How GRE scores and percentiles are calculated

The top universities in the country require a certain range of GRE scores before one is admitted to a graduate program.

To guarantee that you get into the institution and program of your choice, it is vital to know first how you would perform on the actual GRE to help you assess your readiness for it.

Knowing the particulars of GRE scoring would also be great – aside from managing your expectations, it also helps you prepare for a lot more than the exam content itself.

Are you planning to take the GRE soon and want to orient yourself with how you will be scored?

This article from our friends at Achievable will lay down the process for you and provide a detailed guide that will explain how your score and percentile will be calculated.

If you want to improve your scores, click on the link below to try Achievable GRE, the modern GRE test prep course with endless quantitative questions.

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How the GRE score and the Percentile are Calculated

by Orion Taraban (Achievable GRE)

 

Achievable GRE

What is a GRE score?

To start off, let’s define a few terminologies first.

The raw score refers to the number of items that you got right, while the scaled score is what you get when your raw score is converted based on the scale range of each section. In GRE terms, this process is called equating.

The difficulty of the GRE you took versus that of another candidate may vary, and equating is done to guarantee that average scoring will be done fairly regardless of the version of the exam taken.

Now let’s discuss how your GRE score will generally be computed. GRE scores are based on how you would fare on the actual test.

The sections vary in difficulty levels – this is one of the important factors involved in the overall score computation.

Your raw score would be sent to the e-rater, the official scoring engine of ETS, for conversion and assessment.
 

How the GRE sections are scored

Let’s proceed to the specific ways the different sections are scored. The Verbal and Quantitative sections have 2 subsections each, also called as measures. Each measure has 20 multiple-choice questions.

Verbal and Quant have a score scale of 130 being the lowest and 170 the highest, in 1-point increments.

However, since your raw score would still be converted based on a range of 130 to 170 points, it will not be your official score just yet.

Like what we’ve mentioned earlier about the levels of difficulty, ETS will still adjust your score depending on how challenging some questions are.

Both of your scores would be flashed in the computer right after you are done with the 2 sections.

On the other hand, the Analytical Writing section computes your score through both human scorers and computers.

A 6-point scale is used in scoring with half-point increments; an ETS-certified criteria is followed by a reader who is trained with identifying various essay structures and looking for whatever the prompt requires.

Then the essay is sent to the e-rater to evaluate the candidate’s writing proficiency.

If the score the reader gave the essay closely agrees to that of the e-rater, the 2 scores are averaged and will be considered the final essay score.

However, if the 2 scores don’t nearly match, a second reader assesses the essay and whatever their score is would be averaged with the first reader’s score.

The scale for the Analytical Writing section checking is as follows:
 

  • 6 – Outstanding
  • 5 – Strong
  • 4 – Adequate
  • 3 – Limited
  • 2 – Seriously Flawed
  • 1 – Fundamentally Deficient
  • 0 – Off-topic
  • NS (Not Scored)

Although there are 2 essay parts of this section – the “analyze an issue” and “analyze an argument” tasks – their scores are computed as one and are averaged to the nearest half-point.

You would have to wait for 10-15 days after completing the GRE before your score for this section is available online, together with your official scores from the Verbal and Quantitative sections.

The different sections are scored separately because there are some universities which prefer to look at specific sections when checking if an applicant is eligible for admission to a certain program or degree.

To cite as examples, if you want to be qualified for a Master’s degree in Education, your Verbal and Quantitative scores are closely looked into.

For aspiring law school students, institutions would also be very particular with your Analytical Writing scores.

Engineering programs require significantly high scores for the Quantitative section.

But although the sections are scored individually, they are still slightly related. The table below shows the correlation among the 3 different sections:
 

Tests Correlation
Verbal Reasoning & Quantitative Reasoning .33
Verbal Reasoning & Analytical Writing .66
Quantitative Reasoning & Analytical Writing .12

Source: GRE Guide to the Use of Scores 2020-21, page 18 (link)
 
To recap, the highest possible score a candidate can get in the Verbal and Quantitative sections is 170, while the lowest is 130. As for the Analytical Writing section, the lowest score is 0 and the highest is 6.
 

Can the GRE be taken multiple times?

It is actually common for candidates to take the GRE for a couple of times or until their overall exam performance improves. One can take the GRE for 5 times within a period of 1 year, with intervals of at least 21 days.

The usual question among takers is if schools would see how many times you took the GRE – the quick answer is no.

Fortunately, institutions know that a significant number of candidates are re-takers; you may actually take the test multiple times and still get admitted to your program of choice.

There are a number of schools that require you to submit all of your GRE scores to them, but there are also some who set a limit as to how many scores should be included in your application.

Tools such as the ScoreSelect lets you filter out which scores you would send out and which ones to withhold.

This is useful in highlighting only your top scores and decreases the need to cancel your scores should you be dissatisfied with them after taking the exam.

However, there are some cons to repeatedly taking the GRE, too. First, it may cost you a lot – test administration prices range from $150 to $255, depending on where you are in the world.

Second, it might consume a lot of your time as you have to do more rigorous studying until you get your desired result.

Although re-taking is common, it is still ideal to focus and put in your best effort every chance you get to take the exam in as few times as possible.
 

Understanding GRE percentiles: Difference between percentage and percentile

While a GRE score is the rating you get based on your correct answers, a percentile is calculated when your score is grouped with those of other candidates to determine the level of comparison among them within a specified period.

These are important in gauging how well candidates like you perform on each measure overall.

But first, let us differentiate 2 examination terms that are commonly used interchangeably percentage and percentile.

A percentage (%) is a unit of measurement that refers to “every hundred” and it aims to convert decimals or fractions to whole numbers.

On the other hand, percentile (pth) represents the rank of a data in a set or, simply put, where a particular score lies among other scores.

For example, your score falls on the 60th percentile. This means that you received a significantly higher score compared to the other 60% of other test-takers.
Landing on the 99th percentile means you bested the other 99% of candidates, making you a topnotcher.

Below are the percentile ranks for candidates who took the GRE from July 1, 2016 to June 30, 2019:

 

GRE score percentiles for verbal and quantitative reasoning

Scaled Score Verbal Reasoning Quantitative Reasoning
170 99 96
169 99 94
168 98 92
167 98 89
166 97 87
165 96 85
164 94 83
163 92 80
162 90 78
161 88 75
160 85 72
159 82 69
158 79 65
157 75 62
156 72 59
155 67 55
154 63 51
153 59 48
152 53 44
151 50 40
150 45 36
149 40 33
148 36 29
147 32 25
146 28 22
145 25 18
144 22 15
143 19 13
142 16 11
141 14 9
140 11 7
139 9 6
138 8 4
137 6 3
136 5 2
135 4 2
134 3 1
133 2 1
132 2
131 1
130

 

GRE Analytical Writing Score Percentiles

Score levels Analytical Writing Percentile
6.0 99
5.5 98
5.0 92
4.5 80
4.0 55
3.5 38
3.0 14
2.5 6
2.0 1
1.5
1.0
0.5
0.0

Source: GRE Guide to the Use of Scores 2020-21, page 19 (https://www.ets.org/s/gre/pdf/gre_guide.pdf)
 
The data above shows you which percentile your score will fall on basing on your scaled scores in the Verbal and Quantitative sections.

Note that in the Quantitative section, the highest score of 170 falls only on the 96th percentile, meaning only around 4% of candidates get a perfect score in the section.

For the Analytical Writing section, the numbers of test-takers who receive a score of 1.5 and below are close to 0%.
 
Percentiles are essential as graduate schools need to compare the performances of students who are pursuing different fields of study.

They often set a standard for score percentiles of applicants that’s why it is imperative for students to check how competitive the percentile scores would be for the sections that would be relevant to their degree.

Remember, competitive programs require higher percentile scores.
 

GRE & GMAT: Are they different?

The key distinction between GRE and GMAT is that the former is a requirement for admission to graduate programs (and is increasingly being accepted by business schools too), while the latter is used for business school applications.

In terms of percentile scores, competition may be less difficult in GRE because it has relatively lower percentiles compared to GMAT.

Here is a direct comparison of percentile scores between the 2 tests for 15 top business schools:
 

School GRE Percentile GMAT Percentile
University of Pennsylvania 85% 96%
Stanford University 91% 96%
Harvard University 88% 96%
Massachusetts Institute of Technology 88% 96%
University of Chicago 88% 96%
Columbia University 85% 96%
Northwestern University 85% 96%
University of California – Berkeley 84% 96%
Yale University 91% 94%
Duke University 78% 89%
University of Michigan – Ann Arbor 85% 94%
Dartmouth University 85% 94%
New York University 85% 94%
University of Virginia 81% 92%
Cornell University 80% 89%

Source: Achievable Blog: GMAT vs GRE
 

What is a good GRE score and percentile?

At this point, you might be wondering what an ideal GRE score and percentile really is.

One thing to remember is that percentiles indicate how well or poorly you performed against other candidates.

For example, a 22nd percentile score – a scaled score of 146 in the Quantitative section – is considered a low score. This means that 78% of test-takers did better than you, which is not really a nice thing for your records.

Landing on the 50th percentile means you had an average score and situates your score in the middle of the set. That’s a score of 151 in the Verbal Reasoning section and 3.5 for the Analytical Writing section.

What’s considered a high GRE score is on the 78th percentile for the Quantitative Reasoning section and the 90th percentile for the Verbal Reasoning section, which has a scaled score of 162 for both measures.

As for the Analytical Writing section, getting on the 92nd percentile (score level of 5.0) is ideal.

Setting standards for your GRE scores is very much necessary since these will be the ones to really dictate whether you can be qualified for your dream graduate study program or not.

If you’re ready to take the first step closer to obtaining that coveted postgraduate degree, check out the Achievable GRE course – a modern test prep course with endless quantitative questions. Click here to check it out.

Try Achievable GRE


 
About the Author: Orion Taraban, a master teacher with over 15 years of experience, is the driving force behind the Achievable GRE course. He has helped thousands of students pursue post-graduate degrees by improving their competitiveness on the GRE.
 
This article is part of CrystalConnect, an outreach initiative by MBA Crystal Ball.


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