Start by looking up the stats for the programs you’ll be applying to. The US News & World Report has reliable data that you can use to ground yourself in the basics. But the best thing to do for the whole story?
Some schools care more about Quant and others care more about Verbal. So how can you tell?
- Find out which a target program/school is interested in by talking to the admissions committee and current students.
- Go to their website and find a contact to email. Let them know you are a prospective student and provide some background about yourself.
- In many cases, schools will try to connect you with a current student who has a similar background to you.
- Use that opportunity to learn about the admissions process and the program as a whole.
Average GRE Scores
If you’re still wondering how to evaluate your scores in terms of the general pool of test-takers, looking at average GRE scores can help. How? By providing a bigger picture of everyone taking the test and showing you were that middle point is.
Contextualizing your GRE Scores
A lot of students aim for the skies and think of their goals in terms of a perfect score—a 170. But the reality is that many of us don’t need to attain such a lofty score. Instead, your program might only require that you score 150 in each section.
Just how difficult is that? Wouldn’t it just be a 50 percentile score since 150 is smack dab in the middle of 130 and 170?
It’s actually not that straightforward. In fact, as we’ve already seen, it differs for each section.
In Quant, a 150 means that you scored better than 39% of test takers, whereas a 150 in verbal means you did better than 47% of test takers. Sure, these numbers differ pretty substantially, but what’s interesting is that both percentiles are less than 50%, with the math section being significantly so.
If you haven’t taken the test yet, and are worried about breaking 150 in each section, you don’t have to worry nearly as much as you would if a 150 in both sections corresponded to a 50th percentile mark.
Average GRE Scores by Section
So if you’re aiming to do better than average, what are those magic numbers?
The average Verbal score is 151, and the average Quant score is around 153.
(Actually, to be precise, they’re 150.22 and 152.47, but since those are impossible scores for an individual to get, we’ve rounded up.)
Okay…So What IS a Good GRE Score?
I can’t say it enough: good” scores depend on your particular target school and program. But if you’re going to push me for an answer…
In very general terms, above the 75th percentile in either section is good. That’s about a 160 or higher in Quant and a 157 or higher in Verbal.
Scores at least one standard deviation from the mean are even better, 161 in Quant and 159 in Verbal.
And scores two standard deviations from the mean put you in the top 5%, 166 in Quant and 165 in Verbal, at which point your GRE score will certainly not be an impediment.
And What’s a Bad GRE Score?
A bad GRE score is one that excludes you from the program that you want to attend. That’s all!
However, to put this in very general terms, the bottom 10% of test-takers score below 140 in Verbal and 141 in Quant.
Again—very generally!—a good goal is to score better than average on the GRE.
Can you get into your dream program with a below-average score? Sure.
But the admitted students who perform below average on the GRE may have extraordinary stories, great GPAs, and/or fantastic work experience. To improve your odds of acceptance, do better than average.
On the other hand, there’s no need to overdo it. If you are aiming for a program that has an average Quant score of 155, and you score 160, you likely don’t need to take the GRE again, even if you think you could get 165. You have already demonstrated that you have quantitative aptitude; now, it’s time to focus on the rest of your application.
What should I do if I don’t have a good GRE score?
No matter what the case, don’t despair! If you have taken the test and were, say, a 145 scorer in both sections (that works out to the 26th percentile in Verbal and the 20th percentile in Quant) then your road to improvement is pretty steep, but very doable.
That might sound counterintuitive. Why would a steep increase in percentages make something more doable?
Well, imagine you had to go from an 80% to a 99%, which is the same percentage difference as that between a 39% and a 20%. That’s going from better than most to the best of the best.
That is really hard to do.
If you’ve scored in the 80th percentile, you have most likely already been preparing for the GRE. On the other hand, many of those who initially score low went in cold (or at least lukewarm).
By prepping hard for a month or two, you should be able to jump from the lowly 20s to the respectable 37th percentile: a mere five points, but you never know! It could be the difference between getting into a program and not getting into a program.
How to Improve Your GRE Scores
With all of those factors in mind, it’s time to set your target score (or rather, target scores—one for each section). Why? It’ll help you enormously as you go forward in your prep.
Speaking of which, you can definitely boost your scores to where you want them to be.
Prep for the GRE with Your Target Score in Mind
You’ve already taken the first step to reaching your target score by reading through this post. By researching GRE scores ahead of time, you can determine what areas to focus on for your GRE prep before your next GRE exam date. For instance, if your program is more interested in quant, then spend more time working on quant. Review our Complete Hassle-Free Guide to the GRE for an overview of all the sections, then delegate your time accordingly.
We have a quite a few GRE study plans to help you with your prep. They provide options for students preparing for 1 week, 6 months, or anything in between.
We also have a score increase guarantee for those re-taking the exam, and GRE Prep Apps (iPhone/Android) that allow you to take your prep on the go.
Most Popular Resources
Right after you take the computer-based GRE, unofficial scores are available for Quant and Verbal but not Analytical Writing. You won't learn how you did on the GRE's essay section until your official scores come out about two weeks later.
Yet a mere two milliseconds is enough time to score your essays with e-rater, the essay evaluation software used by ETS. So why doesn't ETS automatically calculate an unofficial score for Analytical Writing just as it does for Quant and Verbal? The answer likely has to do with the role e-rater plays in your official GRE writing score.
E-rater has been burning through GRE essays since 2008. As of 2015, the automated scoring software has yet to assign an official Analytical Writing score. Human readers retain that job. E-rater's role is just to provide a "check score." Here's how a single essay is scored:
- Using a half-point scale of 0 to 6, e-rater and a human score your essay. If the human score falls within a half-point of the e-rater score, you’re assigned the human score.
- Otherwise, a second human evaluates your essay using the same 0 to 6 scale, and you’re assigned the average of the human scores, rounded to the nearest half-point. (In less than 5% of cases, scoring will require a third or even fourth human rater.)
Imagine Amy and Bibi are two humans who score GRE essays for ETS. Suppose Amy gives your Issue essay a 4, and e-rater generates some score between 3.5 and 4.5. Amy's score stands. But what if e-rater's score equals or exceeds either 3.5 or 4.5? Bibi scores your Issue essay. Say she gives it a 5. Then your final Issue essay score is the average of 4 (Amy's score) and 5 (Bibi's score) rounded up to the nearest half-point—that is, 4.5. Your Argument essay is likewise scored by e-rater plus one or more humans. Your official Analytical Writing score is the average of the final scores for your two essays.
Back to our question: Why doesn't an e-rater score accompany the automated unofficial Quant and Verbal scores that you get in the test center? The short answer is that your official Quant and Verbal scores are automated, whereas your official Analytical Writing score is not.
The long answer, I suspect, is that thousands of official scores wouldn't match the scores from e-rater. For about 5% of Argument essays, the e-rater score differs by more than 1-point from the human score, based on a 2012 report from ETS. Even if the e-rater score equals the human score for the Issue essay, the overall Analytical Writing score from e-rater may not equal the official human-assigned score. Now, imagine those scores weren't equal for 5% of test takers, and ETS reported the unofficial e-rater score on test day. Around 28,000 examinees in 2013–2014 would've received an official Analytical Writing score that was higher or (*cringe*) lower than what was presented in the test center.
Still, let's not ignore the bigger, better part of e-rater's scoring record. About 95% of the time e-rater's score for the Argument essay is within 1-point of the human reader's. That percentage rises to 97% for the Issue essay. Does that make e-rater good enough to use for unofficial scores? Maybe not. But how about good enough to use for practice scores? Maybe so. If you want to try e-rater, you can submit your PowerPrep II practice essays to ETS's ScoreItNow! writing practice service. These two official resources are about as close as you'll get to the real exam outside the test center.