What should you know about GRE percentiles? We got you covered.
The Graduate Record Examination, or the GRE, is a test given by the Educational Testing Service (ETS).
It is the test the majority of students must take to apply for admission to graduate schools.
This includes everything from business school to graduate school for an M.A. or Ph.D. in English, computer science, math, political science, and many other subjects.
- The GRE gives admission officers a glimpse into an applicant’s verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing skills and helps them determine which students to admit over others.
This guide will give a comprehensive break down of the GRE components, scoring, what you can expect, scores you should aim for, and how to go about achieving those scores.
About the GRE 101
As we have mentioned before, the GRE consists of three sections: verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing.
While there are computer-delivered and paper-delivered options for the GRE, the computer version is considered the more common and convenient one, and it is the one you will most likely take, barring some unique circumstance.
This version of the test is about three hours and 45 minutes. Here is the breakdown of the computer-delivered test:
(one section with two tasks)
|“Analyze an Issue” Task|
“Analyze an Argument” task
There may also be an unidentified, unscored section that does not count toward your score but may be included in any order after the analytical writing section OR an identified research section that does not count toward your score.
GRE Scoring: How Does It Work?
Verbal Reasoning and quantitative reasoning scores are both reported on a scale of 130 – 170 score scale, in 1-point increments, while the analytical writing score is reported on a 0-6 score scale, in half-point increments.
- With this said, scoring for the verbal and quantitative reasoning parts is not as straightforward as it sounds, because they are section-level adaptive.
- This means that the difficulty level of the second section that a test taker receives for verbal and quantitative is dependent on how well they do on the first section.
Within each section, each question contributes equally to the score, yet each section weighs differently (more or less) depending on its difficulty level.
- This means a test taker should aim to get as many questions right as possible in the first section (so that the computer chooses a more difficult second section) and then get as many questions right as possible on the second section, too.
The analytical writing section is scored by a human scorer, as well as by a computerized program created by the ETS.
Human scorers give points according to how well the essay responded to the given prompt.
- If the scores given by the human and computer are close enough, the average of the two scores is used as the final one.
- If they are not close enough, another human scores the essay and the average of the two human scores is used as the final score.
Last, the final scores on the two essays are averaged, rounded to the nearest half-point interval on the 0 – 6 point scale.
For the computer-delivered method, you will receive your verbal and quantitative reasoning scores at the test center right after you complete the exam; you will receive your analytical writing score 10 – 15 days after your test date.
GRE Scores: The Good, the Bad, and the Average
According to the ETS, the average score of all test takers between July 1, 2014 and June 30, 2017, is as follows:
|Measure||Number of Test Takers||Mean|
|1, 727, 225||150. 05|
|1, 730, 288||152.80|
|1, 722, 231||3.5|
For most standard graduate schools, a safe set of scores to aim for is one that falls around the 75th percentile, which means that a student scored better than 75% of test takers.
According to ETS, this would be a score of:
157 for Verbal Reasoning (76th percentile)
160 for Quantitative Reasoning (74th percentile)
Between 4.0 and 4.5 for Analytical Writing (59th – 82nd percentile)
For more competitive graduate schools, students should aim to achieve scores in higher percentiles – perhaps in the 90th percentile or higher. This would be a score of:
162 (91st percentile) or higher in Verbal Reasoning
166 (90th percentile) or higher in Quantitative Reasoning
Around 5.0 (92nd percentile) or higher in Analytical Writing
The scores we provide above are meant to give you a very general idea about GRE scores.
For more specifics about how you should set personal goals and individualize your plan, read ahead.
Setting Goals to Score in a High GRE Percentile
As with every other part of your graduate school application, the GRE must be anticipated and planned for.
- The goals you set for your GRE scores will depend largely on what type of program you intend to apply to, as well as your target schools for those programs.
What we mean by this is that M.A. programs for mechanical engineering will probably look more closely at your quantitative reasoning scores than your analytical writing scores, while graduate programs in history or English will do the opposite.
A demonstrated example of this can be seen in schools publicize their GRE data:
- The University of Michigan’s mechanical engineering program states that many successful applicants achieve GRE scores within the 80th – 90th percentile in the verbal and quantitative sections.
- The University of Berkeley’s history department states that data for a recent cohort of domestic admits had average GRE scores in the 96th percentile for verbal, 71st percentile for quantitative, and 5.42 for analytical writing.
From this set of data, we can see UofM places emphasis on quantitative and verbal reasoning scores, but not so much the analytical writing – they leave it out altogether!
UC Berkeley, on the other hand, considers all three, but places much more emphasis on doing well in the verbal and analytical writing sections than the quantitative one.
- This means that if you are applying to mechanical engineering programs, you will likely want to focus your efforts on the quantitative and verbal reasoning sections.
- On the other hand, if you are applying for history programs, then you will want to focus on verbal reasoning and analytical writing.
In addition, the same types of programs in different schools will look for different scores:
- The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business is the number-one ranked business school. The average GRE scores for its Class of 2020 are 163 in verbal (93rd percentile), 162 in quantitative (80th percentile), and 4.6 for analytical writing (a little bit above the 82nd percentile).
- The University of Texas – Austin McCombs School of Business is a top-20 business school. The average GRE scores for the class of 2020 are 159 in verbal (83rd percentile) and 158 in quantitative (68th percentile).
While both business schools seem to consider verbal reasoning more than quantitative reasoning, Wharton’s average scores are considerably higher than McComb’s in both the verbal and quantitative sections.
Depending on what your target schools are – top ten, top twenty, top thirty, etc. – will want to adjust your GRE goals accordingly.
Step-By-Step Guide on Setting GRE Goals
- Determine what section(s) your intended grad school program values the most.
While it is not all-inclusive and does not provide scores for every field, the following table provided by ETS can be helpful in deciding what your GRE goals should be and what sections of the GRE you should make your focus.
It provides the general mean scores classified by intended broad graduate major field. In other words, these are the average scores by industry.
According to the ETS, these are the scores are based on the performance of seniors and non-enrolled college graduates who tested between July 2014 and June 2017.
Intended Broad Graduate Major Field
|Verbal Reasoning||Quantitative Reasoning|
|Social and Behavioral Sciences||153||151|
- Determine the GRE percentile ranges of the average scores from all the schools you intend to apply to.
Many graduate programs will publish the average GRE scores of successful applicants from previous application cycles to give prospective students an idea of what their expectations for the GRE should be.
- Once you find these averages, you can compare them to the following tables from the ETS to find out the GRE percentiles they fall within.
- For example, let’s say the average GRE scores in a successful pool of applicants for a particular school or program were 161 in verbal reasoning, 164 in quantitative reasoning, and 4.0 in analytical writing.
- That means, on average, the successful applicants fell in the 88th percentile in verbal reasoning (meaning that 88% of test takers scored lower than 161), 86th percentile in quantitative, and 59th percentile in analytical writing.
If this example school were one of your target schools, you would want to try and score in these percentiles or higher on the GRE.
Below is a table provided by ETS on the percent of test takers who scored between lower than a specified score. This is how you measure GRE percentiles as a whole.
|Verbal Reasoning||Quantitative Reasoning|
|Score Levels||Analytical Writing|
- Finally, we suggest that you look through the GRE score percentiles of each school/program you plan on applying to.
Then, determine which school has the highest GRE percentiles and set those percentiles as your goals.
- For example, if you want to go to business school at Wharton, then use that program’s average GRE scores.
- Set your target GRE percentile or score for whatever your highest-ranking school’s average score is.
- You should also organize your GRE studying so that it focuses more on whatever section your intended program/school looks at closest (the sections previous admitted students scored highest in).
For example, if you apply for a math or engineering degree, do more prep in quantitative and verbal reasoning than analytical writing.
How Important Is the GRE?
The GRE is only one factor out of many that admissions officers consider when looking at graduate school applications.
- Its importance truly depends on each school’s philosophy on admissions, as well as a host of additional factors: the applicant’s strengths and weaknesses, how the applicant compares to competitors in the cycle, the distribution of scores on his or her GRE, and many others.
It is helpful to remember that no one or two items on an application will decisively sway admissions one way or another.
- Having a stellar GPA does not guarantee admission, nor does having very strong recommendation letters.
The same concept applies to the GRE percentiles – achieving scores in the target range will not necessarily get you in the programs you are aiming for.
But having a well-rounded application that shows a robust performance on the majority of graduate school factors – recommendation letters, application essays, grades, extracurriculars, leadership qualities, experience in the field, and good GRE scores – gives an applicant the best chances of gaining admission.
Should I Take the GRE If It Is Optional?
In general, yes, graduate school applicants should take the GRE if it is not required – and even if they already have a strong application.
Most graduate school programs view applicants robustly and would never choose an applicant on the basis of a test score alone.
- But the reason people should take the GRE is because it can serve as a point of differentiation for an application, especially for highly competitive programs.
- For example, there may be a situation where admission officers are torn between two applicants who have very similar academic records, extracurricular activities, and personal qualities. In another example, two applicants from distinct and different backgrounds are viewed as equals in the eyes of admissions officers.
- In these cases, a higher GRE score may tip the scale for one applicant.
Providing a GRE score when it is optional also showcases academic responsibility.
- The one caveat is that it is not necessarily a good idea to send a poor GRE score to a program that does not require you report it.
For example, if you scored badly and have no time to retake the exam, use your personal discretion to decide whether reporting that optional score will work toward your application or not.
How Important Are Cut Off Scores?
Graduate schools will rarely, if ever, provide applicants with a GRE cut-off score.
- Most schools will say something along the lines of “there are no specific minimums or requirements for GRE scores for this program, but…”
Do not let this statement fool you into thinking that any GRE score will suffice.
Schools do not give minimums, because they do not want to limit themselves.
The “no minimum” statement is one that is in place for special or unique circumstances.
- For example, if a candidate fits their needs in every other way – or in a singular, particular way – but has a score just marginally below a minimum test score, they want to be able to admit him or her.
What you should pay attention to is what follows the “no minimum” statement.
Schools or programs will then almost always give applicants an average or range of scores that previously successfully applicants scored within.
While it is not a requirement (schools will occasionally admit students who score below these ranges), achieving GRE scores in or above these percentiles will give you a better chance of getting in.
After Taking the GRE
You must come prepared to make decisions on your exam day.
Immediately after you complete the computer-delivered exam, you will receive your verbal reasoning and quantitative reasoning scores.
Also at the test center (after you finish your GRE), you will also have to decide whether or not to report these scores to the institutions you are applying to.
Here are some helpful things to know:
- The GRE test fees you paid allow you to request your scores to be sent to up to four graduate schools.
- If you would like to send your scores to more than four or on a later date, you may order Additional Score Reports, which costs $27 per extra recipient.
- Once you report your scores, the official scores will be sent to your designated institutions in about
10 – 15 days after your test date.
- If you are unsure about whether or not you wish to report your scores in that exact moment, you may choose to decline reporting your scores on test day so you have more time to think about your decision.
- If you decide that you do actually want to report your scores after test day, then you may do so, but for a fee of $27 per recipient.
- Your scores are reportable for five years following each test date.
What if I Don’t Like My GRE Score?
The above outlines what you would generally do if you are satisfied with your GRE score. What happens if you are not?
- Luckily, every applicant is able to take the test once every “21 days – up to five times within any continuous rolling 12-month period.”
If you are not happy with your score, do not choose to report it on test day.
Then, go hit the books and schedule another time to retake the test.
- Unless you are a very confident test taker, it is wise to schedule the first GRE exam with enough time in-between it and your graduate school application due dates, so that you would be able to study for and retake the exam if necessary.
- In other words, take your first test at least 22 days before your application is due so that you have time to prepare for your next test.
Unlike some other exams, graduate schools do not automatically know how many times you take the GRE, because there are two ways you may report your scores after each exam.
This brings us to our next section:
How Should I Report My GRE Scores?
ETS provides with you two options for reporting your GRE scores on test day.
- The “Most Recent” option means that ETS will send your designated institutions only the test scores from your current test administration (the one you took that day).
- The “All” option means that ETS will send your designated institutions the test scores from all test administrations in the last five years.
ETS provides an additional option for reporting after test day.
- The “Any” option means that ETS will send your designated institutions your scores from one OR as many test administrations as you like from the last five years.
We advise that you choose most recent if your score falls under these two conditions:
- Your current/latest GRE test is the highest out of all the ones you’ve taken
- You’re happy with your score
You could choose the “All” option if you scored relatively consistently in all your GRE tests, but had done slightly better on a previous GRE test.
Yet, in this situation, it might be better if you choose the “Any” option and report only the GRE test you did best in, so that institutions do not see how many times you have taken the exam.
- Last, you should likely choose the “Any” option if you had done much better on a previous GRE and performed very poorly in the one(s) after that.
Unfortunately, “Any” comes with an additional fee since it can only be selected after test day.
Conclusion: GRE Percentiles, Scoring, Reporting, and Everything Else
We hope this comprehensive guide cleared up your confusion related to the GRE.
Remember to set your goals according to the range of the school you’re applying to with the highest GRE averages.
And be sure to think through which scores you’d like to send to schools!
If you have any questions, feel free to email or call us!