If you’re preparing for the GRE, you probably already know the minimum score you need to get—most university admission offices set minimums very clearly. You probably also know you shouldn’t simply aim for the minimum score. To make sure you get at least the minimum, you’ll want to aim higher. To keep yourself competitive, you should aim for a score that’s not just minimally acceptable, but is actually good.
A perfect score is a good score, but…
The most obvious way to aim for a good GRE score is to try to get the full 170 possible points in both the Verbal and Quantitative sections of the GRE. If you are considering a perfect score as a goal, your ambition is admirable. But be careful. When you aim for a 170 in both sections of the GRE, there’s a danger of overextending yourself. You could actually do worse on the test than you would have if you’d aimed a little lower.
Aiming for a perfect score is especially risky for students who are significantly better at one section of the GRE or the other. Suppose—for example—that a student is strong in math but weak in Verbal. This student might feel tempted to focus almost all of their studies on GRE Verbal practice, without doing much to increase their math skills. This approach will not necessarily guarantee a perfect score in Verbal. And with less focus on building up math skills, aiming for two perfect 170s can actually decrease a student’s chances of getting the full 170 in Quants, even if they’re good at math. The same goes for a student who’s strong in verbal but not-so-comfortable with math; focus too much on your weaker subject, and you can lose ground in the areas where you’re stronger.
An above-average score is also a good score
If you are very strong and confident in both GRE Verbal and Quantitative, I recommend aiming for a truly perfect GRE score. But this is rare—realistically, most students are something short of perfect in GRE skills. And that’s OK! If you are like most students, you’ll probably want to aim for a score that’s above average, rather than a score that’s perfect.
So how do you know if a GRE score is above average? Well, the first thing you need to understand is that the “average” that matters is the average score for students in your field of study. There is plenty of data available for average GRE performance by major. This article on average GRE scores in the most popular fields of graduate study is a good place to start. And if you don’t see your chosen field of study in that chart, ETS offers a more detailed breakdown of average GRE scores in all majors.
And the available info on average GRE scores gets even more detailed than that. It’s possible to check average GRE scores for top universities as well. Like the other figures linked above, the numbers for top school averages broken down my different fields of study.
As you aim for the best possible score, remember that a good GRE score doesn’t tell the whole story. Even if you’re just over the minimum required GRE score, graduate programs will also look at other aspects of your application such as work experience, academic records, and so on. So aim for the best score you can get, but don’t lose hope if you fall a little short.
David is a test prep expert at Magoosh. He has a Bachelor of Social Work from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and a Masters in Teaching English to Speakers of other Languages from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. He has been teaching K-12, University, and adult education classes since 2007 and has worked with students from every continent.