What is a good GRE score?: understanding score thresholds

Davis: Hey everybody, this is GRE Bites. My name is Davis, and I’m an educator with over ten years of experience.

Orion: And I’m Orion, the founder of StellarGRE.

Davis: We’re here to bring you your weekly bite-sized episode on GRE prep and grad school admissions. Check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at stellargre.com. And don’t forget, you can use the code “BITES” for 10% off any membership.

So, let’s get to the topic of today, which is kind of nebulous, kind of general, but we can get a well-rounded understanding here. What is a good GRE score? Someone saying, “I want to go into the GRE; I want to get a good score.” What does that mean? What are the ways to look at this question?

Orion: Yeah, it is kind of nebulous. It’s also the single most frequent question I get as a GRE instructor: “What is a good GRE score?” And I have to give a really unsatisfying answer, because the answer is, it depends. I will explain that, so it’ll become slightly less unsatisfying.

Davis: Why does it depend?

Orion: Well, there’s a number of things to consider. First of all, we have to appreciate that no one gets into grad schools because of their GRE scores.

Davis: You’ve talked about this before. A GRE score is a means for universities or applications offices to reject people under a certain threshold, but not the token of admission.

Orion: Correct. It gives graduate programs a legally defensible way to reject otherwise qualified applicants. Because these programs have a problem; they have to reject sometimes 95% of applicants. And these are genuinely very ambitious, intelligent, hardworking folks, just like yourself, dear listener, and so they have to reject on some basis.

And this is the easiest, most legally defensible way to reject qualified applicants. GSB, the Graduate School of Business at Stanford, one of the top business schools in the world, has an admissions rate of 6%. That’s 19 out of 20 people getting told no. So, the best possible outcome on the GRE is not the securement of a positive; it’s the avoidance of a negative. I got a perfect score on the test. I still was rejected by more programs than accepted me; it wasn’t like people were calling me up and begging me to come to their program. And that was literally the best score you could possibly get.

Davis: So, what is, just so we have a baseline, what is a perfect score? What are the numbers?

Orion: Okay, a perfect score is a 340. Combined, that means you’re getting a 170 on both the quant and the verbal and a six on the writing section. So, let’s break that down. Each major section, the verbal and the quant, has scaled scores ranging from 130 to 170, in one-point increments. The median for the verbal is a 150. The median for the quant is 152.

Davis: Just a question, median meaning 50th percentile?

Orion: Yes, exactly. This is based on the global standardization sample that ETS did several years ago. Most folks are surprised the quant median is higher than the verbal. And that’s because the standardization sample was composed of a significant number of international students; one-third of that sample took the test from outside of the country. English is spoken in many parts of the world as a primary language, but obviously as a secondary language in many parts.

And I think that’s what dragged down the verbal sample median relative to the quant sample median, which basically means that you have to perform better on the quant to get a comparable score on the verbal; you have to answer more questions right to get the same scaled score.
My general rule of thumb is that a 150 is the threshold of non-embarrassing.

Davis: Okay, what does that mean?

Orion: That means that if you can score at a 150 or above, you should not be embarrassed. You should be proud of your score because it means that you outperformed half of the people around the world who are trying to become doctors. You’re better than most. By statistical definition, you are better than most; that is not embarrassing.

Davis: Good.

Orion: And for a lot of programs, that’s actually good enough, really okay.

Davis: So, I was going to ask, different universities, different types of schools, different programs will, I’m assuming, have their own thresholds, of course. That will object, did not, and your, what you’re saying is that in a majority, what is it, a majority of universities, getting that 151, 132, or above, but that’s good enough to submit your application and not be rejected by the majority.

Orion: Potentially, there are so many universities and colleges and grad school programs in the world, and they’re not all going to be top 10 programs, right? So maybe it is good enough for the majority of programs. Most programs do not have a hard and fast threshold with respect to the GRE, i.e., you have to score above this score to be considered. But if they do, it’s probably at 150.

Okay. And again, that’s the threshold, and it’s not embarrassing, so you might have a program. I don’t know if Stanford does this, but a program like Stanford might say, we have a GRE median, we have a GRE threshold of 150. Yeah, but getting a 151 isn’t going to get you into Stanford. And so saying that you need to score at level 150, it’s such an easy thing for Stanford to say, it’s non-competitive for Stanford, it’s so low that they’re basically casting a very wide net with respect to their potential applicants. But for other programs, I’ve helped a number of students get into the low 150s, and that was good enough for them to secure admission to their programs of interest, for sure.

Davis: That’s great. So this answer of “it depends,” a lot of it depends on where you’re trying to get. Of course, a good GRE score always depends on your program of interest. And a good GRE score is one in which you outperform your competitors. And the best way to figure that out is to do some research on what were the median scores for successful applicants to that program of interest. And that’s publicly available information.

Orion: It depends. Business schools, because they’re dealing with business students, are really like, “Give me the facts. Give me the numbers. What’s the bottom line?” Business schools publish these GRE medians. Traditional master’s programs, not PhD programs, do not. And if you ask the admissions departments what they’re looking for, which is a terrible question, by the way, you’re going to get a very evasive answer, because anything they write to you will be legally binding. And the whole point of this test is to be able to reject people without getting sued. So, they don’t want to say something that’s going to bite them later, further down the road.

So a better question is, “What was the median score for successful applicants to last year’s entering class?” They absolutely have that number because it’s submitted to ranking programs like US News and World Report. In fact, the median score of successful applicants, in terms of the GRE, accounts for, I think, like an eighth to a fifth, somewhere between 12.5 percent and 20 percent, of a program’s ranking in the US News and World Report algorithm.

Davis: Wow. So one of the main drivers of ranking is the median GRE score, so they absolutely have it because all these programs want to be ranked by US News. However, they have no obligation to give it to you just because you asked. So it’s a good idea to kind of like butter up whoever you’re talking to before you ask. It kind of depends on who you get on the phone and what mood they’re in that day. But a good enough score is always based on your competition. If you can score at or around that median, it’s good enough. Do you have any examples of like top programs in these fields?

Orion: Well, like I said, business schools publish their medians online, so it’s much easier to know what those are. I’ve looked at the top 15 business schools; they all take the GRE, as well as the GMAT. See our episode on whether we should take the GRE versus the GMAT for more information on that. It looks like the school with the highest median in the top 15 has a tie at Stanford with a combined score of 330, which is a 165 split, and Yale, which again is 330, with a 165 split. Business schools tend to prioritize the quant score a bit more than the verbal.

Other programs do it the other way around. They don’t break it down often by quant versus verbal; they get the combined scores, which means that you can probably make up a few points in your stronger section and still hit your targets. So, what that also means is, if you’re gunning for Stanford and you do get a combined score of 330, well, first of all, congratulations. That’s awesome. Secondly, that’s good enough; taking the test again to try to get a combined score of 335 is not going to significantly increase your chances of getting into Stanford at that point. You’ve dodged the bullet. You’re above the 90th percentile already, but more importantly, you’re above the 50th percentile with respect to your competition, which means you’re better than most of your competition for that program. That’s what makes that a good score. Doing better does not make you more competitive. If you’ve dodged the bullet, now they’re going to look more closely at your application to determine goodness of fit. And that’s actually how people get in.

So, 150 is the threshold of non-embarrassing. 160 is the threshold of competitiveness in the vast majority, if you can score at or above 160 on both, you’re at least at a 320 combined. That’s a competitive score for the vast majority of programs on the planet. It still might not be competitive for like the top 10 business schools in the world, or some top 10 programs in other disciplines, but certainly above 160 on both will make you competitive for 90% of grad school programs in the world. So, that’s kind of my explanation for why it depends. A good score is always a good enough score relative to your competition for that specific program. And if you can score at or around that level, you’re good to go. That’s a good score.

Davis: Awesome. Well, if this was a question you’ve been wanting to know, now you have your homework: find the median score of your target university or program you’re looking to get into. Thanks, everybody. Thank you, Orion, for explaining that.

Thanks, everybody, for tuning in. We’ll be back next week with another bite-sized episode of GRE Bites. If you have a topic you’d like discussed on a future episode, let us know at stellargre@gmail.com. And if you’re ready to take your prep to the next level, check out our top-rated GRE self-study program at stellargre.com. You can use the code “BITES” for 10% off all memberships there. Talk to you soon.

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