Getting a Good GRE Score: Ultimate Guide

Understanding the GRE

What is the GRE?

GRE exam concept

The GRE (Graduate Record Examination) is used as part of the admissions for a wide range of graduate school programs, including Law, Engineering and Psychology programs, as well as Business School. It has been created and is managed by the ETS (Educational Testing Service).

Which makes sure that the GRE content is up to date, meets the Educational Testing Service ETS standards and is testing students at a high level. The ETS also use the GRE exam to test new questions and complete research on students’ abilities and answering techniques, to inform future tests.

The GRE test is designed to assess students’ ability to complete math problems, form logical arguments, express these in good written English, and to evaluate logical thinking and integrated reasoning skills.

All of these skills will be required at graduate school programs, which is why the GRE is used as a benchmark assessment tool. It also helps to evaluate if the student is capable of working under pressure and preparing well to get a good score, which they’ll be expected to do throughout the graduate program.

This article looks at the GRE General Exam, which the majority of students will take. There are also GRE specific exams for Biology, Mathematics, and Psychology, which your program may require.

Who should take the GRE?

Students should take the GRE if they’re applying for a graduate program at a graduate school, like Harvard Law or an Engineering program. The GRE is the most widely accepted test for these schools, and test scores will be a requirement for your school application.

Some students choose to complete the GMAT instead, but this is specifically for applying to Business Schools or MBA programs. If you’re undecided about which path you want to take or know that you want to pursue a degree outside of Business and MBA, then the GRE is the best route for you. This article looks at the General GRE exam, but there are also specific tests for Biology, Chemistry, Literature, Maths, Physics, and Psychology.

What sections are in the GRE?

The GRE is a reasonably long exam and has six parts. It’s the only graduate admissions test that allows you to answer questions outside of the given order. You can answer the sections in any order, skip questions, return to them later, and go back to change your answers.

The GRE exam is usually taken on a computer in a certified Educational Testing Service ETS center, but paper tests are also available. The GRE tests are 3 hours and 45 minutes long with a short break in the middle, so you’ll need to develop test stamina as well as knowledge and answer strategies.

The structure of the GRE is split into three main test areas:

  • Analytical Writing Section- 1 hour – 2 writing tasks
  • Verbal Reasoning – 1 hour – 2 sections of 20 questions
  • Quantitive Reasoning – 1 hour 10 minutes – 2 sections of 20 questions

The GRE is technically six timed sections, as each of these topics has two sections to complete. You can choose the order in which you will complete the questions, so if you know you need to work through the maths first, you can! Be sure to factor in time to check your answers, too. Let’s break down these analytical, verbal, and quantitative sections and understand more about the testing.

Analytical Writing Section – This writing section splits into two separately timed tasks, and they’re each 30 minutes in length. They are both writing tasks designed to assess your reading comprehension, text completion, and sentence equivalence. One task will be to ‘Analyze an Issue’ and the second to ‘Analyze an Argument.’

Within each section, you’ll have a piece of text to read, digest, and assess the key points. The GRE text topic could be about social issues, business, or politics, and you are not expected to have a deep understanding or knowledge of the subject.

The GRE test asks you to demonstrate your analytical writing skills, so you’ll be expected to write at a high level of English and structure to your response to the text. Use past papers and practice questions to practice for this section, and write essays. Focus on structure, including high-level vocabulary, sentence structures, and language skills.

Verbal Reasoning – This verbal reasoning section is made up of two sets of 20 multiple choice questions, following a series of texts. Again these could be on any topic; they may be political or could be example newspaper articles or story extracts. Don’t be put off by the term ‘verbal’ as this is more of a reading comprehension section.

You will be asked to read the short text and answer 3 to 4 multiple-choice questions. Each section usually has 4 to 6 text extracts and 20 multiple choice questions in total. The questions have been specifically designed to test your ability to recognize links among words and concepts, analyze written material, distill information from it, and evaluate relationships in sentence structures.

To achieve a good score in this section, make sure you have practiced reading comprehension skills by exposing yourself to a wide variety of texts and practice questions.

Quantitative Reasoning Section – These GRE quantitative sections are made up of two sets of 20 questions and are designed to assess your mathematical skills and quantitative reasoning. Many students find this section the most challenging, as a majority don’t math throughout college unless they took a math or science major.

The Quantitative reasoning section requires you to demonstrate necessary mathematical skills, understanding of basic mathematical concepts, and the ability to reason quantitatively. You will also need to model and solve problems with quantitative methods.

You are expected to have a basic knowledge of Algebra, Arithmetic, Geometry, and Data Analysis to be able to apply context and math to these problems. The test is also looking for test-takers to apply logic and reasoning to their problem-solving. There is an on-screen GRE calculator available for you to use to assist with the Quantitative Reasoning sections.

How is the GRE scored?

Exam test and pencils

The GRE scores system is complex and can be difficult for students and admissions officers to quickly read, as each section has a different scoring range. GRE scores are usually always presented by section, and rarely by overall score.

This is because the total score does not fairly represent the breakdown across sections and could misrepresent your skills and weaknesses. By separating the scores, it’s clear to you and the admissions teams where your strengths and weaknesses lie.

Depending on the program, it might be more important to get a higher score on one section compared to the others, and this is clearly identified with section scoring.

The GRE sections are scored separately;

  • Analytical Writing Section – scaled score – 0–6 points (in 0.5 point increments)
  • Verbal Reasoning – scaled score – 130–170 points
  • Quantitative Reasoning – scaled score -130–170 points

This seems straight forward, but the GRE scores are rarely presented as one score. You have to look at the scores of each section for each student. The scores are also combined with the three topic areas, rather than 6 question sections, so you’ll get three scores.

For example, you may score 155 on Math, 161 on Verbal, and 4.5 on writing. When this is put together as a whole score, it’s 320.5, but this doesn’t indicate the breakdown of your test, and it’s not helpful to college admissions.

The GRE is unique in that two of the six sections are included for research purposes, and are not scored or assessed. These sections are included to help the governing body test new questions and continuously improve the GRE exam. You will not be able to identify which parts are for research purposes, and so you need to put your best effort into all six GRE sections, even though only four of them will go towards your GRE score.

Understanding your score

Good Grade

What is a good GRE score?

Getting a great or good GRE score is important to get into the graduate school program of your dreams, and you’ll need to get a high GRE score to stand out from other applicants. The GRE test is deliberately challenging to complete and is a long exam that requires nearly 4 hours of focus and concentration.

Don’t be disheartened if, in your first practice test, you’re getting more questions wrong than write, because over time and with the preparation, you can boost your score and be ready for the real exam.

Everyone is different, and students that take the GRE will have different ambitions of getting into graduate schools, so it’s difficult and unhelpful to identify what a good GRE score is.

We can, however, look at the expectations of grad schools and programs, and use this as a benchmark to compare GRE scores. We can also look at the maximum scores available, and the average scores provide by the ETS. That will help you to identify your target GRE score.

The verbal and quantitative sections are both marked out of 170 points, so we can say that a good GRE score is in the score range of 150 to 160 points. A high GRE score is in the score range of 160 to 170 and is the highest score achieved by those test-takers who work hard and prep for the GRE. The writing tasks are marked out of 6 and in half-point increments. A good score for this section would be 4 to 5, and a great score would be 5 to 6.

Across all test takers, the ETS provides a report with average test takers scores from 2015 – 2018. The mean average scores for the GRE’s Verbal section is 150 points and 153 points for the Quantitative sections. The mean score for the GRE’s Analytical Writing section is 3.55 points.

Set your target score

When you’re completing prep to take the GRE, it’s great to have an average GRE score to work towards and set as your guide or target. We recommend having a target GRE score for each section and including these in your study plan. A good way to set your target is to research the expectations of the school or program that you’re applying to as most will have this listed on their website as entry requirements.

When building your study plan and target GRE scores, it’s a good idea also to complete a full-length GRE test. This will give you a clear starting point and help to shape the GRE prep that you’ll need to complete.

You’ll be able to mark your scores on the quantitative and verbal sections using the answer guide provided, or marking will be included in the GRE course you have enrolled in. There may be essay feedback included in the courses, or you may need to critically review your own work and build on your GRE practice and understanding.

What is a bad GRE score?

It’s tough to say what a ‘bad’ GRE score is, as it’s all about perspective and can depend on the program you want to get into. It’s best to set yourself a target and work towards this, rather than thinking about the worst outcomes.

That being said, most programs and schools have a cut-off score, which is the lowest score that they will accept for applications to that program. This is to ensure that all students meet a certain level, and will be able to cope with the demanding nature of the program.

We recommend that you research the program you’re applying for and check to see if there is a minimum required GRE score. You can then factor this into your target score and GRE study.

If, when you take the GRE, you are not happy with your score or it’s not high enough, you can retake the test again in a few months. Make sure that you increase your GRE study and work harder to achieve your goal. You may want to enroll in a GRE prep course to help to boost your score.

The ETS allows you only to send your best scores to colleges, so even if you take the test more than once, you won’t have to reveal your previous score. If your score is slightly lower than expected, then take some time to review your whole application and make some enhancements that will help to get your application considered.

Understanding your Percentile score

When you receive your GRE score report, you’ll get three separate scores for the three sections, and also a percentile score, which is phrased as ‘Below %.’ This can be a confusing way to display your percentage and is easy to misunderstand.

So what does Below % mean? If your score report says ‘Below % – 80%,’ it means 80% of the test takers scored below your score. This represents hundreds of thousands of test-takers that have previously completed this exam. You can see how your score compares to theirs. The higher the percentage, the better, as this means fewer people have reached this score.

The percentile score is a quick and easy way for schools and graduate programs to assess the performance of each student quickly and can be simpler to digest than the actual score. This is mainly in the written section, as the points are so close to each other; a percentile score gives a good snapshot, first glance.

Using your score in your school application

Cheerful student

GRE is one of the only tests that lets you choose which scores get sent to the schools. So if you’ve completed the GRE, not gotten the scores you’d like and retaken, you can choose only to send your second set of scores to the school. This is a great tool that many people use if they haven’t got their ideal score the first time around, or if they want to take the GRE as a practice test before enrolling on a GRE study program.

When completing your application for the graduate program or business school, you can include your GRE scores in the body of your application, as well as on the GRE score report. Make sure also to boost your academic success, hobbies, and interests and community work, which will compliment your GRE score and give you the best chance of being accepted.

GRE to GMAT Conversion

If you’ve got GRE scores but want to apply to business school, you can use GRE to GMAT conversion, which will help the business school to review your application.

Business schools mostly accept the GMAT score as their baseline for comparing applicants, and so most students that know that they want to study at business school would have completed the GMAT. This can put your application at a disadvantage, as it’s more difficult for the admissions team to review your application against the GMAT guide scores.

You can, however, use the GRE to GMAT conversion, which gives the school an indication of what your GMAT score may have been. It’s important to remember that the GMAT is a Computer Adaptive Test, which means that in the verbal and quantitative section, the question difficulty is lower to higher, depending on the answers you have provided. Therefore your GRE conversion score can never be a true representation of what your GMAT score could have been, and you may be underselling yourself.

How to complete the GRE

GRE exam concept

1 – Choose your school – Firstly, choose the school or program that you would like to be a part of. When you leave college and start your career, you may find that studying a graduate program is essential or preferable to get you onto the career ladder and closer to success. For example, an MBA is a great tool for those working in business, but a specific Engineering Post-Grad Program may be essential for you to pursue your career goals. It’s best to apply to more than one program or school and have a plan to fall back on if you’re not accepted.

2 – Find the average score for those schools – Next, do your research and find out what the average, lowest, and highest GRE scores are for getting accepted into the program. This information may be available on their website, student forums, or in the school prospectus. If you can’t find the information online, consider phoning the admissions department and asking directly what score they expect from students that apply, and how important they weigh GRE scores in the application process. Use your research to set yourself a target score and a study plan for how you will achieve this.

3 – Register for the test – Once you’ve decided to take the GRE, you can register to take the test. Think about the timeline that you have and how many months are between now and submitting your college application. How long will you need to study? How much time will you commit to GRE study? Register for the GRE exam on the ETS website. Most students opt to take the computer test, but if you have a disability or need to take the test at home, you can register for a paper test. There are many locations across the US, so there should be a test center close to you. Many centers run two tests per day, the morning and the evening, and have good capacity.

4 – Prepare for the GRE Test – When you’ve got a date set, it’s time to start thinking about studying! To get a great score, you’ll need to work hard on your GRE knowledge, answering strategies, and exam techniques. We recommend enrolling on a GRE Prep course, which are available online or in-person from providers like Magoosh, The Princeton Review, and Manhattan Prep. These courses range in price and quality, and it’s important to know what the resources and structure will be like before you sign on the dotted line. Check out our GRE review article, where we have reviewed the best GRE Prep Courses available.

5 – Take the GRE Test – It’s test day! By now, you’ve compiled lots of practice tests and GRE prep. You know your strengths and weaknesses and the average GRE scores you’re looking to achieve. This test is long at nearly 4 hours, so try to focus, stay hydrated, stretch your legs in the break, and remember everything from your GRE practice. On test day, you’ll need to add the details of who you want your score to go to, so make sure you have these to hand.

6 – Submit your score – Around 10 to 15 days after your exam, you will receive your scores, and they will be sent to the schools of your choice. This will all be electronic, and you can print them if you wish. Hopefully, your hard work has paid off, and you’ve got the score you were hoping for.

7 – Revise and Retake – If you didn’t get the score you were hoping for, then it’s time to revise and retake the GRE. You can retake the exam 21 days after your last exam, and up to 5 times in a year. Make sure you have enough time to study and focus on the areas where you didn’t do so well last time. You may want to consider a private tutor, or help from a friend to push you over the line and get you ready to retake the test.

How to prepare for the GRE

Student exam

The GRE is a large exam with six sections to complete in over 3 hours. When you break down the sections, there’s only about a minute or so to answer each multiple-choice question, so you need to be rapid with your thinking and correct in your answers.

The best way to get a great score is to prepare! There are many GRE prep courses available online; some are Free GRE resources or free trials, which you can get from larger learning platforms. They can help you to fill gaps in your learning.

We recommend enrolling in a GRE prep course, either online, which is the most common, or in person. These online programs will help you to get your ideal score through a range of learning methods. These include video lessons, live online lessons, practice GRE tests. Some tests are full length, with lots of practice questions and strategies to answer questions quickly.

You will also have a well-built study plan and guide, the option of tutoring at additional cost, and support from classmates who are also studying. Completing proper GRE prep is the best way to get the GRE score that you want, and get into the school or program that you’re applying for.

Have a look at our best GRE Prep Courses article where we review the best online and in-person GRE prep courses available from companies like Kaplan, Manhattan Prep, and The Princeton Review. We look at the pros, cons, guide materials, and resources each company offers, and compare the prices, too.

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