What Is a Good GRE Score for Graduate School Admissions?
US News & World Report
By Ilana Kowarski
July 16, 2018
Experts say what qualifies as a good GRE score depends on the grad school you want to attend.
Grad school hopefuls wondering how well they need to perform on the GRE exam should understand that programs have varied expectations for standardized tests, admissions experts say.
Admissions officers suggest prospective students look up the GRE score ranges among admitted students at the schools they are considering and check if these schools have GRE score requirements.
Researching grad program admissions statistics can help you determine which GRE scores are good enough to qualify for acceptance at desirable programs. People who successfully complete the GRE receive three scores: verbal and quantitative scores, which can range from 130 to 170, and a writing score, which can range from 0 to 6.
Erin Skelly, a graduate school admissions consultant at IvyWise, an admissions consulting firm, says test-takers should find out which of the grad schools on their short list has the highest average GRE scores and strive to achieve those scores or do even better.
However, GRE test-takers who are not yet sure what type of grad program they would like to attend can use the following ballpark figures for guidance on how high of a GRE score they should aim for.
Guidelines for Setting Target GRE Scores
Melinda Maxwell, the director of graduate admissions at the University of North Georgia, says grad school hopefuls applying to her university should strive to achieve math and verbal scores that add up to a number between 310 and 315.
“We’re looking for somebody who is probably at a minimum in the 300 to 305 range,” she says. “I would say, so that you are comfortably competitive for admission, to aim for [scores from] 310 to 315.”
According to the Educational Testing Service, the nonprofit organization that designs and administers the GRE, the mean verbal reasoning score among all GRE test-takers between July 1, 2014 and June 30, 2017 was 150.05. Meanwhile, the mean quantitative score was 152.80 and the mean analytical writing score was 3.5.
Experts say that math-heavy grad programs tend to desire students with high quantitative scores and put less emphasis on verbal scores. In contrast, grad programs in humanities subjects typically want students with high verbal scores. Maxwell says applicants to math-intensive grad programs should understand that their quantitative GRE score will be scrutinized, so they should study hard for the quantitative section of the GRE exam.
Andrew Selepak, director of the graduate program in social media at the University of Florida, says that GRE scores that are good enough for someone to qualify for one grad program may not allow them to be a competitive candidate elsewhere.
“Some schools may have higher or lower GRE score requirements and therefore it is important for the applicant to learn the minimum score for the program they are applying to,” Selepak wrote in an email. “But a few points higher or lower can make all the difference when applying for graduate school and it is important for the applicant to not only keep this in mind, but to also know the minimum score required.”
Why Perfect GRE Scores Aren’t Usually Necessary
Anayet Chowdhury, co-founder of ArgoPrep, an online learning platform that provides GRE test prep, suggests that it isn’t typically worthwhile for someone to put in 100 or more hours of effort so that they can raise those scores to the 99th percentile.
“What you don’t want to do – a lot of students do this – is spend 100 or 200 hours studying for a particular section,” he says. “You know, what they want is to reach the 99th percentile, and that’s really not necessary unless you’re applying to a prestigious program.”
Chowdhury says that prospective grad students who are attempting to raise their GRE scores should consider whether the scores they already have are good enough for admission at their target schools.
He says that the time and energy spent attempting to achieve perfect or near-perfect GRE scores is often better spent on writing admissions essays or making your application file more compelling in other ways, such as by completing a clinical research project.
The Importance of Percentiles
Skelly says that grad school admissions officers sometimes care as much about a candidate’s GRE percentiles, meaning the percent of fellow test-takers who the candidate outperformed on each section of the exam, as they do about actual GRE scores.
“When considering GRE scores, [the] percentile is just as important – if not more important – than the actual score, because of the adaptive nature of the GRE exam,” Skelly wrote in an email. “Numerical scores can vary from month to month and year to year, but percentiles are consistent in showing who the best candidates are.”
Michelle Vakman, director of graduate admissions at the New York Institute of Technology, says that her admissions office looks at GRE percentiles to gauge whether or not applicants are suitable for admission. “Scoring above a 50th percentile, both overall and in the section that is most relevant to the course of study a student is seeking, is usually a good starting point,” she says.
Chowdhury says that someone who achieves scores within the 75th percentile on all three sections of the GRE exam has done well enough to compete for spots at most grad programs.
With that said, extremely prestigious grad programs may prefer GRE scores that are in the 90th percentile or above, Skelly cautions. “For top grad schools, competitive applicants are scoring in the highest percentiles (90th or better) on the verbal and quantitative sections and scoring 5-6 on the analytical writing section,” she wrote in an email. “Many admitted students to top grad schools have perfect scores in one or more sections of the GRE, so the better your scores are, the more competitive you will be.”
U.S. News data reveals that there are some grad programs where admitted students tend to have exceptionally high GRE scores, including the doctoral program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s School of Engineering. The average GRE scores among MIT engineering Ph.D. students entering in fall 2017 were a 161 out of 170 on the verbal section, a 4.4 out of 6 on the writing section and a 167 out of 170 on the quantitative section.
How Much GRE Scores Matter
Maxwell says that grad school applicants should take the GRE seriously and prep for the exam thoroughly. However, GRE test-takers who do not perform as well as they hoped should not automatically assume that a low score will prevent them from attending grad school, she says.
“You want to do the best that you can do, but it is only one part of you,” she says. “The test does not say everything that your application file can say about you as an applicant to a specific program.”
Experts say that grad school applicants with subpar test scores can sometimes compensate by writing compelling admissions essays and submitting a strong resume.
Many grad programs offer standardized test waivers for candidates who have high college grades or extensive work experience, so candidates who are worried about the GRE may want to investigate their eligibility for waivers, Maxwell says.
For instance, candidates with impressive work experience may be able to obtain test waivers, she explains. “Some business programs or education programs will look at that [work experience] and say, this person has been successful in the field and consider that as a way to waive the test requirement,” Maxwell says.
She emphasizes that grad school admissions officers look at applicant’s credentials in a holistic way, evaluating GRE scores alongside other information. Applicants who are unsatisfied with their GRE scores should remember that there are also nonquantifiable portions of the application where they can excel, Maxwell says. She emphasizes that admissions officers evaluate each candidate as a “whole person,” rather than defining them solely on the basis of their GRE scores.