As an experienced mentor for the GRE, I have heard students constantly complain every year about how confusing the GRE scoring is. This is because the GRE test is a section-adaptive test and its algorithm is not simple to understand. If you are on route to giving the GRE, it is important to understand how the test is actually scored. We will dive into all the different elements of the GRE scoring process.
In the GRE test, you will be scored in three different ways:
- Quantitative Reasoning: the scale of 130-170, with 1-point increments
- Verbal Reasoning: the scale of 130-170, with 1-point increments
- Analytical Writing: the scale of 0-6, with half-point increments.
GRE analyzes your Maths (Quantitative), English (Verbal), and Writing Skills.. Verbal and Quantitative sections constitute the total GRE Score of 340. You will also receive a separate score for Analytical Writing, and does not count in the overall GRE score of 340.
There are two Quantitative (Quant) sections and two Verbal sections in a GRE that are graded. Each section has 20 questions, making a total of 40 Quant and 40 verbal questions.
Students most often have a misconception that each question carries 1 mark.
Many students assume that the score difference between 130 and 170 is 40 points and since there are 40 questions for each Quant and Verbal, that would mean that each question is worth 1 point. This is actually not correct; let us understand the right way the GRE is scored.
Questions Difficulty Level
GRE is a standardized exam. Despite there being 80 questions graded on the GRE test- 40 verbal and 40 quant- each individual question has its own difficulty level.
The difficulty levels for individual questions are rated between level 1 to 5;
Difficulty Level 1 = Very Easy
Difficulty Level 2 = Easy
Difficulty Level 3 = Medium
Difficulty Level 4 = Hard
Difficulty Level 5 = Very Hard
The difficulty level of questions varies ascendingly.
Sections’ Difficulty Level
Besides the questions, each GRE section is also divided into difficulty levels listed below.
- Easy Section
- Medium Section
- Hard Section
Every section has 20 questions with a variety of questions that range from a Difficulty Level-DL 1 to 5. It is a misconception that the medium difficulty section will carry all medium-level questions. The questions are organized in such a way that the majority are medium-level questions (DL 3), while a few are easy (DL 1-2) and the rest are hard-level questions (DL 4-5).
The diagram below clearly depicts the flow of sections with the expected GRE scores.
Section Adaptive Mechanism
GRE follows an adaptive scoring algorithm. This means that the test automatically adapts itself to the way you answer questions. Your performance in the first section will therefore determine the difficulty level for the next section.
In the GRE, the difficulty levels for the two graded sections for each quant and verbal are as follows;
- Section 1 – Medium
- Section 2 – Easy or Medium or Hard
When you start your GRE, the first section will always be a medium difficulty level. Depending on how well you perform on the first section, i.e. how many you get correct, the difficulty level (easy, medium, or hard) for the next section will then be determined accordingly.
The questions within a section do not change once the difficulty level of that section has been determined by the algorithm i.e. Easy, Medium or Hard.
All questions (difficulty level 1 to 5) will carry equal marks within a section (Source: ETS). What varies is the overall weightage of the section (Hard, medium, easy) in determining the overall scores. The weightage of each section increases with the level of difficulty assigned to that section. Therefore, if you do well on the first section and are able to get a Hard difficulty level for Section 2, you are able to score much higher than someone who got a Medium or Easy level in Section 2.
How is the difficulty level of sections determined?
Based on hundreds of real test taker results, here are some estimated predictions of how sections adapt according to the proficiency of the test-takers.
If you get 12 or more correct on the first section, the next section will have a Hard Difficulty level.
Real Example 1: Quantitative 169
First Second: Medium
One of the Scholar Den students scored 169 in the Quantitative section in December 2021. This was her GRE Quantitative first section. As you have understood from above, the first section will always be medium level in difficulty. In this section, you will mostly see medium-level questions and very few hard-level questions (4s and 5s). The student made no mistakes in the first section, which meant the next section was hard.
Second Section: Hard
As she had all the correct answers in the first section, the next section was automatically hard. As you can see she scored 70% in this section (14 out of 20) questions with the difficulty of level 4 (hard) and 5 (very hard). In this section, she had just two mistakes and her final score was 169 out of 170 in the real GRE.
If you get 8 to 11 correct on the first section, the next section will be of medium difficulty level.
If you get 7 or below correct on the first section, the next section will be of easy difficulty level.
Real Example 2: Quantitative 146
First Section: Medium
One of the medical students scored 146 in the Quantitative section. This was her GRE Quantitative first section. As you have understood from above, the first section will always be medium level. In this section, you will mostly see medium-level questions and very few hard-level questions (4s and 5s). The student made 14 mistakes in the first section, which means the next section was Easy.
Second Section: Easy
In this easy section, as you can see she has no question of difficulty level 4 (hard) and 5 (very hard). In this section, she has 13 very easy questions of difficulty level 1. Even in this section, she scored 14 correct out of 20, but the overall score was very low because the overall weightage of correct in the easy level section is less as compared to the weightage in the medium or hard sections.
If you get 13 to 20 correct answers in the first section, the next section will be Hard.
If you get 7 to 12 correct on the first section, the next section will be of medium difficulty.
If you get 6 to 0 correct on the first section, the next section will be of easy difficulty.
How the test is scored:
The total number of correct questions in each section is computed to make a raw score. The raw score is then converted to a scale score through a process known as equating.
Remember that the more difficult questions you answer in the first section, the higher your overall GRE score will be.
Based on hundreds of real GRE experiences, the hard section will have an average of 60% of hard (Difficulty Level 4) and very hard level (Difficulty Level 5) questions. This percentage of difficulty varies from individual experiences, some students experience 80% hard and very hard level questions, and others experience 75%, 70%, and up to 50%. This algorithm does not have a fixed number of hard questions for every student but one thing is for sure, in order to score high, you need to master how to solve difficult level questions.
Moreover, easy sections carry less weightage towards your final score, whereas highly difficult sections carry much more weightage.
Understanding how GRE tests are scored is a crucial part of preparing for your exam. Now that you know the GRE has an adaptive scoring mechanism, it is important to focus on scoring well on difficult questions. The weightage of a specific question depends on the difficulty level of both the question and the section that you are attempting.
To learn more about how scoring works, you can refer to www.ets.org/gre and find some crucial tips regarding answering difficult GRE questions. The more difficult questions you are able to answer, the higher your GRE test score will be.
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