The Graduate Record Examination (GRE) is a standardized test that is often required for admission to graduate programs and business schools in the United States and other English-speaking countries. The GRE aims to measure verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, critical thinking, and analytical writing skills that have been acquired over a long period of learning.
The GRE has three sections – the Analytical Writing section, the Verbal Reasoning section, and the Quantitative Reasoning section. Each of these sections receives a separate score. The Verbal and Quantitative Reasoning sections are scored on a scale of 130 to 170, in 1-point increments. The total GRE score ranges from 260 to 340 and is calculated by adding together the Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning scores.
Along with the numeric scores, the GRE also reports percentile ranks, which indicate the percentage of test takers who scored equal to or lower than a particular score. So if you score in the 80th percentile, it means you scored higher than 80% of test takers. GRE percentiles allow you to understand how well you performed relative to other test takers.
In this comprehensive guide, we will cover everything you need to know about GRE percentiles, including:
The GRE is administered throughout the year by the Educational Testing Service (ETS). To calculate percentiles, ETS collects all the test scores over a 3-year period spanning the most recent July to June testing cycles. For example, the percentiles on the August 2022 score reports were based on tests taken between July 2019 and June 2022.
For each score point, ETS determines the percentage of test takers who scored at or below that score. This percentage becomes the percentile rank for that score. For instance, if a Verbal Reasoning score of 159 was achieved by 81% of test takers, it is in the 81st percentile. Higher percentiles correspond to better performance compared to other test takers.
Some key things to note:
Here are the latest official percentile tables released by ETS for the Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning, and Analytical Writing sections:
These percentile tables provide a snapshot of the score distribution. We can make some key observations:
ETS does not provide total GRE score percentiles, but we can estimate them using the section percentile tables.
For example, a Verbal Reasoning score of 159 is at the 81st percentile, while a Quantitative Reasoning score of 165 is at the 76th percentile. If a test taker scored 159 in Verbal and 165 in Quant, their total GRE score would be 324. We can estimate this total score to be around the 80th percentile.
However, this estimate may be a bit high, since test takers tend to score relatively higher in either Verbal or Quant. Those who score very high in one section may not necessarily achieve an equally high percentile in the other. Still, adding the percentiles gives us a reasonable approximation of the total score percentile.
GRE percentiles allow admissions committees to better evaluate applicants’ scores by providing context about their performance relative to other test takers. Here are some key ways schools use percentiles:
So in summary, percentiles add an extra datapoint for a more nuanced evaluation of applicants. But most schools still emphasize your actual scores over your percentile ranks.
ETS recalculates GRE percentiles every July based on scores from the most recent 3 years. As old scores expire and new scores get added, the distribution shifts, causing slight percentile changes year to year.
For test takers, this means the percentiles reported on your score report when you first take the GRE may differ from the percentiles seen later on school score reports. But admissions officers understand percentiles are updated annually. As long as your actual scores remain valid, minor discrepancies in associated percentiles don’t negatively impact applications.
Over the past decade, average GRE scores have steadily gone up, and as a result, percentiles associated with given scores have declined. There are a few key reasons behind this phenomenon:
So for any given score, the percentile rank has decreased because it has become more common for test takers to achieve higher scores, raising the bar for top percentile performance. But it is important to emphasize that the meaning of a particular score has remained consistent. A 165Q today indicates the same level of Quantitative reasoning ability as it did 10 years ago.
Some test takers wonder whether the GRE uses a curve system where scoring scales are adjusted based on results of the overall group on test day. However, ETS has repeatedly confirmed this is not the case.
GRE scoring is standardized and does not change in response to test taker performance. The meaning of a score is consistent across administrations. So you are only competing against a fixed standard, not against other test takers in the room.
This fixed standard helps ensure the validity and fairness of the GRE as an assessment tool. It also means there is no advantage to taking the test on an “easier” day to get curved scores. Your performance depends only on your own preparation and ability.
Since GRE scoring is standardized and not curved, there is no particular time of year that is easier or harder to take the GRE. Your scores will reflect your skills no matter when you test.
Some people think taking the GRE right after the July percentile reset might be beneficial, since the percentiles are calculated from the preceding 3 years of scores. But any percentile advantage immediately after the reset is marginal at best and levels out once enough new test takers are added to the score pool.
The best time to take the GRE is when you have sufficiently prepared and your schedules and application deadlines permit it. The only key factors are allowing enough time for preparation and having scores ready before application deadlines.
The 50th percentile, or median score, in Verbal Reasoning is around 152. For Quantitative Reasoning, the median is around 157.
Therefore, we can estimate that a total GRE score of about 309 (152V + 157Q) is around the 50th percentile currently. This means half of test takers score below 309 and half score above it.
The latest data shows that a Verbal Reasoning score of 159 is at the 81st percentile, while a Quantitative Reasoning score of 166 is at the 80th percentile.
Combining these section scores gives us an estimated total GRE score of 325 (159V + 166Q) to be around the 80th percentile. So approximately 80% of test takers score below 325 while 20% score above it.
A perfect 170 in Verbal Reasoning is at the 99th percentile. In Quantitative Reasoning, 170 is at the comparatively lower 94th percentile. This indicates top scorers are more common in Quant than Verbal.
But we can estimate that only a small fraction of test takers achieve 170 in both sections. So the maximum possible total score of 340 likely corresponds to around the 99th percentile currently.
In this comprehensive guide, we looked at how GRE percentiles are determined, what current percentiles are for different section scores, and how percentiles can aid in evaluating GRE performance. Key takeaways include:
Overall, percentiles provide helpful supplementary information when interpreting GRE scores, but your focus should remain on achieving the highest possible scores based on your ability.