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What is a Good GRE Score (again)?

January 20, 2013 by

GRE BlogEarlier this week, my manager sent a “last 30 days” report to the blogging team. The report featured data about this blog‘s page views, visit lengths, and other interesting statistics. The one that made me giggle was the list of the most common search keywords by which people found our blog. While the list was 25 items long, well over half of them were some variation on, “What is a good GRE score?”

Indeed, the top search result for that phrase is this entry, which has over 400 Facebook shares and nearly 13 thousand tweets. Heck, it’s possible that you’re only here because you just searched for the phrase yourself. And I can’t fault you. If you know nothing or very little about the GRE, then “What’s a good score?” is a reasonable first question to ask.

But to us GRE teachers, man is it a silly question. I laughed and laughed. The entry I linked earlier provides a very serious, very professional answer to the question. Here’s a more colorful version.

For starters, there’s no such thing as a “good GRE score,” because there’s no such thing as a “GRE score,” period. When you take the GRE, you get three different scores: an essay score from 0-6, a quant score from 130-170, and a verbal score from 130-170. These scores are not added. If you get a 4, a 150, and 150, that is not a 304. It’s a 4, a 150, and a 150.

“Oh, come on, Boris. Clearly people use the phrase ‘GRE Score’ as a convenient linguistic shortcut for ‘The set of your three individual scores.’ Quit being a prat,” you might say. Very well. Even then, we’ve got several problems if you want an answer to the question “What’s a good GRE score?” Here, I’ll tell you: a 6, a 170, and a 170. That’s a good GRE score. It’s the maximum possible score, and surely the maximum is good! Ooo, how about this one: a 6, a 170, and a 169. Not quite the maximum, but hey, it’s close. Or how about this: a 5, a 168, and a 169. Or how about…

See the problem? “What’s a good GRE score?” is not an honest question. Nobody literally wants to know what “a” good GRE score is. The singular article “a” doesn’t make any sense. It makes the question trivial — you can look at the official scoring scale and see what ALL the good scores are. Hardly a mystery, that.

Be honest with me. You’re not asking “What’s a good GRE score,” are you? What you — and everyone — really want to know is, “What’s the rock-bottom minimum score I can get while still looking good to the grad schools I wanna get into?” There’s no shame in that question! It’s a good, strategic question. If a 160 on the verbal section does you no more good than a 145, then exerting extra effort to overkill the GRE is inefficient.

But even that question is impossible to answer. As you probably know, lots of people take the GRE — from medieval poetry critics to theoretical physicists. For a chemical engineer, a “good” quant score is probably much higher than for someone who wants to study Japanese history. And a scholar of Italian theater probably needs a higher verbal score to look “good” than a number theorist does.

You can’t answer, “What’s a good GRE score?” Thankfully, you can answer, “What’s my good GRE score?” Google doesn’t have that answer (as, having found and read this entry, you might have just been disappointed to discover), but your target grad programs do. Contact them and ask what scores they’re looking for and what the benefits (if any!) of an ultra-high GRE score are. Once you have those numbers, you’ll be able to put forward an efficient study plan without wasting effort seeking unproductive score increases.


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