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Using Scores

GRE® tests play a vital role in the admissions process for graduate, business and law school programs around the world.

  • The GRE® General Test provides an assessment of the verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, critical thinking and analytical writing skills that graduate-level programs value.
  • The GRE® Subject Tests gauge undergraduate achievement in specific fields of study and can help predict a candidate's potential for success in graduate school.

Both tests provide a common measure for comparing applicants with differing educational and cultural backgrounds and furnish independent information to supplement the evaluation of grades and recommendations.

Guidelines adopted by the GRE Board provide information about the appropriate use of GRE test scores for those who use the scores in graduate and business school admissions, fellowship selection processes, and for guidance and counseling for graduate study. See Score Use Guidelines and the GRE® Guide to the Use of Scores for more information.

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Using GRE Scores Successfully in Holistic Admissions

Considerations in Score Interpretation

Since no single test or source of information can provide all the details that a decision maker would like to know about an applicant, it is important to use multiple sources of information during the decision-making process to ensure fairness and to balance the limitations of any single measure. GRE test scores measure skills that are important to graduate school success, but they are not the only indicators of an applicant's potential for success. Educational and work experiences and personal attributes might also play a role in a person's ability to be successful in a program. Evidence of these indicators of success cannot be found in GRE scores. Therefore, GRE scores should be used along with the information provided through other components of a person's application.

Officials responsible for admissions at each institution must determine the significance of GRE scores in relation to other components of an applicant's file. Considering students holistically ensures a more fair admissions process for everyone and is important to ensure that all applicants have the opportunity to present multiple aspects of their potential value to the program. Programs that are not able to do a full holistic file review for all applicants should pay particular attention to applicants who may have had experiences somewhat different from those of the traditional majority as discussed below.

Test Takers from Underrepresented Groups

On average, members of different racial, ethnic and economic backgrounds perform differently on standardized tests. These differences do not necessarily mean that tests are biased. Extensive research by ETS and other organizations has shown that these performance differences are a reflection of disparate access to educational opportunities and social supports that typically start in an individual's early childhood and may persist through adulthood. 

Despite the extensive work that ETS does to ensure that the GRE tests are as free from bias as possible, disparities in performance among underrepresented groups still exist. A review of all components of an applicant's file, in which GRE scores are considered as one piece of information among many, enables each applicant to be evaluated as fairly as possible.

Performance information for underrepresented groups can be found in the publication entitled A Snapshot of the Individuals Who Took the GRE General Test. For more information about ETS's extensive efforts to ensure that the GRE tests are as free from bias as possible, see Test Fairness and Validity. For more information of ETS's policy work to reduce achievement gaps, visit our Achievement Gap website.

Test Takers Who are Nonnative English Speakers

Although the GRE tests are not tests of English Language Proficiency (ELP), they measure skills important for graduate education at institutions where the language of instruction is English. Considering GRE and ELP test scores (such as TOEFL® scores) together will enable score users to determine if English proficiency has affected an applicant's performance on the GRE tests. For example, a test taker's ELP test scores can help score users determine whether a low score on the GRE Analytical Writing measure is due to lack of familiarity with English or lack of ability to produce and analyze logical arguments.

Score users should be aware that the GRE Analytical Writing measure and the TOEFL Writing measure are very different. The GRE Analytical Writing measure is designed to measure critical thinking and analytical writing skills. The TOEFL Writing measure emphasizes fundamental writing skills as well as the ability to organize and convey, in writing, information that has been understood from spoken and written text. Therefore the scores on the two tests are not comparable.

Learn more about the TOEFL test.

Test Takers with Disabilities

ETS provides accommodations for individuals with disabilities and health-related needs, and works continuously to ensure that as new technologies become available, ETS's offerings evolve. Individuals who have currently documented visual, physical, hearing or learning disabilities and are unable to take the tests under standard conditions can apply for accommodations, which include extended testing time, extra breaks, screen magnification, screen readers and more. The accommodations offered are intended to minimize any adverse effect that the individual's disability might have upon test performance and to help ensure that, insofar as possible, the resulting scores represent his or her educational achievements. Reviewing an applicant's entire file will provide more information about the individual's ability to succeed in a graduate program than any one test can provide. 

Repeat Test Takers

Test takers may take a GRE test more than once. There are several ways in which graduate departments and programs can judge multiple scores for an individual (e.g., use most recent score, use highest score) . Whatever approach is adopted, it should be used consistently with all applicants.

Essay Responses on the Analytical Writing Section

Criteria for evaluating Analytical Writing essay responses emphasize critical thinking skills, including the ability to reason, assemble evidence to develop a position and communicate complex ideas. A test taker's control of the fine points of grammar or the mechanics of writing are weighted only to the extent that these impede clarity of meaning.

An Analytical Writing essay response should be considered a rough first draft since test takers do not have sufficient time to revise their essays during the test. To ensure fairness with test takers who must hand write their essay responses at paper-delivered test administrations, individuals taking the computer-delivered test do not have spell-checking or grammar-checking software available to them.

Essay responses at paper-delivered administrations are handwritten; essay responses at computer-delivered administrations are typed. Typed essays often appear shorter than handwritten essays; handwritten essays can appear to be more heavily revised than typed essays. GRE readers are trained to evaluate the content of essays and to give the same score to a handwritten essay as they would to its typed version.

Essay topics are administered under standardized conditions. Essay scores can provide important information above and beyond any academic writing samples that may be required (e.g., papers from a course). Validity research has shown that the Analytical Writing score is correlated more highly with academic writing than the personal statement.

Test takers whose native language is not English often find the Analytical Writing section more challenging, on average, than native speakers of English. Steps are taken to ensure that these performance differences are not due to differences on the cross-cultural accessibility of the prompts. Special fairness reviews occur for all prompts to ensure that the content and tasks are clear and accessible for all groups of test takers, including students whose native language is not English. In addition, scorers are trained to focus on the analytical logic of the essays more than on spelling, grammar or syntax. The mechanics of writing are weighed in their ratings only to the extent that these impede clarity of meaning. Since the Analytical Writing measure is tapping into different skills than the Verbal Reasoning measure, it may not be surprising that the strength of performance of individuals whose native language is not English differs between the Analytical Writing measure and the Verbal Reasoning measure. Given that graduate faculty have indicated that analytical writing is an important component of work in most graduate schools, including the Analytical Writing measure should increase the validity of the GRE General Test.

The ability of students whose native language is not English to write in English may be affected not only by their language capability but also by their prior experience with the kinds of critical writing tasks in the test. Where educational systems do not stress these skills, performance may not reflect the applicant's ability to learn these skills in a graduate setting.

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