions with relevant examples and reasoning.

The Verbal Reasoning Section

What it is: The verbal reasoning section measures how well you analyze written material and grasp complex relationships between words.

The Specifics: this section includes reading comprehension questions based on passages from academic sources. You'll need to interpret and analyze the texts and complete questions about text completion and sentence equivalence.

The Quantitative Reasoning Section

What it is: The quantitative reasoning section tests your ability to use mathematical models across multiple areas of math.

The Specifics: You'll solve problems involving arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and data analysis. There are also quantitative comparison questions to analyze quantities.

You don’t have to take the GRE alone. Use ETS’s preparation resources to make your testing experience easy.

What's a Good Score on the GRE?

“Trust yourself; you know more than you think you do.”

Benjamin Spock, America’s most famous pediatrician, once said this to his patients. But if you think about it, the same could be said for taking a test like the GRE.

According to ETS, GRE scores range from 130 to 170 for Verbal and Quantitative sections. Your score gets ranked into percentiles, showing universities how you performed compared to other test-takers. A 170 score lands you in the 99th percentile — meaning you outscored 99% of others.

Universities assess international and domestic applicants' GRE scores similarly, considering percentile rankings and your undergraduate institution's caliber. However, they may emphasize the verbal score more for non-native English speakers to gauge English proficiency.

For example, SMU’s Department of English reports that applicants admitted to the program have had an average verbal GRE of 164/670 (old scale), and an analytic score of 4.5.

When to Consider Retaking the GRE

The Economic Times states, "Strong GRE scores amplify your chances not only for admission to your preferred program but also for coveted assistantships and scholarships."

So, while "good" GRE scores depend on your program, aim for the highest percentile possible to maximize chances at top programs. Consider retaking the exam if your initial scores disappoint.

Applying to U.S. Universities with GRE Requirements

Understanding how GRE scores impact the admission process is essential for international students.

The short answer?

Depending on the school, the GRE can play an important role in evaluating applicants for U.S. graduate programs. A high score doesn't guarantee admission, but it strengthens your application.

In the past several years, many U.S. universities have emphasized evaluating applications holistically. They consider academic records, recommendation letters, personal statements, research experience, and other achievements. A comprehensive application showcasing your strengths gives you an edge as an international student.

SMU’s Optional GRE Policy

We know that applying to U.S. universities with GRE requirements as an international student can feel overwhelming — and it doesn’t define your worth as a student.

It's worth noting that universities like ours have made the GRE optional for many programs. Check out our GRE and testing requirements by school:

English Tests for International Students

While the GRE may be skipped, many programs still ask international applicants to submit TOEFL or IELTS scores if their prior instruction wasn't in English. These tests demonstrate English proficiency.

What are TOEFL and IELTS? 

The Test of English as a Foreign Language, or TOEFL, and the International English Language Testing System (IELTS) evaluate a student's proficiency in four areas of English language skills — reading, writing, listening, and speaking.

All international applicants from countries where English is not the native language must have a TOEFL/IELTS score. Your test scores must be within the past two years of the application deadline; otherwise, you must retake the test. 

Want more information? SMU’s comprehensive graduate school resources will help!

Be sure to download our guide, the International Applicant's Guide to a PhD, or visit our Graduate School Resource Library to get all of your information in one place.


Learn More About

The International Applicant’s Guide to a PhD: Applying, Funding, Living Abroad, and Everything In Between

Download Now


Request more


Complete the form to reach out to us for more information

Subscribe to

the Blog

Older articles Newer articles