How to Pass the GRE and Get the Score You Need

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As with all exams, GRE takers want to know how to do well on it — essentially, how to pass the GRE. But the truth is, you can’t pass or fail the GRE. Really! There’s no GRE pass rate like there is for the Bar Exam. Instead, you can send schools any GRE scores you want, regardless of how high or low they are. So, then, what do we mean by the phrase “pass the GRE”? To us, passing the GRE means getting the scores you need to get into the programs you wish to attend.

In this guide, we’ll start by taking a look at the variety of ways test takers can “pass” or “fail” the GRE. Then, we’ll show you how to pass the GRE exam and reach your goal score. Finally, we’ll give you detailed advice on what you can do if your goal scores are out of reach.

 

Can You Pass (or Fail) the GRE?

In a word, no. The GRE isn’t like most other tests: there are no hard-and-fast cutoffs determining whether a test taker has passed or failed. Once you complete the GRE, you are given your scores and that’s the end of it. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide whether you’ve passed or failed the GRE and whether your scores are worth sending to grad schools.

In other words, passing the GRE is simply getting the scores most likely to get you into the programs of your choice. As a result, both passing and failing the GRE encompass a huge range of scores depending on the programs you’re applying to and the field you’re entering. For example, to arts and humanities majors, a Quant score of 155 might be fairly high — a definite pass! But for computer science majors, such a score might be a lot lower than what their programs are expecting.

While there are no definitive cutoffs for passing or failing the GRE, many test takers like to compare their GRE scores with those of other test takers using percentiles. Percentiles are not the same as a GRE pass rate (which, again, doesn’t exist), nor do they represent the percentage of questions you answered correctly. Rather, percentiles represent the percentage of test takers you scored higher than on a given section. The higher your percentile, the more competitive your GRE score is — and the better you’ll look to programs.

But how can you figure out the exact scores you need in order to pass the GRE and ultimately get into grad school?

 

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How to Set a GRE Goal Score

A GRE goal score is the score that gives you the best shot at getting into your programs. To pass the GRE, you’ll first need to set separate goal scores for the Verbal, Quantitative, and Analytical Writing (AW) sections. Below, we give you step-by-step instructions on how to determine your GRE goal scores.

 

Step 1: Make a Table

First, make a table of all of the programs you’re applying to (or use our printable worksheet). Use the leftmost column to fill in your schools. Across the top, write the following headings: “Schools,” “What They Say,” “Verbal,” “Quant,” and “AW.”

To help you visualize what you’re doing, let’s use an example. Valerie is applying to a handful of doctoral programs in education. Here’s what her table looks like:

School What They Say Verbal Quant AW
UPenn
Indiana University Bloomington
George Mason University
Johns Hopkins

 

Step 2: Look Up GRE Score Information

Next, search for GRE score information for each of your programs. Get online and search for “[Your School] [Your Program] GRE scores,” or read through your programs’ admission requirements and FAQ pages for any passages discussing GRE scores.

Not all programs offer GRE score information, but those that do often present it in one of three ways:

  • Minimum GRE scores: the minimum GRE scores required to be considered for admission
  • Recommended GRE scores: the GRE scores a program recommends applicants have in order to be competitive
  • Average GRE scores: the average GRE scores of admitted applicants

Valerie discovers that the education programs at UPenn and George Mason both offer average GRE scores for Verbal, Quant, and AW.

Indiana University‘s education program, however, lists only minimum GRE scores consisting of a minimum AW score (4.0) and a minimum total score (Verbal + Quant = 302). To get two separate scores for Verbal and Quant, Valerie divides Indiana’s minimum total score by 2, giving her a rough estimate of 151 points each for Verbal and Quant.

She records all of this in her table:

School What They Say Verbal Quant AW
UPenn Average GRE scores 163 157 4.1
Indiana University Bloomington Minimum GRE scores 151 151 4.0
George Mason University Average GRE scores 155 152 4.1
Johns Hopkins

Now, Valerie looks up GRE score information for the education program at Johns Hopkins University. However, no GRE score information is listed. Instead of leaving the program blank, she moves on to step 3.

 

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Step 3: Compare Program Competitiveness

If you’re struggling to find GRE score information for one or more of your programs, it’s time to investigate the overall competitiveness of your programs. Doing so allows you to estimate the GRE score expectations of any unknown programs in your table. A solid website to start with is U.S. News.

Back to Valerie: she finds a 2017 U.S. News listing of the best grad programs in education (note there is no differentiation between master’s and doctoral programs). On this list, Johns Hopkins is ranked fairly high at #6, while UPenn is even higher at #3. (Additionally, Indiana is #32 and George Mason is #62.)

Now, Valerie can form a rough estimate of how high her GRE scores must be in order to get into Johns Hopkins. Its education program’s #6 ranking indicates it’s a highly competitive program with (likely) high average GRE scores. Because Johns Hopkins is only three rankings below UPenn, Valerie can therefore assume the two programs possess similar GRE expectations.

In other words, Johns Hopkins’ GRE expectations are likely equal to or greater than those for UPenn. She records the estimated scores in her table:

School What They Say Verbal Quant AW
UPenn Average GRE scores 163 157 4.1
Indiana University Bloomington Minimum GRE scores 151 151 4.0
George Mason University Average GRE scores 155 152 4.1
Johns Hopkins Estimated average GRE scores ≤163 ≤157 ≤4.1

 

Step 4: Find Your GRE Goal Scores

Once you’ve completed your table, select the highest scores for Verbal, Quant, and AW. Valerie’s highest Verbal, Quant, and AW scores are 163, 157, and 4.1, respectively.

Finally, add 2 points to get your goal scores for Verbal and Quant, and round up and add a half-point to get your AW goal score. Valerie’s goal scores are 165 Verbal, 159 Quant, and 5 AW. These goal scores are the scores most likely to secure her admission to all of the education programs she’s applying to.

But be aware — only some GRE scores may be important for your field or programs. For example, math-heavy fields such as science or engineering typically place more emphasis on Quant scores but care little about Verbal scores. On the other hand, writing- or reading-heavy programs such as English literature overwhelmingly value Verbal over Quant. (In general, AW scores carry the least amount of weight. Usually, a 4.5 or higher is a perfectly acceptable score, even for top schools.)

Additionally, if you’re having any trouble reaching your goal scores on GRE practice tests, it’s OK to lower your goal scores by a couple of points. You won’t necessarily gain admission to your toughest schools, but you should still have a decent shot at getting into the slightly less competitive programs on your list.

So what can you do to actually achieve your goal scores and get into the program of your dreams? Read on to find out!

 

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Flickr/Ian Poley, resized from original

 

How to Pass the GRE: 9 Surefire Tips

In this section, we show you how to pass the GRE in accordance with your own GRE goal scores using our nine essential tips.

 

#1: Find Your Baseline Score

Before diving headfirst into your GRE studies, take an official GRE practice test to figure out your baseline scores for Verbal, Quant, and AW. A baseline score is the opposite of a goal score, similar to the start line of a race; it shows you the number of points you must improve by in order to achieve your GRE goal scores.

I recommend taking one of the two PowerPrep practice tests. (You’ll use the other PowerPrep test at the end of your studies to see how high your scores have risen.) The two PowerPrep tests are nearly identical to the GRE in both content and form. And the best part is they’re completely free!

If you’re taking the paper-delivered GRE, opt for one of the official paper GRE practice test PDFs instead. There are two available online:

 

#2: Make a Long-Term Study Plan

Now that you have your baseline score, start considering how much time you’re prepared to devote to studying for the GRE. Most people can’t get away with a single night of cramming, so if you truly want to do well on test day, you must be willing to construct a long-term study plan.

How long you should study depends on the number of points you want to improve your baseline scores by. Below are our estimates for the number of study hours it’ll take to improve your overall GRE score by x number of points:*

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    • 5 points = 40 hours
    • 10 points = 80 hours
    • 20 points = 160 hours
    • 30 points = 240 hours

*These point increases are for the overall GRE, not per section. For example, if you were to study 160 hours, you could raise only your Quant score by 20 points, or you could raise both your Verbal and Quant scores by 10 points each.

As you can see, the longer you study, the larger the point increase you’re likely to have. Before you schedule the GRE, take a moment to consider what your baseline and goal scores are as well as how much time you’ll be able to dedicate to studying.

 

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#3: Familiarize Yourself With the GRE Format

You can’t know how to pass the GRE without first knowing how the GRE is structured and what it tests you on. The best way to directly expose yourself to the format of the GRE is to take official practice tests.

In the meantime, here is a brief overview of what to expect on the GRE:

Analytical Writing Verbal Reasoning Quantitative Reasoning
# of Sections 1 2* 2*
Order on Test 1st Random Random
Content 2 essays Sentences, passages, vocab Arithmetic, algebra, geometry, data analysis
Question Types Analyze an Issue and Analyze an Argument Text Completion, Sentence Equivalence, Reading Comprehension Quantitative Comparison, Multiple Choice (one answer choice or one or more answer choices), Numeric Entry, Data Interpretation
# of Questions per Section 2 20 20
Time per Section 1 hr
(30 mins per essay)
30 mins 35 mins
Scoring Scale 0-6 in half-point increments 130-170 in 1-point increments 130-170 in 1-point increments

*There will also be either an unscored, unmarked experimental section or an unscored, marked research section. The experimental section is randomly ordered and takes the form of an additional Verbal or Quant section, while the research section always comes at the end of the test.

 

#4: Review Basic Content

Even if you’re certain you know how to solve for the area of a circle, spend a little time reviewing basic content likely to appear on the GRE. This way you’ll be able to recognize ostensibly difficult problems containing relatively simple concepts.

 

for verbal

 

for quant

  • Know the differences between arithmetic, algebra, geometry, and data analysis.

 

for aw

 

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#5: Use High-Quality Resources

It won’t matter how many hours you study if you’re not studying effectively. To get the most out of your GRE prep, be sure you use only high-quality study materials.

But how do you know whether a GRE prep book, for example, is worth using? For one, anything official (i.e., anything created by ETS) is a solid resource. Start by checking out our review of The Official Guide to the GRE General Test.

As for unofficial materials, we have an in-depth review of our top picks for GRE prep books. If you find a GRE resource you like but don’t know whether it’s worth purchasing, check to see if it offers most or all of the following features:

      • Easy-to-follow explanations of major GRE concepts
      • Realistic practice questions
      • Clear answer explanations
      • Effective tips and strategies

 

#6: Strengthen Your Weaknesses

Once you’ve mastered the basics, begin to devote a little more time to strengthening your weaknesses. That way, you won’t be thrown off by any challenging questions on test day. And, obviously, the more questions you answer correctly, the higher your overall GRE score will be!

For example, if you struggle to understand Sentence Equivalence questions on Verbal, allocate more of your study time to reviewing difficult vocab. In the end, don’t allow a single weakness to bring down your GRE score, especially if it’s something you can master with a little extra studying.

 

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#7: Focus on More Important Sections

Not all sections are created equal. Always devote slightly more time to the GRE section more relevant to your field and programs. For example, if you’re applying to social sciences programs, your Verbal score will likely carry a lot more weight than your Quant score.

It’s not just about weight, though. Some programs won’t even cast a glance at irrelevant GRE scores. Thus, the most important GRE goal score of yours should always be the one most relevant to your field of study. If you’re not sure whether one GRE score carries more weight than others, consult your programs.

It’s not uncommon for programs to list GRE score expectations for only the most relevant section. But this doesn’t mean you can get away with a poor score on your less relevant section. For example, although a 170 on Quant is an excellent fit for an engineering program, if you’ve also got a 133 Verbal score you’re likely to appear unbalanced and unqualified for the rigors of grad school.

 

#8: Track Your Progress With Practice Tests

GRE practice tests can be used to gain familiarity with the GRE format and to track your overall progress.

At the beginning, take an official practice test (preferably a PowerPrep test) to get a baseline GRE score. Then, at the end of your studies, take another official practice test to see whether you’re hitting your GRE goal scores or not.

Don’t be afraid to incorporate unofficial practice tests either. Taking lots of practice tests will help you gauge your strengths and weaknesses and provide you with some guidance on what to study next.

There are tons of free official and unofficial GRE practice tests available online. For more information, check out our extensive collection of GRE practice tests and our guide to the best online practice tests.

 

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#9: Choose Strategies That Work for You

Lastly, while you study, figure out which test-taking strategies work best for you.

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Below are examples of possible approaches you can take on test day. We also offer additional strategies in our guide to the 34 best GRE tips.

 

for verbal

  • Look for prefixes, suffixes, and vocab games to figure out potential meanings of unfamiliar vocab.
  • Use the process of elimination on Text Completion and Sentence Equivalence questions to strike out vocab words you know for sure don’t work and to get rid of words whose connotations don’t match the overall tone of the sentence or passage.
  • Try to identify the overall tone of a Reading Comprehension passage.
  • Only rely on the information written in the passage — avoid making any assumptions that aren’t explicitly stated in the text itself.
  • Pace yourself at around one and a half minutes per question.

 

for quant

  • Simplify algebraic expressions using common laws (e.g., the laws of exponents).
  • Plug in numbers to confusing algebraic questions, especially inequalities — always compare wildly different numbers, such as small and large numbers, positive and negative numbers, whole numbers and decimals, etc.
  • Plug in answer choices starting with the middle value (usually C) for multiple-choice questions.
  • Draw diagrams for geometry-based word problems.
  • Only use the calculator if you have to — e.g., don’t use the calculator to convert fractions to decimals if it’s easier to just work with the fractions as is.
  • Avoid answering D on Quantitative Comparisons unless you are absolutely certain you cannot solve for an answer using only the information given.
  • Pace yourself at around one minute and 45 seconds per question.

 

for aw

  • Spend no more than five minutes on each outline.
  • Develop a clear thesis and identify specific examples you’ll use for the body paragraphs.

 

General

  • Answer every question — there are no penalties for incorrect guesses.
  • Do easy questions first and attack difficult ones later.
  • Keep your scratch paper neat.
  • Take all of your breaks!

 

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What If Your GRE Goal Score Is Out of Reach?

So far, we’ve given you tons of tips and ideas on how to pass the GRE exam. But what if, in spite of all of these tips, you’re still having trouble attaining your GRE goal scores? Instead of giving up and preparing for a definite rejection, take a moment to ask yourself the following questions.

 

#1: Are Your GRE Scores Close to Your Goal Scores?

Although achieving your GRE goal scores is the ultimate, well, goal, any scores close to your goal scores are probably good enough for a majority of your programs.

Remember Valerie? She’s applying to doctoral education programs. According to her tables, her goal scores are 165 Verbal, 159 Quant, and 5 AW.

But let’s say Valerie is struggling to hit that 165 on Verbal — perhaps she’s consistently getting around 162, instead. While this score is obviously lower than her Verbal goal score, it’s not a failure by any means.

According to ETS data, 162 places Valerie in the top 9 percent of test takers. It’s also a whopping 11 points higher than the average Verbal score for education majors, 1 point below UPenn’s average, and 7 points higher than George Mason’s average.

In the end, 162 is still an altogether impressive score. And although it’ll probably be a bit more difficult for her to get into her two most competitive programs, Valerie is far from being a longshot.

 

#2: How Important Are GRE Scores to Your Programs?

Another factor to consider is how important GRE scores are to your programs.

Some programs value GRE scores a lot, whereas other programs place more emphasis on personal statements, work or research experience, etc. Typically, programs without clear GRE expectations or GRE minimums place less emphasis on GRE scores during the admission process.

To figure out how important GRE scores are to your program, contact your program directly (by email or phone). Ask about the role of GRE scores during the admission process as well as whether a low GRE score will negatively affect your chances of admission.

 

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#3: Is the Rest of Your Application Strong?

Sometimes, grad programs are willing to overlook low GRE scores so long as the rest of your application is strong. If your GRE goal scores are well out of reach, consider leaving your scores as is and committing more time to strengthening other areas of your application.

Apart from high GRE scores, an impressive grad school application will usually contain the following:

    • A high GPA
    • Powerful letters of recommendation (ideally, from professors in the field you’re entering)
    • A compelling personal statement
    • Tons of (relevant) work or research experience

 

#4: Are You Prepared to Retake the GRE?

If your GRE score is significantly lower than your goal score and your programs weigh GRE scores heavily during the admission process, it’s OK to consider retaking the test.

GRE scores take 10-15 days to process, so be sure you’re retaking the exam at least three or four weeks before application deadlines. Note that some programs will accept late GRE scores, but not all of them are as lenient.

Just don’t expect to suddenly get a higher score. Use the extra time you have to study more and identify the areas you struggled with on your initial attempt. You should be spending the bulk of your time strengthening all of your major weaknesses.

Remember, even if you ultimately end up scoring the same or lower, you’re not required to send any scores you don’t want to!

 

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Recap: How to Pass the GRE

Unlike those stressful pop quizzes you took in high school, you can’t actually pass or fail the GRE. There is no such thing as a GRE pass rate or a failed GRE. In fact, anyone can send any GRE scores they have to grad schools. When we talk about how to pass the GRE exam, what we’re really discussing is how to get the GRE scores you need to get into the programs you wish to attend.

The scores most likely to get you into grad school are called GRE goal scores. To set your own goal scores, search for GRE score information online. Once you’ve collected information for all of your programs, select the highest scores for Verbal, Quant, and AW. Add 2 points to get your Verbal and Quant goal scores, and round up and add a half-point to get your AW goal score.

Here are our top tips for achieving your GRE goal scores:

    • Find your baseline scores for each section by taking an official practice test
    • Make a strict study schedule
    • Learn the structure and content of the exam
    • Review basic content, even if you think you know it well
    • Use high-quality study materials such as highly rated GRE prep books
    • Strengthen your weaknesses so they don’t lower your score on test day
    • Focus on the section(s) more relevant to your field and programs
    • Track your progress with official and unofficial practice tests
    • Decide which test-taking strategies work best for you

If you’re having trouble hitting your GRE goal scores, don’t give up! Often, GRE scores only slightly below your goal scores are still high enough for the majority of the programs you’re applying to.

In addition, GRE scores aren’t always the most critical part of an application; some programs overwhelmingly prefer compelling personal statements or ample research experience in the field. As long as the rest of your application is strong, you could very well be on your way to an acceptance.

If your actual GRE scores are significantly lower than your goal scores, though, it’s OK to retake the test. Just focus more on your weaknesses, and be sure to give your schools enough time to process your newest scores before application deadlines.

 

What’s Next?

Craving more GRE tips? Then check out our expert guide on the #1 thing you must do to improve your GRE score!

On the hunt for GRE prep resources? Look no further! Here, we offer you a compilation of the best GRE mock tests, an ultimate GRE study guide, and the best free GRE prep we could find.

Confused about GRE logistics? Follow our step-by-step guide to registering for the GRE and take a look at our extensive GRE FAQ for answers to any general questions you might have.


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Author: Hannah Muniz

Hannah graduated summa cum laude from the University of Southern California with a bachelor’s degree in English and East Asian languages and cultures. After graduation, she taught English in Japan for two years via the JET Program. She is passionate about education, writing, and travel.

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