The scoring scale for the new GRE is a little bizarre, so it can be challenging to determine the top GRE score. In this guide, I’ll go over the highest GRE score, how many people get the max GRE score, what the maximum GRE score means for you, and whether or not you need to worry about getting the highest score possible.
What’s the Highest GRE Score?
The GRE has three sections: Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, and Analytical Writing. Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning are both scored on a scale from 130-170, in one-point increments. The highest score for each of those sections, then, is 170.
On Analytical Writing, each of your two essays is scored on a scale from 0 to 6. The two scores are then averaged. So the top score on Analytical Writing is a 6.
How Many People Get the Highest Possible GRE Score?
The short answer is “not many.” Of course, the long answer is much more complicated than that!
By checking out the GRE percentile chart, we can get an idea of how many test-takers get a GRE top score. On the Verbal Reasoning section, we can see that scores of both 169 and 170 are 99th percentile scores. This means that less than 1% of test-takers receive a 170 on Verbal. Per the number of Verbal Reasoning test-takers between July 1, 2013 and June 30, 2016, that means fewer than 17,427 test-takers scored a 169 or 170 during that 3-year span. Pretty small when you consider that over 1.7 million people took the test in that time!
On the Quantitative Reasoning section, a 170 is a 97th percentile score. This means the top 3% of test-takers receive a 170 on Quant. This also means more people get a 170 on Quant than on Verbal. Between July 1, 2013 and June 30, 2016, about 52,369 people received a 170 on Quant. Again, that’s out of over 1.7 million total!
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For Analytical Writing, a 6.0 is a 99th percentile score, and a 5.5 is a 98th percentile score. So the top 1% of test-takers receive a 6 on Analytical Writing, which works out to about 17,345 people.
That’s how many people get top scores by each section among all test-takers. However, the number of people who receive a GRE maximum score on each section varies by intended graduate major area. See our table below, based on this chart released by ETS.
|Intended Area of Study||% of test-takers receiving 170 Verbal||% test-takers receiving 170 Quant||% test-takers receiving 5.5 or 6 on Writing||Total # of test-takers in this area 2013-2016|
|Arts and Humanities||2.1%||.7%||6.7%||37,316|
As you can see, more people, in general, receive the highest GRE score of 170 on Quant than on Verbal. You can also see that more test takers in the arts and humanities receive perfect scores on Verbal than those going into the sciences and engineering. By contrast, those going into physical sciences and engineering had markedly more perfect scores on Quant than any other group. ETS lumps together 5.5 and 6 in their released Analytical Writing data, but you can still see that social sciences and arts and humanities prospective students fared the best there. This makes sense, as these are the two discipline-areas that involve the most writing in general.
Thus, you can get an idea of how common the GRE highest score on each section is among other prospective students in your planned area of study. You can get even more specific data relevant to highly specialized graduate programs from ETS’s extended table on graduate study area score statistics.
How Can I Get the Maximum GRE Score?
ETS does not publish official statistics on what raw score corresponds to what scaled score on the GRE. This is probably because test results go through an “equating” process. The equating process accounts for slight differences in difficulty between different test sittings. So there is not one true consistent raw score that always corresponds to a particular scaled score from 130-170.
However, based on the score conversion page for the practice paper GRE, we can estimate that to get a 170 on Verbal or Quant, you need a perfect raw score. Why? Because even though the paper raw score conversion allows students to get 2-3 questions wrong and still get a 170, the paper test has 50 questions and the computer-delivered GRE has 40. Because it has fewer questions, the computer-delivered GRE is less forgiving in terms of how many questions you can get wrong and still get a perfect score.
Additionally, the PowerPrep II test preparation software raw-to-scaled score conversion also suggests that a 170 requires a perfect score. Getting even one question wrong in a PowerPrep test knocks your score down from a 170 to 169. So it makes sense to assume that you must answer each of the 40 questions on a given section correctly for a perfect 170.
Because of the equating process, it’s possible that on a given GRE exam date a slightly different score will correspond to a 170 (perhaps a raw score of 39). But if you want a perfect score on Verbal and/or Quant, aim to get every question correct on the relevant section(s) on test day.
It is a little more difficult to plan for getting a perfect 6 on Analytical Writing. This is simply because the difference between a 5 and a 6 is somewhat subjective and involves hair-splitting differentiation. (You can see the scoring guidelines for “Analyze an Argument” and “Analyze an Issue” on the ETS website.) You can certainly prepare for a top score, but ultimately you have less control over getting a perfect GRE score on Analytical Writing than for Verbal or Quant.
Also, there’s only 1 percentile difference between getting a 5.5 and a 6.0 on Analytical Writing. 6.0 is the 99th percentile score and 5.5 is the 98th percentile score. Even a 5.0, which involves getting two 5 scores, puts you at the 93rd percentile. That’s in the top 7% of test-takers. Nothing to sneeze at!
Furthermore, while a highest possible GRE Analytical Writing score is certainly impressive, it is often considered the least important part of the GRE. Many programs that report average scores for accepted applicants don’t even offer an average analytical writing score. Programs will usually get a sense of your writing from other parts of your application. So while you shouldn’t totally neglect preparing for Analytical Writing, getting the best GRE score possible on Verbal and/or Quant is going to be more impressive to most (if not all) admissions committees than a 6 on Analytical Writing (especially as compared to, say, a 5.0, which is also quite impressive).
What Does Getting the GRE Max Score Mean for Me?
Getting a maximum GRE score makes you a competitive applicant in terms of test scores for any program that requires the GRE. Of course, this may have more or less weight on your application depending on what type of program it is and how competitive admissions are.
For some programs, your highest GRE score is a pretty important part of your application. For other programs, your work experience, a portfolio of your work, or other qualifications may be much more important than your GRE scores for admissions. In this case a top score will certainly help you stand out—especially in a very competitive program. But if your other qualifications aren’t strong enough, it won’t do much to help you get in. If you want to know more about how much importance a given program places on the GRE, call the admissions office!
A top GRE score is also more important for more competitive programs. Even if your GRE score isn’t a huge component of your application (say it counts for 5%), it can make a huge difference in differentiating you in a very competitive field of applicants, as with most PhDs. In this case a top score, especially on the most relevant section, can be a real boost or even almost essential for admission. Top STEM PhDs, for example, pretty much expect perfect quant scores.
Top GRE scores can also make you eligible and/or more competitive for graduate school fellowships and merit aid. (I know my perfect score on Verbal helped me to stand out and secure a fellowship for my graduate degree).
So while getting the highest possible GRE score will definitely help your application, it won’t always help it the same amount. The more weight a program places on the GRE and the more competitive it is, the more a max GRE score will help you stand out! A top score will also help you to secure fellowships and merit aid, so that’s definitely something to think about if you’re hoping for some money.
Do I Need the Highest GRE Score Possible?
Ask yourself these questions to determine if a 170 on one or both GRE sections is something you should pursue.
How Competitive Are My Programs of Choice?
Some programs are very competitive, so getting a top score on the relevant section of the GRE can really help prevent you from getting lost in the shuffle or discounted in the early stages of application review. This applies to top-tier programs for many graduate disciplines and most PhDs, which are notoriously competitive.
Even when test scores aren’t the most important part of your application, a maximum GRE score can tip the scale in your favor in a meaningful way. A top score on both sections will help you stand out even more by showing that you have multiple competencies, but the more relevant section for any program is the most important place to focus your studying efforts. Some PhDs require GRE subject tests, in which case you should prep to excel there as well.
By contrast, if your program isn’t terribly competitive, it may not make as much sense to put in hours of studying to get a perfect GRE score, when just getting scores in the 150s would more than suffice for admission.
How Important Are GRE Scores to My Application?
In general, if a program asks for your GRE scores, they do consider them a non-negligible part of the application. A top score will help you stand out, and a low score will raise red flags.
There are, however, select programs—especially ones that base your candidacy primarily on creative work or auditions—that require GRE scores so you can be accepted to the grad school overall, but don’t base your candidacy on GRE scores except insofar as a dangerously low score will disqualify you. In these cases, a top GRE score really won’t help you get admitted and you are better off spending that time honing whatever creative or professional product you need to send to the admissions committee. Study enough that your scores won’t be in the tank, but don’t stress yourself over getting a top score.
If you’re not sure if this applies to a program you are interested in, call the admissions office. You can also look on Reddit or Grad Cafe for the forum related to the school or the type of graduate study you are interested in to get advice from current and former students.
Am I Compensating for a Weakness in My Application?
Even at less selective programs, there may be times where it is advantageous to go for a top (or at least very high) GRE score. This is especially true when you are compensating for a weakness in your application like a below-average GPA. In that case, a max GRE score will help reassure the admissions committee that you have a high aptitude and work ethic and are ready for graduate-level work.
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What’s a Good Score for My Program?
Obviously a top score is a good score for any program. But at what point for a given program is your GRE score competitive?
This is pretty easy to figure out if the school provides statistics on the GRE scores of admitted students. If they provide an average score, a standout score is one several points above that average. So if University of Mordor’s average Verbal score is 151 and their average Quant score is 152, a record of Verbal 153 / Quant 156 would stand out from the crowd. If they provide a percentile range, a score at the top or a couple points above that range will make you a standout applicant. (This is in terms of test scores, at least—don’t forget the other stuff they are looking for!) So if University of Gondor accepts students in the 70th-75th percentile range of GRE scores, scores of 158-159 Verbal and 160-161 Quant would be good for that program.
If the program does not provide any information on GRE scores of applicants, it’s a little tougher to figure out what a “good” score is. You could call the admissions office to consult with them or talk to current and former students. The pages for specific universities or professional fields on Reddit or Grad Cafe might be a good place to look. As a general rule of thumb, the more competitive a program is, the higher your GRE score needs to be to be considered “good.” To get a sense of a program’s competitiveness, look at admit rates, program rankings, and so on.
For more guidance on what GRE score you need for your program, see our guide to what a good GRE score is.
Key Takeaways: What Is the Highest GRE Score? Do You Need It?
The top GRE score is a 170 on Verbal, a 170 on Quant, and a 6 on Analytical Writing. Less than 1% of students receive a 170 on Verbal, 3% receive a 170 on Quant, and 1% of students receive a 6 on Analytical Writing. In order to get that perfect score on Verbal or Quant, you need to get all of the questions on that section correct.
A max GRE score will both make you a more competitive applicant and help increase your eligibility for any merit scholarships offered by your program of choice (if they have them).
But do you really need a perfect GRE score? Consider:
- If your program is competitive, striving for a perfect score is a good investment. If your program isn’t that competitive, it may not be worth the time investment unless you are going for a scholarship.
- Also, consider how important the GRE score is for your given program. If it’s very important for admission, again, it may be worth it to go for that top score. If it’s a fairly small piece, you may want to spend that time working on other parts of your application.
- A perfect score may also be something to strive for if you need to compensate for a weakness in your application, like a low college GPA.
Beyond the question of if you need a top score or not, you may be wondering what a good GRE score is for you. Consider:
- If the school provides average GRE scores or percentile ranges for applicants, the higher your score is above that, the better it is for that program. But after a certain point a points boost won’t help you too much, especially if your application is missing essential qualifications.
- If it doesn’t provide an average, your main thing to consider if how competitive the program is. The more competitive it is, the higher your score needs to be to be considered good.
So now you can determine if you need to begin a quest for GRE score perfection!
You know the highest score—now check out our article on the lowest score. Or see our complete guide to what makes a good GRE score. We can also tell you what scores you need for graduate school scholarships.