The whole point of GRE prep is, of course, to be ready for GRE test day. But how do you know when you’re ready? How do you know when you’ve had enough prep?
Many people who take the GRE before they’re truly ready have the wrong answer to “Have I done enough prep?” But have no fear. I’m here to walk you through GRE readiness, and how to measure it.
GRE Readiness In Terms of Your Target Score
Some graduate programs set an exact minimum score you need to meet in order to be eligible for admission. This can seem pretty simple. Once you’re consistently getting to that target score in practice, you’re ready for test day, right?
Well.… maybe. With grad school, figuring out which score will really get you accepted is not quite that simple. Graduate programs are much more competitive than undergrad degrees. Getting the minimum required GRE score prevents you from being disqualified outright. However, in the most competitive graduate schools, the average GRE score of the applicants is what really matters. If you’re in the bottom half of GRE scores in a given application period, you’re much more likely to be turned away, even if you meet or exceed the minimum score requirements.
And of course, averages keep changing from year to year. So even when a school does publish the average GRE scores of accepted applicants, you have to set your own target score carefully.
GRE Target Scores in Terms of GRE Percentiles
Fortunately, there are ways to find the score that will probably get you accepted into the schools you apply to. Before you think of your ideal score as a specific number, think of the score in terms of GRE percentiles. GRE percentiles are numbers that indicate what percent of students got a lower score than a given score. For example, if a score is in the 95th percentile, that means that 95% of all GRE test-takers got a score lower than that score.
Percentiles for all of the people who take the GRE don’t fluctuate nearly as much as term-to-term average GRE scores at individual schools. So these percentiles are a much more reliable measure of what GRE score makes you truly ready to take the test and get accepted into your dream school. As a general rule of thumb, you can match GRE percentiles to school rankings. Review the education rankings from US News and World Report. If a program is in the top 10% of all programs of its kind (top 10% of all ranked MFAs in Creative Writing, top 10% of all MS Engineering programs, etc…), then aim for the 90th percentile or higher in terms of GRE score. (Somewhat below the 90th percentile might also be acceptable if the rest of your application is very strong.)
So look at the US News and World Report graduate school rankings and compare them to ETS’s most recent data on GRE score percentiles. Then start doing the most authentic practice tests you can. To ensure that your tests resemble the real exam, use official GRE prep materials from ETS. Also try to take the exam under conditions that are similar to those in the testing center—keep your practice tests within test center limits for time, breaks, note-taking, etc…. Reach your target percentile consistently on realistic practice exams, and you’ll know that you’re ready for test day.
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.