If you’re going to take the GRE, and have done your homework with your target schools, you now know what Total Score you need in order to get accepted into your target program. Moreover, you also likely know what Quant score and Verbal score you need to get into your target program. However, what you might not know is how to actually get these scores. What do you need to do to get, say, a Quant 163 and Verbal 160? This article will help you understand how the GRE scaled scores are calculated.
Which scores do you get from the GRE?
The GRE is not a pass/fail test. It consists of six different sections, and provides three scores:
- Two essay assignments which combine into one GRE Analytical Writing score (on a scale of 0 to 6)
- Two verbal sections, which combine into one GRE Verbal score (on a scale of 130 to 170)
- Two quant sections, which combine into one GRE Quant score (on a scale of 130 to 170)
Fun fact: In addition to the above six sections, you may see one experimental section, either Quant or Verbal, which will not affect any of your scores. So in practice, your exam might have 7, and not 6, sections. Since there is no way to tell apart the experimental from the real sections, do all of them to your best ability!
Raw scores vs. scaled scores
The scores of 130 to 170 shown above are your scaled scores. That is, they are not directly calculated by adding up the points from all the questions you answered correctly (like you’re used to from school) but rather scaled, or normalized, in a statistical process which corrects for questions of different difficulty. In plain English, if on the day you took the GRE, you received a much harder test than usual, don’t fret! This won’t count against you, as the ETS corrects for this by comparing your score to all the other students who answered the questions you saw on test day.
So, how are your raw scores, that is the number of questions you got right, converted into scaled scores, the 130 to 170 scale that your grad school asks for? The next section explains what you need to know.
Your GRE Quantitative and Verbal scores
The GRE Quant and Verbal sections are each built of 2 separate 20-question sections, such that each Quant section is given 35 minutes and each Verbal section 30 minutes. These two sections are not identical; rather, the difficulty of the second section is determined by how well you performed on the first section. If you’ve heard people saying that the GRE is ‘section-adaptive’, than this is what it means: the first section you get will always be of ‘medium’ difficulty, and the difficulty of the second section will be ‘easy’, ‘medium’, or ‘hard’ based on your performance in the first section. In particular, the following tables show the difficulty of the second section based on the number of mistakes made in the first section. Note that the numbers are approximate, and may change slightly with time. However, they are accurate enough to give you a good intuition for how the system works.
Number of mistakes Difficulty of 2nd section
|13 or more||Easy|
|6 to 12||Medium|
|5 or less||Hard|
Number of mistakes Difficulty of 2nd section
|14 or more||Easy|
|8 to 13||Medium|
|7 or less||Hard|
In general, to get a competitive score you will need to get a Hard second section, meaning to make only 5 or 6 mistakes in each first section. In the score calculator found in this blog, we show you the exact number of mistakes you can make to get a target score, up to the first 10 mistakes in each section (which is what you want to aim for…).
Important tip: Don’t forget that the GRE allows you to flag questions for review and come back to them later! So if you don’t know how to answer a particular question, skip it and come back later. However, you cannot go back to a previously completed section, so be as sure as possible of your answers before moving on!
Getting that extra edge: strategic lessons and tips
One extremely important and not-at-all obvious tip to be learned from this table has to do with your GRE guessing strategy. If you’re having difficulty completing the exam on time, you can use these tables to help estimate how many questions you can afford to skip without damaging your chances of getting a Hard second section: guessing 3-4 questions in Verbal, 2-3 question in Quant, and getting all of the rest (or all but a few) right, will still get you that desired Hard second section, in addition to granting you an extra 10-20% time (!!) on each individual question. 10-20% extra time is a serious boost, making it much more likely that you’ll be able to think each question through, avoiding silly mistakes and answering correctly.
The second thing to notice from this table is that you have less leeway for mistakes in the Quant section than in the Verbal section. In other words, while you can make about 7 mistakes in Verbal and still get a Hard second section, 7 mistakes in Quant will yield a Medium difficulty second section. If you’re wondering why this is, it is because of the scaling process mentioned above. Since, in general, test-takers find the Verbal section to be harder than the Quant section, they make more mistakes in it. This then leads to the ETS setting the bar for getting a hard second section in different places – at around 8 mistakes for Verbal and 6 for Quant. (Of course, it isn’t a person who sets the bar, but the scaling algorithm we discussed above).
If you’re interested, you can see all of this in action on the full percentile breakdowns of the Quant and Verbal sections shown here.
Your Analytical Writing (AW) Score
The AW score is the average of the the Analyze an Argument and Analyze an Issue essays. Each essay is scored by an expert rater and a computer algorithm (the e-reader); scores are given on a 0 to 6 scale, in half-point intervals.
The expert raters are trained college and university faculty members who look at the following:
- The quality of your ideas and your ability to organize, develop, and express them.
- The supporting reasons and examples.
- Your ability to control the elements of written English
- The raters are sensitive and fair when marking the responses of those whose first language is not English.
As human raters do the grading for the writing assessment, students cannot see their AW scores on the same day that they take the test.
See below the percentile breakdown for the Analytical Writing section (taken from official ETS data here). Looking at this table, we can see that getting a very good score (5.0 and higher) on the AW is extremely hard – only 8% of test-takers do so! And only 1 in a 100 get a perfect 6.0 on the GRE essay. This shouldn’t worry you, as the majority of graduate programs are happy with a score of 4.5, and sometimes even 4.0. Before putting too much time into these essays, check your desired schools’ requirements. More likely than not, you’ll find that it is more worth your while to put your time into practicing Quant and Verbal than improving your essay skills.
|Score levels||Analytical writing|
“An essay a day keeps the bad scores away”: If you’re stuck on a lower AW score than you need, don’t give up! Essay writing falls into the ‘practice makes perfect’ category. The ETS has published a large bank of essay topics (here and here) and if you write one essay a day, every day (remember, only 30 minutes per essay!) you are all but guaranteed to improve your score to the 4.0 or 4.5 range, which is what you need for the vast majority of applications. If 30 minutes isn’t enough, then practice building just the outline – decide what the main topic and supporting examples of each paragraph will be, and do this for every prompt until you can create an outline in 7 minutes or less. Then move back to the essay a day tactic. See more information on the AW here.
Take home messages:
- Your score contains both a ‘scaled number’ and a percentile score. When figuring out how high of a GRE score you need, go online and check your target school’s details. Once you know what to aim for, use the calculator found here to see how many mistakes you can afford to make, and plan accordingly.
- The highest GRE score is a 340, achieved by getting a 170 in Quant and 170 in Verbal. Similarly, the lowest GRE score is 260, gotten via a 130 on both sections. Good programs often have an average GRE score requirement of 325, about 160 on Verbal and 165 on Quant, which translates into the 80th percentile in both. You should, however, check the specific average Quant score and average Verbal score with each school independently.
- Your GRE score also contains a GRE essay score (the Analytical Writing score), scaled from 1 to 6. These are usually less important for admissions (but don’t ignore them completely).
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