Even top candidates aren't just waived through and given a seat at top MS Engineering programmes in the US – or anywhere else, for that matter. You need a robust application.
Almost without fail, that means achieving (better than) decent GRE scores.
The GRE test is not different for different degrees. It is a common test that is conducted for admissions across all degrees in the US. For example, the GRE test for engineering will be exactly the same as the one for business. The GRE test is conducted (in English) by the Educational Testing Service (ETS). The ETS is a non-profit organisation which administers several tests (including the TOEFL and GRE exam) in over 180 countries.
ETS GRE scores are based on a scale of 130-160 while the writing sections work within a range of 0.5-6.0.
The scoring system changed in 2011. If you previously took (or considered) the test GRE, you may have seen scores ranging between 200 and 800.
So what is a good GRE score today? Read on to find GRE percentiles for top schools and more.
How hard is the GRE for an engineer?
Despite how hyped it is, the GRE is not that tough. If you have a technical background, it’s easy to score full in the math section. The vocabulary and reading sections are what you need to prepare for thoroughly because these sections of the GRE are usually tougher in other exams such as the SAT or ACT.
With proper preparation, guidance, and hard work, you’ll be well on your way to getting a perfect GRE score. The highest GRE quantitative score you can get is 170. The maximum score for the other section is also 170, bringing the total GRE score to 340. Good GRE scores are not a distant dream, and you can get your dream score if you put in the required effort.
What is a good GRE score for engineering programmes?
This is a question that plagues most applicants. However, it’s not a question around which you should base your entire application. Your engineering GRE score matters, but it’s not the end of the road.
No one can say with certainty what constitutes a bad or a good GRE score for engineering because it depends on the school. The required GRE score percentiles are usually not explicitly stated. Instead, the schools will tell you the average scores of the students they admitted. So you can say that the question “What is a good GRE score?” has no definite answer, because there is no minimum GRE score requirement for most schools on paper.
GRE percentiles for top engineering schools You’ll need to take a GRE test to study your MS engineering, however, your GRE test marks are usually not considered in isolation; they are evaluated collectively with the rest of your application.
At most engineering programmes, there are no minimum required GRE scores.
On admission website after admission website, you’ll often find that the issue of minimum GRE scores is avoided. This is the case at the University of California Berkeley's Mechanical Engineering department:
“Our department does not have a minimum GRE score requirement.”
It’s not always the same phrasing, mind you, but everyone from the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at MIT to the Mechanical Engineering Department Carnegie Mellon:
“There are no "cut-off" scores for the GRE examination, the scores are evaluated in the context of your entire application package.”
But, most MS Engineering departments don’t stop there. These statements are almost always followed up with an expectation of sorts, such as mentioning the average GRE score percentile.
For example, the MIT Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering lays it out like this:
"Q. Is there a minimum GRE score for admission to CEE?
A. No, but most successful applicants score in the 90ᵗʰ percentile or better in the quantitative and verbal reasoning portions of the GRE. The average score of admitted students on the Analytical Writing section is 4.5/6.0."
The Civil and Environmental Department at UC Berkeley reports:
“There are no minimum GRE scores required for admittance. The average scores of the students we do admit are 150+ in Verbal, 160+ in Quantitative, and a 4+ in Analytical Writing.”
Average GRE scores for MS Engineering programmes
The blanket statements regarding a lack of minimum GRE scores are there because top universities and engineering departments reserve the right to admit brilliant applicants that just don’t do well on standardised tests.
An applicant with an amazing research portfolio is still likely to be given strong consideration even with low ETS GRE scores.
But, that doesn’t stop top universities from reporting average engineering GRE scores of admitted students. Universities often publish the GRE score percentiles of their students to give aspirants an idea of the required scores.
For a start, most universities want to be considered highly in the rankings, such as the U.S. News & World Report Best Engineering Grad Schools.
Secondly, high GRE scores do confer some level of bragging rights.
So, you shouldn’t experience any difficulty finding the average GRE scores for the engineering schools on your shortlist, though you may not find them specifically for each department.
At MIT, the average GRE scores are currently 160 on the verbal portion and 164 on the quantitative section. That puts the average in the 85ᵗʰ percentile in verbal and the quantitative scores in the 87ᵗʰ percentile.
The University of Michigan’s Engineering Department has chosen to publish their quantitative scores on their facts and figures page, but not their average verbal scores. (The quantitative average, by the way, is 167.)
While they’ve not stated the reason for omitting the average result on the ETS GRE test, one can surmise that they simply don’t place a lot of emphasis on those scores.
The GRE score you need for admission to a top MS Engineering school
Given that so many schools skirt the issue, it’s almost impossible to provide accurate minimum GRE scores to ensure your application will be strongly considered.
Working on the logic that somewhere around the 85ᵗʰ to 90ᵗʰ percentile is the average for top MS Engineering schools, admitted students are more likely to have GRE scores above the 80ᵗʰ percentile.
According to the 2019-2020 ETS data tables, the 80ᵗʰ percentile means a score above 162 on the quantitative side and a verbal score of 158.
But, test scores aren’t everything, as Carnegie Mellon’s website demonstrates in their reference to a complete application.
Even the ETS recognises the limitations of GRE test scores. They state:
"Interpret GRE Scores Carefully Because, Like All Tests, They Are Not Exact Measures"
"Using a minimum GRE score as the only criterion for denial or acceptance for admission or a fellowship award is not good practice because it overinflates the role of one measure of an applicant's value over others."
It’s more important for an applicant with weaknesses in other areas of their application to achieve high GRE scores to demonstrate their potential in light of historical factors that may be less than stellar.
Even then, your GRE scores aren’t everything; a strong statement of purpose or personal essay could be the element that flags you in.
However, that doesn’t render the GRE unimportant. A superb score is certain to be noticed. And, as top engineering programmes require GRE score submission with your application; it only makes sense to work towards the best possible scores, doesn’t it?
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