GRE MST Scoring: Adaptivity and Percentiles
Are you confounded by how the GRE is scored? If so, you are not alone. Recently, a student preparing for the GRE asked, “Is the percentile based on how well you do compared to everyone else who took the test on the same day you did? Or, is it just based on how many questions you get right in each section?”
Scoring on the GRE is really complicated. Neither way she described is the way the percentiles are derived. Remember, this is a multi-stage test (thus: MST). In the first set of 20 questions that count toward your score, the questions are at a mix of various difficulty levels in addition to a mix of different topics and types of questions. The mix of difficulty levels of the second set of questions (in the same area, Math or Verbal) depends on how many of the questions you got correct in the first set.
So, if you got very few correct in the first set, you’ll get a mix of lower difficulty questions on the second set (not all super-low; there will be super-low, medium-low, and barely-low); if you get a medium number right, you’ll get a mix of medium difficulty questions, and if you get lots of them right, you’ll get a mix of high difficulty questions. But, even before you start that second set, the range of scores you can get as your final score is already predetermined. Lots of questions right on the first section means your final score will be in the upper range, medium number right puts you in the middle range, few right puts you in the lower range.
Then, depending on how many you get right on that second set and also on the difficulty level of the ones you get right on that second set (difficulty level right doesn’t matter on the first set; only how many you get right is what matters on that first set), your final score on the 130-170 scale is determined. At that point, the score is compared to scores of other people who took the test for all time. Not just on the day you took it, but for every day anyone took it. That’s what sets the percentile. In other words, for instance, 56% of people who took the GRE got a score on the math section that is lower than a score of 151.
I know this is complicated, but I hope it’s clear to you. There are two main takeaways:
- First, you can’t go from the number of questions you get right on the test to figure out what score you got. Someone with lots of questions right on the first section, but few right on the second section might get fewer questions right than someone with few right on the first section and then many right on the second. However, that first person will get a significantly higher score than the second one.
- Second, you really can’t tell how you’re doing while you’re taking the test. The most important thing for you to do is to get as many correct answers as you can, managing your time so that you grab all the questions you’ll do well on first, using the Mark and Review functions to get back to the questions you’re less likely to get right.
Questions about scoring? Ask them here and we’ll answer.