What Is a Bad GRE Score?

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The word “bad” is a bit relative. For example, I am not a fan of meatloaf. My mother swears by her meatloaf but, I’m sorry, I think meatloaf is bad. Some of you readers probably love the meal! A “bad” GRE score is also relative. 

The GRE General Test is an admissions exam used by graduate, MBA, and PhD programs to compare and assess applicants. Securing your acceptance letter is a competitive process, and everyone should know what a “bad” GRE score is. With that said, a bad GRE score will vary depending on the program you are applying to and your intended field of study. 

Ultimately, a bad GRE score is one that will hinder you from gaining acceptance into the program(s) you are applying to. In this article we will discuss how you can figure out what a good GRE score will be for you, the importance of GRE score percentiles, and tips on how you can make sure to hit your target score. 

A Bad GRE Score

The GRE score you will need to obtain in order to make your application competitive will depend on your intended field of study and the school you are applying to. According to an ETS GRE Interpretive Data Report, the average GRE score for test-takers who intended to study engineering between 2014 and 2017 was 159 Quantitative and 149 Verbal. Let’s compare this to test-takers who intended to study political science: they had an average Quantitative score of 152 and Verbal score of 156. 

It is not uncommon for programs that require a high level of mathematical reasoning to value a GRE Quantitative score more than a Verbal score. The same applies to programs that require little math–it is likely they will care more about an applicant’s Verbal score. However, the more competitive a school is (such as Stanford, Harvard, etc.) the more likely they will require a high Verbal and Math score no matter what your intended field of study is. 

Hence, a bad GRE score will depend on what your program’s requirements are. In order to create a target score that will be competitive, research the average GRE scores for admitted students on your program’s website or forums, then add two or three points to their average. If you find that the program is only requiring a minimum score for a particular section, try to score in the 50th percentile on the measure that is not meant to be your strength. 

GRE Scoring and Percentiles

You might have just thought to yourself, “Well, what is a score that will be the 50th percentile?” Once you know what a competitive score is for the program you are applying to, it is important to understand how the GRE is scored and how those scores translate into a percentile. 

How Is the GRE Scored? 

There are three measures to the GRE: Analytical Writing, Verbal Reasoning, and Quantitative Reasoning. The chart below lists their sections, number of questions, time per section, and score range:

MeasureNumber of
Sections
Questions
per Sections
Time per SectionScore Range
Analytical
Writing
1 Section 2 timed
essays
30 Minutes for each essay,
a total of 1 hour
0-6, in half-point
increments
Verbal
Reasoning
2 Sections20 Questions30 Minutes130-170, in
one-point
increments
Quantitative
Reasoning
2 Sections20 Questions35 Minutes130-170, in
one-point
increments 
Experimental 1 Section
(Quantitative or
Verbal) 
20 Questions30 or 35 MinutesNot Scored

The GRE General Test is section level adaptive. This means how well you perform in your first Quantitative section will determine how challenging your second Quantitative section is (the same applies to Verbal). Your performance in Verbal will not affect how challenging your Math sections are–and vice versa. 

ETS implements section adaptiveness because it creates a wider range of scores and percentiles–which helps admissions truly evaluate a student’s performance. If the GRE was not adaptive and two students got 33 math questions correct out of 40, they would earn the same Quantitative score (and there would be a lot of score overlap). With the section adaptiveness, if two students both got 33 math questions correct, but one of the students was able to get the harder second Math section, they would earn a higher GRE Quantitative score. 

Therefore, the GRE scoring process accounts for how challenging the questions are that you are answering. In a way, you are rewarded for answering harder questions. If you want to score in the top percentile of the GRE, you will need to aim for getting the more difficult Math and Verbal sections. 

Percentiles

On your official score report, you will see the score from each measure along with the percentile. For example, a 152 in Verbal is in the 56th percentile. This means you scored better than a little over half of the test-takers. A Verbal score of 162 is in the 91st percentile, so if you score a 162 then you did better than 91 percent of test-takers in the Verbal measure. 

It is important to know you will need a higher Quantitative score than Verbal score for any given percentile. To put this into perspective, if your goal was to score in the 80th percentile for Math and Verbal, you would need a Verbal score of 158 and a Quantitative score of 162. This is because test-takers consistently perform better on the Quantitative measure of the GRE, making a higher score necessary for any given percentile. For a full list of scores and the corresponding percentiles, click here

When admissions receives your GRE score report, they too will see your section scores and the score percentiles. The percentile is how your program will truly be able to compare your GRE score to other applicants. When all is said and done, what you are trying to do is beat out other applicants by showing you are in a higher percentile than they are. 

Tips on How to Prepare for the GRE

Once you have done your research and figured out your GRE target score, you will then need to try and obtain that score. Here are some tips on how to make sure your program recipients receive a GRE score that is in line with what they are looking for. 

Tip 1: Give Yourself Time

Leave yourself enough time to study and take the GRE more than once. Most people will spend three months sticking to a consistent study schedule before they take the GRE for the first time. It is important to plan on taking the GRE at least twice. 

In general, a good rule of thumb is to start studying four months before you want to send off your scores. This gives you time to study for three months, take the GRE, and then wait for the required twenty one days before taking it again. After you take the GRE, it can take up to three weeks for your recipients to receive your GRE score report, so be mindful of application deadlines. 

For a more detailed explanation on when you should be taking the GRE, click here.

Tip 2: Enroll in a GRE Prep Class

A benefit of not cramming for the GRE is having the time to take a GRE prep course. Although this can be a financial investment depending on which one you enroll in, a good prep class will give you the structure and strategies needed to increase your GRE score more quickly than if you were studying on your own. 

The GRE is a critical reasoning test; hence, knowing all of the content such as y=mx+b will not necessarily translate into a top-percentile score. It is important you understand how to approach the GRE and implement test-taking strategies. Sometimes, it can be challenging to learn these methods from a book. 

If you are interested in enrolling is a GRE class, I would suggest checking out this article to get a list of our top picks for in person, online, and self-paced courses.

Tip 3: Use the Best Study Materials

Speaking of books, there are some GRE test prep study materials that are not worth using. The reason for this is they either do not provide any helpful strategies to increase efficiency or the practice questions are very unrealistic to the ones written by ETS. A worthwhile test prep book needs to provide at least one of these things. 

This article breaks down the best test prep books for different needs such as what to purchase for math fundamentals help or reading comprehension difficulty. No matter what, you will want to purchase the ETS Official Guides to the GRE

Tip 4: Take Practice Exams

If the first time you take a full-length GRE is on test day, you might be in trouble. Taking full-length GREs over the course of three months has several benefits…

  • It allows you to track your progress
  • It adjusts you to the length of the exam and builds up your mental endurance
  • It enables you to become familiar with ETS problems so you can feel comfortable with the types of questions you will see on test day
  • It provides you the opportunity to work on time management

Whenever you take a full-length GRE test, you will want to set aside time within 48 hours of taking the test to review your mistakes. If you are serious about increasing your GRE score, you should create an error log where you will not only rework all of your missed questions, but will write out a thorough explanation of why you missed the question to begin with and how you will avoid missing similar questions in the future. Review your errors every week or so. 

This article provides a list of the best GRE practice tests and when you should be taking them.

Tip 5: Take the Easy Test First 

The outcome of following tips 1-4 is that you will become very familiar with the GRE and how ETS writes its tests. This will allow you to make smart decisions on test day. The questions on the GRE, within any given section, are not increasing in difficulty. They are just different types of questions. 

For example, in a Quantitative Reasoning section, you will always have quantitative comparison questions, geometry questions, algebra questions, word problems, data analysis, etc. If you are familiar with the GRE and navigating the exam, you can go straight to the problems you know are your strengths. For me, it is algebra and geometry. 

Because the GRE allows you to skip over problems and return to them later, you are able to answer the questions out of order. Ensuring you answer the questions that you are highly likely to get correct, and saving the questions you struggle with for last, will optimize your score. However, it can only be done if you truly know the structure of the exam.

It is unlikely that your target score will require you to answer every question correctly. I tell my students to “stay calm and move on” from questions they do not understand. It is a shame to not be able to answer a question you would know how to do because you wasted time on a question you could not figure out. 

What Is a Bad GRE Score? Summary

In conclusion, a bad GRE score is one that will not be competitive for the program(s) you are applying to. Every school will have different GRE requirements and, depending on your major, you might only have a GRE minimum requirement for one measure of the test. Do your research in order to figure out what the average GRE scores for admitted students are for the program you are applying to. It is a good idea to add two or three points to this average and make that your GRE target score.