Understand the GRE Scoring System

When one is planning to pursue higher studies abroad, specifically in the US, Australia or Germany, GRE scores are a mandatory application requirement for most programs. As a result, hundreds of thousands of students from all over the world take the test every year. Now, while we do know that taking the GRE and getting a good score is important for getting admitted to a well-reputed institution abroad, are we aware why graduate programs require students to take this test and how GRE scoring system works?

Let’s find out!

Why take the GRE?

GRE stands for Graduate Record Examination and is owned and administered by Education Testing Services, an educational testing and assessment organization headquartered in Princeton, New Jersey. Depending on the course that a student wishes to pursue as well as the admissions requirements of the desired program, a student can either choose to take the GRE General Test or the GRE Subject Test. The GRE Subject Test is offered in six distinct subjects which are – Biology, Chemistry,  Mathematics, Literature in English, Physics, and Psychology.

Now, we will be focusing on the GRE scoring system of the general test, given that it is the most popular option both for universities as well as test takers.

The GRE (general) tests a student’s abilities in three areas:-

  • Analytical Writing
  • Quantitative Reasoning
  • Verbal Reasoning

Coming to why GRE plays an important role in graduate admissions, the reason is that the student’s score in each of these areas gives a picture of how likely he/she is to succeed at a graduate program. All these things are considered in the GRE scoring system.

Download our eBOOK on “Introduction to GRE

To go a bit more in detail, we have to understand what graduate study entails. At a graduate level, students study subjects at a specialized level and usually partake in research, which means they must possess an ability to read, understand, and analyze the content of academic texts and long-form research papers. This ability is gauged by the student’s performance on the GRE’s verbal reasoning section. Graduate students not only have to read complex academic texts but must also be capable of writing reports and research papers based on a given problem statement. The AWA section of the GRE tests this skill. Similarly, most graduate programs in the fields of science, mathematics, and economics require students to read, grasp and apply complicated mathematical and statistical concepts during the course of their study. For this purpose, the Quantitative Reasoning section tests the student’s competency in basic mathematics through questions in areas like algebra, data analysis, statistics, and geometry.

Format of the GRE

With an understanding of why students are required to take the GRE, let us move forward and get an idea of the format & GRE scoring system of the 2011 (revised) version of the GRE.

As mentioned above, the GRE tests three skills – analytical writing, verbal reasoning, and quantitative reasoning.

The test consists of six sections, namely:

  • Analytical Writing – 1 section (always the first section of the test)
  • Verbal Reasoning – 2 sections
  • Quantitative Reasoning – 2 sections
  • Experimental/Research Section – Can either be quantitative reasoning/verbal reasoning (Doesn’t count towards the final score; Also, test-taker will not be made aware if a section is experimental or not)

Level of Difficulty:

Verbal Reasoning and Quantitative Reasoning have two sections each, which contribute towards the test taker’s final score. The first section of each of these areas consists of questions with a level of difficulty ranging from easy to difficult. For the subsequent section of the respective area (verbal/quantitative), the level of difficulty is determined by the test taker’s performance in the initial section. This style of testing is called section-based adaptivity wherein the performance on one section decides the level of difficulty on the next.

GRE Scoring System

A test taker’s GRE score has three components which correspond to their performance in the three areas of analytical writing, verbal reasoning, and quantitative reasoning. This is how the GRE scoring system is carried out.

The scale for the verbal and quantitative reasoning sections is the same wherein it ranges from 130-170 with 1-point increments. The total GRE score is the sum of the scores obtained on the verbal and quantitative sections respectively and ranges from 260 to 340.

As for the AWA section, the score scale is 0-6 with 0.5-point increments. The AWA score is considered separately and doesn’t contribute towards the total GRE score.

GRE Verbal Reasoning Section:

The test has two verbal reasoning sections which count towards the overall verbal score. While the level of difficulty between both sections may vary, the type of questions will be the same. A typical verbal reasoning section constitutes 20 questions which can be of the following type –

  • Text Completion (Around 6)
  • Sentence Equivalence (Around 4)
  • Questions based on reading comprehension passages (Around 10)

Download our eBOOK to score “160+ in GRE Verbal

GRE Quantitative Reasoning Section:

Similar to the verbal reasoning sections, the quantitative sections have 20 questions each and the level of difficulty of the second section is based on the performance in the first. The questions are based on the following topics –

  • Arithmetic
  • Algebra
  • Geometry
  • Data Analysis and Interpretation

Additionally, the questions are asked in the following ways –

  • Quantitative Comparison (Around 8)
  • Problem Solving Items (Around 9)
  • Questions based on Data Interpretation (Around 3)

Download our eBOOK to score “170 in GRE Quants

How The Quantitative/Verbal Sections are Scored:

The GRE scoring system for both quantitative and verbal reasoning sections are similar since the number of questions and sections are the same. The final score in verbal/quantitative sections is a result of a two-step process –

Step 1 – Raw Score

Verbal/Quantitative Reasoning has two sections of 20 questions each. In the first step, a raw score is calculated by giving one point to all the questions which the test-taker got right on the exam, irrespective of the first or second section. So, one score for verbal reasoning and one score for quantitative reasoning is computed on a scale of 0 to 40 since the student answers 2 sets of 20 questions each for verbal and quantitative respectively.

Step 2 – Final/Scaled Score

The raw score is calculated by giving a point to all the questions which were answered correctly by the test-taker. However, factors like the level of difficulty and the given topic are also to be taken into consideration when determining the score. Therefore, the final score is obtained by scaling the raw score with respect to the level of difficulty, topic, and type of each question that was answered correctly by the test-taker. Specifically, since there is an overall difference in the level of difficulty between the questions in first and second sections of quantitative/verbal reasoning, the section-based difficulty levels also weigh in for the calculation of the final score. The GRE scoring system is different from other exams. 

For example, in verbal reasoning, questions based on reading comprehension are relatively more difficult when compared to single-blank text completion questions. Similarly, triple-blank text completion questions are more challenging than double-blank text completion questions.

GRE Analytical Writing Section:

In the GRE, Analytical Writing is tested in a single section and is made up of two tasks, which are –

  • Issue Task – Here, the test-taker must comment on a specific issue which is provided in the question
  • Argument Task – The test-taker is provided with a set of facts and an argument; The task is for the test-taker to analyze the information provided and provide critique on the argument

Download our eBOOK to score “4+ in AWA

How The AWA Section is Scored:

Each task is scored on a 0-6 scale with 1-point increments. The score is assigned based on a careful evaluation by a human grader. The final AWA score is an average of the scores obtained on both the tasks. Since the final score is an average of two whole numbers, it is on a scale of 0-6 with 0.5-point increments.

What is a good score on the AWA section?

While we have a general awareness on the range of scores preferred in the quantitative and verbal reasoning sections, let the numbers do the talking about what kind of score is preferred by some of the reputed universities in the US.

What is a Score Percentile?

We now know how scores are computed for all the three sections of GRE. But there is still one concept that often appears to confuse students who wish to apply to grad schools.

If you have taken a look at the admission statistics of some programs offered by popular grad schools in the US, you might have come across statements which go along the lines of..

On an average, we admit students with quantitative scores above the 85th percentile

Students who have been previously admitted to this program have scores above the 50th percentile in the verbal, quantitative, and AWA sections of the GRE

Well, to explain this, it is important to be acquainted with the concept of percentile ranks in statistics. As Google says,

A percentile rank of a score is the percentage of scores in the overall frequency distribution which is equal to or lower than it.

So, the score percentile for any given score is based on the scores obtained by all the test-takers in a specific time period.

Therefore, a score above the 85th percentile means that the score is higher than what was obtained by 85% of the test-takers.

To get a better idea of the score percentile as well as other GRE-related information, ETS has collated the data and statistics based on the tests taken between the years, 2014 and 2017 which can be found here. Each score is mapped to a specific percentile for all the three sections of the GRE. It can help the test-taker to understand where he/she stands with respect to all the others who took the test in the last few years.

Alright! Has this article helped in giving you a better understanding of why grad schools want GRE scores and how the GRE scoring system works? If you have any doubts, leave a comment and we will get back to you.


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