What Does the Term ‘Percentile’ on Your GRE Score Report Mean?


An important component of your GRE Score Report, second to the actual scores, is the ‘GRE percentile’.

With a term like that on your score report, confusions are nothing unusual. Let’s find out what GRE percentile is and how it affects you.

At this stage, you might be wondering, “GRE Percentile is just a fancy name for percentage, isn’t it?” It is not. Technically, the GRE percentile is a measure of relative standing that indicates the corresponding value below which a given percentage of observations in a cluster of observations fall.

Your GRE Test Taker Score Report says “A GRE percentile rank for a test score indicates the percentage of test-takers who took that test and received a lower GRE score.” In layman’s terms, it tells what percentage of the test takers scored below the GRE score one obtained. For instance, if 80% of the total applicants’ score is below yours, you are at the 80th GRE 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 percentile 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 GRE Verbal Reasoning sections emphasize complex reasoning skills which include summarizing texts, understanding the meaning of words. The GRE 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 GRE scores depend on a matrix combining the number of correct answers as well as the difficulty level. The raw GRE 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 GRE scores will be available along with the official score report.


What is a GRE 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 GRE 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 GRE 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.

This is one of the most commonly used measures of comparison that tells you a lot about a specific entity, yet does not tell you much about the number of entities or their individual values. If a score is at the 50th GRE percentile, it means 50% of the candidates scored less than that. Earning a GRE score at the 100th percentile is mathematically impossible as one cannot score more than 100% of all applicants, which includes that candidate too.

On the GRE, the percentiles for GRE Quantitative reasoning and GRE Verbal reasoning have different connotations. As per the latest ETS data, a perfect GRE score of 170 in Quant is at the 96th percentile, telling us that close to 4% of the total examinees scored a 170. On the other hand, a GRE score of 169 or 170 on the verbal section is at the 99th GRE percentile, which means only 1% of all examinees got a score of 169 or 170.

GRE Percentile Ranks are subject to change as it directly depends upon the population of the test takers.

Is 96th percentile good? The higher the GRE percentile value, the better the score is. For instance, if the GRE 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 GRE percentile score is 25, then you are in the bottom quartile.


GRE Score Percentiles

96th percentile means how many marks? Every GRE score consists of two parts: a scaled score (130-170) and a percentile rank. Your scaled score is less important than your percentile rank. Your percentile rank compares your GRE scores to those of other test takers.

A scaled Verbal GRE score of 150 on the GRE, for example, translates to roughly the 47th GRE percentile, indicating that you performed better than 47 percent of other test takers while performing worse than the remaining 53 percent. ETS has released the most recent GRE percentile ranks.

The essays are graded differently than the Verbal and Quantitative sections. The associated percentiles are as follows:

Score Verbal Percentile Quant
170 99 97
169 99 96
168 98 94
167 98 92
166 97 91
165 96 89
164 94 87
163 93 84
162 91 81
161 88 78
160 86 76
159 83 73
158 80 69
157 76 66
156 73 62
155 69 59
154 65 55
153 61 51
152 56 47
151 52 43
150 48 38
149 43 35
148 39 30
147 35 27
146 31 24
145 27 20
144 24 17
143 20 14
142 17 12
141 15 10
140 12 8
139 9 6
138 8 4
137 6 3
136 4 2
135 3 2
134 2 1
133 2 1
132 1
131 1


From the table, it is clear that the GRE percentile scores are not the same. For the Verbal, it is 99th GRE percentile for both 170 and 169, but for Quant, it is 97th GRE percentile for 170, and 96th 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 GRE 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 35th GRE percentile while just five more points and 152 would mean the 56th GRE 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 GRE is intended to have a roughly normal distribution. This means that the majority of people score near the middle of the scale, around 150, and that scores further from the middle are less common.

This is evident in the percentile scores—around the middle of the scale, a few points difference can result in a significant percentile jump.


GRE Percentile Distribution for Analytical Writing

Score Percentile
6.0 99
5.5 98
5.0 93
4.5 82
4.0 60
3.5 42
3.0 18
2.5 8
2.0 2
1.5 1


In GRE Analytical Writing section, at 3.0, the GRE percentile score is 18, while a 4.0 is 60th GRE percentile and 2.0 is just 2nd percentile. Similarly, at the extreme end, 5.5 corresponds to 98, and 6.0 corresponds to the 99th GRE 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 GRE AWA scores should be individually considered.

The GRE scores should be taken carefully as they can be error-prone like any other exam. GRE Percentile scores should be used for obtaining more information about a person’s performance when compared to the performance of other candidates.


GRE Verbal Score Distribution for Different Fields

Verbal Score 135 140 145 150 155 160 165 170
Life Sciences <1 4 16 41 68 89 97 99+
Physical Sciences 4 14 29 46 65 83 94 99
Engineering 5 16 34 53 73 88 97 99+
Social Sciences <1 4 13 33 57 81 94 99+
Arts and Humanities <1 2 6 17 37 64 86 97
Education 1 5 20 45 70 89 97 99+
Business 2 8 25 50 74 91 98 99+

Verbal requires a much higher GRE score in the Arts and Humanities discipline area to be competitive. With a 155, you only outperform 37% of other prospective Arts and Humanities students! And, while a 165 would put you ahead of 98% of Business applicants, it would only put you ahead of 86% of Arts and Humanities applicants.


GRE Quant Score Distribution for Different Fields

Quant Score 135 140 145 150 155 160 165 170
Life Sciences <1 4 17 42 72 90 97 99
Physical Sciences <1 3 8 17 31 52 74 91
Engineering <1 2 6 13 26 48 74 93
Social Sciences 1 8 24 47 70 85 94 98
Arts and Humanities 2 9 25 50 74 89 97 99+
Education 1 9 30 57 80 92 98 99+
Business 1 5 17 36 56 72 84 95


Higher Quant GRE scores are required to be competitive in math-heavy disciplines when compared to other applicants. A 160 is an 89th GRE percentile Quant score on the GRE Exam for a future Arts and Humanities student, but only a 48th percentile score on the GRE for an Engineering student!

Also, in Physical Sciences, a whopping 9% of test takers get a 170. In Engineering, 7% receive a 170, while 5% in Business do.

Field-specific GRE percentiles are a good way to see how your scores stack up against other applicants in your discipline, rather than just all applicants overall. As you can see, it can sometimes look quite different!


Does the Percentile of My GRE Score Matter?

Graduate schools offer far more variety than undergraduate programs, and their expectations and desired qualifications for prospective students are frequently vastly different. However, GRE percentiles compare the entire GRE test-taking population, so engineering master’s degree candidates are compared to anthropology PhD candidates!

Does GRE percentile change? Because GRE score percentiles describe such a diverse range of students with vastly different qualifications and interests, different programmes have different GRE score percentile expectations for applicants. Top Math programmes, for example, should expect at least a 95th GRE percentile score on Quant, but it would be strange if they also expected a 95th percentile score on Verbal!

In general, there are two factors to consider when determining what GRE percentile scores are required for a specific programme: how competitive it is and which section is more relevant.


The Program’s Competitiveness

What does it mean to be in the 96th percentile? The higher your GRE percentile score, the more competitive your program. A 60th percentile score for a mediocre program may be quite good. A top program, on the other hand, expects a top GRE percentile score—some of the most competitive even expect marks in the 98th or 99th percentiles.

So, if you’re applying to the top programs in the country and your GRE score is in the 85th percentile, you almost certainly need to improve. An 85th GRE percentile school, on the other hand, could be a very strong score for a less selective program.


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How universities compare the GRE score percentiles?

The GRE percentile scores help the Universities to compare your performance against that of other test-takers. If your score corresponds to the 80th percentile, it means you are among the top twenty percent of the test-takers in terms of the score. The universities can either use the percentiles or exact scores as a benchmark for admissions.  

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