According to the most recent report from ETS, the average GRE verbal reasoning score is about 150, quantitative 152.5, and analytical writing 3.5. However, a “good” GRE score is not a one-size-fits-all number; where you should aim to fall on the 130 to 170 scale depends on three factors: (1) your program goals, (2) your other credentials, and (3) your funding needs.
1) Your Program Goals
Score expectations vary widely—not only by school, but also by program of study. NYU’s engineering Ph.D. students, for example, often have significantly higher quantitative scores (median 164) than its education Ph.D. students (median 154). As programs are increasingly paying attention to both verbal and quantitative abilities, you should study for both sections, but allocate more effort to the section most relevant to your field. For example, Columbia University’s English Ph.D. students tend to have a verbal score in the 95th percentile, and UCSD’s Philosophy Ph.D. students boast a mean analytical writing score of 5. Programs want students who are prepared for rigorous field coursework, and even if few departments will admit to GRE score cutoffs, your application may receive a perfunctory evaluation if your score is substantially lower than the other applicants’.
Research score statistics for your prospective programs. If websites leave out this information, email admissions chairs to request it. They may not provide it, but if they do, you will (1) put yourself at an advantage by knowing what to expect and (2) initiate what may become a beneficial link between you and admissions offices. Create a table of your programs and the median section scores for each. Good scores should be the median scores for the most competitive school on your list. However, you can always benefit from scoring higher than this (I will explain why in #3). While this median should be your baseline goal, scoring in the 75th percentile and above can make you a strong contender for both admission and funding.
2) Your Other Qualifications
Your GRE score is only one of many qualifications you bring to the table in graduate school applications. Depending on the strength of other applicants, an extraordinary score can be extremely important or not a priority. Paired with a 3.9 GPA, for example, a GRE score will typically carry less weight than with a GPA of 2.5. The point of the GRE score is to reflect aptitude for study with an objectivity that GPAs cannot (because schools and even professors fluctuate in grading rigor). The GRE can help you compensate for a low GPA. If you’ve undergone unusual hardship and shown perseverance, or if you’ve published work in prestigious journals or worked with prominent recommenders, lower GRE scores and GPA numbers may be given less weight since you have introduced a unique third variable into the equation: demonstrated capacity for real-world success. Generally speaking, if you fit the typical applicant profile and had subpar grades, you should invest extra time and effort into earning an outstanding GRE score.
3) Your Funding Needs
A high GRE score can help you earn scholarships and fellowships from prospective schools, and it can also strengthen your applications for external funding. Scholarship and fellowship committees often consider GPA and GRE scores, since these are among the few objective criteria that they have to work with when examining a pool of equally competitive applicants. If you are not receiving full funding for your program of study and do not have other sources of income, you should consider seeking external funding. Note the GRE score requirements for each scholarship, fellowship, or grant, and aim to meet or surpass them.
A lesser-known fact about financial aid is that you can often apply for application fee waivers from prospective schools. At $60 to $200 per application, the costs of applying can add up. If you have financial need, you can find information about these waivers online or by contacting graduate school admissions offices. Usually, an application will ask about your financial needs and/or socioeconomic background, but it will also typically request your GRE scores. It is in your best interest to prove yourself competitive for these.
Strong GRE scores will always help you, but how strong they should be depends on your program, your other qualifications, and your funding needs. Create and stick to a study plan that will help you achieve your target score for your academic and professional goals–the investment will prove more than worthwhile once your admission and funding offers begin flooding in!