How to Analyze GRE Score Percentile


Every year thousands of graduate school aspirants take the GRE to improvise their eligibility for various graduate programs including technology, architecture, science, business and law. The GRE score helps the graduate schools to identify and select students who are academically fit for the graduate programs. Infact, many fellowship panels use GRE scores along with other details to decide on scholarships.

The GRE General Test comprises three measures – Quantitative Reasoning, Verbal Reasoning, and Analytical Writing Assessment (AWA). The Quantitative Reasoning sections emphasize quantitative reasoning skills which include applying basic concepts like arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and data analysis to solve problems. The Verbal Reasoning sections emphasize complex reasoning skills which include summarizing texts, understanding the meaning of words. The AWA section measures critical thinking and analytical writing skills.

The AWA gets graded on a holistic scale of 0-6 by a trained GRE reader and e-rater@ score engine. The Verbal and the Quantitative sections are scored on a scale of 130-170 each. These scores depend on a matrix combining the number of correct answers as well as the difficulty level.  The raw scores are converted into scaled scores through a process of equating. The Quant and the verbal scores will be available immediately after the test while AWA scores will be available along with the official score report.

Related Blog Post: GRE Exam Eligibility Criteria 2022

Every GRE component comes along with a percentile score but what is a percentile score?

It is a comparison score between a particular score and the scores of the rest of the group. The values range from 1 – 99. Have you ever wondered if the scores that you have secured are enough and competitive? The answers lie in the percentile scores.

One of the most common comparisons that is being used is the mean value. With data collected from nearly 1.6 million test-takers, the mean for Verbal scores is 150, while that of Quant is 153. That doesn’t leave us with much to compare. The best way to compare the individual score with others is to rely on the GRE percentile score.

The higher the percentile value, the better the score is. For instance, if the percentile score is 99, then 99% of the test takers have a score below you and you are in the top 1%. On the other hand, if the percentile score is 25, then you are in the bottom quartile.

Higher Percentile Higher Score

Let us now look at the percentile scores as published by ETS (for the period between July 2016 and June 2019).

From the table, it is clear that the percentile scores are not the same. For the Verbal, it is 99th percentile for both 170 and 169, but for Quant, it is 96th percentile for 170, and 94th percentile for 169. This clearly shows that students tend to score more in math than in verbal.

Do you remember the Normal Distribution from your math class? The GRE scores also fit into a bell curve. Most of the scores get accumulated at the center and few scores lie on either side of the mean. For instance, a 147 on a verbal would mean the 32nd percentile while just five more points and 152 would mean the 53rd percentile. But at the end of the scale, if you get a 165 on verbal it is 96th percentile and another 5 points would mean 99th percentile only 3 percentile increase.


The AWA scores too follow a similar distribution

GRE Score Table
At 3.0, the percentile score is 14, while a 4.0 is 55th percentile and 2.0 is just 1st percentile. Similarly, at the extreme end, 5.5 corresponds to 98, and 6.0 corresponds to the 99th percentile.

ETS has also published a set of GRE guidelines for using the GRE scores. The GRE score plays an important role in the admissions process because it helps to compare students from different backgrounds. The Quantitative, Verbal, and AWA scores should be individually considered. The GRE scores should be taken carefully as they can be error-prone like any other exam. Percentile scores should be used for obtaining more information about a person’s performance when compared to the performance of other candidates.

Let us now get back to the key question of what is a good GRE score?

The answer depends on a number of criteria. The GRE is taken by people from varied backgrounds. The percentile scores also represent the scores of the entire GRE test-taking population. Hence, different departments have different score expectations from the candidates. For instance, STEM programs will insist on a higher math score. The two things that decide if the scores are competitive or not are: the competitiveness of the program that you are applying for and the relevant section score.

Generally, any score above the 60th percentile is considered good enough for middle-level programs. But say if you are considering a top school, then the expectations might be much more. The Ivy League colleges might expect around 98 or 99th percentile. So if you are in the 85th percentile, you are too good for a middle-level program but you need to really buck up if you are aiming for a top school. Some of the universities may indicate their score requirement to be less than the 50th percentile. But remaining in the bottom percentile might not make you favorable among the admissions committee. Also, your GRE score can play an important role in scholarships too.

Similarly, the future course that you aim for might require a high percentile value in one of the sections and a slightly lower value in the other. Then, it is better to concentrate on that particular section and score the maximum. For instance, you might want to score a 170 in maths and 155 in verbal for an engineering major, rather than a 165 in maths and 160 in verbal. But certain courses insist on equal footage on both math and verbal and in such cases you have to score accordingly. Though the colleges do not mention the required AWA score, it is better to breach the 60th percentile here too.

ETS releases score distribution data for different fields. The data includes the percentage of people entering the field who have scored in a particular range. You can compare your score with the scores in a particular range and decide where you stand.

Related Blog: Avoid Study Fatigue When Preparing for the GRE


GRE Verbal Score Distribution for different fields:
GRE Verbal Score Distribution


GRE Quant Score Distribution for different fields:
GRE Quant Score Table

From the table, it is clear that we can see that nearly 2.4 % of the test-takers in the arts and science field score 170, but less than 1% scored 170 in other fields. Similarly, in the Engineering field, nearly 7% of the test takers had scored 170.

The percentiles are a good way of comparing the scores. The two things we need to keep at the back of our minds is that the competitiveness of the course and the section-wise requirements decide how good our scores are.

Though it is difficult to improve the GRE scores, but through proper planning – you can achieve the desired results. The steps include setting goals for yourself, selecting a dependable prep course, and having an effective study plan which includes regular tests, analysis, and practice.

Also, the Graduate admissions process is a holistic one. Not just a great GRE score, but also your undergrad scores, internships, research, SOPs, and LORs decide your admissions. So start building a stronger profile along with preparing for the GRE.


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