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Andrew Colford

Let’s Unpack What A “Good GRE Score” Actually Means

GRE examinees often use colorful adjectives to describe the test day experience. “Fun” is most certainly not one of them.

Because numbers are such concrete things, we tend not to question where they come from or what they mean.

For instance, one morning in 1933, the U.S Federal government increased the price of gold by 21 cents. This figure, as it turned out, had been chosen by President Roosevelt himself. As FDR explained to his Treasury Secretary, he believed that three times seven was a lucky number, and so that was that.

The numbers associated with GRE scores might seem equally confounding and arbitrary–determined by some capricious wizard behind a curtain. But these numbers have important consequences for your grad school application and for how you prepare for the GRE, so it’s important to understand the meaning behind them.

Why do you have to take this Darn Test?

GRE examinees often use colorful adjectives to describe the test day experience. “Fun” is most certainly not one of them. Neither are “useful,” “educational,” or “productive.” So why on earth do grad programs force applicants to sit through 4+ hours of torture, reading boring passages and solving high school math problems?

The short answer is that programs need one standardized, objective benchmark across which to compare thousands of applicants.

“What about GPA?” you might ask. Well, although your undergraduate grades are objective (insofar as they can be boiled down to a number), they are not standardized: a 3.7 at one school means something very different elsewhere. How about personal statements? Although an important part of an application, they do not provide any measure of your quantitative reasoning ability. In today’s data-driven world, a solid understanding of basic math is important for almost any degree. Schools use the GRE not because it’s a perfect measure of innate intelligence, but rather because no one has been able to come up with a better system.

Someday in the future, admissions offices may develop a method of assessing students that everyone will accept as more transparent, fair, and effective (digging holes, perhaps?). Until then, though, we have to live with the GRE.

With that said, let’s discuss the ins and outs of your GRE scores and what sections are on the GRE.

Your GRE Analytical Writing score

The very first section on the GRE is the Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA), which consists of two essays. From these, you’ll receive an overall score out of 6. But before you spend hours cranking out practice prompts, keep in mind that this score is probably the least important one.

Schools will already have a sense of your writing ability based on the personal statement you’ve submitted for your application. Unless your AWA score is egregiously low, it likely will not make much of a difference. So it’s wise to save your essay practice for the very end of the GRE prep journey–after you’ve covered everything else!

Your GRE Verbal and Quantitative Reasoning scores

These scores, on the other hand, do matter. Quite a bit. After you complete the AWA, you’ll take 5 timed GRE sections: Two Verbal, two Quantitative, and one experimental (more on that last one in a moment). From these, you will receive a Verbal score and a Quant score, both between 130 and 170.

What’s up with that “experimental” section?

The experimental section looks just like a regular Verbal or Quant section…except it counts for nothing. Zero. Zilch. Nada.

“Great!,” you might say. “I’ll just skip it then.” Not so fast. This section is mixed in with the other ones, which means that you cannot know which section is experimental.

Why do the test-makers do this? Well, as the name suggests, it’s their way of trying out new questions…and also making your life just a tad more difficult.

How the GRE is scored

When planning for your test, you might be wondering, “how many questions do I need to answer correctly in order to get a 155 as my GRE Verbal score?” Unfortunately, it’s not that straightforward. You see, the GRE format is a Computer Adaptive Test (CAT). That means that it changes based on how well you are performing to calculate a final score. Sounds like something out of Harry Potter, right?

Here’s an example: Suppose you’ve studied your formulas, and you ace the first Quant section. As a result, the second Quant section will be much more difficult. Yet even if you bomb this second section, you will probably end up with a great score. Conversely, if you perform poorly on the first section, the second section will be incredibly easy, but your score will be pretty low. Thus, under these two scenarios, the same number of correct answers would lead to very different GRE Quant scores.

This dynamic can really throw you for a loop. Ironically, the better you’re doing, the worse you’ll feel it’s going. Here’s the bottom line: do not try to game the test or predict how you’re doing. You simply cannot know until you see your final score.

What is a “good” GRE score?

Because the GRE is scored on a scale from 130 to 170, it’s hard to interpret what the numbers actually mean. So, we’re going to throw in a free Quant lesson here and talk a little bit about GRE score percentiles.

The two number lines below show the percent of test-takers who get below a particular score. For example, on the Verbal line, 25% of people get below 145, 50% of people get below 150, etc.

A plot graph describing that 25 percent of people score below a 145 on the GRE verbal portion

A plot graph describing GRE scores in which 25 percent of people score below a 145 on the GRE quantitative portion

You’ll notice here that not all score increases are created equal. For instance, if you improve your Verbal score from 145 to 150, you’ll move from the 25th percentile to the 50th percentile–a huge jump relative to all other test-takers. Meanwhile, going from 165 to 170 only moves you about 5 percentile points. This means that it’s much easier to make gains on the lower end. So if you hit a wall in your improvement, do not get frustrated. Perhaps look into some GRE tutoring to learn strategies that will boost you into a higher percentile range.

Okay, but what is a “good” GRE score for YOU?

The charts above, however, reflect the scores of all GRE test-takers. It’s much more important to know what represents a good GRE score overall for the program you’re applying to.

Let’s say you’re aiming for a top MBA program - Wharton, for instance. The numbers below come from the Wharton website, and show the average GRE scores of the Class of 2021.

Data illustrating average GRE scores of the Class of 2021 at Wharton University

As you can see, the average scores are quite high. MBA programs place a strong emphasis on standardized tests, as they want candidates who can work well with numbers.

Contrast this with the GRE policy of the University of Chicago’s highly ranked social work program:

The Graduate Record Examination is not required; however, an applicant with a low undergraduate grade point average may wish to submit GRE General Test scores as a possible means of strengthening the application.”

So if you can turn in a score a little higher than the average bear, it might make up for deficiencies in the rest of your application package.

The bottom line here–you need to do some research. Reach out to the admissions office, speak to current students, and if necessary, consult an admissions expert to make sure you’re clear on what scores you need to hit. Having this information will allow you to determine how long you need to study and help you decide if you need to retest.

Retesting

Suppose you get your scores, and they’re a few points shy of what you wanted. Should you retake the GRE?

First off, take a deep breath. Having multiple scores likely will not harm your overall application–retesting is very common, and it is generally not frowned upon. Plus, if you do decide to retest, you’ve had a dry run, and you know what to expect from test day.

The real question to answer is, what’s the return on your investment? Will a few more weeks of hard-core studying put you over the top? Or is that time better spent rounding out the other components of your application package? How much emphasis does your target program place on scores?

Even if you’re on the fence about retesting, you should be sure to request a free diagnostic report as soon as you can. This report will allow you to pinpoint the question types that you missed, and it will inform how you study for the retest. Many students don’t know about this, and consequently they have to begin studying again from square one!

Once you have your diagnostic information, you can take a GRE practice test to get an unofficial GRE score range. Check ets.org to see if there are better locations where you can take the GRE to improve your performance. As you progress in your studying, be careful not to fall into some of the common GRE prep mistakes people make.

Prep the smart way

As random as GRE scores seem, there is a method to the madness. Your best friend on this journey (aside from your wonderful GRE tutor) is information.

The more you know about the particular programs you’re targeting, the more effective you’ll be in assembling your application. Don’t assume that every program needs perfect scores, and don’t neglect the other portions of your application.

And if it’s any consolation, this is probably the last standardized test you’ll ever take. Get it out of the way, and get on with your life!