What Is A Good GRE Score? Overview of GRE Scores

by Maximilian Claessens
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What Is A Good GRE Score? - Overview of GRE Scores

What is a good GRE score? There are many opinions on the topic and you could spend hours reading various takes on what constitutes a good GRE score, but the fact of the matter is that there’s usually only one opinion that matters – that of the school you’re applying to.

That said, there are undoubtedly GRE score ranges that can be categorized into ‘good’, ‘bad’, and ‘average’. During the course of this article, we plan to examine exactly what those score ranges are, and you can end up in the top percentiles for GRE scores.

How Is The GRE Scored?

The GRE is broadly separated into two parts: one for multiple-choice sections, and one for the written section. The scores are mutually exclusive and do not interact with or affect each other in any way.

Multiple Choice Sections

There are two multiple choice sections: Quantitative Reasoning, and Verbal Reasoning.

Quantitative Reasoning 

Quantitative Reasoning is scored from 130-170. In general, Quant scores can be roughly divided up as follows:

  • A great score is 162-170.
  • A good score is 154-161.
  • An average score is 140-153.
  • A poor score is 130-139.

Check out our detailed guide on the difficulty of the math on the GRE.

Verbal Reasoning

Verbal Reasoning is, similarly to Quantitative Reasoning, scored from 130-170. The GRE score range is a little different, however:

  • A great score is 157-170.
  • A good score is 151-156.
  • An average score is 145-150.
  • A poor score is 130-144.

AWA Section 

As noted, the AWA section is scored independently of the multiple choice sections, and has no bearing on them (as they have no bearing on this). The AWA section is scored from 0.0-6.0, and goes up in half-point intervals.

GRE score ranges for the AWA section are as follows:

  • A great score is 4.5-6.0.
  • A good score is 4.0.
  • An average score is 3.5.
  • A poor score is 3.0 or lower.

Are Individual Section Scores Important?

That very much depends upon the program or school you’re applying for/to. Some programs may value your Quant score more highly, whereas others (like literature courses) may place more emphasis on your Verbal score.

It must be noted that it can be a little difficult to make sense of your scores in relation to one another – particularly the Quant and Verbal Reasoning sections, for which the same scores can have very different implications.

GRE Percentiles

Many people find it useful to contextualize their scores by percentiles, rather than simply looking at the raw scores. It’s also a much more useful tool for many admissions officers, who necessarily find themselves ranking candidates. Percentiles are the perfect way of doing this, as raw scores don’t tell the same story (which is also true for the GMAT).

The GRE is an adaptive test (like the GMAT), and so raw scores are not always useful in demonstrating the aptitude of any given candidate. They certainly don’t contextualize a candidate’s score in relation to other test-takers – which is why percentiles are such an important tool for admissions officers. Numerical scores vary from year to year on adaptive tests – percentiles are always illustrative in determining which candidates stand head and shoulders above the rest.

With that in mind, it’s always handy to shoot for at least the 50th percentile. Having a score that is unequivocally better than half of all other candidates immediately makes you stand out as being above the herd.  

GRE Score Overview: Good, Very Good, and Perfect Scores  

Now that we have an idea of how the GRE is scored, let’s take a more in-depth look at the scores themselves: namely, what makes for a good score, what makes for a great score, and whether or not perfect scores are ever necessary.

What Is A Good GRE Score If I’m Going To Grad School?

That very much depends on the grad school to which you’re applying. Harvard, for instance is going to have very different standards to a less prestigious university.

The best way to find out what kind of GRE scores are desirable is to talk to the admissions officer for the course you’re looking to study on. You can also talk to current or past students; the admissions officer you speak to should be able to help in this regard, by putting you in touch with such students. These students are excellently placed to give you an idea of what, exactly, they’re looking for from prospective students (e.g. educational background, GRE scores, GMAT scores, SAT scores, etc.).

What Is A Good GRE Score For Me?

Again, it’s worth pointing out that “good” scores vary from school to school, and it’s extremely difficult to put an exact figure on it.

That said, it’s possible to give a general ballpark idea of what constitutes a universally “good” score. Simply put, anything above the 75th percentile in either area is considered a great score. That equates, at present, to a 157+ in the Verbal section, and 161+ in Quant. You don’t need to perform perfectly in these sections to attain such scores; you can afford to drop 9 questions in Quant and 13 in Verbal (which isn’t scored as stringently).

Why Should I Aim For Above The 75th Percentile?

There are three solid reasons to try to get above the 75th percentile:

Why You Should Aim for Above the 75th Percentile When Taking the GRE
Why You Should Aim for Above the 75th Percentile When Taking the GRE
  • Having above-average scores on standardized tests gives prospective applicants an immediate leg-up on the competition – and this goes for the GRE as much as for any other test. Admissions officers are impressed by high scores on admissions tests, in combination with a generally strong application.
  • It’s useful to create a little breathing room in the event that you don’t hit your desired scores. Perhaps you’ve hit the 70th percentile, which is good but not quite good enough to stand out from the other top applicants. Should you retake the GRE? Or is it better to work on the rest of your application to distinguish yourself in a different way? Do you believe that’s it possible to get a higher score than you already did? These are all questions that are easier to answer if you’ve already set high standards for yourself, and taken the GRE with enough time before applications close to mull them over.
  • Being in the 75th percentile immediately puts you in an excellent position to compete for spots for almost any grad school program out there. If you manage to get all three sections into this percentile, then the world is your oyster.

Is It Necessary To Get A Score In The 90th Percentile?

As stated, getting into the 75th percentile is generally enough to have a fighting chance to get onto any grad school program. That said, some particularly prestigious programs and schools may require an even higher score.

Such well-respected institutions as MIT, for instance, admit candidates with scores much higher than those required elsewhere. The average score for PhD Engineering students at the prestigious school had average scores of 167 in Quant and 161 in Verbal – placing them in the 89th and 88th percentiles, respectively.

That, of course, is for a doctorate at quite possibly the most respected engineering university on the planet. It is not representative of the kinds of scores most people will need; making it into the 75th percentile will, in general, suffice. And as for aiming for perfection…

Why Perfect Scores Are Often Unnecessary

Far too many students obsess over getting a good score for the GRE, and pump hundreds of hours into attempting to push themselves into the 99th percentile.

Simply put: this is not necessary. Overdoing GRE preparation can actually lead to burnout, which ends up in your decreasing your chances of getting the score that you want. Factor into this the fact that the need for a 99th percentile score is vanishingly rare, and you have to ask yourself why you’re putting in so many hours – and risking burnout – for something that the overwhelming majority of schools quite simply will not require of you.

In addition, all that time that you’re spending trying to pump your GRE scores up to elite levels may be better spent elsewhere. It’s possible that your scores are already good enough for your chosen school and course – so why not put that time and effort into the application itself? By spending that time writing and polishing application essays, or working on projects that will dazzle admissions officers, you can make yourself stand out in ways aside from your GRE score.

GRE Score Ranges By Course

As touched upon earlier, GRE score ranges vary considerably depending on the course you’re applying for. As we saw with the average MIT PhD candidate’s scores, programs with a heavy emphasis on mathematics and science (whether life or physical sciences) place a much greater emphasis on the Quant section, and successful candidates to those courses are placed in the 89th percentile and higher for Quant.

It’s therefore a good idea to check the kind of scores typical for applicants to your course. In this way, you can focus your studies and preparations on the areas most important for you.

For a full breakdown of the typical scores of GRE candidates by intended graduate major field, please refer to ETS’s snapshot found on their website.

Average And Poor Scores

What Is The Average GRE Score?

‘Average’ is average for a reason – it’s representative of the majority of people who take tests. However, the majority of people are likely to feel disappointed when they get an ‘average’ score, but it’s worth bearing in mind that (a) ‘average’ is not ‘bad’ and (b) you probably don’t have to score amazingly in every section of the GRE – just the one(s) that matter(s) to the course you’re applying for.

That said, GRE average scores are as follows:

  • Verbal: 150.37 (roughly the 49th percentile).
  • Quant: 153.66 (roughly the 50th percentile).
  • AWA: 3.5 (37th percentile) to 4.0 (54th percentile).

Many students set unrealistic goals for themselves by trying to hit 170 in both multiple choice sections, and a 6.0 on the AWA. But again, that’s likely not necessary. Focus on the sections that are important to you and set realistic goals, and you’re much less likely to be disappointed.

Overview of Average GRE Scores
Overview of Average GRE Scores

What Is A Poor GRE Score?

At the simplest level, a poor GRE score is one that means you miss out on a place on your desired program. Again, this varies from school to school.

For a little more context, however, it’s probably worth looking at the lowest scores achieved on the GRE. These are below 141 in Quant, and below 139 in Verbal. The bottom 10% of all GRE candidates end up in this category – try not to be one of them! If you take test exams and end up in this range, put in some preparation work before taking the test. Taking the GRE without studying is certainly not a great idea.

I Got A Bad GRE Score. What Should I Do?

In the event of getting a poor GRE score, the important thing is not to despair or adopt a defeatist attitude. Improving your scores might be difficult, but it’s not impossible.

With a couple of months’ hard prep, it’s perfectly possible to jump up the percentiles with bumps of 5-6 points in either multiple-choice category. These seems like small numbers, but consider for a minute: these kinds of increases can result in a 20-point increase in your percentile. That can be the difference between making it onto a course and failing to make the cut.  

How Do I Increase A Bad GRE Score?

First off, you should determine your target score. Once you have that in mind, you can start working towards it.

The GRE is a deliberately tough test – not just in terms of the questions on the test, but also in terms of the psychological fortitude it necessitates. The GRE is supposed to separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak, and give admissions officers a quick and easy overview of the best candidates. Success on the GRE is not just about how you perform in that test room once you sit down – it’s about how you handle the run-up to that test, in terms of goal-setting and preparation.

After you’ve set targets for yourself, you can take a diagnostic test. This will tell you where you currently are in relation to your ultimate goal. It will also give you a solid idea of the areas that you’re currently doing well in, and those that need improvement. Once you know this, you’ll be well positioned to make a study plan that caters to your goals and needs.

How Much Does My GRE Score Matter?

Firstly: it’s crucial that the GRE is taken seriously, and that an appropriate amount of time and effort is invested into preparing for it. Admissions officers for many schools do take it into account, and they do use it as a differentiating factor between students who have otherwise similar academic profiles (e.g. SATs, admissions essays and applications).

However, if you don’t do quite as well as you’d like on the GRE – or you think you’ve reached the highest score possible for you – don’t despair…

My GRE Score Is As High As I Can Get It. What Else Can I Do To Improve My Chances Of Admission?

The good news is that GRE scores are not necessarily the be-all and end-all of grad school admissions. Admissions officers also look at the strength of the candidate’s overall application, as well as their knowledge of – and passion for – the subject matter itself. If you can show a strong understanding of your chosen field, as well as demonstrate the fact that you’re passionate about that field, then you stand a much higher chance of getting a place on the program. This can be the case even if your GRE scores are a little lower than some of the other candidates.

In addition, it could be that you’ve decided to attend grad school after having left the academic world behind, and in place of academic experience, you have work experience. The good news is that this can be a mitigating factor when applying. A lot of grad school programs offer waivers for candidates who have extensive work experience that pertains to the program they’re applying for; these waivers obviate the need for taking the GRE (or any similar standardized test like the GMAT) at all.

This may also be the case if you have strong enough college grades, too. In either case, it’s worth emailing the school to which you’re applying, and finding out if you are eligible for such a waiver. It can save a lot of time and effort if you are!

Even if not eligible for this, the fact is that admissions officers understand that applications are more than the sum of their parts. Even if one area is weak (e.g. your GRE results), it’s only one part of the puzzle, and it could be that the bigger picture is enough to get you onto the course of your dreams.

Also check out our guide on whether the GRE or the GMAT is the right test for you.

Conclusion

Although it can be a bit of a headache trying to figure out the GRE results that you need, it doesn’t have to be. The best people to speak to are the admissions officers at the grad school of your choice, who can give you a clear overview of the score or percentiles (usually the latter) that they expect to see from successful candidates. Once you have an idea of that, you can start formulating your strategy for getting the scores that you need.

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