The Ultimate GRE Score Interpretation Guide

Did you take the GRE recently or are planning to take it soon? Then you’ll need to know exactly how GRE score interpretation works. What are GRE percentiles? What does the GRE mean for your intelligence and ability to succeed?

In this guide, we explain how to interpret GRE scores using averages and percentiles, give you tips on how to set a GRE goal score based on the programs you’re applying to, and take a look at what GRE scores say about your intelligence, your ability to succeed, and your acceptance chances.

 

How to Interpret GRE Scores With Averages & Percentiles

The Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning sections of the GRE are each scored on a scale of 130-170 in one-point increments. On this scale, 130 is the lowest you can get, and 170 is the highest you can get. The Analytical Writing (AW) section is scored on a much smaller range of 0.0-6.0 in half-point increments.

For all three GRE sections, an above-average score is generally considered a “good” GRE score.

Here are the current average scores for each GRE section (rounded to the nearest whole point for Verbal and Quant), per 2018 ETS data:

  • Verbal: 150
  • Quant: 153
  • AW: 3.50

In addition to average scores, percentiles can tell you how your GRE scores compare with those of other test takers. A percentile indicates the percentage of test takers you’ve scored higher than on a section.

A high percentile means you’ve scored higher than most test takers, placing you in a better light for grad schools. A low percentile means more people have scored higher than you, placing you in a poorer light.

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Here is an overview of the current GRE percentiles as well as what they indicate about how well you’ve done on the exam:

Percentile Verbal Score Quantitative Score GRE Score Interpretation
99th 169-170 170** Excellent
90th 162* 166 Very Good
75th 157* 160* Good
50th 150-151* 153 Average
25th 144-145* 147* Below Average
10th 139-140* 141 Poor
1st 132 and below 134 and below Very Poor

Source: GRE General Test Interpretive Data 2018

*Estimated score or score range (exact percentile unavailable).

**The highest percentile for the Quant section is the 96th percentile, meaning a bigger number of test takers achieved a perfect score on Quant than they did on Verbal.

As for the Analytical Writing section, which is scored differently from the two main GRE sections above, here are all current percentiles for each possible AW score:

Percentile AW Score GRE Score Interpretation
99th 6.0 Excellent
98th 5.5
92nd 5.0 Very Good
82nd 4.5 Good
59th 4.0 Average
41st 3.5
17th 3.0 Below Average
7th 2.5 Poor
2nd 2.0 Very Poor
1st 1.5 and below

Source: GRE General Test Interpretive Data 2018

 

The Importance of Context for Understanding GRE Scores

The two charts above and their “GRE Score Interpretation” columns are just a general guide to how to interpret GRE scores. Ultimately, how good your GRE score is will depend on what the programs you’re applying to are looking for in qualified applicants. This is why context is critical for understanding GRE scores.

If you’re applying for a humanities program, such as English, history, or a foreign language, your Verbal score will likely be far more important than your Quant score. On the other hand, if you’re applying for a science- or math-based grad program, such as computer science, engineering, or physics, your Quant score will hold far more weight than your Verbal score.

But where does the AW score fit in? Typically, your AW score will be the least important of the three GRE scores you get. While some programs, such as Creative Writing MFA programs, might put more emphasis on the AW score, most will give a lot more attention to your other GRE scores and any personal statement and/or statement of purpose you submit with your application.

To figure out what a good GRE score is for you based on the grad programs you’re applying to, you’ll need to set a GRE goal score. Our guide to what constitutes a good GRE score can teach you more about how to do this.

Now that we’ve taken a look at how you can interpret Verbal, Quant, and AW scores by considering how they compare with those of other test takers, it’s time for us to consider another facet of GRE score interpretation: what your GRE score says about your intelligence.

 

 

What Does Your GRE Score Say About Your Intelligence?

Many wonder whether a GRE score says anything about their intelligence. The truth is that there isn’t any obvious correlation between a GRE score and an IQ. In reality, a high GRE score says more about your ability to do well on the GRE than it does the level of your intelligence.

For one, you can study for the GRE and raise your score by several points on a retake. Whereas intelligence is believed to be innate and static—meaning you can’t study for an IQ test or any test designed to measure intelligence—the GRE is a test you can and should study for. If the GRE is truly representative of one’s level of intelligence, why is it you can significantly raise your GRE score with diligent prep and high-quality resources?

Another problem with conflating GRE scores and intelligence is that the GRE is often said to discriminate against certain groups of people, including people of color, women, and those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. If you don’t have access to quality resources, such as GRE prep courses, tutors, and textbooks, you likely won’t earn as high a GRE score as you are actually capable of getting.

Moreover, the GRE primarily measures just one skill: abstract analytical thinking. In an article for The Atlantic, cognitive psychologist and Cornell professor Robert J. Sternberg states, “Some students simply don’t achieve stellar GRE results although they may be intelligent and exceptionally capable.” Thus, as a result of its limited scope, the GRE cannot accurately measure other important factors connected to intelligence, such as ambition, motivation, and creativity.

Finally, if we take a look at high IQ groups and societies, we find that very few, if any, of them currently accept GRE scores as evidence of high intelligence. Both Mensa and the Triple Nine Society (an IQ society for those who score in the 99.9th percentile on an approved intelligence test) used to accept GRE scores as criteria for admission but have not done so since 2001. This trend indicates that the (current iteration of the) GRE is not strongly connected to IQ, if at all.

 

What Does Your GRE Score Say About Your Ability?

Aside from intelligence, what does the GRE say about your overall ability to succeed? After all, the point of the GRE is to predict how well you’ll do in grad school.

A 2007 report in Science magazine synthesized hundreds of studies and concluded that “standardized tests [including the GRE] are effective predictors of performance in graduate school.” In other words, the GRE is a pretty accurate predictor of how successful one will be in grad school.

In spite of this conclusion, the report does note possible pitfalls with its findings, including problems with the GRE’s biases against certain groups of people and the fact that other indicators of success, such as motivation and commitment to one’s studies, cannot be determined by standardized tests:

“Standardized admission tests provide useful information for predicting subsequent student performance across many disciplines. However, student motivation and interest, which are critical for sustained effort through graduate education, must be inferred from various unstandardized measures including letters of recommendation, personal statements, and interviews. Additional research is needed to develop measures that provide more reliable information about these key characteristics.”

Not all reports have come to the same conclusion as this one, however. More recent studies and articles claim that the GRE does not predict one’s ability to succeed in grad school at all.

A 2017 study found that there is virtually no link between GRE scores and one’s success in a doctoral biomedical program. Similarly, a 2017 article in Science magazine explains how studies by UNC and Vanderbilt failed to find a concrete link between so-called “objective” credentials (including GRE scores) and scientific productivity.

The only idea that is unanimously agreed upon is that we should take GRE scores seriously simply because they’re important to the admissions process. In this sense, a GRE score can at least somewhat predict your chances of getting into grad school (depending on how important scores are to the grad program)—but whether a GRE score can predict anything beyond this is debatable.

 

 

What Does Your GRE Score Say About Your Acceptance Chances?

What do GRE scores say about your acceptance chances for the grad programs you’re applying to? The answer to this question depends on two main factors:

  • Whether your grad programs require GRE scores and, if so, how much emphasis they place on scores in the admissions process
  • How high of GRE scores your grad programs want, recommend, or require

 

Factor 1: How Much Emphasis Is Placed on GRE Scores?

How much emphasis a grad program places on GRE scores in the admission process will most likely influence how your GRE scores affect your acceptance chances.

If a program considers GRE scores very important, getting a low score (relative to other applicants—see Factor 2 for more info) will lower your chances of getting admitted to the program. On the other hand, getting a high score will increase your chances of getting accepted.

If a grad program considers GRE scores not that important or less important than other application components, such as your undergrad transcripts, recommendation letters, and essays, a high GRE score likely won’t make much of a difference in your chances of getting in.

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The easiest way to figure out how important a program considers GRE scores is to look at the school’s/program’s official website. Programs that talk in-depth about GRE scores or have stated GRE minimums will typically value GRE scores more. For example, Illinois Tech maintains a list of minimum required GRE scores for various grad programs, indicating that earning a certain score on the exam is necessary for admission.

Meanwhile, the Notre Dame Graduate School states in its FAQ, “There are no minimum scores for the GRE, as it is only one of several criteria used for admission.” This phrasing suggests that Notre Dame uses a more holistic approach to its admissions process and doesn’t put a significant emphasis on GRE scores alone.

Moreover, not all grad programs require the submission of GRE scores. For example, many artistic or creative programs, such as MFA programs and online master’s programs, make the GRE optional or won’t consider GRE scores at all if submitted.

When GRE scores are truly optional (meaning it’s 100% OK if you don’t send in any scores), it’s best to submit your scores only if you did extremely well on the exam (refer to the percentile charts to get a general idea of what good GRE scores are). If you didn’t score highly and submitting scores is optional for the program, then it’ll be better for you not to submit any and instead work on strengthening other parts of your application.

 

Factor 2: What GRE Scores Are Considered High for the Program?

The second factor to consider is how high your GRE scores are (assuming test scores are fairly important for the program you’re applying to).

Whether a GRE score is high will depend mostly on what is high for your particular program. To figure this out, do a search for each of your programs to figure out whether they publish info on the GRE scores of admitted applicants.

Most grad programs report GRE scores in one of the following ways:

  • Minimum (required) scores
  • Recommended scores
  • Average scores of admitted applicants

The best way to find this info is to search on Google for “[School Name] [Program Name] GRE scores” and see what GRE-related pages show up on the program’s official website.

In general, doctoral programs expect higher GRE scores than master’s programs. Illinois Tech’s Chemistry department, for instance, requires a combined Verbal + Quant score of 300 for its master’s applicants—but a far higher 310 for its PhD applicants.

If you’re applying for a doctorate but can only find GRE score info for the master’s version of the program you’re applying to, you should expect to need to aim a bit higher on the exam in order to stand out.

 

What do the numbers mean?!

 

Conclusion: How GRE Score Interpretation Works

When it comes to decoding your GRE score meaning, the first step is to look at the whole picture and see how your score compares with those of other test takers. To do this, simply look up the current GRE percentiles and see where your Verbal, Quant, and AW scores fall. The higher your percentile is, the better your GRE score will look to grad schools.

Once you have a general idea of your GRE score meaning, it’s time to research the GRE score expectations for the grad programs you’re applying to. You can do this by looking on Google for any official school pages that discuss average GRE scores, minimum required GRE scores, and/or recommended GRE scores. You can then use all the info you find for your programs to come up with a GRE goal score to aim for on the test.

Many people wonder how GRE scores are connected to their intelligence, their ability to succeed, and their grad school acceptance chances. Though there are ongoing debates about how accurately GRE scores can measure one’s level of intelligence or one’s likelihood to do well in grad school, it is generally agreed that a higher GRE score can raise your acceptance chances, especially if a program strongly values test scores.

Ultimately, while GRE scores are pretty important in grad school admissions, they’re not the be-all and end-all of your application or future success. Only you can determine what to make of what you’re given!

 

What’s Next?

What does your GRE score say about your IQ? Learn more about the connections (or, rather, lack thereof) between GRE scores and IQ in our in-depth guide.

GRE percentiles can be confusing. Get the rundown of what they mean and how you can use them to your advantage with our expert guide.

How good is a GRE score (combined Verbal + Quant) of 330? What about 320? Our GRE score guides tell you everything you need to know about a particular score, including what grad programs you can get into.


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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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