Editor’s Note: A general discussion page on the GRE requirement introduced by the HEC exists here.

In 2005, the Higher Education Commission (HEC) of Pakistan imposed the requirement of clearing the GRE Subject Test prior to admission in the PhD programs. Students who were enrolled in the PhD programs at the time were required to clear the GRE Subject Test before submission of their theses. This article discusses the interpretation of the word “clear” used by the HEC , the fairness of this criteria, and the deficiencies in policies regarding the GRE Subject Test. We conclude that by imposing this requirement, HEC has created problems for students living far from big cities, those who do not have access to credit or debit cards, and those who cannot afford the hefty (approximately, Rs. 14,000) registration fee. In addition, the HEC team seemed unaware of the true mechanism of the GRE Subject Test, and as a result significant confusion exists as to what “clearing” the test really means.

Much of the text is taken from the HEC official letters and the GRE guides and the letters published by ETS.

When Did the HEC Decide?

The 7th meeting of Quality Assurance Committee was held on 19th April, 2005 in the regional office of the Higher Education Commission (HEC), Lahore (see [1]). The meeting started with the approval of minutes of the last meeting of the Committee. The minutes were approved and the explanation of “international” with the Subject GRE Test used in the draft. It was explained to the members of the committee that word “international” is placed with the GRE Subject Test to draw a distinction between the GRE Type Test which is locally designed and already in practice, and the  standard GRE Test which is universally available for certain disciplines. The majority of the members and the chairman of the committee did not agree with the word “international” with Subject GRE as it does not exist in international nomenclature of the test. At last the members of the committee decided;

The word “international” will be removed from the Subject GRE-Test as Quality criteria of PhD level studies and it will be written as Subject GRE-Test, where available* with clarification at the bottom that local test will be designed for those subjects in which Subject GRE-Test is not available.

What should be a qualifying criterion?

First of all, it is useful to know a bit about the grading terminologies used by Education Testing Service (ETS), USA for GRE Subject Test. Later, we will discuss them in detail:

  • Score (or scaled score)
  • % Below (or percentile rank)
  • Formula score (or raw score)

On May 30th, 2006, Chairman HEC, Prof. Dr. Ata-ur-Rahman issued a letter no. 1-15/Adv(QA&LI) /2006/1394, in which he mentioned;

For admission of new students to Ph.D. as well as for upgradation/conversion of students already admitted in M.Phil to Ph.D., an International GRE (Subject) Test must be qualified (at least 50% score presently which will be increased to 60% after 3 years)

Please note that neither has the ETS yet released any document/method to find a percentage score of GRE test nor does the result card give any information about it. The GRE result card gives information about the score, percentage below (we call it percentile) and formula score.

In 2007, Chairman HEC, Dr. Ata-ur-Rahman wrote a letter [3] to the Vice Chancellors in which he asked:

Could you kindly ensure that no students currently enrolled in the disciplines of Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology, Biology, English Literature, Chemistry, Mathematics, Computer Science, Physics, Psychology and allied disciplines are allowed to submit Ph.D theses in your university unless they have obtained at least a 50 percentile score in the respective international subject GRE examination. This is a rather low score presently and it will be increased to 60 percentile score in a couple of years.

In the letter mentioned above (in [3]), Dr. Ata-ur-Rahman used the term percentile score. As mentioned earlier, please again note that this terminology does not exist in the documents of ETS.

In July 2008, Prof. Dr. S. Sohail H. Naqvi, the Executive Director of HEC issued a letter [4], in which he mentioned the following criteria:

To “clear” the international GRE subject test the candidates will have to get Percentile Score equal or greater than the minimum Percentile Score which will be as follows:
i. 40% Percentile Score: Valid Until December 31, 2009
ii. 45% Percentile Score: Valid Until December 31, 2010
iii. 50% Percentile Score: Valid thereafter

So, what is a 40% Percentile Score?

If it is to be considered that Percentile Score means ‘percentile rank’ then 40% percentile rank means the 40% of 99 because the maximum percentile rank one can get is 99. Also this letter failed to clear the meaning of the word “Valid Until …

In October 2009, Mr. Muneer Ahmed, Deputy Director (Quality Assurance), HEC issued a letter [5], to clarify the following:

I am directed to clarify that the qualifying score for the PhD Scholars who appeared in the International GRE Subject Test before 31st July 2008 is 40% (percentile) or 50%(percent) and after 31st July, 2008, percentile formula as conveyed earlier through the letter quoted above ([2] and [4]) will be applicable.

There was no need to say anything about such non-clarification. From the series of letters it is obvious that HEC was and still is facing dilemma about the criteria of clearing GRE.

In January 2010, HEC commission approved that [6]

GRE (International) Subject Test will be necessary at the time of admission to M.Phil/MS Programme leading to Ph.D.
The minimum acceptable scores are as follows:
i. 40% Percentile Score: Valid for Admissions until December 31, 2009
ii. 45% Percentile Score: Valid for Admissions until December 31, 2010
iii. 50% Percentile Score: Valid for Admissions until December 31, 2011.
iv. 60% Percentile Score: Valid for Admissions thereafter.
For presently continuing students (Admissions before January 11, 2010), the candidates must pass the GRE (International) Subject Test before submission of Ph.D. Dissertation. In disciplines where this test is not available, the test will be made available locally by National Testing Service (NTS), and if the Test is not available in NTS subject list, then a University Committee consisting of at least 3 Ph.D. faculty members in the subject area and approved by the HEC will conduct the Test at par with GRE (International) Subject Test.

Please note that the term “Percentile Score” doesn’t exist, it might be % below or percentile rank. Also clause (i) of above para has already been expired with respect to this letter [6] because it has now been imposed as a criterion to get admission in MS/M.Phil. Moreover subjects for which GRE test is not available, parallel to GRE Subject Test; the university commission of at least three PhDs will form their own test. This creates an injustice in many ways like fee, quality of test, checking criteria, and scoring method.

The text of the letter mentioned in [6] is available on the HEC website and it has been modified by the HEC without any intimation (it can be accessed here and old one is included in references). In the new letter, this test is only mandatory to get admission in PhD and also the word “international” with GRE Subject has been removed.

In March 2010, on answering a query from NUST, Rawalpindi, Mr. Muneer Ahmed wrote as follows [7]:

I am directed to inform you that all students enrolled/converted into PhD programme after May 31, 2005 and before July 31, 2008 are required to qualify International GRE Subject Test with 50% (percent) score and students enrolled/converted after July 31, 2008 have to qualify International GRE Subject Test with percentile score as mentioned in letter no. 1-10/(ED)/HEC/2008/961(copy attached)

It is not possible to find the percentage score of GRE Subject Test (see [8, p. 14]) and other thing is that why Mr. Muneer Ahmad didn’t refer to a latest letter[6] issued in January 2010.

In the following table we give the 50 percent score of each subject defined by the HEC as the 50 percent of the total scaled score. Please note that the HEC defined the score at 99 percentile rank in [10, page 14] as a total scaled score.


Scaled score at 99 percentile rank

50% of scaled score

Percentile rank at 50% of scaled score

Biochemistry, Cell & Molecular Biology







Between 5 and 7





Computer Science



Less than 1

Literature in English



Between 1 and 3




Between 6 and 8









To get the 50 percent score in Chemistry and Computer Science, one has to just appear in GRE Subject Test without answering to any question.

How should we use the GRE, according to ETS, USA?

The “GRE Guide to the Use of Scores 2008-09” gives comprehensive information about the GRE test and is the best booklet to learn about the GRE grading terminologies. It is published by the GRE board. This guide is available on the ETS website; the following sentences/paragraphs are taken from this guide.

  • Primary limitations of GRE test

Any GRE test, however, has two primary limitations: (1) it does not and cannot measure all the qualities that are important in predicting success in graduate study or in confirming undergraduate achievement and (2) it is an inexact measure; that is, only score differences that exceed the standard error of measurement of a given score can serve as reliable indications of real differences in academic knowledge and developed abilities [8, p. 5].

  • Encouragement of appropriate use.

All users of GRE scores have an obligation to use the scores in accordance with published GRE Board policies and guidelines. Institutions have a responsibility to ensure that all individuals using GRE scores are aware of the GRE Board score-use policies and guidelines and to monitor the use of the scores, correcting instances of misuse when they are identified. The GRE Program staff is available to assist institutions in resolving score-misuse issues. [8, p. 6]

  • Use Multiple Criteria

Regardless of the decision to be made, multiple sources of information should be used to ensure fairness and balance the limitations of any single measure of knowledge, skills, or abilities. These sources may include undergraduate grade point average, letters of recommendation, personal statement, samples of academic work, and professional experience related to proposed graduate study. GRE scores should not be used exclusively. [8, p. 6]

  • Accept Only Official GRE Score Reports

The only official reports of GRE scores are those issued by Educational Testing Service and sent directly to approved institutions and organizations designated by the test takers. Scores obtained from other sources should not be accepted. [2, p. 6]

To ensure the authenticity of scores, the GRE Board urges that institutions accept only official reports of GRE scores received directly from ETS. [8, p. 9]

  • Avoid Decisions Based on Small Score Differences

Small differences in GRE scores (as defined by the standard error of measurement) should not be used to make distinctions among examinees. Standard errors of measurement (SEMs) vary by test and are available in this publication. [8, p. 7]

  • Minority Examinees (Students outside of USA)

GRE scores, like those on similar standardized tests, cannot completely represent the potential of any person, nor can they alone reflect an individual’s chances of long-term success in an academic environment. It should be remembered that the GRE tests provide measures of certain types of developed abilities and achievement, reflecting educational and cultural experience over a long period. Special care is required in interpreting the GRE scores of students who may have had educational and cultural experiences somewhat different from those of the traditional majority. [8, p. 8]

  • Confidentiality and Authenticity of GRE Scores

GRE scores are confidential and are not to be released by an institutional recipient without the explicit permission of the examinee. GRE scores are not to be included in academic transcripts. Dissemination of score records should be kept at a minimum, and all staff who have access to them should be explicitly advised of the confidential nature of the scores. [8, p. 9]

Different types of scores

It is also useful to reiterate that there are three types of grading system in GRE subject.

  • Score (or scaled score)
  • % Below (or percentile rank)
  • Formula score (or raw score)


[ Cutout: Report of Scores ]

The range of scaled scores is from 200 to 990, in 10-points increments, although the score range for any particular Subject Test is usually smaller [2, page 11]. Scaled score is a basic analogy to compare two examinees.

Scaled scores on the same Subject Tests generally are directly comparable across years. A Chemistry Test score of 650 in 2007, for example, should be considered equivalent to a Chemistry Test score of 650 earned in 2006. [8, p. 11]

Percentile rank means the percentage of examinees in a group who obtained scores lower than specified score [9]. Percentile ranks of two examinees cannot be comparable for two different tests on same subject, while score is comparable for same subject test but not for different.

Subject Test scores should be compared only with other scores on the same Subject Tests (for example, a 680 on the Physics Test is not equivalent to a 680 on the Chemistry Test). Percentile ranks should be compared only if they are based on the same reference population. [8, p.7]

ETS writes the following about Score and Percentile rank.

Note that although a score represents the same level of ability regardless of when the score was earned, its percentile rank may vary, depending on the scores of the group with which it is compared [9].

Percentile ranks shown on score reports are based on the performance of the current reference group for each test regardless of when the scores were earned. The percentile rank for any score may vary over the years depending on the scores of the group with which the score is compared. Thus, when two or more applicants are being compared, the comparison should be made on the basis of their respective scores.[8, p. 9]

At the score of 700 in Computer Science there is a 42 percentile rank for the performance of the all examinees who were tested between July 1, 2004 – June 30, 2007 (see [8, p. 14]) and 40 percentile for the performance of all examinees who tested between July 1, 2003 – June 30, 2006 (See [10, p. 14])

One can find the following about percentile rank by flipping the “Report of Scores*”.

The percentile ranks in this report indicate the percentage of examinees who scored below your score. Note that these percentile ranks may be different from those that applied when the score were originally reported to you if the scores were earned prior to July 2009. This reflects annual updating of these data to permit admission officers to compare scores, whenever earned, with those for a recent reference group.

Formula score is the number of correct responses* minus one-fourth the number of incorrect responses rounded to the nearest whole number. The maximum formula score depends upon the total numbers of MCQs in the test.

* Result card sent by ETS, USA to the examinee or score recipient.
** Here “responses” mean questions which are usually multiple choices.

Is it an international test?

It should be remembered that the GRE tests provide measures of certain types of developed abilities and achievement, reflecting educational and cultural experience over a long period. Special care is required in interpreting the GRE scores of students who may have had educational and cultural experiences somewhat different from those of the traditional majority. [8, p. 8]

HEC officials are saying it an “international” test but the facts are against it. In the following table the number of examinees, all over the world, are given who took test between July 1, 2004, and June 30, 2007 [8, p.14].


No. of examinees in 3 year

No. of examinees in one year

Biochemistry, Cell & Molecular Biology









Computer Science



Literature in English












Please note that computer science is one of the biggest fields of study and only 1870 examinees took the GRE Subject Test in a year.

General Rules for PhD Scholars

If someone gets the admission in PhD, then generally he/she has to fulfill the following requirements to get the PhD degree (no doubt, these are major requirements).

  • Approval of Research Proposal or Synopsis (before or after the admission)
  • Course work (not compulsory all over the world)
  • Research paper (not compulsory in some countries but compulsory in Pakistan.)
  • Thesis writing
  • Defense of the thesis

If the thesis of some Pakistani PhD scholar is ready for submission then he cannot submit his thesis because of the extra imposed condition of GRE Subject Test, which is usually used as a recommended test (but not required) to get admission in the few universities of USA (see number of examinees per year as a proof). Also this shows that research paper(s) and thesis of the PhD scholar have no worth and no quality without this test.

It is also strange that if the PhD scholar has qualified GRE Subject Test then all the work (research) done under the supervision of such person (supervisor), who is usually non-qualified in GRE Subject Test, attains HEC quality standard.

Taking the GRE Subject test and other information

If someone decides to take GRE Subject Test, then the only way is online registration through ETS website by using online payment mode (by Credit or Debit card).

  • Test Fee: 160 US Dollars (Rs. 14000 approx.)
  • Duration: 2 hours and 50 minutes
  • Conducted thrice a year (in April, October, November)
  • Centers (Pakistan): Islamabad, Karachi and Lahore
  • Limited number of seats in every center.
  • Result announcement after 40 days of the test date.


  1. The GRE Subject Test spans 2 hours and 50 minutes, at the price of US$ 160 (approximately Rs. 14,000). It is not affordable for a majority of the students and this heavy cost puts real extra burden on these students. In fact, many good students, who would easily pass it, hesitate to take the GRE Subject Test because of its huge fee.
  2. Percentile rank is best to compare the students of same subject in the same test (in which they appeared) but it is not recommended to be used as a tool for making merit.
  3. ETS recommends the use of “Scaled Score” for comparing the ability of students as they appear in the test at different schedule (three times in a year).
  4. This test is not generally meant to be used for the students and institutions outside the United States.
  5. Most public sector universities in Pakistan are not score recipients of ETS and it is very easy to use fake result cards to get admission, and the ETS never confirms the result to institutions if they are not score recipients.
  6. It is very difficult to register for the test because many students don’t have Credit or Debit cards for payment through the internet.
  7. Pakistan is a very big country and this test is conducted only in three cities, with limited number of seats at each location. This is really creating a big problem for the students living far from these cities.
  8. The number of examinees per year clearly indicates the popularity of the test. For example, 1870 students in the subject of Computer Science and 2797 students in the subject of Chemistry appeared in a year all over the world.
  9. Percentile rank actually is a comparison of the students of certain group taking GRE Subject Test in a period of last three years with respect to the test date. In eight subjects, Pakistani students are compared against a small community of students from all over the world, and for the remaining subjects the criteria is totally different.
  10. The HEC team was unaware of the true mechanism of the GRE Subject Test. Yet, they decided that a PhD scholar must appear in this test, just to meet international standards no matter what he/she will score.
  11. There are a lot of deficiencies in the HEC letters regarding GRE Subject Test. Against the decision of 7th meeting of Quality Assurance Committee of HEC, the HEC officials are still communicating it as an international test.
  12. All the grading terminologies used by the HEC don’t match with the ETS standard terminologies.This clearly shows that HEC officials are unaware of the objective and mechanism of the GRE Subject Test.


[1] Minutes of the 7th meeting of Quality Assurance Committee dated 19th April, 2005
[2] No 1-15/Adv(QA&LI) /2006/1394 dated May 30, 2006
[3] No. 4-7/CHR/HEC/07/807 dated April 3, 2007
[4] No. 1-10/(ED)/HEC/2008/96/ dated July 14, 2008
[5] No. 1-G/DD-QA/HEC/2009/45 dated October 23, 2009
[6] No. 4-7/CHR/HEC/2010/06 dated January 11, 2010
[7] DD/QA/HEC/NUST/2010/224 dated March 05, 2010
[8] GRE Guide to the Use of Scores 2008-09
[9] Interpreting Your GRE® Scores (2008-09)
[10] GRE Guide to the Use of Scores 2007-08

All the references can be downloaded from here.

Atiq_ur_RehmanAtiq-ur-Rehman is a PhD scholar at the Abdus Salam School of Mathematical Sciences in Lahore, Pakistan. His areas of research are difference and functional equations, real functions, inequalities in monotonic, and convex functions and he has 8 research papers. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of STEP.

85 Responses to “GRE Subject (International) as a PhD requirement: A Busted Myth”


    I am currently student of M.S Applied geology and i strongly disagree with the GRE type examination. ETS can only conduct GRE in selected subjects and there are many subjects in which no GRE subject test is available e.g Geology. Is These subjects holders are free from HEC rule for higher education or they have to passed GRE general test? In case of yes or no then why they are treated seperately?

  2. Muhammad Aamir says:

    I also want to mention one more thing. In the following document

    HEC has mentioned 60 percent of score from GAT by NTS and 45 percentile score from GRE by ETS. I don’t know why percentile score from GRE by ETS. 100 percent candidate can get 60 percent score but percentile is always comparison between the marks of students.

  3. Muhammad Aamir says:

    Also one more strange thing.
    ETS, GRE Subject is fully subject test but NTS GAT subject contains 70 question from subject, 15 from english and 15 from analytic reasoning even the student have already qualified NTS GAT General which also contain english, analytic reasoning and quantitative portion.

  4. hafiz arshad says:

    I m an M.Phil chemistry student from agriculture uni Faisalabad belonging to a middle family and hesitate to apply 4 this test due to high fee

  5. ghazala says:

    i have done Msc Physics wanted to do PHD PHysics plz help me what i shud do for ds purpose

  6. Benish Mirani says:

    is it necessary to qualify NTS subjective before ETS subjective???

  7. Abdul Majeed says:

    At this moment, you don’t need to take ETS subject. If you just qualify NTS subject, it is enough to get admission in PhD.

  8. Saba says:

    What is the whole process of applying for Gre subject test? and how many times test is conducted in pakistan? as Ets conduct it thrice a year is in Pakistan it is available also thrice?

    • Faheem says:

      One can register to the test through their website (mygre.ets.org). First you need to make an account on that site. Then register online for this test. You must have credit card to pay online fee. Also usually there is no problem. It is conduced thrice in Pakistan

  9. Irfan Shah says:

    I am Ph.D. scholar at Univ of Peshawar. I have to appear for Subject GRE in Englih. Is that subject test available in GRE, NTS or I have to consult my univ? plz reply anyone

  10. Imran Anwar says:

    Yes! you can see the list of subjects at the following URL:


    English is at 18 and 19 number.

  11. Amir abbas says:

    i can apply after BSIT (4 year program) for GRE????

  12. sher shah says:

    I have done my Masters in Animal sciences(Zoology) from QAU, so i want to appear in Gre-subject test as well as for Gre-general. CAN I?

  13. Miteen Ali says:

    NTS CS subject test is the most ambiguous test in the history of testing. They do not even know that from where the content is coming. They are just copy pasting from different books. Even in computer science test they ask for chemistry, electrical, electronics, physics, CNG, petrol, Chilli powder, english grammar questions. They are just making money. Education is just a money making game in Pakistan.


  • STEP aspires to be the central place for discussion on improving the state of Science, Technology, and Education in Pakistan. Read More
  • To learn how you can contribute, click here
  • Never miss a new article! Choose your favorite method to stay up to date with STEP