Two Truths and One Lie (About GRE Scores)

What’s on the GRE?
November 18, 2015
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Two Truths and One Lie (About GRE Scores)


As we launch our Prep4GRE app, we’re excited to help our users learn more about graduate school, the application process, and of course, the GRE. You may have already explored what’s on the GRE — from analytical writing to quantitative concepts and verbal skills. In addition to understanding what will be tested and how, it’s important to understand how the GRE is scored and how to tweak your test-taking for your best possible score.


First Truth:

This part is simple. The GRE is scored per section, from 130 to 170, in one point increments, for the Verbal and Quantitative sections, and from 0 to 6 in half-point increments for the analytical writing sections. The current scoring scale has been in place since August 2011, following an overhaul to the GRE test format and content. In its previous iteration, the GRE was scored on a 200 to 800 scale, in 10 point increments. Due to the distribution of scores, this lead to a perfect 800 score in quant to “only” equal to the 94th percentile. The new scoring scale allows for a wider range of scoring percentiles, especially at the upper echelons. On the current GRE, scores are tightly clustered around the middle.


How to use this to your advantage:

Because of the tight clustering of scores and percentiles, a great test-taker knows that only a few more correct answers per section can catapult a score from a middling 45th percentile score to a more competitive 70th percentile. With only 20 questions per section, getting 1-2 more correct answers per section will make a huge impact on your score and more importantly — it’s easily doable with diligent practice in content and strategy.


Second Truth:

Your raw score on the GRE, based on the number of questions you get right, is then converted to a scaled score using something ETS, the test maker, calls “equating”. Equating takes your raw score and applies an algorithm to account for the variation between question sets and for the difficulty of the questions answered correctly. Remember that on a Multi-Stage Test like the GRE, your second Verbal and Quant sections will be dictated by your performance on the first.


How to use this to your advantage:

You will want to knock your first sections out of the park so you can access the higher level content in the second sections. This is a must, and again, it doesn’t take much. By learning efficiency and accuracy for every skill, you can (and will) answer those difficult GRE questions correctly. While it is not accurate assume that the 40 point spread on the GRE is designed to mirror the 40 questions in each section, you’re not that far off. Each question matters and you can keep motivated knowing that small gains make a huge impact.


And a Lie:

The often overlooked Analytical Writing section: here there are two persistent myths. The first, that the Analytical Writing section doesn’t matter and the second, that a computer determines your score. All essays are reviewed by a human reader first. The essay score is then reviewed by e-rater, a proprietary ETS computer program that’s used to monitor the human reader. If the scores are similar, the human score is used. If they differ by a certain amount, a second human score is used, and the final score is the average of the two human scores. So rest easy, the machines are not winning. Well, not yet. Lastly, the Analytical Writing section matters, and it should matter to you. Beyond simply getting in to graduate school, schools want you to succeed as a grad student, and whether it’s a paper, your thesis, or a dissertation, you will need to write in grad school — a lot. Being able to do it well will benefit you far more than your 0 to 6 score on the GRE.


Have questions about the GRE format or scoring? Post them here and we’ll answer in a future blog post.


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