The question a lot of folks out there still seem to be facing is “What exactly is the GRE score range?” (Trust me – most popular GRE search queries on Google include: “GRE max score”, “highest GRE score”, and “GRE total score”. You overachievers aren’t fooling anyone.) Pre-2012, we all become so accustomed to that nice-sounding 800 scale. Shooting for a 700 meant something. But this “new” GRE score scale is a doozy to wrap your head around, at least initially. Okay, I’ll jump right in.
New GRE score range
Highest GRE score
So there you have it. The scale runs from 130 to 170 in both sections and the highest score you can achieve is a 340 combined. As you can see, the new (okay, it’s not so new anymore) GRE score range isn’t exactly the most straightforward scale. Your maximum score in each section is 170? A total of 340? Yeah it’s definitely strange to wrap your head around. It’s hard to know exactly what a good score is. Also pretty hard to get excited about.
“Yay! I got 165 in math! I’m so smart!” you’ll exclaim to your friends and family, who will already be dialing up the looney bin to cart you off. (For your quick edification: a 165 translates to about the 90th percentile.)
GRE total score in The “middle” range
Many aim for the skies and think of their goals in terms of a perfect score — a 170. But the reality is many of us don’t need to attain such a lofty score. Instead, your program might only require that you score 150 in each section. Just how difficult is that? Wouldn’t it just be a 50 percentile score since 150 is smack dab in the middle of 130 and 170?
It’s actually not that straightforward. In fact, it differs for each section.
On the math section, a 150 means that you scored better than 39% of test takers, whereas a 150 in verbal means you did better than 47% of test takers. Sure, these numbers differ pretty substantially (guess which section is harder?) but what’s interesting is that both percentiles are less than 50%, with the math section being significantly so. If you haven’t taken the test yet, and are worried about breaking 150 in each section, you don’t have to worry nearly as much as you would if a 150 in both sections corresponded to a 50th percentile mark.
If you have taken the test and were, say, a 145 scorer in both sections (that works out to a 26% in the verbal and a 20% in math) then your road to improvement is pretty steep, but very doable. That might sound counterintuitive. Why would a steep increase in percentages make something more doable? Well, imagine you had to go from an 80% to a 99%, which is the same percentage difference as that between a 39% and a 20%. That’s going from better than most to the best of the best. That is really hard to do. On the other hand, many of those who score low went in cold turkey (or at least lukewarm turkey). By prepping hard for a month or two, you should be able to jump from the lowly 20s to the semi-respectable 37% — a mere five points, but to some the difference between getting into a program and not getting into a program.
What’s up with this new GRE max score & score scale?
I know it seems like the ETS came up with a pretty arbitrary scale, but I promise they had their reasoning. In fact, once you understand the percentiles, I think it’s all pretty smartly conjured up.
Most notably, and most impactful, is the decision on a one-point scale, instead the traditional ten-point scale. Why’d they do this? This is from the brochure they put out on the matter:
“For example, in the case of the Quantitative Reasoning scale, this will reduce the portion of test takers’ scores that are “bunched” at the upper end of the scale — as has been the case in the past — providing better differentiation between top-scoring applicants.”
That’s actually really useful to admissions committees looking at bunch of really high scoring applicants. While many may argue that the old scale could have done the same, it would have been hard to make that change because of legacy scores. Sure they could’ve easily started spreading the top quant scores more evenly in the upper 600s and and 700s, but that would’ve created a lot of confusion and consternation if adcoms were to compare an applicant who’d taken the old version version the new one. The one-point scale is a great way to press the restart button.
A scale to avoid confusion
Relatedly, they intelligently made the decision to make scores (nearly) impossible to mix up with the old scores. They knew there would be a lot of confusion when the revised scores started rolling around, so they made sure that it was tough for those adcoms still scratching their heads to mix a new score with an old score. For example, a perfect quant score?
That’s an entirely impossible score to get on the old GRE score scale. There’s absolutely no overlap between a single section old score and a single section new score. You’d have to try really hard to mix up the scores, though if an adcom confuses your new combined score as old single section score, he or she should probably put the applications down and take a coffee break because your future’s in dangerous hands.
And a conspiracy, naturally
Another thought I have about this whole GRE score range topic is the ETS’s massive push to be accepted by business schools. An entirely different scale is a way for the GRE to differentiate itself from the GMAT, which is score on a range from 200-800. After all, 170 is suspiciously close to the minimum 200 but not close enough to be lumped together. Had it been 190, then that would form a natural continuum of 10 point increments from 10. 180, which is tops on the LSAT, is somewhat close to 200 (20 point increments seem kindred). So, hmm, the GRE probably thought, what is a number that is cut off enough from 200 but that still allows for three digits to be entered into the scoring box? (apparently, they wanted to keep that consistent from the old GRE, which had two 800 sections).
Of course, I can’t really prove this and knowing whether it is this true won’t hurt your score. But, hey, it never hurts to indulge in a little speculation. Especially when it comes to the epic GMAT vs. GRE showdown.
For now, know your GRE score range by looking at this ETS percentile chart. That will give you a sense of how much you need to improve both in terms of points and the percent of test takers you need to do better than.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in May 2013 and has been updated for freshness, accuracy, and comprehensiveness.