If you want to know how you did on the GRE compared to all other test-takers, GRE percentiles are the best way to see that. In this guide we’ll go over the most current GRE score percentiles, help you figure out why your GRE percentile matters, and discuss the percentile distributions for different graduate major fields.
Current GRE Score Percentiles
Your GRE score percentile tells you how your score compares to all the other GRE test-takers. The higher the GRE percentile, the better your score is compared to other test-takers. A 99th GRE percentile score, for example, means you scored better than 99% of test-takers, and you’re in the top 1%!
A 50th GRE percentile score means you scored right in the middle—an average score.
See below for the most current GRE score percentiles. Data is from ETS GRE score percentiles from 2013-2016.
GRE Score Percentiles
As you can see, the GRE score percentiles for Verbal and Quant are not the same. For Verbal, both 169 and 170 are 99th percentile scores—so, scores in the top 1%. On Quant, a perfect score of 170 is only the 97th GRE percentile! This means about 3% of test-takers receive a perfect score. More people do very well on Quant than on Verbal.
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The GRE is designed to have an approximately normal distribution. This means most people score towards the middle of the scoring scale, around 150, and that scores further from the middle are less common.
You can see this in action in the percentile scores—around the middle of the scale, just a few points difference can cause a huge percentile jump. A 148 on Verbal is a 39th-percentile score, but a 153—only a 5-point boost—gets you all the way up to the 61st GRE percentile! At the ends of the scoring scale, the same 5-point boost only improves your percentile rank a little bit; a 165 on Verbal is a 96th-percentile score, and a 5-point boost to 170 only improves your percentile rank by 3, to the 99th GRE percentile.
The Analytical Writing percentile distribution is similarly shaped.
Analytical Writing GRE Percentile Distribution
As you can see, there are enormous GRE percentile jumps near the middle of the scale—3.0 is only an 18th percentile score, while a one-point improvement to 4.0 is a jump to the 60th percentile! Very few people score at the extreme ends of the scale—only 2% get a 5.5 or 6.0, and only 2% get a 2.0 or below!
So you have the GRE percentile numbers now. But what do they mean?
Does My GRE Score Percentile Matter? What Does It Mean?
Graduate schools have much more variety than undergraduate programs, and they often have completely different expectations and desired qualifications for prospective students. But GRE percentiles compare the entire GRE test-taking population—so people pursuing engineering master’s degrees are being compared to people pursuing PhDs in anthropology!
Because GRE score percentiles describe such a broad range of students with completely different qualifications and interests, different programs have different GRE expectations for applicants in terms of score percentiles. For example, it makes sense for top Math programs to expect at least a 95th percentile score on Quant, but it would be bizarre if they also expected a 95th percentile score on Verbal!
In general, there are two things to consider when trying to figure out what GRE percentile scores you need for a given program: how competitive it is and which section is more relevant.
How Competitive the Program Is
The more competitive your program, the higher GRE percentile score you need. For a program that’s just middling, a 60th percentile score might be pretty good. However, a top program expects a top percentile score—some of the most competitive even expect to see marks in the 98th or 99th percentiles. So if you’re going for the top programs in the country and you’re in the 85th GRE percentile, you almost certainly need to boost your score. By contrast, an 85th percentile school could be a very strong score for a less selective program.
Which Section Is More Relevant
Of course, you’ll need to meet a much higher GRE percentile threshold for the section of the test—Verbal or Quant—that’s most relevant to your future degree. Note: most programs really don’t care that much about Analytical Writing scores—even writing-focused ones! A top-ranked English program will expect a GRE percentile score in the high nineties on Verbal, but you can afford to get a much lower percentile score on Quant.
In situations like these, it’s better to get a super-high score on the more relevant section and a lower one on the less important one (say, 170 Verbal/155 Quant) than to get more equal section scores with the same point total (say a 163 on Verbal and a 162 on Quant). Of course, for some disciplines, both Verbal and Quant are pretty relevant, in which case you do need to try to get appropriate percentile rankings for both of the main sections.
The different needs and expectations for GRE score percentiles for different disciplines are actually highly evident in discipline-specific student performance data from ETS—read on to see what I mean.
GRE Score Percentiles for Different Fields
Given that the GRE tests prospective graduate students in all disciplines, it is not surprising that percentile rankings for the subgroups of students going into different disciplines are very different.
While ETS does not release explicit separate GRE score percentile rankings for separate disciplines, they do release data on the score distribution for different disciplines—e.g. what percentage of people going into that field scored in a particular score range. From this, it is possible to figure out percentiles at specific points.
Here are percentile tables for students in different prospective graduate disciplines:
GRE Verbal Percentiles by Discipline
|Arts and Humanities||<1||2||6||17||37||64||86||97|
Data from ETS General Test Percentage Distribution Table
In the Arts and Humanities discipline area, it takes a much higher score to be competitive on Verbal. A 155 only has you scoring better than 37% of the other prospective Arts and Humanities students! And while a 165 would have you scoring better than 98% of Business applicants, you’d only be scoring better than 86% of Arts and Humanities applicants.
Let’s move on to Quant’s discipline-specific GRE score percentiles.
GRE Quant Percentiles by Discipline
|Arts and Humanities||2||9||25||50||74||89||97||99+|
For math-heavy disciplines, higher Quant scores are required to be competitive compared to other applicants. A 160 is an 89th GRE percentile Quant score for a future Arts and Humanities student—but only a 48th GRE percentile score for an Engineering student!
Also, note that in Physical Sciences, a whopping 9% of test-takers receive a 170. In Engineering, 7% receive a 170, and in Business, 5% do.
Discipline-specific percentiles are a good way to get an idea of how your scores compare to other applicants in your discipline, and not just all applicants overall. As you can see, sometimes it stacks up quite differently!
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Key Points: What You Must Know About GRE Percentiles
If you want to compare yourself to the entire population of GRE test-takers, the percentile gives you a pretty good idea of how you’ve done.
However, since the GRE tests prospective graduate students in all disciplines, here’s what to consider when you figure out what percentile ranking you should be aiming for:
Program competitiveness: The more competitive the program, the higher GRE score percentile ranking you should be going for.
Which section is more relevant: You need to focus more on getting a higher percentile ranking on the section that is more relevant to your future course of study—so, for example, the Quant section is more important for future engineering students, and Verbal is more important for aspiring journalists.
You can check out our charts of discipline-specific percentiles to see how particular scores compare to the rest of the students going into your same general field.
The bottom line is that while GRE percentiles are a useful tool, they really aren’t the be-all end-all of figuring out what scores you need to get into your program. They are just one way to communicate about scores in a comprehensible, straightforward way.
Wondering more about the unusual GRE score range? Or maybe you want more information on what’s a good GRE score for you.
See our guides to the highest possible GRE score and the lowest possible GRE score.
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