GRE scores – How to reach your target school

Tyler York
Even old school Oxford University accepts the GRE for MBA applications.

Preparing for graduate school is challenging. There are a lot of things to consider, such as whether you should take the GMAT vs. GRE, and which schools to target. One of the biggest factors of all is your GRE scores: great scores open up better schools, while weaker scores can make applying to those schools more difficult.

Below, Achievable and our GRE Expert walk you through how to choose a test, understand what score you need, and evaluate what you need to do to reach your target GRE score.

GMAT vs. GRE

The most significant difference between the GMAT and the GRE is that the GRE is used as part of admissions for a wide variety of graduate school programs, while the GMAT is only used to apply to business schools.

The GRE also doesn’t have the same focus on logic and reasoning as does the GMAT, particularly the GMAT Quantitative section. Removing this added complexity makes the GRE an easier test for most test takers.

GRE generally offers better admissions chances – in the most prestigious business schools, the median accepted GRE scores are an average of 9 percentile points lower than median GMAT scores:

  1. Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania: 96th percentile for GMAT; 85th percentile for GRE
  2. Stanford Graduate School of Business: 96th percentile for GMAT; 91st percentile for GRE
  3. Harvard Business School: 96th percentile for GMAT; 88th percentile for GRE

We feel pretty strongly that the GRE exam is the best choice. For more detail, read our GRE expert’s post on GMAT vs. GRE.

Taking the GRE Exam

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Taking the GRE

The Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) tests verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, analytical writing, and critical thinking skills.

The GRE General Test is administered as an adaptive, computer-based exam. The test is three hours and forty five minutes long, divided into six sections. Test takers receive one minute breaks after each section, and a ten minute break halfway through the exam.

First is analytical writing, with two separately timed issue and argument essays. The next five sections consist of two verbal reasoning sections, two quantitative reasoning sections, and an experimental section – in any order. The experimental section does not count towards your score, but there is no way to tell it apart from the other sections while you’re sitting for the exam.

The exam is typically proctored at an official testing center. However, since COVID-19, the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which owns and administers the GRE, has been letting students take the test at home.

GRE scores are valid for five years.

Good GRE scores

Whenever you take the GRE, you decide whether to send those scores to schools and what scores you want them to see. You are allowed to retake the test up to five times in a calendar year, provided you wait three weeks between subsequent administrations. These are all part of the ScoreSelect® option, only available with GRE tests.

So what qualifies as a good GRE score? The GRE is composed of three main sections, scored individually:

Verbal Reasoning

Scored between 130 (minimum) to 170 (perfect), in 1 point increments

Quantitative Reasoning

Scored between 130 (minimum) to 170 (perfect), in 1 point increments

Analytical Writing

Scored between 0–6, in half point increments

The GRE’s max score is 340 (combined scores range from 260-340). A combined 50th percentile scaled score is a 304, constituted by a 151 on Verbal and a 153 on Quantitative. The Analytical Writing average is 3.6.

GRE scores are a targeting exercise

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Setting your target GRE score

However, it is the average GRE score for your particular program at your target school which is much more important and should be the  score you aim to exceed. These scores are determined by school, but to give you some context, here’s nationwide averages for popular majors:

Masters DegreeAverage 

Verbal

GRE 

Percentile

Average QuantitativeGRE 

Percentile

Business15050%15350%
Engineering14950%16070%
Social sciences15360%15140%
Physical sciences15150%15860%
Life sciences15150%15140%
Arts and humanities15770%15040%

Source: ETS.org

Notice a pattern? Verbal is pretty consistent, while Quantitative is the difference between majors. If you’re pursuing a math-based degree, you will need to do well in the Quantitative section.

Mapping your GRE score versus percentiles

Getting into business school, graduate school, or other programs that require a GRE score are incredibly competitive. The top 10 business schools have an average acceptance rate of just 10.9%, and top tier graduate programs have similar rates. Getting a top-percentile GRE score for both Quantitative and Verbal gives you a big advantage when applying to graduate schools.

GRE score percentiles:

GRE Score PercentileQuantitativeVerbalAnalytical Writing
99%1701696.0
90%1671625.0
80%1621584.5
70%159155
60%1561534.0
50%1531513.6

Source: ETS.org

To put this into context, let’s share the GRE score percentiles for a couple top programs:

What GRE score do I need to get into Harvard?

Average GRE Scores and Percentiles for Harvard
DegreeAverage Verbal ScorePercentileAverage Quantitative ScorePercentile
Business (MBA)1659616382
Engineering1608516792
Computer Science1556916178
Mathematics1659616792
Psychology1639315453
Physics1679816790
Chemistry1546416382
Education1639315867

Source: ETS.org

What GRE score do I need to get into Stanford?

Average GRE Scores and Percentiles for Stanford
DegreeAverage Verbal ScorePercentileAverage Quantitative ScorePercentile
Business (MBA)1659616586
Engineering1598216793
Computer Science1608616487
Mathematics1659616792
Psychology1639315453
Physics1679816790
Chemistry1649416382
Education1618815660

Source: ETS.org

As you can see, you don’t need to be above the 90th percentile for even the top schools. But it is important to understand the target score needed for your top school and your target program.

Taking a GRE practice test

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Take a practice test

Now that you have a sense for your target GRE score, you need to understand how much work you have to do to get there. Taking a practice test at the beginning of your studies is essential for understanding how far you have to go and how long you should be prepared to study. It is best to take the test uninterrupted and time it to ensure you get the most accurate score.

By comparing your practice test scores with your goals, you will know what areas to work on to improve. You can use the incremental difference to adjust your study hours, depending on how far away you are from your target scores.

The industry estimate is that increasing your score 5 points on the GRE takes 40 hours. Study habits vary and learning speed depends on the individual, but it’s good to put the numbers down to be realistic about how much work you have ahead of you:

  • 5 points = 40 hours
  • 10 points = 80 hours
  • 20 points = 160 hours
  • 30 points = 240 hours

To take these hours into perspective, map out how much you plan to study per week (5-10 hours a week is realistic for a busy professional, while more is possible for students and recent grads). Keep in mind that more work may be required as you approach the ceiling of the test.

Choosing a prep program

The first and most important thing to decide when choosing a prep program is how you want to prepare. At a high level, there are four main paths (ordered from most to least expensive):

  • In-person class: intense and hands on
  • Online class: watered down version of in-person classes, but still effective
  • Online self-study course: study at your own pace, motivates you to stay on task, provides analytics
  • Paper textbook: study at your own pace, entirely self-directed

In all of the above options, the quality of your course is going to vary depending on the instructor you get and the firm you work with. For online courses, the quality of the software product you’re using also makes a big impact on your studies.

Now, we would be remiss if we didn’t share the GRE course that Achievable has developed. The course combines our author’s 15+ years of GRE expertise and tutoring experience with Achievable’s industry-leading memory science technology and easy to use program. We’ve worked hard on the course material and the product, and want you to try it out for free – visit our GRE course page to give it a try.

Achievable GRE - $299
Achievable's GRE course includes endless quantitative quizzes, 10 verbal reasoning practice exams, 1,500 vocabulary flashcards, and our easy-to-read online textbook with proven strategies to hit your target score.
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