One of the first questions students ask me is, “what is a good GRE score, Bronte? Am I close to it?!” However, few students ask me how the GRE is scored. It is very important to understand how the GRE is scored because this should affect not only how you study but the choices you make on test day.
How is the GRE Scored: Computer-Delivered Exam
The GRE is composed of three measures and students will be given a separate score for each one: Verbal Reasoning, Quantitative Reasoning (Math), and Analytical Writing. After you finish the GRE, if you choose to report your scores, your unofficial Verbal and Quantitative Reasoning score will appear on the screen. You will have to wait 10-15 days to receive your “official” Verbal and Math score along with your Analytical Writing score.
The GRE General Test has two Verbal sections and two Quantitative Reasoning sections. Your performance on both of the Verbal sections will be turned into a single score between 130-170, in one-point increments. Your performance on the two Math sections will also be turned into a single score between 130-170, in one-point increments. If you choose to answer zero questions in the section you will receive an NS (no score).
Verbal and Quantitative Reasoning Scoring
The Verbal and Quantitative Reasoning measures are section adaptive. Many students have heard of this, but there is a lot of confusion on what it means. Essentially, how many questions you answer correctly in your first Verbal section (where you are presented with medium difficulty level questions) will determine how difficult the questions are in your second Verbal section. Similarly, your performance on your first Quantitative Reasoning measure determines how hard your second Quantitative section is.
Your performance on the first Verbal section will not affect how challenging the questions are on your Math sections. Also, the algorithm will take into account the total number of questions you answered correctly, but it will not consider the type of questions you answered incorrectly. For example, if you missed quite a few geometry problems in your first Math section, this will not make your second Math section have any more or fewer geometry problems.
Also, your score is dependant on the number of questions you answer correctly. Hence, points are not deducted for missing questions.
You will receive a single raw score (the number of questions you answered correctly) for your two Verbal sections and a single raw score for your two Math sections. Your raw score for Verbal is then turned into a scaled score ranging from 130-170 through a process called equating (same for your Quantitative raw score).
What is Equating?
The equating process accounts for minor differences in the difficulty level among different test editions (it would be impossible for ETS to write GREs that are always equal in difficulty) as well as the differences in difficulty level of the questions that resulted from the section-level adaptation.
The benefit of the GRE being section-level adaptive is it creates a wider range of differentiation between the scores of test takers. This is very beneficial for Graduate and MBA programs that are using GRE scores to compare applicants. Equating will take into account the number of questions a student answered correctly and the difficulty level of those questions.
For example, if two students got 30 out of 40 questions correct in the Math sections, they would have the same Quantitative Reasoning score. However, with section level adaptation, their raw scores might be the same, but their scaled scores will be different if one student got a second Math section that had harder questions because they performed better on the first Math section than the other student.
Therefore, the increased difficulty of the questions you receive will allow you to get a higher GRE score.
Analytical Writing Scoring
The Analytical Writing section is composed of two essays and a single score between 0-6, in half-point increments, will be awarded. Each essay receives a score from at least one trained GRE rater using a six-point holistic scale. Holistic scoring means your essay will be graded based on the overall quality. The emphasis in the scoring is on the test taker’s analytical writing skills and critical thinking over grammar and mechanics.
Your two essays will not only be scored by a human, but by a computer program created by ETS: the e-rater. The e-rater is capable of identifying essay features relating to writing proficiency. If the human grader and e-rater scores closely agree, the average of the two scores creates the final score for that essay. Then the final scores of the two essays are averaged to create your final Analytical Writing score–rounded to the nearest half point increment.
If the human score and the e-rater score do not closely agree, then a second human score is obtained and the final score is the average of the two human scores.
How is the GRE Scored: Paper-Delivered Exam
The paper-delivered GRE is scored very similarly to the computer-delivered GRE. However, there are some differences.
Since students who are taking the paper-delivered GRE will receive their exam in a test booklet, it will not be section adaptive. Therefore, the equating process will account for the differences in difficulty level among different test editions, but not the difficulty level of the questions.
Also, an e-rater does not contribute to your Analytical Writing score. Two readers will score each essay from 0-6 using a holistic scale. If the scores between the two readers are off by more than one point, then a third reader will be brought in to dissipate the score discrepancy.
The final scores of the two essays are then averaged and rounded to the nearest half-point interval on a 0-6 scale. This is your final Analytical Writing score.
How to Account for the Scoring of the GRE
Try to Get the Harder Sections
If your first Verbal and Math sections do not result in the more challenging second Verbal and Math sections, you can still walk away with a high GRE score. However, in order to score in the top percentile, you will want to aim for the harder Verbal and Math sections. Therefore, as you study for the GRE, make sure to tackle easy, medium, and hard problems.
Although you will want to consider the section adaptiveness of GRE as you prepare to take the exam, this is not something you want to be thinking about on test day. Some students will try to determine if they got the easier or harder Verbal/Math section during the test. No matter what section you got, the questions will be intricate. You should not waste any brain power trying to figure out the section adaptiveness, only focus on the question in front of you.
Never Leave a Question Blank
This might go without saying–but just in case– never ever leave a question blank. Since there is no penalty for missing a question, always take a guess: preferably an educated guess.
I will say sometimes this is easier said than done. If you have lost track of time and the clock runs out, that’s that. Try your best to look at the clock. If you see you have one minute left, and several questions unanswered, use the last minute to guess. Even one extra point from a lucky guess can improve your score.
Stay Calm and Move On
Out of all the advice I share, this is the hardest one for me to stick to. Every student has strengths and weaknesses. For example, you might be great at Geometry but despise Data Analysis. Even though the GRE will not rank the questions in difficulty, only the sections as a whole, one question could be much harder for you than another.
Personally, when I am stuck on a question, my instinct is to fight to get it right at all costs. Usually, the cost is spending way too much time. This causes me to not have enough time later on in the section to answer all the questions. I end up sacrificing questions I might know exactly how to answer for questions I may or may not get correct even after several minutes.
You do not want to do this. If you are not sure how to answer the question at all after a minute, stay calm and move on. It is likely that you’ll know how to answer some of the following questions. Remember, within the section, the questions are not increasing in difficulty.
Don’t use Words You Don’t Know in AW
Your Analytical Writing score is based upon your ability to demonstrate critical thinking and analytical writing abilities. Thus, the most important aspect is that you convey a logical thought process to your reader. I often have students forgo logic to utilize advanced vocabulary words as they construct long, intricate sentences.
It is more important the reading can follow your ideas and arguments–that should be portrayed in a clear and concise manner–than for them to get lost in vocabulary words that are not necessarily making a point.
GRE Subject Test Scoring
The GRE Subject Tests are scored between 200-990, in ten-point increments. You are awarded one point for each question you answer correctly. Unlike the GRE General Test, you will lose ¼ a point for each question you answer incorrectly. Raw scores are then converted to scaled scores between 200-990.
Furthermore, the Biochemistry, Cell and Molecular Biology, Biology, and Psychology Subject Tests report subscores in several specific areas. The subscores are on a 20-99 scaled, in one-point increments.
Understanding how the GRE is scored is just as important as knowing what a good GRE score is. Hopefully, this article made you feel like a GRE scoring expert!