Brace Yourself: Data Overload

5 minutes, 1 link


Updated June 8, 2022

You’re reading an excerpt of Admitted by Soundarya Balasubramani. Written by an Ivy League graduate from India, this is the proven guide for students worldwide looking to pursue undergraduate or graduate study abroad in the U.S., Canada, or Europe. Purchase for instant access to the guide and other exclusive resources—including sample SOPs, sample resumes, scholarship lists, and a private community with other readers.

At this point, you might wonder what a good score is. It is impossible to objectively state that, but it is very possible to make some sweeping generalizations based on past admits.

GRE Scores

First off, this image created by Magoosh is a bird’s-eye view of the average GRE scores for the ten most sought-after graduate programs.*

Source: Average GRE scores of top 10 programs. KapelkeDale, R. GRE Score Range Good GRE Score. Magoosh. (March 30, 2017).

Speaking about making sweeping observations from past admits, here is how Kaplan categorizes historical GRE score data into four ranges.* It is possible that you may fall in different categories for all the three sections.

Verbal ReasoningQuantitative ReasoningAnalytical Writing
Top Scores163–170165–1705.0-6.0
Competitive Scores158–162159–1644.5
Good Scores152–157153–1584
Average Scores151 or below152 or below3.5 or below

We also created our own table based on data published by ETS of test takers who wrote their GRE exams between July 1, 2015 and June 30, 2018.* Rather than specifying the range, the table shows the mean and the first standard deviation of the scores for all three sections, across some popular majors. Each major had at least 5,000 test takers, to account for the law of large numbers.*

TOEFL Scores

For TOEFL on the other hand, ETS has provided a range of scores along with their corresponding expertise levels.*

TOEFL iBT LevelsReadingListeningSpeakingWriting

Like GRE, ETS also released the score data for TOEFL. This data is based on the test-takers who took it between January and December 2017. The following table provides the percentile ranks for test-takers who intended to become graduate level students in non-business programs, primarily engineering.* Let’s look at an example. Consider a Scale Score of 28 in the first column. The corresponding row indicates the percentage of students who scored below 28 in each of the sections. You can see that 78% of the test takers scored less than 28 in the Reading section while 94% of the test takers scored less than 28 under the Speaking section. If one scored 28 in all the sections, giving a total of 112 upon 120, the data shows that 95% of the test takers scored less than him/her.

Scale ScoreReadingListeningSpeakingWritingTotal Scale Score

danger Most graduate programs and departments set their own TOEFL requirements. Usually, these will either match or exceed the university’s required minimum.

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You can also use—the database of past admits and rejects we introduced in earlier—to look at the GRE and TOEFL scores of past graduates to get a sense of the baseline.

actionNow that you know what a good vs. great score is, set your goal. Is it 320? 330? 340 perhaps?

It’s OK to set 340 as the goal, but know that no school would have that as a threshold. The highest threshold that a university has would be 330, where the verbal-quant split would depend on the major. It’s also worth browsing through the websites of your target universities looking for a cut-off.

Whatever goal you end up setting, you need to begin with the end in mind. If you don’t know what score you want to get, you won’t know how much time you need to allocate to prepare.

So, have you set a goal? Wonderful. We would even say go a step further and send a message to your friend stating this goal, so you have external accountability. The time has come to finally begin your practice.

Nice, that’s the spirit!

PrepScholar specifies that it takes 40 hours to improve one’s score by five points overall.* That’s equivalent to studying for one hour and 20 minutes every day for a month. But we came across many posts from students who say they improved their score by 15 points in a month by putting in the same number of hours.*

In the end, what separates such outliers from the average crowd is not what they study, rather how they study it.

We won’t prescribe a 30-day or 60-day plan for you here, since that has already been done by numerous corporations** that provide study materials. If that isn’t enough, there are detailed blog posts by past students who took the exam, like the one by Dan Mahr* who managed to score an eye-popping 339 in GRE after seven weeks of preparation. Instead, we will expand on the approach you should follow as you begin to prepare, that will set you apart from the crowd.

Consistency is Key

People say practice makes perfect. Not true. We say everyday practice makes perfect. This is thanks to two phenomena that happen in your brain: myelination and slow-wave sleep. Let’s take a small detour into the world of neuroscience.

Some people treat their brain as this mysterious, magical three-pound black box that takes in information from the world and spits out thoughts and words. That was a fair estimate maybe a few hundred years ago, but not anymore. We have learned enough about the brain in the past two centuries to develop treatments for diseases and disorders such as Parkinson’s, epilepsy, insomnia, certain brain tumors, ADHD, and more.* We know enough about the brain to decipher what song someone is listening to by simply using non-invasive devices.* And we also know enough to see what exactly happens when we learn a new piece of information.*

Every thought you’re having right now is being electrochemically powered by almost 100 billion neurons that are firing chemicals called neurotransmitters. You have probably heard about the neurotransmitter dopamine.

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