What Is a Good GRE Verbal Score?

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Whether you’ve already taken the GRE or are getting ready to buckle down and study for it, you’ve probably wondered what your GRE Verbal score should be in order to stand apart from other applicants.

In this article, we’ll discuss what makes a GRE Verbal score good, as well as how to figure out what a good score is for you and your schools.

 

What Is a Good GRE Verbal Score Compared to Other Test Takers?

In reality, there isn’t a single concrete answer as to what constitutes a good GRE Verbal score. Good scores vary widely because a good GRE Verbal score is the score most likely to get you into the programs of your choice. But it can be helpful to know, at least in the beginning, how a particular score compares to those of other test takers, and we can do this by looking at GRE Verbal percentiles.

Before we dive into those, though, let’s quickly review the scoring system. Like the Quantitative score, the GRE Verbal score is reported on a 130-170 scale in 1-point increments. On this scale, 130 is the lowest possible score and 170 is the highest. Currently, the average GRE Verbal score is 149.97.

Now, onto percentiles. Your percentile shows what percentage of people you scored higher than. So a 90th percentile Verbal score means you scored higher than 90 percent of test takers and are in the top 10 percent. By contrast, a 20th percentile Verbal score means you scored higher than only 20 percent of test takers (or lower than 80 percent).

Additionally, a 50th percentile score means you scored higher (and lower) than half of all test takers. Basically, the higher your percentile, the more impressive your score is.

The following table offers a rundown GRE Verbal percentiles:

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Verbal Score Percentile
130
135 3
140 12
145 27
150 48
155 69
160 86
165 96
170 99

Source: ETS GRE Interpretive Data Table1A

According to this data, anything in the range of 160-170 accounts for the top 14 percent of test takers, while scores 141 and lower account for the bottom 15 percent.

Naturally, grad programs differ a lot on what percentiles they look for in applicants (we’ll get more into this in the following section). For some programs a 50th percentile score (150-151) is perfectly acceptable, whereas for others anything lower than the 75th percentile (~157) could be a strike against you. Typically, the most selective programs expect Verbal scores at or above 160, or in the top 10-15 percent.

So are you an automatic reject if your Verbal score is in the 35th percentile? Not necessarily. As I said before, what a good GRE Verbal score is for you isn’t purely determined by how you stack up against other test takers. Percentiles are useful, but they don’t take into account other important factors, such as your field of study, program, or degree type.

Now, how can you determine what a good GRE Verbal score is for you personally?

 

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Getting a good score is a piece of cake! Er, sometimes.

 

Defining a Good GRE Verbal Score for You

As we’ve discovered, percentiles are just a single factor in determining whether a Verbal score is good or not. What’s more important than an upper-percentile score, however, is figuring out a score that’ll help you get into all of the programs you’re applying to.

How do you do this? Let’s start by considering three key factors: your field of study, the programs you’re interested in, and your degree type.

 

#1: Your Field of Study

Think about it this way: the skills required for an English program differ a lot from those required for an engineering program, right? Then it’s safe to say English programs typically place more emphasis on Verbal and AW scores, whereas engineering programs lean more toward Quant scores. In other words, how good a Verbal score is depends on the discipline you’re trying to enter.

But what do disciplines actually expect in terms of Verbal scores? Typically, arts and humanities programs prefer high Verbal scores, whereas science- and math-oriented fields are more likely to accept average or below-average Verbal scores. This isn’t always the case, of course, as GRE expectations can vary greatly by school, too (we’ll cover this more in the next section).

To help you visualize this more clearly, here is a table showing the average Verbal scores of applicants by intended field of study:

Discipline Average Verbal Score Percentile
Life Sciences 151 52
Physical Sciences 150 48
Engineering 149 43
Social and Behavioral Sciences 153 61
Arts and Humanities 156 73
Education 151 52
Business 150 48

Sources: ETS GRE Distribution Table 4 and ETS GRE Interpretive Data Table1A

According to this table, the average Verbal score fluctuates between 149 and 156, or the 43rd and 73rd percentiles. As expected, arts and humanities applicants exhibited the highest average Verbal score (156), whereas engineering applicants exhibited the lowest (149).

That said, these averages are not indicative of any hard-and-fast cutoffs. For example, a GRE Verbal score of 160, though above average, doesn’t guarantee you admission to all arts and humanities programs. Conversely, you could very well gain admission to an arts and humanities program with a lower score of 150 — take Eastern Kentucky University’s Master of Arts in English program, for example.

This same logic can also be applied to engineering programs. Some programs place very little, if any, emphasis on the Verbal section, whereas others look for Verbal scores significantly higher than the field’s 43rd percentile average.

Another point to remember is that these are the average scores of test takers, not admitted applicants. Even if a majority of arts and humanities majors scored around 156, we have no idea whether these scores ultimately worked in their favor.

Which brings me to my next point: a good GRE Verbal score for you depends not only on your field but also on the programs and schools you’re applying to.

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See? Even dogs are applying to grad school!

 

#2: The Programs You’re Interested In

Many programs and schools differ greatly in their competitiveness and overall expectations of applicants, resulting in an array of potentially good Verbal scores — i.e., the scores most likely to secure you admission.

Usually, more prestigious and competitive schools opt for candidates with higher Verbal scores, or those in at least the 85-86th percentiles (around 160). For example, admitted applicants to Harvard’s Chemistry and Chemical Biology program boasted an average of 163 (93rd percentile).

Other programs, however, often those that are less competitive and/or not based in the arts and humanities, report lower averages or recommend a lower range of scores. For example, the University of Houston’s Electrical and Computer Engineering department recommends PhD applicants have a Verbal score of at least 151 (52nd percentile).

As you can see, some programs overwhelmingly prefer high GRE Verbal scores, whereas others accept (or even expect) a lower range of GRE Verbal scores. Additionally, some programs might consider lower Verbal scores as long as your Quant scores are high or the rest of your application is strong.

Another important point to note is that many schools do not specify GRE score requirements or publish the average GRE scores of incoming students. This is primarily done to prevent the immediate disqualification of applicants who might have strengths in other areas. So even if your Verbal score is slightly or well below your program’s average score, your application will not necessarily end up in the rejection pile.

 

#3: Your Degree Type

Lastly, whether you’re applying for a master’s degree or a doctorate can help you determine the Verbal score you should be aiming for.

Many schools, though not all, anticipate doctoral applicants’ Verbal scores being slightly higher than those of master’s applicants. This is likely because doctoral programs are longer and more demanding than master’s programs. For example, applicants to Northwestern’s Master of Arts in English program averaged a Verbal score of 160 (86th percentile), whereas applicants to the doctoral English program averaged a strikingly higher 166 (97th percentile).

Similarly, Stanford’s graduate program in computer science states that strong applications for its master’s and doctoral programs contain Verbal scores in at least the 90th percentile (162+) and high 90s (165+), respectively.

As we all know, though, admission requirements can vary widely by school, so don’t assume you’ll always need higher Verbal scores for doctoral programs. Take the University of Washington’s Department of Communication, for instance. Here, incoming 2015 master’s students averaged a Verbal score of 162 (91st percentile), while doctoral students averaged a markedly lower 155 (69th percentile).

Knowing the approximate GRE Verbal scores your degree type, program/school, and field expect you to have will ultimately allow you to create a goal score for yourself — that is, a good Verbal score to help you get into your program of choice. But how do you set a goal score? Read on to find out!

 

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Hit your target score!

 

How to Set a GRE Verbal Goal Score

Now that you understand what constitutes a good Verbal score and how varied good scores actually are, it’s time to figure out what a good Verbal score is for you personally. This ideal score is your goal score, and it’s the one most likely to secure you admission to grad school.

Follow these three easy steps to find your Verbal goal score today.

 

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Step 1: Make a Chart

Organization is key to figuring out your goal score. The easiest way to do so is to create a simple chart. In this chart, you’ll list the schools you’re applying to, what they say about GRE (Verbal) scores, and the Verbal score that’ll give you your best shot at getting in.

Let’s say Tina is applying for a PhD in art history. Here’s what she’d write in her chart:

School What They Say Verbal Score Notes
Duke
Columbia
University of Texas

 

Step 2: Look for GRE Verbal Score Info

Next, figure out any information you can on each of your program’s overall GRE expectations. Doing this will help you pinpoint the approximate Verbal scores your programs want applicants to get.

Usually, programs release GRE information in one of three ways:

  • Average scores: These are the average scores of previously admitted applicants.
  • Recommended scores: These are the scores a program recommends, usually as a minimum, to prospective students.
  • Required minimum scores: These are the minimum scores required to be considered for admission. Without these scores, your application will be immediately disqualified (unless otherwise stated).

The easiest way to find this info is to check your schools’ websites and department pages. You can also search “[Your School] [Your Program] GRE score” on Google.

While researching, Tina discovers that Duke lists its average verbal GRE score as 160. She also sees that Columbia offers a recommended Verbal score of 167. She records this info in her chart:

School What They Say Verbal Score Notes
 Duke Average Verbal score of 160 160
Columbia Recommended Verbal score of 167 167
University of Texas

Unfortunately, the University of Texas doesn’t specify a particular Verbal score for its art history program; all it offers is a brief explanation: “For those admitted to the MA program in fall 2012, the average total score (combined verbal and quantitative scores) on the Revised GRE is 317; the average Writing score is 4.75. Successful applicants to the PhD program average somewhat higher.”

From this information alone, Tina can estimate the Verbal GRE score she’ll need to stand apart from other applicants. It just takes a little math. If the average combined GRE score of master’s students is 317, that’s about 159 points for both the Verbal and Quant sections (if equal).

But Tina is applying for a PhD. On top of that, art history is an arts and humanities program, so she can assume that her Verbal GRE score will be more important than her Quant score. As a result, she adds 5-6 points to Verbal. Let’s say 163-165, minimum.

Her chart now looks like this:

School What They Say Verbal Score Notes
 Duke Average Verbal score of 160 160
Columbia Recommended Verbal score of 167 167
University of Texas Average combined GRE score of 317 for MA students; PhD average > MA average; Verbal > Quant 163-165 Estimated minimum score range

If you can’t find concrete GRE info for your schools, try checking The Grad Cafe and Reddit to get an idea of other applicants’ scores for your particular programs.

 

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Dig deep for info with a cute pail.

 

Step 3: Determine Your Goal GRE Verbal Score

You can now use all of the info you’ve collected to find your Verbal goal score.

Begin by looking for the highest Verbal score on your chart:

School What They Say Verbal Score Notes
 Duke Average Verbal score of 160 160 Unsure if average is for applicants or admitted students
Columbia Recommended Verbal score of 167 167
University of Texas Average combined GRE score of 317 for MA students; PhD average > MA average; Verbal > Quant 163-165 Estimated minimum score range

For Tina, that score is 167 (for Columbia). Since 167 is far higher than 160 (the lowest score on Tina’s chart), we can be sure that such a score will definitely impress both Duke and the University of Texas. Anything a couple of points lower than 167, though not as impressive for Columbia, is still a decent score for the other two schools. Therefore, 167 is a pretty practical goal score.

However, 167 is also difficult to attain (98th percentile), so if Tina thinks it’s a little out of reach, she can instead aim for something a little lower, maybe closer to 165. This score isn’t as likely to get her into Columbia, but it won’t necessarily result in a rejection either. Plus, such a score should look good to Duke and the University of Texas.

But what if your Verbal score is high and your Quant score is the complete opposite?

 

An Aside: What If My Verbal GRE Score Is High But My Quant Score Is Low?

Depending on your field, program, and school, Quant scores might not be as important as Verbal scores are.

As previously stated, arts and humanities programs value Verbal scores the most and typically don’t care as much about Quant scores. In many cases, these programs will be completely fine with Verbal scores that are several points higher than Quant scores.

A high Quant score will, of course, reflect positively on any applicant, but a low one isn’t always something to worry about, particularly if you’re entering a non-math field. In other words, a high-Verbal-low-Quant combo isn’t likely to get you into an engineering program any time soon but might be perfectly fine for an arts and humanities or social sciences program.

That said, there are several schools, such as those in the Ivy League, that prefer applicants with high scores on both Verbal and Quant, regardless of discipline. Mostly, this is due to the school’s or program’s level of competitiveness.

In general, for non-math disciplines, it’s a good idea to aim for at least an average Quant score, if not higher, depending on your program. Don’t feel as though you have to retake the GRE simply because your Quant score is average or slightly below average. Ultimately, an average Quant score might be high enough for a program not heavily focused on math.

 

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Sometimes you go high, sometimes you go low.

 

How to Get a Good GRE Verbal Score

By now you’ve gotten pretty good at making charts and have a Verbal goal score in mind. Great! Here’s my next question to you: what can you do to increase your chance of achieving your target score?

Listed below are two scenarios, with specific tips on how to work toward your Verbal goal in either case.

 

Scenario 1: You Haven’t Taken the GRE Yet

You’re totally new to the GRE or maybe you took it many, many years ago and are a bit rusty. Either way, here’s what you should do to reach your target score.

#1: Figure out your baseline score. You can do this by taking a free official practice test at ETS or reading our article on official GRE practice tests. This baseline score will show you what content areas you need to practice more and familiarize you with the GRE format. It will also provide insight into how many points you need to improve by in order to reach your goal score.

#2: Practice, practice, practice. Set aside at least a couple of months prior to the GRE for studying and practicing. Check out our article on the best GRE books for an overview of possible study materials.

#3: Focus on the section more relevant to your discipline. Those entering the social sciences or arts and humanities fields should spend a little more time on Verbal than on Quant. Conversely, those entering the physical sciences or engineering fields should dedicate more time to Quant than to Verbal.

#4: Improve your vocab. Drill vocab words as often as you can. Knowing the difference between “pugnacious” and “pernicious” might be what raises your score from 159 to 160. You can also take a look at our comprehensive GRE vocab list.

#5: Read a lot. Verbal will hit you with a lot of obscure passages on a variety of topics, from science and health to history and the arts. Reading more in general will equip you with the tools needed for picking out major points and theses of texts.

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#6: Take the GRE early. If a strong Verbal score is an important factor for your program, take the GRE early to give yourself extra time to take it again, if necessary. At least two months in advance is ideal.

 

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This little guy’s just here to give you a high-five.

 

Scenario 2: You’ve Taken the GRE and Got a Low Verbal Score

Been there, done that! But your score wasn’t as high as you’d hoped it’d be. Here are some steps you can take if you’ve already sat for the GRE and want to improve your Verbal score on a second go-around:

#1: Schedule a date to retake the test. Hopefully, you took the test early enough to be able to retake it! Once you’ve gotten your scores (and promptly rolled your eyes at them), go to ETS and schedule a retake. Try to give yourself as much time to study as possible, especially if you didn’t study as much the first time around. A month or two at a minimum should suffice.

#2: Determine your weak points. You won’t be able to see exactly what you got wrong after you take the test, but try to pinpoint which questions were hardest for you and focus on improving your skills in those areas. On that same note, don’t put in a ton of extra effort to review areas you did well on. If passages weren’t giving you any trouble, focus more on vocab and sentence completion. If the time constraint made you anxious, take more timed practice tests until you get used to the feel of the test.

#3: Strengthen the rest of your application. If your Verbal score is lower than you thought it’d be and you don’t have time to retake the GRE (or you retook it and scored similarly), channel all your energy into strengthening the rest of your application. Remember, the GRE is only one factor in your application and isn’t necessarily the be-all, end-all.

 

What’s Next?

Are you aiming for a perfect 170 on Verbal? Get tips in our in-depth guide to acing the GRE Verbal section.

You understand what a good Verbal score is — but what about Quant? Our guide explains what a good Quant score is and teaches you how to set a Quant goal score.

You’ve learned a lot about Verbal. Now, it’s time to broaden your horizons. Read our guides to learn what a good score is for all GRE sections, and get the low-down on GRE percentiles.


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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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